When I was a young boy I very early on expressed an interest in politics.
This wasn’t exactly a popular choice in my community. I grew up in the church, and I was taught early on that spirituality was what mattered most. Politics didn’t matter much compared to that. The altar was the place where real change happened in the world.
But nonetheless I still felt a natural inclination to the political world. A major reason for this was because I saw a conversation taking place there between not only Christians but the rest of the world. Few of my atheist friends ever ventured inside the walls of our church, but almost all of them had opinions about politics.
Of course, whenever I mentioned this among evangelical circles, there was always some level of pushback.
“Politics?” they would say. “Why would you want to be in that? It’s such a rough, nasty business.”
That statement, more than any other, speaks to the Evangelical mind concerning politics.
Evangelicals don’t behave like politicians, especially ones like Donald Trump. They try not to lie, they frown on the use of vulgarities. They don’t try to bully, or curse out, or purposefully intimidate people. They try to remain faithful to their families and they don’t sleep with porn stars. In their lives they try to do what is kind and Christ-like, not necessarily what is ruthless or effective.
So why, even after his crassness and lack of ethics is on full display, do evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump?
This is a point the media continues to miss. CNN and other sources are constantly reporting Trump’s iniquity in an effort to undermine his support. The Daily Show and others are constantly reporting chaos in the White House. But they don’t realize that most Christians couldn’t care less about Trump’s character. And chaos is exactly what they expect from him.
The entire political worldview of Evangelical Christians is different than democrats. They didn’t choose Trump because he represents Christian values or exemplifies their character. Few Evangelicals will say he is the best among us. He may not even believe what they believe.
The reason is because Evangelicals chose Trump they way one chooses a hitman. Politics being a rough and nasty business, one where Christian ethics can’t survive, you’ve got to turn to what works. And what works is someone brutal, unapologetic, prideful, and vicious. Even the left would agree that Trump is all of those things.
And so, if you listen closely, you’ll see this thinking in evangelical circles. There are memes going around saying “Trump is doing exactly what I hired him to do.” Not that Trump speaks in a Christian voice, or that he even accurately represents us. A gold star mother recently remarked, that she wouldn’t care how many “f-bombs” a fight fighter uses as long as he gets the job done. She said Trump’s behavior is excused for the same reason.
This all assumes, of course, that Trump is actually rebuilding America. It assumes the destruction of dignity and the chaos he is unleashing can somehow be good for our country. It assumes the day of enlightened and moral Christian statesmen – like our founders – is truly over. It assumes God will bless us for trusting our politics to a wild man, rather than doing it ourselves. And like any existentialist affair, it puts hope and trust in both parties honoring the agreement. Ultimately, it assumes that, like the mob of The Dark Knight, we won’t end up regretting the side effects of what we’ve done.
In the United States it is nearly an assumption that if a person is a Christian then he or she must be a conservative. According to the Pew Research center, a sizeable 92% of surveyed American conservatives are either “absolutely certain” or “fairly certain” that God exists, and at least 70% would rate religion as very important to their lives. Over 80% of American conservatives attend religious services no less than once a month.
Such a strong correlation between conservatism and Christianity should not stop us from asking fundamental questions, however. We may even go to the heart of the matter and attempt to identify the perspective at the center of our faith -- Jesus Christ.
Would Jesus, for example, join with the 76% of white evangelicals who closely identify with the Republican Party? Would he celebrate the 80% of evangelical voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump in the most recent presidential election? Would he have anything to say about politics or conservative philosophy at all?
The likely response of many Christians may be that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. Often quoted is the passage from Matthew 22 in which Jesus offered the principle “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Many Christians even take this to be the whole of Jesus’ message and teaching regarding government and politics. If the political and spiritual worlds are separate, then aren’t we as Christians on our own to answer questions concerning politics?
Jesus, we must admit, had far more pressing and urgent matters to attend to beyond American politics. Besides this he of course lived in a very different time when “right wing” and “left wing” did not mean what they do today. Moreover, the culture that Jesus lived in was not subjected to the modern challenges of 24/7 media coverage, information overload, and constant political spin.
Nevertheless, we have a rich and expansive dialogue from Jesus throughout the Biblical gospels (including but not limited to Matthew 22). Within this we may, surprisingly, find Jesus at times addressing issues and even philosophical beliefs often associated with conservatism. Take, for example, the following passage from the 7th chapter of the book of Mark:
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or more is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’” – Mark 7:1-13
In this passage we find Jesus making a clear distinction between the “commands of God” and “human traditions.” He attacks the Pharisees for ignoring the intent and purposes of God’s commands as they blindly follow cultural customs and norms. The traditions that Jesus mentions, though originally stemming from divine wisdom, had become polluted and were serving the opposite of their intended purposes. The result is that Jesus identified the traditions as obstacles to sincere faith. The people following them remained far from God.
What does this mean for Christians now, thousands of years removed from the Pharisaic culture that Jesus indicted? To answer this question we must first recognize that in making the arguments in Mark 7, Jesus was not necessarily attacking conservatism. He was, however, indicting pure traditionalism, blind rule following, and nostalgia.
This is good news for true conservatives. Conservatism, as I have argued throughout this blog, is not the same as defending the past. When practiced correctly, it requires a prudent sorting out of the bad and the good from our inheritance. Edmund Burke shows us this principle at work as he methodically made arguments to defend the noble aspects of the status quo while purposefully discarding others that were harmful.
Making the distinction between “good tradition” and “bad tradition” is they key point, and it requires the type of wisdom and sound judgment that Jesus offers us. He recognized that the hearts of the rule followers were far from God and that they were destroying their own community and family life by blindly following corrupted rules.
To avoid a similar fate, we must be careful to avoid following tradition for its own sake. We must especially watch out for tradition that takes us away from God. In such cases we should reexamine its original intents and purposes to determine its moral value. Are we doing something without understanding the why behind it? Are we enforcing rules that don’t serve higher purposes? Are we voting a certain way just because we always have or our parents have?
Jesus, of course, never used the words America, conservatism, or Republican. He had nuanced views on important social and political topics ranging from poverty, to family life, to what it means to love others. And he was always careful to consider his audience and challenge them on their own terms.
But properly understood, Jesus’ teaching can actually embolden our conservatism. He offers us a value set – the commands of God – to use in examining our politics, principles, philosophy, and tradition. And, as Jesus himself said, the sum of God's commands is epitomized in the act of love.
We may therefore look to God’s commands as embodied in the life, teachings, and love of Jesus to infuse our perspective with wisdom. Having such wisdom allows us to apply it to all issues of life, including our politics. Doing so rescues conservatism from simple nostalgia or protecting the entire status quo for its own sake.
And that is the type of conservatism our world needs.
To those unfamiliar with the train of thought known as postmodernism, I often describe it as the philosophical equivalent of a raging wildfire. It is a destructive flame, I explain, that threatens to burn the whole forest down. And perhaps us along with it.
Postmodernism begins with a critique of reason, the notion that we can each think independently and objectively. The question – can we trust our thought? – is basic and simple, yet undeniably far-reaching in terms of its implication. Postmodernism questions the notion of objective thinking and, in doing so, calls our whole process of rationalization out for a fight.
Postmodernism levies its critique primarily by invoking a particular level of self-awareness – namely the recognition that each and every thought that enters our brain must rely on the subjective process of our senses. Postmodernism begs the question as to whether or not we can truly (or objectively) trust those senses and any information that passes through them.
This critique represents a direct and dire assault on the fundamentals of modern philosophy. The French philosopher René Descartes, for example, built his work largely upon the phrase “I think therefore I am.” Descartes proposed this quote as the “first principle of philosophy” and explained it further by claiming “we cannot doubt our existence while we doubt.”
Well, postmodernism does precisely that. Namely, postmodernism brings to the mind a series of doubts concerning its own objective existence. Postmodernism asks the question as to whether our minds – and everything that passes through to them -- can stand the test of the scientific method that we use to justify everything else.
The scientific method, as any high school science student knows, requires an objective observer to work. This observer must consider a question impartially, then formulate a hypothesis, and finally proceed through various steps to test that hypothesis and analyze the results in hopes of reaching a conclusion.
Postmodernism asks a simple but bold question: can the hypothesis “my mind is a reliable filter of reality” be scientifically proven? Can this statement be anything other than an assumption, a matter of faith to which we each must submit? And if the mind is indeed an assumption or an act of faith, isn’t everything that it perceives fundamentally subject to the same critique?
Such a problem immediately presents one with the limits of science itself. Who is the objective observer to take on such a hypothesis? Certainly not someone within the experiment -- ourselves, our friend, our family member, a fellow philosopher, or even our deepest love (all of whom we perceive through the very senses and mind we are trying to test). And even in the case of spiritual experiences, aren’t those perceived as well? If the entire experience of reality depends upon our mind, and we cannot prove this is valid, how do we know that the mind is accurately viewing reality (if there is one) at all?
Cue The Matrix Movies, Inception, and any other solipsistic film you’ve ever seen. “What is real?” Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix as he transformed his perception. A panicked Neo, if you recall, had to come to grasp with the “truth” that everything his past senses had told him was a lie. And it was only by accustoming himself to a new reality – through his true senses – that Neo could cope with such a challenge.
With all due respect to Morpheus, perhaps no philosopher understood the gravity of postmodernism’s critique better than Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaimed through his main character (Zarathustra) a mission of restoring all things through a deliverance “from their bondage under Purpose (p. 166).” Zarathustra did not hold back in his postmodern war against rationality, claiming that “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality (p. 166).” Nietzsche went on to have Zarathustra combat pious Christianity and summon readers to abandon notions of equality, truth, and meaning in search for his new ethic -- what he called a will to power.
‘Face the void like a man!’ was this will to power, Nietzsche’s call through his Zarathustra character. ‘Give up on any pre-modern or modern notions of virtue, justice, or equality and embrace meaninglessness!’ Much like Morpheus challenging Neo, Zarathustra summoned the reader to cast aside one form of reality for another. Yet what I have always found particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s postmodern diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and many of his other works) is that it sounds eerily similar to someone else’s.
Namely, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sounds quite like the main character found in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Within the Old Testament scripture Ecclesiastes, the reader encounters a man known as “the Teacher” who considers various pleasures and philosophies of the world. The Teacher finds that regardless of behavior or belief, “all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not (Ch. 9 ,v. 2). “ With each destined to die, and death the greater silencer of our minds, the Teacher describes reality in words that could have just as easily been spoken by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless (Ch. 12, v. 8)!’”
Yet there is a stark difference that follows. After reaching this same point in his prescription as Zarathustra, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reaches a different conclusion. Instead of a will to power, Solomon’s Teacher proclaims the following words as the “conclusion of the matter”: “’Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ch. 12, v. 13-14).’”
How can this be? Two philosophers reaching the same point of facing a meaningless or unjustified reality, and yet they each immediately diverge to opposite paths? For Nietzsche the answer is for humans to face the void with pride and become conquering ‘overmen,’ but for Solomon it is to find oneself in submission to God and hold fast to faith in divine judgment.
How then can the Christian person look upon the void of postmodernism, as Solomon’s Teacher does, and not fall into chaotic despair or a senseless will to power? Perhaps it is the very notion of the thing we call faith.
As Saint Augustine once claimed, “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of which is to see what you believe.” Similarly, the author of the Biblical book of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Ch. 11 v.1).” While the scientific method requires testing and analysis to reach a conclusion, faith instead accepts the conclusion first and is rewarded with evidence afterwards. Christian faith, therefore, is not fundamentally tied to personal senses for its justification.
This isn’t to say that faith is entirely opposed to science. Christian faith presumes, and has presumed since the first book of the Bible, an external pre-existent observer who has been there to validate existence. In God we find the author of existence who alone can ordain it and proclaim it as “good.” Precisely what our scientific method would call for to reach a conclusion about existence.
Additionally, Christian faith does not wholly disparage our senses; it instead puts them in their proper place. Our mind and senses function, as Augustine wrote, as rewards of our faith. Time after time we see God validating faith through his power and majesty. In the Old Testament this took the form of massive displays of God’s power, the New Testament features miracles performed by Christ and his disciples, and today we are led to see it in the body and work of the church. The ultimate validation of faith, according to the Bible, comes in the form of Christ who proves the love and redemption God promises us.
Peter, a close follower of Jesus, spoke of faith as a shield protecting us “by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” He claimed such faith is proven genuine by suffering and perseverance, and that it is “of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1 Peter Ch1. V. 7).
If we are to take Peter’s words seriously, then he is offering us a promise that Christian faith – regardless of what our senses may initially tell us -- can stand the test of fire. In fact it is through suffering and persevering through the fire that our faith becomes clearer.
And so, I tell my friends, the postmodern wildfire may indeed burn the whole forest down. I find nothing in modernism that stands in rebuke -- no way in which our intellect, rationality, mind, or senses may justify themselves according to scientific principle alone. Modernists may fight the heat, and postmodern “overmen” may welcome it, but as Christians we should not fear it. For amidst the ashes I see standing tall and firm a symbol: that old and familiar wooden cross.
Bright it may be, but burning it is not.
In many ways Jesus Christ had more effect on civilization that any other person in history. Regardless of what one may believe about his alleged divinity, few would argue the notion that Jesus made a powerful and profound mark on history. The effects of his life continue to this day, as Jesus remains the main character in the most widely read book in the world. Christianity, the religion that considers him the Son of God, continues to be the largest on the globe. A positive outlook of Jesus’ life spans even this faith as the Qur’an explicitly names Jesus as a “great prophet” and “blessed messenger of God” worthy of perpetual esteem.
Despite this profound influence on history, Jesus rarely focused on accumulating power and prestige for himself. Instead of articulating ways to gain worldly fame, Jesus valued outsiders and the poor as he preached about the importance of the soul. He closely examined the inner beings of every person he interacted with, and in many cases Jesus exposed previously hidden motivations for their actions. As a result he taught his followers to value people, places, and things in a manner very different than the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ interpretation of a poor widow’s offering (Mark 12 and Luke 21). The gospels claim that Jesus was at the temple of Jerusalem when he observed an unnamed widow giving two small copper coins to the offering. Instead of dismissing this negligible offering as worthless, Jesus prized it and praised the woman’s sacrifice. He specifically contrasted this seemingly minuscule gift with the large sums of money donated by other temple-goers. Jesus claimed that the widow’s offering was worth more than theirs as he boasted that she had “put in more than all the others.”
This story exemplifies the central place that Jesus gave to inner conviction and steadfast virtue. As Christ explained, the widow exhibited faith not because of the monetary impact of her gift but because she was giving from poverty and trusting God with her livelihood. In this story Jesus showed that true virtue could be found in an unlikely person having seemingly little to no effect on the larger world.
The ethics that Jesus taught in this story were profound but not unprecedented; in fact many previous scriptures had demonstrated God’s value of intention, belief, and virtue. The Bible as a whole exudes the same focus, as the passages below make clear:
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the LORD weights the motives.” – Proverbs 16:2
“I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
“…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." – 1 Samuel 16:7
What the attentive reader finds throughout the Bible, then, is a God who desires to move past the exterior and into the very center or spirit of human beings. While He does acknowledge the importance of results, the God of the Bible makes it clear that what He values most is the intention to do what is right, both in ends as well as in means.
This notion of soul-centered ethics is particularly important because so much of our contemporary lives seem to be dominated by alternative considerations. In American politics especially, effects-centric ethics seem to reign supreme. Leading political networks preach a message that casts inner motivation, mindset, and methodology as worthless if they don’t produce the desired effect. A “wasted” action in their estimation is one that doesn’t produce result in their goal. Accordingly our modern mindset would likely be the first to argue against the widow in Matthew and Luke; our worldview would claim that her paltry contribution had a negligible impact on the temple’s budget and did little good for anyone including herself.
The problem with Christians falling into this type of thinking is that it can easily lead us to compromise our moral standards. We can become so focused on achieving a desired end state that we become willing to adopt any kinds of means to get there. We will soon find ourselves justifying decisions we would never make otherwise, as we use non-Biblical moral justifications like “the ends justify the means” or “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” Such decision-making leads us away from the virtue to which Christ calls us and into a moral calculus of vice, something the Bible specifically warns against.
The decay of morality along these lines is evident in the modern Christian left as many liberal Christians continually disregard scandal after scandal from Hillary Clinton. Despite her repeated lies, distortions of the truth, and willful manipulation of the political process, Clinton’s defenders continue to look past her disqualifications. The most common argument they offer is that her mistakes pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s equally glaring weaknesses. In many liberal Christians’ minds, offering support to a corrupt candidate is justified because of the effect it will have in preventing the Republican from winning the White House.
Unfortunately, this election season many Christian members of the right have been equally guilty. Despite observing ethical failings that would cause them to immediately decry a Democratic opponent as unqualified, many Christian leaders have twisted their ethical centers into pretzels to try and justify voting for Trump. Their argument is always the same: the effect of not voting for Trump outweighs the suspect decision of aligning American Christianity with a morally deficient candidate. Whether it’s to secure conservative Supreme Court justices or prevent another Clinton White House, the same Christian leaders who long emphasized the importance of character in politics now seem to be the quickest to dismiss it for the sake of a potential victory.
Christian ethics, we must remember, involves a wholesale rejection of these effects-centric calculations and compromised standards. As evident in the case of the widow, Jesus believed that the value of our decisions could not be judged solely by results. In the widow’s case it was her faith and commitment to do what was right, regardless of worldly value, which gave her offering its value. As Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear, God looks not only at the end state of our goals but the entire process of our decision-making in judging us. He considers the “results of the deed” only after “searching the heart,” “testing the mind,” and giving “according to [a person’s] ways.” To focus exclusively on a desired effect, and accept any means necessary in the process, is to invite vice into the equation.
In the coming weeks many God-fearing, devout Christians will be casting their votes in the US presidential election. My hope and prayer is that every one of us would examine our innermost selves and deepest convictions before we make our decision. I pray that we would each take time to consider the morality of the candidates in addition to the effects we want to achieve by electing them. Ultimately, I pray that we would each consider the example we are setting for others, and ask ourselves questions such as these:
Is it courage or fear that motivates me to choose a candidate?
Am I calculating my vote based on what others might do, or am I following my conscience regardless of the election’s results?
Am I maintaining steadfast virtue and integrity, or am I compromising my standards in the hopes of winning an election?
Am I allying myself with someone shameful in the hope of achieving something good?
In examining our souls in this way, I pray that we as Christians will rediscover the truth that the methodology of our decisions matters just as much as their effects. As our Savior teaches us, a truly Christian ethics leads us to do what is morally right no matter the cost.