No, Voting for Trump Is Not Idolatry—Speaking Truth to Christians

Many evangelicals and Catholics have been guilty in this election of casting baseless judgments and aspersions on fellow believers. This vilification has been leveled with such a fevered and mob-like malevolence that the fundamental commandment to love your brother has been all but shredded. No doubt, the devil is laughing even as Jesus grieves.

The gist of the conflict is that Christians, who have decided that Donald Trump is so evil and immoral that any vote for him is to approve of and even become complicit in his sin, are questioning not only the character but the salvation of those who support the GOP candidate.

This condemnation encompasses even those reluctant and melancholy warriors for conservatism who are voting for him as a strategy to stop the advancement of a leftist political agenda that dominates a corrupt Democratic Party—an agenda that actually (not potentially) devalues life, disregards our laws, creates a culture of dependency, suppresses free speech and religious liberty, puts our nation at risk from passive and active invasion, and bankrupts our nation.

This kind of strategic voting is a sin according to Andy Crouch of Christianity Today:

There is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

I will bypass a thorough debunking of much of the error in this excerpt for sake of space, but let me just point out a few flaws. One, our nation makes alliances with ungodly nations and regimes all the time, and this is not idolatry. These are right actions by a secular state. The American republic is not the nation of Israel or the Church.

Two, God does not require that we put our own homes at risk to welcome strangers who are a threat. Again, America is not ancient Israel, and reasonable immigration restrictions are not a violation of biblical laws designed for God’s chosen people. Finally, choosing between two horribly flawed candidates isn’t a betrayal of our deepest values, as I’ll explain.

While I reject the premise that Trump violates all that is sacred to us, especially in light of the more politically relevant and impactful sins of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, I want to focus on the judgment presented here that an “attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of causes we support” is a form of idolatry—of putting our faith in a creature rather than the Creator.

First of all, what are these “causes we support”? I could give you a list (Crouch mentions the Supreme Court and its impact on issues such as abortion, religious liberty, free speech, and gun rights), but I want to boil it down to one thing. Christians voting for Trump are concerned about “what is to come.” They are exercising their civic responsibility to shape the future according to the limited tools they’ve been given as human beings living in this fallen world.

Being active and responsible citizens with an eye to the future of our nation is not a manipulation of history. Was it a manipulation of history for the founding fathers to rebel against the king for the cause of liberty? Many in the Christian church interpreted such a rebellious act as a sin, for God establishes the civil state for his purposes and judgments. Yet, our founders looked to a future in this new world and wanted it to be free. Were they mere manipulators of history?

Are we not all manipulators of history every time we pull the lever at the voting booth? Are our generals and the soldiers who follow them not manipulating history when they go to war, shedding blood in the name of values we want maintained, not only for ourselves but for our children? Is not the preservation of our republic the duty of all Americans? Are we each an idolater when we use our reason and our faith to do what we think is best with our limited and fallible knowledge?

But, Crouch and others would counter with: But at what cost are you making those choices? Are you willing to sell your soul or shame your character before the world to achieve those ends? The question is a legitimate one. It is essentially the age-old problem of the dirty hands, which is part of politics. Because we live in a fallen world with sinners holding public office (both Christians and non-Christians), there is no purity in this process to say the least.

But I recognize that just saying that is sweeping the difficulties presented in politics under the rug. That isn’t fair and doesn’t address the real struggles people are having in this election. So, let me deal with this question this way. Is the choice between Trump and Clinton truly a question of the “lesser of two evils”? If so, what is the nature of those evils and how do we handle them? Is the utilitarian solution the only one to this problem, and if so, is that idolatry?

I would posit that the selection between Trump and Clinton is not really a choice between the lesser of two evils, even though I have used this characterization myself. I say that because I don’t believe a vote for a sinful person is a sin. It is not an evil. I also don’t think Trump and Clinton are themselves “evil.” I think they are deeply flawed, immoral, and unrepentantly sinful.

I do, however, think that the political context in which these two people are established, the ideologies they embrace, and the parties they represent, as well as their own personal preferences when it comes to policy, can be judged as evil or not.

I believe the liberal pragmatism of Trump is not evil, and I think enough of his policies that uphold Christian principles of life and liberty save him from the “evil” category.

Clinton, on the other hand, represents an ideology that is essentially hostile to Western culture and the Christian narrative that undergirds it. Because Christianity is truth, I think all Christians who share this same belief would agree that the intentional eradication or “transformation” of a nation that once valued it is evil.

This alone, I believe, makes the choice between these two candidates simple. However, some Christians think that Trump is truly more evil than Hillary Clinton. His sexual immorality alone, they say, is so despicable, so horrifying that associating with him makes support for him, in essence, evil. So, their solution is to vote for Clinton.

My only comment to these Christians is a reminder that sexual sin is only one in a long list of sins plaguing the human race. Murder, vainglory, gossip, theft, lying, etc., are also part of it. When you lump all the personal sins of both candidates together, I think we can agree that it’s a wash.

But, for the sake of argument, and to address the very real conflict plaguing the Christian community today, let’s assume that this is a choice between two evils. Given this, it seems that Crouch and others are saying that the only right and principled thing for any Christian to do is not to vote. And, they conclude, any Christian who strategically does is manipulating the levers of history and committing idolatry.

In answer to this erroneous notion, I would like to quote extensively from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was presented with a real choice between two evils unlike anything we’re facing in this election.

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian who was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The choice between two evils here was very clear: commit the sin of murder or allow countless more Jews to die under the Nazi regime. The plot was uncovered, and Bonhoeffer spent his final years in prison before being hanged in 1945.

His writings from prison speak to the suppositions driving the judgments of people like Crouch in today’s election, people who are advising other believers to not pull the levers of history, to not worry about the future, because to do so in light of the “evil choices” before them is to sin.

Bonhoeffer, who knew what the real choice between evils looked like, had some very wise and challenging things to say about this. In writing to the German Christians, he praised them for their noble history of being faithful to God and abiding by his principles.

He recognized that Christians in his country had been submissive and self-sacrificing. But, Bonhoeffer said, as noble as this was, the German Christian (prior to the Holocaust and well into it) “did not understand his world. He forgot that submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends.”

German Christians, he said, made a very serious mistake. They failed to see that in some circumstances “free and responsible action might have to take precedence over duty and calling” (obedience to godly principles). In other words, there are times when a Christian has to sin or be unprincipled in order to achieve a higher calling.

Before you say this is unbiblical and blatant utilitarianism, let me say a couple of things. First, it’s not unbiblical. Crouch referenced Israel. I’m not equating Israel with America, but merely pointing out that if choosing moral purity over committing a sin for a higher good is an absolute wrong, then it would have been an absolute wrong throughout Scripture.

Let me point you to Joshua 2 where Joshua sent spies into Jericho who were hidden by a prostitute named Rahab (a sexually immoral woman who was used by Joshua’s spies for strategic purposes).  When the king of Jericho asked her to bring out the men she had hidden, she admitted that the men came to her, but she said they left and she didn’t know where they had come from.

The truth was, she had hidden them on the roof. Rahab recognized that the Lord had given Jericho to the Israelites, that the future of her city was in His hands. Yet, to bring about that greater good, this sexually immoral woman lied. She is not condemned for this in Scripture.

If you’re not buying that example from the ancient text, let me put this in modern terms that apply to all of us. We lie to protect someone who could be hurt unnecessarily. We speed and break traffic laws to get a sick or dying person to the hospital. We align ourselves with evil dictators to keep terrorists under control. I could go on and on, but you get my point. While Christians should never advocate living by utilitarian ethics, we sometimes act on them for the greater good.

There is also a distinction that must be made between outright utilitarianism and a more nuanced position. Utilitarianism rejects any guilt or wrongness attached to such an act. Christians who violate moral ethics for a greater good do so knowing that there is actual guilt associated with those acts and that certain punishments should necessarily follow. This is what sets them apart from embracing the full philosophy of utilitarianism.

Now, back to Bonhoeffer. In words that have direct bearing on the actions of Christians in this election, the German theologian accused German Christians of failing on two fronts in response to the evils plaguing the country. They either became too worldly, engaging in “irresponsible unscrupulousness” and completely abandoning all principles, or they embraced “an agonizing scrupulosity which invariably frustrated action.” (Blind Trumpkins and Judgmental NeverTrumpers).

Bonhoeffer said neither of these groups practiced what he called “civil courage.” Civil courage, he said, grows out of “free responsibility of free men.” In other words courage is not mere freedom without responsibility and neither is it mere obedience by men bound to duty. This free responsibility of free men, Bonhoeffer says:

Depends upon a God who demands bold action as a free response of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in the process.

That being said, Bonhoeffer made it clear that “wanting to achieve success can never justify an evil deed or the use of questionable means, it is not an ethically neutral thing.”

All the same, it remains true that historical success creates the only basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to behave like Don Quixote and enter the lists against a new age, or to admit one's defeat, accept the new age and agree to serve it.

In the last resort success makes history, and the Disposer of history is always bringing good out of evil over the heads of the history-makers. To ignore the ethical significance of success is to betray a superficial acquaintance with history and a defective sense of responsibility.

This is a severe indictment of the article from Christianity Today and the judgments of many Christians condemning those who are voting for Trump, particularly for strategic purposes.

Warning against both “outraged critics” and “mere opportunists,” Bonhoeffer says, “We must take our full share of responsibility for the moulding of history, whether it be as victors or vanquished.”

It is only by refusing to allow any event to deprive us of our responsibility for history, because we know that is a responsibility laid upon us by God, that we shall achieve a relation to the events of history far more fruitful than criticism or opportunism.

What Bonhoeffer says next is a scathing rebuke to anyone who has uttered the pride-soaked words of “I’m keeping my dignity by not voting for Trump” or anything similar to it—and they’re legion. The man who faced the choice of murder to save his countrymen, said those who claim to be brave heroes by holding on to their “duty and calling,” their dignity and principles, even in defeat, are “not really heroic at all.” What they have done is failed to “face up to the future.”

The strategy of those who are pulling the lever for Trump is rooted in concern about the future, of what is to come if the Democratic Party and its godless ideology retains control of the White House. Are they the cowards? Bonhoeffer says they’re not:

The ultimate question the man of responsibility asks is not, How can I extricate myself heroically from the affair? but, How is the coming generation to live? It is only in this way that fruitful solutions can arise, even if for the time being they are humiliating. In short it is easier by far to act on abstract principle than from concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of the two we are acting upon. For it is their future which is at stake.

For those concerned about the state of their souls, “The immanent righteousness of history only rewards and punishes the deeds of men, the eternal righteousness of God tries and judges their hearts.”

Bonhoeffer does not abandon his faith nor does he relinquish his responsibilities in this world. Even as he acts for the future—for the lives of real human beings who will suffer because of his inaction—he puts his faith in God as should we all.

I believe that God both can and will bring good out of evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe God will give us all the power we need to resist in all time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely upon ourselves and not on him alone. A faith as strong as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even our errors and mistakes are turned to good account. It is no harder for God to cope with them than with what we imagine to be our good deeds. I believe God is not just timeless fate, but that he waits upon and answers sincere prayer and responsible action.

One of my sincere prayers is that the stigmatizing, the name-calling, the judging, the condemning, the hostility, and the cruelty Christians have shown one another in this election will cease, even as disagreements will continue. I am guilty and confess my failures in this regard. I have focused too much on being right than loving and, therefore, have been a poor witness of Christ.

The testimony we should be concerned about in this world is the love we show one another, not how we do or do not vote in an election. I pray, then, that as we face the final days of this election season and beyond that we will “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven” every one of us.

(Artwork by Shutterstock.com.)