We’ve been told over and over again these past two years that “this election is critical.” Political prognosticators and Christian leaders have warned that our country—indeed, the fate of the Church—hangs in the balance. If this (or that) candidate loses, we will see the end of Christianity in America. If we don’t elect Trump (or Moore or the next morally compromised candidate after Moore) the country will be plunged into a dystopian secular future where godless liberals run the government, the education system, and the military. (Never mind that we’re already there.)
An anonymous essay last September argued that the 2016 election was a “Flight 93 election”:
The election of 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test—of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation. If they cannot rouse themselves simply to vote for the first candidate in a generation who pledges to advance their interests, and to vote against the one who openly boasts that she will do the opposite (a million more Syrians, anyone?), then they are doomed. They may not deserve the fate that will befall them, but they will suffer it regardless.
Dutiful Christian conservatives, acting out of sheer terror, followed the advice of their politico-religious leaders and voted en mass for Trump (as they’ll do for Moore on Tuesday) because they think the forces aligned against the church are standing at the gates. These folks sincerely believe that critical electoral victories (Pyrrhic as they may be) will buy Christianity time and stem the tide of liberalism. It’s worth the moral compromises needed to secure those victories, they reason, because of the severity of the threat, one of Flight 93 proportions.
But are we doing the wrong thing for the right reason?
Back in 1991, former Nixon “hatchet man” Charles “Chuck” Colson gave the commencement address at Harvard (the entire speech is worth listening to, part one and part two). Colson, who had by then been an evangelical Christian for nearly two decades, spoke to the students about ethics and morality. (It’s hard to imagine such a speech being given at Harvard today.) The topic was very much on the minds of Americans that year. Colson, who spent seven years in prison for his Watergate crimes, ticked off a list of current scandals that were roiling the nation: The Keating Five, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s drug problems, scams in the S. Carolina and Arizona legislatures, spy scandals, a HUD scandal, the S&L crisis, Sugar Ray Leonard’s admission of cocaine use, Pete Rose betting on baseball, the president of Stanford caught billing the government $7000 for bed sheets, evangelical leaders Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart caught up in major scandals.
The country seemed to be spiraling out of control, fully embracing the cultural rot that began in the ’60s. Colson told the graduates that the nation was suffering from a “crisis of character,” a loss of “inner restraints and inner virtues that prevent us from pandering to our darker instincts.”
Valor, honor, duty, responsibility, compassion, and civility are “words that have almost fallen into disuse,” he lamented. Americans had lost the belief in a transcendent value system that “guided our conduct” for centuries.
The great cultural revolution in the 1960s had given way to the moral relativism of the 1990s. Greed is good and self-fulfillment is the highest value. The moral consensus that holds the country together “was in great peril,” Colson warned.
Colson explained that he got into politics because he believed he could “gain power and influence how people live.”
“I was absolutely convinced that no one could corrupt me,” he said. “I never once in my life thought I was breaking the law.” He would have been terrified to lose the law license he had worked so hard to achieve, he said.
He admitted he had become self-righteous, noting that “every human being has an infinite capacity for self-rationalization and self-delusion.”
Colson explained the progression from “no one could corrupt me” to breaking the law to protect President Nixon. “You get caught up in a situation where you are absolutely convinced that the fate of the republic rests on the reelection of, in my case, Richard Nixon,” he explained. “There’s an enormous amount of peer pressure and you don’t take time to stop and think, ‘wait a minute… is this right by some absolute standard or does this seem right in the circumstances. Is it ok?'”
“I was capable of infinite self-delusion,” Colson confessed. “We did some excessive things—and we were wrong—but we did it on a feeling that if we didn’t, the country was going to fall apart.”
Sound familiar? We’ve been warned over and over again that the country will fall apart if an election goes the wrong way. A multitude of non-profits and PACs owe their existence to that very message (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars). It’s not a new tactic in politics, but the fear-mongering has taken on a frenzied intensity in recent years and Christians have fallen prey to the dire warnings. Many have become morally compromised in the process, winking at sin as they jettison “family values.” It’s not a good look for Christianity.
“Even if I had known I was doing wrong, would I have the will to do what is right?'” Colson asked. Looking back at his involvement in Watergate it was clear that the answer was no, he said. Sitting around the table with presidential advisors, Colson discovered that there was “no restraint on the evil in me and in my self-righteousness. I was never more dangerous.” That realization eventually led him to faith in Jesus Christ.
“The greatest myth of the 20th century is that people are good. We’re not… we’re not morally neutral,” he said.
Colson went on to disavow the idea of history turning on one critical election and instead advocated for moral and ethical leaders who served with integrity. “A free society can’t exist without it,” he said. “A society of which we’re a part should have a great sense of responsibility and stewardship.” Our nation “desperately needs those values. And each one of us does as well,” he emphasized.
Fast-forward to 2017 and it’s obvious that we’ve not followed Colson’s advice. Political expediency trump’s morality and Christians are once again throwing away their ethics and credibility by voting for men who shouldn’t be in power in order to stop the forces of darkness aligned against the Church. We’ve forgotten who the real enemy is. Indeed, our war is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” Paul wrote to the Ephesians. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” Our earthly foes pale in comparison.
If our great American experiment fails it will because we’ve crumbled from within. We’ve failed to demand ethical leadership, and moreover, we’ve failed to be ethical in our personal lives. If the Christian church in America fails it won’t be because we didn’t win critical elections. It will be because we’re a nation of faithless, biblically illiterate Christians with weak churches and morally compromised leaders. Increasingly in the eyes of unbelievers, the Republican Party has replaced Jesus as the face of the Church. We’re known more for our politics and commitment to men like Roy Moore and Donald Trump than for our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now more than ever, Christianity needs to divorce itself from partisan politics.
Colson wrote in God and Government, “When the church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its Christian confession of eternal truth. And when the church gives up its rightful place as the conscience of the culture, the consequences for society can be horrific.” Rather than relying on politics, Colson wrote in How Now Shall We Live, “Christians who understand biblical truth and have the courage to live it out can indeed redeem a culture, or even create one. This is the challenge facing all of us in the new millennium.” Rather than the craven pursuit of political dominance, Christians should focus on bringing “salt and light” to the culture. That’s God’s common grace means of creating cultural reformation.
Greg Forster wrote last week at The Gospel Coalition:
There are no Flight 93 moments for the church; there never have been and never will be. Certainly God’s people will continue to face persecution from worldly powers, as we always have. But the idea that we have to compromise moral standards in order to prevent the destruction of the church reflects an appalling failure to grasp where the church’s fate really lies.
The church’s fate is not electoral; it’s eschatological. The church’s triumph over its enemies comes with the King’s return.
Forster quotes Whittaker Chambers, who said the particular temptation of the modern world is to think that “the destiny of man is in the hands of man.”
It’s not, though.
Yes, the realm of politics is important, but it’s not more important than our Christian witness. Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (though as Rod Dreher rightly noted in The Benedict Option, this promise doesn’t necessarily mean that the gates of hell will not prevail against the American Church). God promised to preserve His Bride supernaturally until His return, so it’s not up to us—or our political leaders—to ensure its survival. We need to stop living (and voting) as if the fate of Christianity is in our hands.
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