“WE NO LONGER HAVE MORAL CONSENSUS IN AMERICA”
by ProfDave, ©2020
However, as we endure this election year, we need to be thankful for our constitution even though it certainly is not perfect and is being twisted out of shape. It has given us the freest, most stable polity in history. It was the first written constitution ever and the only one that has turned out to be permanent. We started a fad of written constitutions, but other nations keep rewriting theirs to fit strong men and revolutions – often with bloodshed. Evidently our “founding fathers” got something right.
There were two assumptions our forefathers made which have become a little shaky. First, they did not allow for political parties – “faction,” they called it. They assumed that the people, through their state legislatures, would choose congressmen and senators whose only agenda would be the good of the nation – not defeating the president in the next election. Political parties were in their infancy in the 18th century, and “faction” was a vice. So Washington was elected almost unanimously and his Vice President was the people’s second choice. Imagine Trump with Clinton as VP. Secondly, they assumed a basically moral and religious people, on Judeo/Christian terms, who knew and agreed on what was right even if they didn’t always do it. Now things that are morally wrong for half the nation are planks in the party platform of the other half. Hmmm.
Our Constitution assumes we are all on the same side, responsible to God and committed to fair play and the common good. Since Reconstruction, our political parties have been pretty much tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum and the system has worked well. There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans and the secularists were evenly divided. We all wanted the same things, just differed on who could do it best. I remember when, as a graduate student, I entered the local Republican caucus in Minnesota in ’68. They asked me to pledge myself to “Republican principles” and I didn’t know they had any. Not so anymore. We are in trouble. Our democracy is not designed for serious divisions.
European politics and constitutions (changed like socks) allow for multiple parties and proportional representation. Each party represents its own ideology and demographic from Fascist to Communist and everything between, but has to form coalitions with others in order to rule. But once in power, the ruling coalition and its leader really does rule (like Adolf Hitler?) and the minority parties are powerless. The parliament handles serious division by running over it rough-shod. They get things done, but you might not like it.
Our founders feared tyranny of any sort: executive, legislative, judicial, minority or majority, federal or state. They recognized that human nature and unchecked power did not work well together, so they gave us checks and balances. Ours is a divided democracy, not a direct democracy. In order to get anything done we have to work together. The United States is made up of states, sovereign entities of equal weight regardless of location or population. Their equality is expressed in the Senate. The population is expressed in the House and both are expressed in the President, via the electoral college. A divided democracy protects the rights and interests of the minority from the power of the majority – and the majority from any elite that might wish to impose its “wisdom” on the rest of us. But it does mean that attempting major change from the top down results in deadlock.
Our democracy only works by consensus. So it is, in 2020, that where there is no consensus among the people of these United States on a significant issue, there can be no legislative action or domestic tranquility. Questions of liberty and right and wrong are at stake. To override the divided will of the people the last two presidents have relied on executive and bureaucratic action, while activists have relied on the courts and massive demonstrations to enact what the legislature cannot. Our founders would have considered this tyranny, but it might be somewhat better than civil war.
Evangelicals in an Election Year
Since the election of 2016 the pundits have been talking about Evangelicals. Then the outgoing editor of Christianity Today revealed that at least one Evangelical is against Trump at the same time the “Evangelicals for Trump” rally celebrated him. What is going on? It was the Billy Graham crusades and Christianity Today that defined New Evangelicalism back in the 40’s, replacing Fundamentalism (with its defensive and sectarian reputation) as an identity of conservative Jesus-followers. Billy’s heir Franklin pretty much disowned the C.T. editorial in his father’s name, but does that mean the Evangelical house is divided? Duh, Jesus doesn’t belong to either party.
Jesus-followers may register in particular political parties, but they do not belong to the GOP or the Democratic Party. Many, but not all, Jesus-followers are Evangelicals. According to David Bebbington, Evangelicals are defined by conversion (being born again or coming to faith), relying on the Bible for direction for life and knowledge of God, relying on the sacrificial death of Christ for salvation, and expressing their faith in action in the world.
As human beings, Evangelicals are as vulnerable as anyone else in the voting booth to how their grandparents voted, the physical appearance and speech of the candidate and other surface factors. Beyond such trivia, as Evangelicals and as Jesus-followers we look to two broad questions: is this or that candidate fit for office (in character, ability and experience) and does he/she and their party represent values and programs that are good and right, promoting justice, truth and freedom to pursue virtue? Character matters, but values and likely courses of action matter just as much or more. People who profess to agree with us are not always willing or able to deliver on their profession.
So here is the situation. Jesus-followers, when they are taking their civic responsibility seriously, are both character and values voters. They prefer honest, moral, God-fearing candidates. We have had presidents of that sort (Jimmy Carter and G.W. Bush come to mind) and there were several in the 2016 primary, but none emerged as nominees. Instead, we got a ruthless politician and a ruthless businessman, neither known for their integrity. Some of us believed more allegations against one, some more allegations against the other, some allegations against both equally. So character voters had to choose the best of two evils on the basis of the values they expressed and how much we believed them.
In exercising our franchise, Jesus-followers, whether “Evangelicals” or not, must conscientiously examine the platforms and candidates and favor those that respect freedom of conscience, human dignity, morality and human flourishing in general.
Jesus-followers, Evangelicals and other Christians are supposed to be seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. What does that mean? Three things. First, God is king whether we like it or not, whether we even know it or not. The paths of every galaxy and every electron are determined by Him. Our freedom to choose, to think and to exist are a gifts from Him. Second, He does give each of us a choice to accept or reject His sovereignty in our own lives and hearts, to love Him or to hate Him. Third, since it has been the choices of ourselves and our ancestors to resist His rule, we have messed up our world and ourselves. It is His eternal plan to redeem our world, to set everything right, and He invites us to join Him in rolling back the evil and brokenness all around us.
If this is our God-given mandate, does this breach the purported “wall of separation of church and state?” Let’s hope not. The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, and that certainly would include seeking the founders’ vision of a “nation under God.” An established church is certainly excluded, as is government interference in any religious organization. We are free, under the First Amendment and by God’s command, to express our consciences in word and in life, to interpret and accept or reject for ourselves the rule of God. Of course, those in rebellion against His rule have a problem with this. Do you?
Jesus-followers seek righteousness, truth, justice and freedom of conscience for themselves and others. The state must be supported in the restraint of evil. Further, they seek peace and freedom in which to share the good news with their neighbors. That is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, as values voters, they look for the party and the candidate that best represents their values and seems most likely to act upon them.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you,” Jesus said. What does His kingdom and His righteousness mean? This is where so many professing Christians go wrong. It isn’t my kingdom and it isn’t my righteousness. When we make it our kingdom, we go on power trips, lose our luggage and God abandons us at the wrong airport. When we make it our righteousness we become self-righteous, legalistic, critical and – worst of all – we fail miserably. See Galatians 5. We weren’t meant to be good on our own. Our own righteousness is filthy. When we seek His righteousness we recognize we are broken like everybody else, we recognize that we cannot fix ourselves or anyone else, and we open ourselves to His transforming power. It is like a heart transplant – a living heart of flesh for a dead heart of stone. We begin to change and what we have to share with the world is power to change, not rules that condemn. That is eternal life. That is the gospel – good news!
The Christian’s duty to Caesar (and to God) is to exercise his/her franchise conscientiously, choosing between alternative candidates and programs. Character matters, but values matter, too – what we think the candidate is going to do (or at least try to do) with his/her office.
What are the values of Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular? First would have to be religious freedom – freedom to do and say what they believe is right, to advance the Creator’s vision of human flourishing and tell the good news of Christ’s plan to forgive and heal what is broken. Christians get in trouble because of their duty to warn their neighbors that they are broken – sinners in need of forgiveness and healing – and for calling popular activities “sin.” Those warnings are not appreciated by those in denial and rebellion. Our schools, airways and politics are filled with those who profit from human vice, with hatred and rebellion and with openly seeking to remove moral judgment and religious influences from the public sphere. Evangelicals do not advocate any sort of earthly theocracy – faith is voluntary by definition – but cannot vote for rebellion against God.
Applying the principle of religious freedom is not always clear-cut. How does freedom of conscience apply to those who lack or oppose a biblically formed conscience? Is there a freedom to do what is wrong? To never have to hear the truth? To undermine human flourishing? To harm ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of greed, lust, hatred or delusion? Does the purported separation of church and state silence office holders from expressing and acting on values that have their foundations in faith and morality? Careful now, almost all good ideas are traceable to the Creator.
Freedom of conscience and of religious expression are critical values for serious Christians – and members of other faiths, too. While the law forbids any religious test, some would exclude anyone with strong convictions from public office, as we have heard in recent confirmation hearings. Some say “you can’t legislate morality” – though murder, perjury and theft are illegal (see Commandments 6, 8 & 9). All three branches of government deal with moral issues every day. If we do not “legislate” morality, we will legislate immorality. Whose morality? Christians must have a seat at the table and the privileges of the floor.
Let’s face it. We no longer have moral consensus in America. Does freedom from conscience trump freedom of conscience? Does the Constitution guarantee freedom from religion, rather than freedom of religion? Jesus-followers and Evangelicals are tolerant people, but they do expect toleration for themselves. Your freedom ends where my nose begins, and hands off my children. And please keep your hog out of my spring. The freedom to choose wrong must be balanced by the duty of the state to protect society – including Christians – from evil.
What does it mean to be a Jesus-follower? It means life has a center. Our short lives on this planet gain their significance from eternity. Our meaning comes from Christ who made us, called us to Himself, and remakes us day by day. Reality and truth come from our Creator, whether we know or like it or not. His ways are best for all concerned. We strive to express God’s truth in our lives and our love for Him and for mankind. We are broken and confused like everyone else, but He is working on us. In loving our neighbors, we try to pass on what we have found.
In an election year, Jesus-followers will vote for the candidates that best promise to uphold freedom of conscience and the right to live a quiet life of loving God and our neighbors, doing what is right for ourselves and them. Evangelicals particularly tend to be activists in their desire to spread the Gospel (good news) and promote human flourishing, not just being right, but doing right in all their affairs.
But religious freedom is not the only concern of Christians, Evangelicals and Jesus-followers. Other issues include human dignity, morality, justice and compassion. These issues may lead to different conclusions – as we have seen recently among Evangelicals. They cannot be really called a voting bloc or anyone’s “base.”
In an election year serious, Bible-believing Christians are concerned for issues of human dignity. In the first chapter of the Bible we are told that mankind (both male and female) is made in the image of God. This doctrine, incidentally, is uniquely Judeo-Christian and found in no other faith or worldview. The third chapter goes on to show that image to be shattered by rebellion against God, the results of which you may read in this morning’s news. The Bible goes on to illustrate God’s relentless love for mankind and continuing work of redeeming and repairing that image in those who accept Him. This is the Christian view of the human condition, a profound humanism. From this is derived our American credo, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [humans] are created equal; and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness [well-being, virtue].”
What are the implications of this credo? Every child of Adam and Eve, every homo sapiens, has a sacred intrinsic value regardless of sex, race, creed, age, sin, disability, usefulness to society, poverty, class or caste, citizenship or location on the globe – you name it. In Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile], there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This intrinsic value, and the fact that God “so loved the world” that He seeks to redeem them, means that we must respect every human being, treating them as persons, not objects, not means to our personal or political ends.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.”