Christianity has a unique relationship with politics. It’s a relationship of clearly defined allegiances and responsibilities captured best in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 21:22. “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” As Christians we whole heartedly render to the government and its political process the things they are due, knowing that when done rightly we are ultimately doing them unto to Lord (1 Cor. 10:31). On the other side of the relationship is an unyielding and unashamed belief in the things of God. The truths of Scripture, of Christ’s gospel and what it entails (ethics and all), are non-negotiable. I believe Jesus calls Christians to live this out in a way that is obvious to those around us. We should be good citizens of the country and states in which we live, but it should be painfully obvious that our ultimate allegiance, hope, and future lies elsewhere. An unbelieving world should easily note that Christians are not concerned with the power and prestige of the world because we have been captured by the power and beauty of Christ.
My concern is that in our current election this distinction is not as clear as it should be, and nothing captures that better than the meeting last Tuesday between Donald Trump and several hundred evangelical leaders in New York. The meeting was closed to the media, but transcripts have made their way out. I want to be clear from the outset that I’m not condemning the men and women who attended the meeting. It’s a dangerous game to pretend like we know the motives in peoples’ hearts, especially when we do not know them and have never spoken to them. They will stand or fall before their own Master (Romans 14:4). What I do want to clearly point out, however, is how some of what took place at the meeting failed to maintain the sharp line of distinction that Jesus called for in Matthew 21:22.
Last week The Atlantic published an article that ended with the following paragraph:
“Donald Trump is no dummy. He knows his audience better than they know themselves. Evangelicals are acutely aware of their waning cultural influence and shrinking share of the population. These religious leaders care about their principles, yes. But they care about something else even more: power. While not every evangelical leader is enthusiastic about Trump, many are starting to express warm feelings toward the candidate. Expect the cascade to continue. Their fawning, fumbling efforts to push Trump into the White House prove that many of them will risk everything to reclaim cultural and political control—even if that means defying their own beliefs.”
That’s a sad conclusion for anyone to draw of a group of Christians, especially Christian leaders. Our first question should be whether or not it is justified. And as sad as it is to say, I’m afraid the answer is yes—at least when it comes to the Christian men who introduced Trump: Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. I believe both blurred the line Jesus called for, and unfortunately left the world thinking that power was indeed more important than principle. Here’s selections of troubling things each said.
Graham: And as we look at who is to be the next president of the United States, many people are looking at qualities. And I’d like to take just a moment to look at the Bible. Some of the individuals are our patriarchs: Abraham — great man of faith. But he lied. Moses led his people out of bondage, but he disobeyed God. David committed adultery and then he committed murder. The Apostles turned their back on the Lord Jesus Christ in his greatest hour of need, they turned their backs and they ran. Peter denied him three times. All of this to say, there is none of us is perfect. We’re all guilty of sin. Franklin Graham stands here in front of you today as a sinner. But I’ve been forgiven by God’s grace. He forgave me. I invited Christ to come into my heart and my life. He forgave me. There’s no perfect person—there’s only one, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. And he’s not running for president of the United States this year.
The middle part is not so bad, but the implication of the whole paragraph is. Without saying it directly, Graham implied that Trump is like Abraham, Moses, David, and Peter. All imperfect sinners, yet all great men used by God. The part missing? That Abraham, Moses, David, and Peter where all broken over their sin, confessed and repented over their sin, and obeyed God. I would be overjoyed if Trump were to follow suit (I want everyone to know and delight in Jesus!). But we can’t minimize the seriousness of sin by pointing to the sins of others—especially when the core of our message is that we are sinners who stand before a holy God, deserving judgment and needing salvation.
Falwell: Donald Trump is the only candidate in this election who has achieved independent financial success. He’s not a puppet on a string like the other candidate, who has wealthy donors — some from countries who oppress women and gays — as her puppet masters. And that’s a key reason why so many voters are attracted to him.
That Trump has achieved independent financial success is a true statement. The issue is that Trump has made much of his money in a manner that historic Christianity would call unethical. Here are two examples. First, gambling. It’s no secret that Trump owns several casinos, some more profitable than others. Yet at Liberty University, of which Falwell is the president, the Student Honor Code lists gambling as a 6 point offense. Then there’s all the money Trump makes off of his own brand, the Trump name which Trump has been building for decades. No doubt some (a lot?) of that name rests on practices that Christians, including Falwell, deem unethical. One easy example of this is a photo op of Trump, Falwell, and Falwell’s wife. A bit embarrassing that over Mrs. Falwell’s left shoulder is a framed Playboy magazine with Trump on the cover (Liberty’s honor code rightly considers Playboy offensive media). That’s just one piece of the Trump name. So it appears that Trump has avoided one evil by indulging in another. Again, the endorsement seems to be at odds with what Falwell and the rest of orthodox Christianity teach.
It’s examples like these that can easily lead people to think—whether rightly or wrongly—that Christian leaders, and so all Christians, are more concerned with power than with the truth of the Gospel of Jesus.
So what should we do? Walk the line Jesus calls for, very carefully. Personally, I am committed to vote because that’s part of what being a good citizen means. I have never missed voting in an election, and I don’t intend on starting now. But I will honestly say that I cannot enthusiastically vote for any presidential candidate we currently have (and there are more than 2!). We must be engaged with the culture in which we live, and we must render unto Caesar things that are Caesar’s. But as Christians, we must do so in a way that always displays where our ultimate allegiance lies. The witness of the Church is more important than who wins the upcoming election. To sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter would be like giving up running water to save a leaky faucet.