Presidential elections for evangelical Christians resemble nothing so much as Charlie Brown in the familiar “Peanuts” comic strip. In a running gag that creator Charles Schulz clearly enjoyed, every fall Lucy invited her friend to kick a football while she held it. Charlie Brown would take a running start in anticipation of booting the ball out of sight. But just before impact she would snatch it away and his foot would swing through empty air, followed by his body. The episodes all concluded the same way, with Charlie Brown lying on the ground wondering why he let her fool him once again as Lucy sauntered away with some caustic but pointed remark. My favorite of all her parting shots was, “I admire you Charlie Brown…you have such faith in human nature.”
Charlie Brown’s nature was to believe and Lucy’s nature was to think only of herself.
So we come around once again to the presidential election where candidates troop through evangelical political meetings promising they’re on our side and if we support them they’ll give us what we want. And once again we play Charlie Brown to the politicians’ Lucy because as soon as the election is over, the promises will be forgotten and evangelicals will be disappointed once again.
This week Donald Trump spoke to ten thousand people at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian university. He assured them that if elected he would protect their Christian values. Ted Cruz promised the voters of Iowa the same thing.
John Kasich is clear about his faith and, especially, the value he places in the Bible as God’s Word. Marco Rubio’s religious faith is a core part of his stump speech. Hillary Clinton makes the predictable rounds of African-American churches to assure that key constituency of her support for their agenda. On and on it goes as each candidate says to hopeful evangelicals that he or she is the one who will give us a place of importance in their administration if we in turn support their election.
I’m not criticizing the religious convictions of these candidates—or any others. I’m sure some are devout people of faith, and it encourages me to know there are serious Christians scattered throughout our political system.
It’s just that the nature of politicians is to gravitate toward whatever voter blocs can help them get elected. And it’s the nature of evangelical believers to believe that one candidate or the other will place Christian values back in the position of prominence they once occupied. Just like Charlie Brown believeing—against all previous experience—that this time Lucy will really let him kick the football.
In his first presidential campaign, President Obama appeared with well known Baptist pastor and leader Rick Warren to assure evangelicals he shared their values. James Dobson of Focus on the Family was instrumental in President George W. Bush’s Presidential campaign. President Ronald Reagan welcomed Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell as a key voice in his campaigns. Jimmy Carter was the most religious president in our history, and his evangelical faith was basic to almost every decision he made. Evangelist Billy Graham was close to many presidents, especially Richard Nixon.
But despite generations of our access to powerful political leaders, power remains beyond our grasp. Three factors explain why.
First, while politicians need our votes, they also need the votes of people opposed to our biblical convictions. Second, we fall into the error of thinking we need political power to accomplish our mission. Third, the nation continues its march toward a thoroughly secular culture regardless of presidents’ intentions or our desires otherwise.
Instead of learning from history, we evangelicals have chosen to play the Charlie Brown game, believing this is the year Lucy will finally let us kick the ball and the presidential candidate we support will put us into a position of real political authority.
It’s not going to happen.
I’m not saying presidential candidates are hypocrites. Neither am I saying evangelical leaders who strive to gain political power are opportunists. I’m just saying it’s time to follow the Bible instead of playing the political game. When the Bible says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s,” it states what should be an obvious truth: Caesar and God don’t have the same agenda.
There are certainly political issues evangelicals should be involved in. For instance, thanks to the coherent and relentless opposition to the legalized abortion by politically active and astute Christians, the nation is in a much better position today than twenty years ago regarding the protection of human life.
But it’s a long way from mobilizing in order to oppose a demonstrable evil to electing a president who will enforce our larger agenda. If recent history is any indication, such a pursuit is a fool’s errand.
Better by far to live simple lives of integrity, prayer, worship and witness. By all means, we should engage in the democratic process, but we should do so with a clear understanding of the church’s mission in the world. Evangelicals are not one among many special interest groups influencing politics; we’re part of a Kingdom that will one day conquer all politics. The moment we place our hope in the kind of futile game Charlie Brown played and embrace political power as a means toward gospel truth, we play a game we cannot win.