Tuesday’s election loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon for many Christians. Hilary Clinton was so clearly aligned with the liberal agenda of restricting religious liberty, expanding abortion rights, supporting the transsexual movement and in general using the power of the state to overturn America’s Christian history that her election seemed to guarantee a bleak future for the evangelical church.
That’s at first, I think, why so many evangelicals supported Donald Trump, a man whose track record under normal circumstances would have kept him at arm’s length from most church-going people. Hilary was perceived as the enemy of conservative Christians and all we believe in. Trump was the only one who could defeat her.
But through the course of the campaign something odd happened. Trump, despite revelations of behavior that would have disqualified anyone else from the office of President, was embraced by the majority of evangelicals not as just the anti-Hilary but as something more. He came to embody the hope of a Christian resurgence, and the obvious attraction his message had for many working class Americans who had been left behind by today’s global economy also resonated with many Christians who had the same sense of cultural displacement as our nation moved in more secular directions.
This has been a regular feature of the complex relationship between the church and state in American history. In our own lifetime we’ve seen how Jerry Falwell built a similar kind of relationship between the Moral Majority and President Ronald Reagan. Later, James Dobson was influential in the political climate surrounding the presidency of the second George Bush. Evangelicals in particular seem to have an attraction for conservative political leaders who promise to bring us into the circles of power.
Most of us didn’t really think Trump could win. Almost every pre-election poll showed Hilary ahead and the conventional wisdom was that Trump’s obvious flaws would do him in. His evangelical support would amount to little more than an interesting footnote to a foreordained conclusion.
But then he won. And according to exit polls it could well have been evangelical support that led him to victory. An astonishing 80% of the evangelical vote went to Trump, the highest level of support for a presidential candidate since 2004. Those votes proved significant in the battleground states of North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. In a stunning turnaround evangelicals found themselves returned to the circles of political power.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX, one of Trump’s earliest and most passionate supporters as well as a personal friend and advisor tweeted a picture Wednesday morning that captured the mood:
The American evangelical church is now married to Trump—our overall support for him was instrumental in getting him elected and we expect him to support our beliefs, practices and agenda in ways Hilary never would. In return, he’ll expect evangelical support for his administration across the board. It’s as if the days of the Moral Majority have returned and our Christian voice will once more be influential in government policy.
We don’t want to go there.
Whenever church and state get too closely intertwined, it’s the church that suffers, and this moment in history—as hopeful as it is for evangelicals—carries within it the grave temptation of thinking that political power is the same as spiritual authority. Our focus must always be on the Kingdom and its gospel.
So what does all that mean for us today? I believe that American evangelicals, in light of Trump’s election and the promise it offers for a season of relative freedom to exercise our religion, need to keep several key steps in mind in order not to repeat the mistakes of past evangelical generations:
- Don’t seek a place at the table. Don’t run after high office by scheming to get one or more of “our” people placed in President Trump’s cabinet or elsewhere, as though the new president should have an evangelical whisperer in his ear to counter balance the voices of other, less spiritual advisors. Neither the nation nor the church needs a Secretary of Christian Sensitivities. Putting biblical faith at the same level as the other influence peddlers reduces it to just one of many competing special interest groups and undermines the unique message of Jesus.
- Don’t play the political game. Don’t get involved in the kind of horse-trading that inevitably accompanies the political process. If the new administration, for instance, offers to restrict partial birth abortion in return for evangelical support of its policy goal of overhauling the tax code, we should clearly and unequivocally turn that deal down. Not because we don’t agree or disagree with reforming the tax code but because biblical truth isn’t a chip on a poker table.
- Keep a healthy distance from political power. According to the Bible the church owes secular rulers only two things: honor them and pray for them. We forget that at our peril. The closer we draw to the centers of government the more apt we are to confuse political power for spiritual power and compromise the distinctiveness of the gospel. I’m not saying evangelicals should withdraw from political life—godly men and women should feel free to seek political office and use it as a platform for sharing their faith as well as speaking for biblical values. Our nation is blessed by tens of thousands of faithful believers doing just that. But the church as a whole can’t expect the government to accomplish what the Lord told his church to do. We’re most effective for the Kingdom when we’re most skeptical of the government.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. If politics could have saved the country we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today. The considerable promise a Trump administration holds for evangelical churches isn’t based on more power to enforce a religious agenda but more freedom to proclaim the gospel. That’s the main thing.
- Stay humble. God has orchestrated a moment in American history where against all odds a door seems to have opened for a fresh season of ministry. The new administration has promised to reverse the erosion of religious liberty and biblical values that have threatened the evangelical church—and the nation as a whole—through the last few years. Maybe it will. But if we use this moment to write only another chapter of institutionalized religion in America, we’ll miss a golden opportunity. Donald Trump’s election as President gave the evangelical church space to lead America into real spiritual renewal.