To Win More Political Victories, Evangelicals Need To Stop Thinking Of America As ‘A Christian Nation’

To Win More Political Victories, Evangelicals Need To Stop Thinking Of America As ‘A Christian Nation’

Evangelical politics as an alliance between Roy Moore and Donald Trump illustrates a crisis of evangelical political activism and theology.
Nathanael Blake
By

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. In Alabama, Roy Moore, who made his career denouncing strange bedfellows, has enthusiastically embraced President Trump, even after the president endorsed Moore’s rival in the Republican senatorial primary. Moore’s brand is synonymous with the Ten Commandments; Trump’s is built on breaking them (albeit often ineffectively—he somehow went bankrupt trying to sell strippers and gambling to Americans).

This decadent tableau of evangelical politics as an alliance between Moore and Trump illustrates a crisis of evangelical political activism and theology. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, despite his decades as an unabashed advertisement for most of the seven deadly sins. These evangelicals don’t think they betrayed their principles in supporting Trump—the alternative was Hillary Clinton, who made no attempt to win evangelical voters and whose venality matched Trump’s.

But the Hillary excuse undermines the political theology of Moore and other evangelical leaders who believe America is a Christian nation with a covenantal relationship with God and a providential mission in the world. Their claim that the United States is a Christian nation is not only descriptive, but prescriptive. They don’t just acknowledge Christianity’s influence in America, they assert that the United States must admit God’s sovereignty and adhere to his law—like ancient Israel, America will be especially blessed by God if it remains righteous, and face divine wrath if it is not.

Winning Means God Likes You

As George McKenna has documented, this theological understanding of America began with the Puritans but has been adapted to the changes and crises of American history from the War for Independence to the present. Its mild form is seen in the spiritually sentimental patriotism expressed, for example, in the ritual singing of “God Bless America” at baseball games. Its strong form is championed by the likes of Moore.

But it is difficult to find a satisfactory place for President Trump in this worldview. He is a political ally of these evangelicals, who are therefore inclined to see him as divinely favored. But it is laughable to view Trump, who has lived as an ambulatory catalog of proud public iniquity, as an avatar of political Christianity, the pious leader of a Christian nation with a special providential purpose. The difficulties this theology of politics creates are seen in the grotesque attempts by many of Trump’s prominent evangelical defenders to compare him to the biblical King David, even though David’s contrition for his sins starkly contrasts with Trump’s denial that he needs forgiveness.

On this point it is no good to say, “But Hillary!” The biblical passages recounting the kings, good and bad, of Israel and Judah do not excuse wicked kings if the next in line to the throne would have been worse. For a covenant nation and its leaders, wickedness is wickedness. If the United States is a Christian nation liable to divine chastisement for the wickedness of its leaders, then backing Trump is madness. Supporting Trump is only supportable if abandoning the common evangelical conceit of America as a special covenanted Christian nation.

Your Two Main Ideas Contradict Each Other Here

Some evangelical leaders, such as Russell Moore, have challenged this unbiblical view of America as a Christian nation with a covenantal relationship with God. As they note, holy scripture does not assign our nation a privileged place. We ought to follow their lead and acknowledge that the United States is one more nation in the City of Man, rather than a terrestrial outpost of the City of God.

As a nation, we are not a covenant people with a special relationship with God, even though that heresy goes back to the colonial roots of our nation. We cannot know if America holds a special place in God’s providential plan, or, if it does, whether that place would be one of honor or wrath. Attempts to extend the meaning of our political order to the divine order of God are star-spangled heresy.

They are also inconsistent. American evangelicals tend to simultaneously believe that Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Rome was a fatal error, and that our country was rightly established as a Christian nation.

Recognizing America as one more entry among the nations of the earth frees evangelicals to evaluate Trump rightly, without illusions. Regardless of the president’s virtues and vices, evangelicals have legitimate political interests to defend, and we should not be afraid to follow the example of the Apostle Paul and assert our legal rights. Paul appealed to a wicked pagan emperor; we can appeal to and deal with a buffoonish president.

What Christians’ Business Is In America

Our foremost interest is securing American’s heritage of religious liberty. The Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not only for our lives at home and in church, but in the public and market squares. This protection of religious freedom is not just for us, but for all Americans who wish to authentically live in peace according to their faith.

We also share in the general interests of our nation: that it is defended from enemies, that essential liberties be preserved, that the peace be kept and justice administered, and so on. We should support the government in these legitimate purposes, pray for our elected representatives, and use our votes and voices to encourage it to improve in the execution of its duties. We do not need to believe the strong theory of America as a Christian nation to be good citizens. Evangelical Christians have often been leaders in struggles against great injustices, from the abolitionists who challenged slavery to the pro-life movement’s fight to protect human life in the womb.

At the same time, there are many issues, such as tax rates or environmental policy, where there are not clear evangelical positions. While Christian principles may shed some light on these subjects, their inherent tradeoffs and uncertainty preclude a definitive evangelical position. Evangelical political missteps have often resulted from the mistaken imperative to preserve America as a “Christian nation” and overconfidence in government’s ability to repress sin.

Many evangelicals backed Prohibition with good intentions (the effects of widespread alcoholism at the time, especially on the poor, really were horrific), but it was an enormous error. More recently, evangelicals, with Roy Moore a leading example, have spent decades burning political capital on symbolic causes like monuments of the Ten Commandments. While these aren’t all establishment clause violations (and litigators should defend them on that point), they are a waste of effort. For some, such monuments of political piety have become precisely the idolatrous images the commandments warn about.

Stop Wasting Time on Symbolic Trivialities

In such cases, theological mistakes have often led to ineffective political engagement. Evangelicals have been cheap political dates, settling for symbolism over substance. We should view Trump’s presidency as a chance to embrace a more transactional view of politics. Trump may have been a better choice than Hillary Clinton, but that doesn’t mean he deserves perpetual and unequivocal support after the election.

And we should be open to better offers. While it would not be easy for Democrats to win back evangelical voters, we should encourage them to try. This, in turn, might force Republicans to offer more than lip service to evangelical concerns while prioritizing another tax cut for rich donors.

Bad theology has caused American evangelicals to be represented by an alliance of Moore and Trump. Rather than embracing this heresy-driven degradation, evangelicals should treat American politics as the mundane realm it is, without imbuing it with special spiritual significance.

The United States will one day pass away; the Celestial City will not. Ironically, the political legacy of the Puritans has come to decadence because it forgets our pilgrim status on this earth, and instead seeks the establishment and preservation of a Christian nation in the City of Man.

Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

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