In a previous post, I looked at the question of whether it is theologically justifiable to support Donald Trump and whether Christians are committing a sin or in some way compromising Christian values in voting for him. I addressed some of John Piper’s complaints against Trump and his claim that Trump’s personal flaws have massive social consequence. I want to continue to look at that question in this post.
Many American Christians should get away from the idea that America is an Israel which is collectively judged as an elect nation. God does not elect nations anymore. God elects individuals based on their response to his Son, Jesus Christ. The United States is not an Israel today and it never was. It has always been a Babylon ( i.e. not necessarily in terms of being an evil nation, but in terms of being a non-elect nation). It doesn’t mean it was never morally better or worse, but merely that God never elected the people of America collectively as his people. It was never an elect nation even if there were many elect people in it. If America were an elect nation, no leader there should be a non-Christian and idolatry and false religion would be illegal. God’s word would be legislated. That is part of what it means for a nation to be elect. If the nation is elect, the nation as a whole is responsible to God’s word. But Christians believe that individuals are responsible to God’s word, which is why democracy, religious freedom, and other political freedoms are compatible with Christianity. Christianity is not a political project, but if God still elected nations, then it would have been a political project and theocracy would be an implication of Christianity.
I’d like to address specifically John Piper’s notion that Trump’s sins are “nation-destroying”:
They destroy persons (Acts 12:20–23). And through persons, they destroy nations (Jeremiah 48:29–31, 42).
Elsewhere, he says:
This is true not only because flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness are self-incriminating, but also because they are nation-corrupting. They move out from centers of influence to infect whole cultures. The last five years bear vivid witness to this infection at almost every level of society.
This truth is not uniquely Christian: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Whether you embrace that company in your house or on social media, it corrupts. There are sins that “lead people into more and more ungodliness” as “their talk [spreads] like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:16–17).
There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, “He sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16), it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.
In my previous post, I argued that Trump is not uniquely immoral in most of the respects Piper mentions ( or at least that it isn’t easy to make that judgment). This applies especially to the accusation of “strife-stirring” which is an accusation you can level at anyone making controversial statements ( i.e. any politician), especially if people become incredibly furious at the person for those statements. A person who wants to accuse another of being quarrelsome must be able to clearly indicate where the line is between legitimate debate and political discourse and illegitimate forms of those things, without making occasional insults or off-colour jokes into the definition of someone’s character and without making any form of harsh language into a great sin ( given that many biblical prophets used such language).
The sins are not nation-destroying when a leader adopts them but when the populace adopts them. The book of Kings speaks specifically about idolatrous practices that were allowed or approved by the kings and who made people to sin as a result of approving of and allowing such practices in the nation (which is public policy about idolatry). It is ironic that Piper chooses this as a prooftext, because it is talking about public policy in Israel regarding idolatry, not merely the personal idolatry of the king. The person who wrote the books of Kings clearly believed that the public policy of every Israelite king must be to strictly outlaw idolatry and false religion, since he measures their leadership by whether they destroyed idols and shrines to other gods within Israel ( e.g. 2 Kings 18:3). There is a difference between being immoral in your personal life and actively approving of and even enforcing or implementing immorality in the society. The latter is worse than the former ( when we are talking about politics and not the states of souls).
In order for it to be truly analogous to Trump, Trump would need to have public policy that is endorsing immorality, which means that Piper’s prooftext supports my point ( that public policy is far more socially consequential than personal character in a politician). It is also ironic that this prooftext is used by him, because of his claim (in the same article) that he would vote for a virtuous non-Christian. A non-Christian is always an idolater and the prooftext itself is about a king of Israel practicing idolatry. The other prooftexts that Piper refer to are about personal friends and and the influence of immoral people on a local church community, which means that neither are applicable ( or at least only tenuously applicable) to a relationship of political support to a leader with whom you have no personal relations at all.
It is unquestionable that the policies of a political leader have far more influence on a society than some moral flaws they have. The policies are enforced through law and applied to all citizens, whereas his character needs to be voluntarily imitated by those who know no better. The one is enforced upon all. The other is voluntarily engaged in by those who are not critical about what they allow to influence their souls. By the way, someone who would be so easily corrupted (by simply watching a politician behave immorally) would probably have been corrupted anyway. A person who is such easy prey to Satan would have fallen anyway ( and quickly). There is no shortage of bad role models in this society (role models who are worse than Trump). Piper presents no evidence that whatever immorality he has seen increase in the nation is Trump’s fault. There are far better candidates for that blame, but it is not clear what immorality he believes has increased. The United States looks no more immoral to me in 2020 than it did in 2016, and the recent civil unrest is the result of social ideology ( radical racial ideologies) that Trump and his supporters have opposed.
Another reason Piper’s point here is unreasonable is because it is very selective. If you take seriously this way of choosing political candidates then there must be no partiality in how you weigh sins. Notice that this also means that Piper’s own suggestion that he will vote for a non-Christian would be out of the question, because a non-Christian is automatically an idolater. There can be no business of taking seriously some sins (especially ones that non-Christians would like you to take seriously) and overlooking other sins that the non-Christian world approves of (like false religion).
Are American Christians Compromising their Witness?
Some people say that American Christians are compromising their “witness” in supporting Trump. In general, I believe it is bad to make moral decisions based on “what non-Christians will say.” If the argument is that you shouldn’t support Trump because some non-Christians won’t like it, then this also implies that you won’t be able to do anything publicly which some non-Christians won’t like and that is not purely obedience to God’s commands. If non-Christians mistakenly and unjustly believe that support for a politician must mean approval and endorsement of all the sins they have committed, then that is not an error or a wrong that Christians need to take responsibility for.
Some forms of Christianity are overly focused on evangelism and consequently strongly emphasize the image of Christians among non-Christians. Paul does show concern about how Christians are viewed. However, it should be quite clear that the main determinant of what we do should be what is right and true, not what non-Christians will think. This way of thinking encourages Christian cowardice and sycophancy, and leads people to believe that standing up to non-Christians is automatically bad and immoral. And it leads Christians to believe that if non-Christians are furious with them, they must have done something wrong. Not to mention, if we are very concerned with our image among non-Christians we will become overly concerned with “how it looks” and the opinions of people. This leads to a religion of whitewashed tombs who love the praise of men more than the praise of God.
The idea that doing anything that makes secular cultural elites angry is going to harm the church is an idea one often finds in progressive Christianity. However, the Mainline Protestant churches who do conform a great deal to the values of the non-Christian cultural elite (in both politics and theology) are declining faster than conservative evangelical churches. This makes sense because, if what you hear at church is basically the same as what you hear from your favourite political pundit, why go to church? Plus, I don’t think so many non-Christians want to convert to a sycophantic religion that doesn’t add anything to their lives and is only passionate about what they already believe. So the notion that in order to win the young hearts and minds of non-Christian culture, we just have to conform more to non-Christian culture is not just a massive falsehood, but theologically and spiritually dangerous. Even if it were true that Mainline Protestant churches were just raking in all the spiritually homeless young people by liberalizing their theology, it would still be wrong to do it. So we shouldn’t believe that the key to evangelism is to imitate non-Christians more in any way. By the way, this does not mean we should support politicized Christianity. Both left-wing and right-wing pastors who focus too much on politics and who make political opinions into central aspects of Christian character I’m inclined to think are usually engaging in theological false teaching. They should be criticized. The more you politicize morality, the more you neglect the real sphere of morality which, the New Testament teaches, is the way we individually treat those around us, how we personally treat the poor ( not how we think the government should treat them) and how we are motivated. This also does not mean that one must be needlessly confrontational or derisive. We can be kind and polite and peaceable without being sycophants.