“So I’m gonna hold my nose and vote for Romney,” said a self-identified Christian caller on the Dennis Miller Radio Show. Miller immediately reacted to the caller and suggested he didn’t represent what he, as a non-Christian, understood to be a Christian attitude. I agree. I am ashamed of the public face that many self-proclaimed Christians put out there for people to see and hear.
First of all, God gave his children no authority to condemn whatsoever. Confronting error is not a matter of publicly declaring oneself right and another wrong. Our task is to be redemptive, not judicial, and public condemnation is exercising God’s prerogative and is at least as shameful as many of the matters being condemned.
Secondly, God has not given the Church authority to rule unbelievers. While I may agree that the Mormon religion is in error, as is many a Christian denomination, “holding one’s nose” is not corrective; it is dismissive, rejecting the man because of his beliefs. Given Christ’s commands to love neighbors, brothers, and even enemies, I don’t see how one is entitled to dismiss anyone either.
Thirdly, I am sick to death of shallow Christians. After seminary, when I first served as a pastor, I had folks complain that I used multi-syllable (like this one!) words. Seriously! I have never sought to be pretentious; I have always tried to use words to clarify, not mystify or impress. I was preaching on prophetic themes, and I used the word eschatology, which essentially means the study of end times. I try to choose the right words, even if they may be unfamiliar, but when I use words that may be unknown, I explain them. Actually, even when I use words that are presumed to be well-known and familiar, I often explain what I mean by them, because common understanding may well not jibe with Biblical teaching.
Somewhere in the history of the American Church, believers began to scorn knowledge and the process of learning that it requires; sadly, this is an all-to-common American conceit (Is this why many regard “commencement” as an end instead of a beginning?). As a result, over time, many Christians have become simple-minded, unthinking, even anti-thinking boobs. What was promoted as removing a barrier to real spirituality led people into something that was neither authentic nor spiritual. While God assured that the most basic themes of truth were clear, he did not take complex ideas and simplify them into pablum or nonsense! “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3) is simple and direct but hard to exhaust as we ponder its meaning. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) is unambiguous; yet it is also rich with meaning to consider. One of my favorites from John 8:31-32, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” Perhaps the most startlingly clear, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Yet many live without the freedom that truth brings while trying to misapply truth as a club against those who disagree. At the same time, many fail to practice the very unconditional love Jesus taught and practiced himself, losing the credibility that love will bring. That is the quite typical “inconsiderate” (double meaning intended) viewpoint that scorning thought will bring. Referring back to that caller, I don’t believe such a comment makes him very credible.
Here’s the irony. Such plain, direct teaching gets intellectually mauled in order to dampen it, while the deep thinking analysis built on the study and writing of those who’ve gone before is considered a waste of time by many. As a result, today’s church doesn’t know how to speak to an increasingly skeptical culture and often wavers in the face of direct confrontation. We’ve drifted so far from the substantive thinking of the American founders and of the Protestant Reformers or the Catholic Scholastics who preceded them that we have made ourselves outcasts. While true Christ followers may expect opposition and even persecution, shallow Christians who cannot carry on a decent defense of their faith simply marginalize themselves. I believe that is a big part of what has happened in Western civilization. We weren’t driven out of an influential place in out culture; we abandoned it!
When the time came, historically, the gospel of grace spread along with its commitment to life created in God’s own image; a new value and dignity given to individuals, including slaves, prisoners, the orphaned, and sick, changed the world. Christians nursed the sick and injured rather than letting them die; they valued every child rather than disposing of the unwanted, especially girls. In time, Christians took on the issue of slavery and ended it, despite reluctance on the part of many in their culture. Often treated as chattel, women quickly came to be treated as fully human, equal with men, though different. How sad that today Christians don’t seem to know how to make the same kinds of argument in defense of the unborn. How sad that the Church wavers over the issue of homosexuality, unable to argue civilly within the Church, often settling for leaving struggling people rejected and unloved. Outside the Body, we have no substantive argument against a position largely based on the promiscuous assumptions of the “make love not war” generation (mine). We have lost the argument to hate the sin but love the sinner, frankly because I fear many do hate the sinner. Indeed, since the rejection the pursuit of knowledge and thoughtful, substantive debate, we have been losing the battle for the minds and hearts of people for a long time. Instead of leading, many of us are following the culture.
As with the opening quote, too many of us settle for an easy, shallow position. One friend says he has come to doubt much of what people say in church…and he is a Christian. We’ve become consumers of this comparatively rich world rather than responsible citizens of the kingdom of God. Rather than speaking truth to power, we have embraced the power, or at least chased after it. Far from leading the debate, as Christians who changed the world once did, we let the world set the issues in the debate. Worse, while unbelievers and anti-theists would reject an oversimplified version of our beliefs; we turn around and offer the world and each other pablum, worse than baby food, junk food!
My friend says he doesn’t believe what people say about their experience as Christians, and I’m inclined to agree. Christian experience—such an odd phrase at that—should arise out of a life lived on the edge, not in comfort, especially when everyone is comfortable. In a era when some will take their own lives to destroy the lives of others in the name of their religion, in a world where some believers risk their very lives to be Christians, what is it we think we have in our relatively safe, prosperous, often compromised lives?
Then there is politics. Do Christians really believe themselves to be speaking for Christ when they make a public statement like the above? I cannot quite imagine Jesus speaking like that (Yes, that is an understatement!). Does he care about an election? Some would say that politics is too dirty for a Christian to participate, but isn’t that exactly where Christians should be, being salt and light in our culture. Didn’t Jesus go out of his way to hang out with much despised tax-collectors. Is there a truly prophetic word to be spoken? If so, I would direct it at those who dare to use the Word for their own agenda (One such is the current President).
Back when Ronald Reagan ran in the 1980 election, up against the publicly Christian Jimmy Carter, I remember thinking I preferred the one who lived his faith over the one who talked about it, the one who seemed to believe people should have the chance to decide for themselves over the one who, as now, felt it was government’s job to act Christian and do the Christian’s work. I don’t see God speaking to governments except to those individuals who exercise government’s power, warning them against oppressing the weak. Our Founders were wise in limiting government’s power and vesting it in the people, but so many believe themselves to be wiser.
What of Romney, the Morman? How is he different that an Episcopalian (A priest acquaintance of mine—an Episcopal priest!—called them “closet Christians”). I remember the rhetoric when it was a Catholic running for President, and I don’t recall any subsequent directive from the Pope changing the country during JFK’s time. Mitt’s father George was Governor of Michigan, and I don’t recall any “Morman” issues overshadowing his time in office. For that matter, I’ve never heard of any from Mitt’s time as Massachusett’s governor, despite all the current innuendos floating around.
Being a Christian, as I consider a candidate, I look for honesty, integrity, ability, and perhaps the influence of faith, just as our first President advised, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports” (from George Washington’s Farewell Address). I will look for the one that shows the least faith in government’s power, perhaps because he believes in a greater power, perhaps because he believes more in the people. I want the freedom to live and to practice my faith, just as most Christians and most people do. I would very likely vote against a person who promised to impose Christian values on the country while I would most likely support one who quietly trusted himself as a leader to God and his wisdom, as many of our Presidents have done. Even on touchy issues like abortion and gay marriage, I don’t want a leader to accomplish by fiat what cannot be done by winning over voters, even though abortion became legal by the action of the Supreme Court when most still opposed it.
What I won’t do is “hold my nose” if a candidate does not suit my preferences. I won’t stay home and passively yield to the poorer candidate to make a point. I will use my vote, however insignificant it may be, to move the country in the direction of freedom and faith, those being my political values. I’m not looking for a theocracy; the mingling of secular and spiritual government has been tried and always fails because the lure of power is too great, the seeds of corruption too virile, and the poison of wealth too close. Besides, government is not where Christians have the greatest opportunity to achieve God’s purposes; winning elections is not how God will establish his reign on earth. The greatest opportunity is in the community, the neighborhood, and the block where we live, where we can first love and then kindly persuade people, first, to understand our views and, second, to consider accepting them, that is, accepting Jesus as their own Savior, master, and friend.
Public disparagement of a candidate or of anyone in Jesus’ name, telling people as a Christian that they disapprove of another’s religion, is harmful to the influence and reputation of God’s people and of the One they follow. It is ignorant and shallow; it does not advance the cause of Christ but hinders it. Adopting the common ad hominem, attack-the-person approach to political discourse disobeys the Great Commandment, because no one can be loving a person they are attacking. Attacking a person’s beliefs is not a productive method of evangelism; it is judging with no effort to redeem. Anyone who hasn’t already learned that life often requires us to make less than ideal choices will likely end up seeing the ideas and concerns he opposes gain ground, while he proudly asserts his own purity of choice. Like the servant who failed to invest the small sum entrusted to him, such people fail to use their gifts to advance the things of God, who seeks not our political victories but spiritual ones in our own lives and the lives we influence, whether personally and directly or more distantly, say on a radio talk show heard by perhaps millions. In such cases, I’d recommend, not holding your nose, but holding your tongue!