Let me start by apologizing to readers who are not interested in US politics—it’s the only politics I know. It’s also, I think, a somewhat unique system that has loads of interesting implications for Christians. As we rush to the finish line of the 2012 US Presidential election, you might want to know that I’m a registered Democrat who usually votes for Republican Presidential candidates. I’m also a perfect swing voter according to USA Today. Right at this moment (and I could very well change my mind by the end of this essay) I’m probably going to vote for Obama because I hate the title of Romney’s book.
But this post isn’t about my politics. Instead I’m writing about the ofttimes strained relationship between Evangelicals and the United States’ political process. We trace our heritage through the Puritans, who were a frustrating contradiction: Jonathan Edwards died of a small pox inoculation he took to help the Mohicans and was disquietingly silent on the issue of slavery. I believe that our political history shows that Evangelicalism has redeemed itself when it has taken firm stands against injustice and has failed when we put the cart before the horse. Remember that Jesus healed first and preached second.
The Founding Deists
If our country was founded on a religious foundation, it was deist. Or, if you prefer nuance, the US was established by theistic rationalists. That is to say, our political principles derived from the work of Descartes, Locke, and Hume, which place reason at the center of all human endeavours. Given the religious warfare and civil strife that these Americans escaped when they left Britain and Europe, we should not be surprised they took refuge in the hope of human intellect and industry. Rationalism would be the ultimate mediator in the nation they were forming.
As an Evangelical, I’m thankful for the great words of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Constitution (and the First Amendment especially) went on to secure those rights for all Americans with one startling exception: African slaves. With all of the reasoning of Solomon and none of the wisdom, slaveholding states tried first to minimize the personhood of slaves to reduce their tax burden and later to maximize their influence on representation in Congress. The conclusion they came to was that African slaves were worth exactly “three fifths of all other Persons”.
That’s an insane answer. Either slaves are just property, in which case they don’t count as people, or they are people and also property, in which case they count as full people. For a country that was created on the principle that “all men are created equal” to build a government on a document that states that some men are to be treated as less than equal shows that it’s founders sacrificed their ideals for pragmatism.
Abraham Lincoln—Our Greatest President
I recently read Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial, which traces Lincoln’s political career from his early days with the Whig party to his Republican presidency. Like the most prominent Founding Fathers, whom he adored, Mr. Lincoln can not be classified an Evangelical Christian. He attended many churches, but never became a member. Though he opposed slavery all his life, he was not an Abolitionist. Rather he objected to the economic consequences of slavery on the value of free white labor and the conflict between the words of the Declaration of Independence with the realities of slavery in the South.
It was not until the collapse of the Whig party that Lincoln aligned himself with the Abolitionist movement and he did that out of political savvy rather than religious conviction. His private words and his hope that Colonization would resolve the deep national divide would expose him to the charge of racism if he lived today. I do not believe the Great Emancipator was an Evangelical, but his movement from a position of gradual, compensated emancipation to his final decision to free Southern slaves on 1 January 1863 was heavily influenced by Evangelical, Catholic and Quaker advocates for African Americans.
Our nation paid a heavy price for the short-sighted pragmatism of the Constitution. At the cost of a brutal Civil War, America eliminated the system of legal slavery that devalued humans. I’m certain that if Lincoln had served out the balance of his second term, Reconstruction would have set African Americans on a course to become full citizens as well.
Martin Luther King’s Dream
If I could, I’d quote the entirety of Dr. King’s famous speech. It was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and a prophetic wakeup call to the nation:
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
If you read or listen to Martin Luther King’s speeches, you’ll quickly notice that he quotes frequently from the Bible—especially from the Hebrew prophets. While he certainly learned from Gandhi’s nonviolent protest tactics, King drew inspiration from the promises of God to Israel and their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. He took a stance on social issues from the firm foundation of his Protestant upbringing.
Remarkably, there are some Evangelicals who question King’s Christian credentials. Perhaps I can’t lay claim to King as a member of my particular brand of Christianity, but I can walk with him (metaphorically) and call him my brother. If Martin Luther King wasn’t an Evangelical, I don’t want to be either. More Christians (especially those of us with a Conservative bent) should listen to his words and follow his example.
Where do we go from here?
There so much more to be said about the ways that Evangelicals in America have succeeded and failed to be positive forces in politics. I was inspired to write this topic by reading John Piper’s excellent book Bloodlines, but that’s all I have time to say about it. It convinced me that race is the overriding political problem our nation has faced since it first emerged from being a British colony. We have not yet freed ourselves from that struggle.
To non-Christian readers: Almost everything you read, see and hear about Christians, particularly Evangelicals, is a distortion. As Martin Luther King once noted, if a store window gets broken in a peaceful protest, the newspapers will report it as a riot. While there are certainly hateful Christians and Christian groups, most all of the people I know are loving and concerned for the well-being of our nation and its citizens. Get to know a Christian; you might be surprised.
To Christian readers: Despite the prevalence of the word “God” in our nation’s founding texts, we are not a Christian country. We never have been. Please don’t think that our goal should be to put the right people in office or to enforce correct theology via government action. On the other hand, don’t sacrifice your belief for the sake of pragmatism. Politics is about turning the collective convictions of a community into its public policy.
Sometimes people say, “if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain about the results”. I take it one step further: if you aren’t doing something to make the world a better place (visiting prisoners, assisting the unemployed, tutoring students, and so on) you don’t have the right to complain that the world is falling apart. That’s how we will earn the political currency to make real and lasting changes.