I am clearly in a minority in Australia. I always thought, right to the end, that Trump had a solid 40% chance of winning, and that if he did win, it would be something decisive that would hand the Republicans control of most of the government for the next election cycle. So, when news of Trump’s victory arrived, I wasn’t astonished about the result, but rather I was shocked by the reaction of Australian Christians on blogs and social media. While we thankfully haven’t seen anything like the, appalling, protests undertaken by Democrat voters in the United States, there was still a very disappointing combination of shock, horror and condescension towards Americans, and particularly American evangelicals, for voting for Trump. Please don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of Trump and I think he’s a very unpredictable choice – he could be anything from another kind of Reagan to the worse President the U.S has ever seen. Voting for him is like playing football with dynamite.
Nonetheless, in the hands of God — however his presidency unfolds — Trump’s election serves us all because it is an apocalypse. It is a revelation; an unveiling of reality. A testament to the real state of affairs going on around us, and so it invites us to reflect and question whether we are seeing the world correctly. The fact that many Australian Christians are both shocked and disappointed in American Evangelicals may say more about us and our need for repentance than theirs. More about how out of touch we are than they are. So here are my thoughts on somethings we need to consider and, perhaps, repent of:
1. Thinking that it was straightforward as to who to vote for in the election.
The more I’ve thought about this, the same conclusion I keep reaching: I have no idea how I would have voted if God had put this test before me. If you think it was ‘obvious’ what Christians should have done, then I don’t trust how much theology is shaping your political thinking, to put it mildly.
It was a choice between a serial fornicator who may also be guilty of sexual assault, and a wife who enabled a serial fornicator and who may also be guilty of trashing the reputations and threatening women who were victims of sexual assault from her husband. A choice between someone whose great wealth was built on shady business practices versus a woman whom, most Americans think, almost definitely broke serious laws while holding down a high public office and got away with it unscathed. A choice between someone whose speech is so unfiltered that it is beyond crass and someone who speech is so filtered that most Americans considered her a habitual liar. Neither candidate was acceptable in terms of their personal morality.
In terms of policy, voting for Clinton almost definitely would have involved more stupid wars in the Middle East with large civilian casualties, and if she was really going to introduce a ‘no fly’ zone in Syria, likely a violent clash with Russia as well. On the other hand, Trump… Well we’re all taking the chance that his inability to handle personal insults won’t have implications for his use of the nuclear arsenal. However, he has also claimed that he desires to put an end to the practice of starting wars in order to introduce democracy. If he does, this would make the world a much safer place after the last two presidencies. Yet, between the two of them, I honestly have no idea which is the clearer option — it’s a hard question in terms of wisdom.
The additional problem is that Clinton is the poster-child for the aggressive promotion of abortion, and is, subsequently, completely unacceptable to at least 95% of evangelicals in the United States. An issue which, from my experience, doesn’t resonate the same way with Australian evangelicals. So, here’s a thought experiment for you:
Imagine that Clinton was the poster-child for the idea that black people are the property of white people and that white people should be trusted to decide for themselves whether the black person they own should live or die.
Whilst not a perfect analogy, this is a rough equivalent of the moral and emotional factors in play relating to abortion for American evangelicals. Think about it, and then ask yourself whether, in a match up with Trump, there would be any likely chance you could, or even would, vote for her. My suspicion is that you need to arrive to this kind of head space to understand why voting Clinton wasn’t even a possibility, and voting even for someone like Trump was a serious option. In fighting slavery, abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic sometimes made some pragmatic political alliances with disreputable figures. Abortion fighters are often willing to do the same. That moral issue trumps (almost) all others for them.
For me, as I look at things like that, I still don’t know how I would have voted. Clinton would be a non-starter (probable crimes in high office and abortion would be the deal breakers for me), but would I have voted Trump? Or would I have not voted, or voted for a third party, and possibly help allow Clinton to win? I suspect the answer comes down to whether you believe that politics is about maximising the good out of the realistic options you have (the lesser of two evils, retrieval ethics, or pragmatic approach) or are trying to articulate your values (only vote for unambiguous good or idealistic approach).
If anything, what this election has shown me is that many Christians (including myself) have no developed theology of politics. So, we are unable to address these questions rightly. Everything I have heard sounds to my ears as theological justifications for a political position people would have taken anyway. The lesson here for us, is that as we too are likely to encounter a similar choice between two deplorable options in the future as our country also goes in a post-Christian direction, we need to learn to repent of our non-existent theological framework for politics. We may arrive at a place, in the future of Australia, where we only have a choice between a Clinton and a Trump, and we are clearly not ready for that test.
2. Having ignorance of half of the United States.
We get most of our view of the United States filtered through the media, academia, popular culture, and through those Americans who live in Democrat country and who are much more likely to travel overseas. The problem with this, is that it only reflects only a segment of the United States, whereas the country is actually, incredibly, divided along urban, suburban, and rural lines. Increasingly, Americans in one of the two camps have no serious contact with Americans in the other. This distance between the two is marked by fear and hate of each other.
Our window into that country is largely provided from a handful of American media outlets (and pop culture!) which are firmly entrenched within one particular camp. Our views become further skewed and distorted, as our own media selectively pick up news stories which suit their own agendas and worldviews. Yet, how well did these media outlets do in explaining America as a whole to us? Well, were you surprised when Trump won?
Therein lies the problem, and it becomes evident with our haste to say that American Christians need to repent of their support of Trump. If working out who to vote for in the recent presidential election has been morally complicated and requiring much wisdom, then we need to have a clear understanding of what is actually going on in America. However, Australians have been, at best, stumbling around in the dark, listening to only one side of an acrimonious fight. The revelation of the Trump win as ‘astonishing’ is demonstrative that we in Australia are ignorant, profoundly ignorant, of what is entirely happening in the most influential country of the world.
That means we can’t easily pass judgement on the decision American evangelicals made. To think otherwise makes you no different from the journalists who were utterly wrong last Monday and instant experts by Wednesday. Trump’s election has reminded us again of how limited our wisdom is, and how incapable we are, of seeing what is actually happening. We err if we think we can, and should, lecture American evangelicals, as if we knew more than they do. They are the guys on the ground, whereas we are, charitably, clueless. We need to listen, not lecture.
3. Thinking that Anti-Trump evangelical leaders were automatically right.
Many American evangelical leaders, particularly those that Australian evangelicals look up to, stood against Trump. However, they failed to convince most of their constituencies to follow them. It is tempting, in such a situation, to see that those leaders were right and heroic, whereas the constituency was wrong and unfaithful. It might even be a legitimate perspective. However, if we acknowledge that we’ve had some ignorance of the political state of the United States, then we need to be also open to the possibility that the situation may have been more complicated.
Most of those American evangelical leaders, that Australians look up to, are like most Australian evangelicals on the web. In the sense that they are university educated people who are comfortable in the professional and white collar classes. As such, there’s possibly another factor involved, and that is that part of our revulsion towards Trump is not actually moral but due to class. You see, as I’ve mentioned, those evangelical leaders in the United States that Australians warm to likely share backgrounds, circumstances and/or experiences – and as such, share the same class prejudices that we would have. Being of a similar stock, I can say that Trump repels me.
Yet, I honestly cannot work out whether it is because he is immoral (a moral issue) or crude (which is a class issue). I’d like to think it was the former, but it could easily be the latter and I’d be the last to know if it was. His election has revealed the possibility of a blind spot.
Many American evangelical leaders appeal to us because we share many things, and they seem more like us. They too inhabit the global liberal cosmopolitan order of the cities, just like us, rather than the traditional American culture outside it. We like them because they are simply more accessible to Australians. However, we are in our own very small bubble in Australia, with most of our churches being overwhelmingly white collar and professional. It is certainly possible that if our churches, and our relationship networks, had much larger blue collar and rural constituencies we would see Trump differently than we currently do. We need to be open to the possibility that it might not be the broader American evangelical constituency that got it wrong, but the evangelical leaders we look up to.
Ultimately, we cannot simply say who needs to repent there, but it is evident that the gulf between church leaders and members on such prominent issues needs to be closed for the sake of the gospel. We can’t speak to that (we simply don’t know enough) but we need to pray for its closure and that it closes through acts of humility, repentance, and grace.
4. Thinking that American Christians might have made the worse decision they could for the gospel.
Given our ignorance of the whole story in the United States., we should not be too quick to accuse American Christians of not prioritizing the gospel in their lockstep support of Trump. They have faced eight years of what must seem to them to be very aggressive attempts by the federal government, the media, big business, and the universities to define freedom of religion as simply freedom of worship. A Clinton presidency would likely have continued, or even accelerated, that trajectory. It is quite possible that our brothers and sisters did what Christians and others, who feel that they are oppressed by more powerful bodies, have repeatedly done throughout the ages —voting as a unified block in the interests of stemming the pressure on them. As the collapse of Christian communities in the Middle East has demonstrated – Christians sometimes only survive in hostile environments due to the support, or rather benign neglect, of immoral strongmen. Criticizing white evangelicals for voting 85% for Trump and, subsequently, for supposedly aligning the gospel with Trump only makes sense if you are prepared to say precisely the same thing for similar levels of support for Clinton among African American Christians, a pattern of voting that has held for decades irrespective of the morality or policies of the Democrat nominees. Is the latter a scandal that brings the gospel into disrepute? Is it really such a black and white matter? Is the only way to honour the gospel through the division of evangelicalism’s votes between parties? Again, we need a robust theology of politics. The vacuousness of the judgements and comments coming from Australian evangelicals directed to our fellow believers testify to this.
Imagine a person believes that one side of politics is depicting them, through words and actions, as deplorable and bigoted and in need of forceful change, particularly changes which would deny any right to have religious opposition to government policy (which Clinton has publicly stated). Imagine such a person was in a place where their community has concluded that that their best interests lay with Trump. In this scenario, then a vote from Trump might have been the best option open to that person for the gospel. After all, all that person’s evangelistic opportunities are in Trump-country, whilst all the person’s Clinton supporting contacts had already unfriended them on Facebook due to being a bigot in having a biblical stance on sexuality and gender issues.
The problem is, though, almost none of us here in Australia know enough to ascertain whether that’s true or not. We need to have the humility to concede that many of us don’t aptly know the going-ons in the entirety of the country, and that we don’t know everything, we might not even know much. We are not able to judge their service to God on this. They are God’s servants in the United States, they have a better understanding of the context, and God will pass a verdict on their service in due time.
For us, however, many of us need to contemplate, reflect, and repent on how we’ve responded to what has happened in the States – for the things we’ve said, the comments we’ve written, and the thoughts we’ve had. We need to realize that this was a very hard test of faithfulness for our brothers and sisters, and it might well come to us in a similar form, and we need to be prepared for it – because, currently, we are not.
By the mercy and graciousness of God, even the election of Trump serves us in an important way: by showing us just how little we actually know, how critical and judgemental we are, and how much we need to repent.