The world has been following the elections in the United States with a keen eye. The US is the most powerful nation on earth and as such things that affect it tend to ripple throughout the world. Christianity played a very important role in how the election played out. To be sure it is one of many factors in the American social milieu yet it must be recognised as something significant. Statistically speaking as a demographic, Christians helped Donald Trump win the presidency. A lot has already been written by insightful Christian commentators on how it happened that a very immoral man won the Christian vote. The Christian community in the US is in the process of reflection and evaluation in the light of recent political events. I think there are also lessons, perhaps consequences as well, for Christians all over the world with what happened.
Writing this particular post has been particularly difficult. I have made many attempts at writing this, trying to resist the temptation of skewing the article towards my pet interests and/or biases. The American elections were complex and polarising. It’s hard to write about it fairly, let alone when you are a non-resident foreigner. First let me tell you how I became interested in the intersection between American culture, politics and Christianity.
Regular readers will know how Christian apologetics played a very important role in my life in making my faith my own. Most apologetic material comes from the West, the United States in particular, so through my interest in it I became interested in the cultural history of the West and its relationship to Christianity. Understanding the historical changes in culture is very important if you wish to do effective apologetics in contemporary Western culture or anywhere for that matter. Also I spent a part of my childhood growing up in the UK and ever since I have had a passion for the history of Western civilization and history in general. This dual tether of my personal interests and my faith kept me very interested in how Christians figured in the American electoral process. I may not be able to comment competently on the socio-political and economic landscape of America but I have a genuine stake in how brother and sisters who share the common Faith in other parts of the world fare.
To say the elections themselves were unusual is an understatement. There are several fascinating talking points but we shall focus on a few. Though there are different complicated reasons for Christians voting Trump, it seems there’s a general consensus among committed believers that the Church in the US has been under intense attack from the government. Mind you it is not physically violent persecution but yet it does have political backing, even if it is just approval. The Obama administration was not Church friendly and this anti-christian stance would most certainly continue under Clinton. This was a contributing factor as to why some believers voted against Clinton. They were not necessarily voting for Trump. They believed the Church would be afforded some relief by not voting for Clinton. There are some believers even though they didn’t vote for Trump see a silver lining in the sense that the government will not in the immediate future be forcing Christians to violate their faith, at least not with Obamite “inclusive” vigour. Some are even hopeful that as President Donald Trump will be faithful to his promises and elect Supreme Court judges more representative of “conservative” America. It remains to be seen. How America got to this position from where Christians once had cultural hegemony to now being almost cultural pariahs in a post-Christendom era is the classic story of a slippery slope.
One thing I really appreciated about the way Ravi Zacharias did apologetics is that he charts the historical and cultural changes that led to the current malaise. Many American Christians act startled and even outraged, fuming over Starbucks removing Christmas imagery or Christian prayer being prohibited in school. They ought to wake up and smell the secular coffee that has been brewing for over a century. Several commentators Christian and other wise warned of the path the West was heading. Nietzsche’s “Madman” over a century ago prophesied the death of God and with that there was no up or down any more. Of course it was not really God who died but humans made in his image, morally and literally.
I remember as a young adolescent reading newspaper clippings at the turn of the last century brimming with hope. I marveled at how they could have been so naïve. The heady optimism of modernistic progress that began the 20th century was swiftly dashed by several genocidal atrocities and exhibits of unspeakable moral horrors. Christianity also suffered a heavy blow in the West, particularly in Europe. The rise of secular pluralism, which in itself is not actually a bad thing, came to a crescendo in the 60s and 70s and with that Christianity had lost its cultural dominance. Then evangelical Christianity came to prominence partly as a reaction to the times and but also to internal Protestant debates. Billy Graham, a leading American evangelical figure, along with others founded the Religious Right as a Christian alternative to what was on offer on the political spectrum. The Republican Party courted the religious right with the promise of returning them to a place of cultural power and as such a loose alliance was made. Decades later it is clear that this league between pew and party has not worked.
Under Donald Trump I doubt such aspirations of former glory will be helped in any significant manner. Trump does not really have a Christian agenda. The thing is he flirts with every possible demographic. I guess he’s flexible that way. American Christians turned to political power as a way of reinstating their cultural dominance. Putting it that way it may sound sinister but frankly everyone does it, including the tiny LGBT community and other special interest groups. The Christian justification for going this route is that Christian values are actually good for society. The positive role of Christian faith in forming the United States of America is undeniable. It is indeed a dangerous experiment America is undergoing in cutting of the branch it sits on. The horrors committed in godless societies like the old Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge regime in Vietnam or Mao Zedong’s China should sound as petrifying warnings. However, does that mean the Church should politically enforce its values on society?
The question is a complex one and the solutions are harder. It is good to have Christians in office or fighting unjust policies etc. However, it is a mistake to think that wielding political power is the means to establishing the kingdom of God. I am not saying we should outright reject power. Rather it should not be our priority. As N.T. Wright often says, we do not build God’s kingdom, we build for the kingdom. It is God who establishes his rule on earth and we work for him. He is the chief architect and we execute his plan, we cannot do it for him and certainly cannot do without him. His will be done not ours, no matter how well intentioned ours might be. The fear that many American believers have is that without political support or protection the faith once enjoyed it will not thrive. However, this is not true.
That old Christendom model failed yet there are many believers who nostalgically wish to hold on to its last vestiges. European Christians though, are far more used to being on the fringe of society than their American siblings. They saw it as a golden era when the Church and State was in perfect sync, mutually benefiting one another. They may not necessarily be thinking of the medieval union between the Church and State but a situation a generation ago where the Church was widely respected and had significant cultural currency.
Having learnt about early Christianity I firmly believe that Christendom was not only wrong but it was unnecessary and ultimately harmful. This stance came into sharp view as I read Destroyer of the Gods by emeritus professor of New Testament Larry Hurtado. I feel the West is resembling more and more pre-Constantine Christianity. The Church did not enjoy state support but rather societal suspicion and sporadic state persecution. Yet she survived and flourished beautifully in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Christians had to “live by their wits” and I think the same has to be done in the West. Those who study early Christianity in the Roman Empire marvel at how Christianity was able to succeed against such staggering and overwhelming odds. Not only theologically but historically the Church has not needed political power. American Christians should learn to be more comfortable with losing court room battles and rather fight the battle to win hearts which our early spiritual forbears did so well. We must remember this is a spiritual battle and we cannot win with man-made weapons.
“Persuasion over power” should be our motto. We should seek to convince society and not foist our views upon them, no matter how right those views are. This goes to the very heart of the Gospel, wilfully pledging your allegiance to the one true king Jesus. One great contemporary example of the Church thriving with an unfavourable government is the underground house church movement in China. It is growing at such a phenomenal rate that according to some estimates they will have the largest Christian population of any country in the world. Political machinations and power moves are not the answer. The Gospel inherently has power to change hearts as well as societies. Professor Hurtado opined in an interview on his latest book that the fall of Christendom is not only a good thing but is perhaps a blessing in disguise. A more challenging environment is way to galvanize genuine Christian commitment and get rid of the “freeloaders.”
I do not think Christianity is doomed to die in the West. Reports of God’s death had been greatly exaggerated. The Western Church needs to re-adapt to living in a spiritually hostile world, especially in the US which has a large Christian population without the commensurate cultural influence. As I study the social history of the early Church more and more, I am increasingly convinced that the current situation in Europe and North America more closely resembles that nascent period than any other time. Therefore as N.T. Wright would put it, they need to give 21st century answers to questions posed through the lens of the 1st century. It is quite ironic that these difficulties are forcing them to be more biblical. With that being said the decline and struggles of the Western Church should serve as a lesson for those of us in the majority world. It is not only Christians in nations of European heritage that need to look to the 1st century, we all do.
Perhaps, being a lifelong Pentecostal/Charismatic makes the restorationist streak in me so strong that I naturally privilege the apostolic period as the exemplary paradigm for the Church. This is not to say the early Church did not have its problems. As I have already mentioned, many of these problems are quite similar today. This is hardly surprising considering people will be people. However, if you take the Bible as authoritative as any faithful believer does, it draws you into the world of the first Christians. Not only do you take what they wrote seriously as canon, the rule of faith, you need to interpret it in the context of the historical socio-cultural environment. Learning how they faired in history has made me confident the New Testament Christian message is not only doable but it presents a successful vision of human society and flourishing. The pre-Constantine era was truly God’s kingdom being established on earth as in heaven.