I recently participated in a politically diverse group discussion about truth and lies—particularly the phrase, “The Big Lie.” Someone suggested that the term be applied to President Obama’s false promise in 2009 that under Obamacare you could choose your own doctor. Most others though understood its current usage to refer to the lie that Trump rather than Biden won the last presidential election.

But then someone mentioned that Adolf Hitler actually coined the term in his book, Mein Kampf. Hitler described the strategy of spreading a lie so “colossal” that people assumed it must be true because no one “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Hitler then used this strategy to falsely accuse the Jews of betraying Germany in the First World War. His words were crucial in setting the stage for the Holocaust two decades later, since by that point many Germans had come to believe that if it wasn’t for the Jewish people, Germany would have won the Great War.

This sobering historical precedent led to a discussion about the strikingly similar situation in our country today: Trump accusing Democrats of stealing the election and then lying that he won, despite the constitutionally certified results to the contrary.

Political deceit feeds on itself, as lies tend to do, leading House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to say that no one was “questioning the legitimacy” of the 2020 election despite the fact that the former president, conservative media, and dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures are doing exactly that on a daily basis.

Alongside the Big Lie associated with the election, many Trump supporters repeatedly state that there was no mob attack on the Capitol on January 6. Rather, according to Republican Representative Andrew Clyde, it “was just a normal tourist visit”—even though video shows Clyde helping to barricade the House floor from the rioters on that day.

Lying in politics of course is not new. It is well-developed blood-sport practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. But why is lying so acceptable now with seemingly no qualm of conscience not only by politicians but by so many others, including many Christians? Have we as a country become so immune to political leaders lying that we think it is okay for us to do the same, flaunting facts so wildly that we come to believe lies as truth for the sake of keeping or gaining power? Have we become like the ancient Israelites whom Jeremiah described as those who have “taught their tongues to lie” (see Jeremiah 9:5)? Is lying no longer a sin?

Let me the suggest the following reasons for our prevailing “culture of deceit.”

Personal and Political Insecurity

The noted historian Will Durant said, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.” This need for self-adulation is a universal form of idolatry that is particularly obvious and odious in political leaders who depend on it for maintaining their political power.

It is this self-preservation instinct that leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republican senators to publicly oppose anything that President Biden or Democrats might propose, no matter the issue—such as having an independent bipartisan commission investigate the January 6 insurrection.

Democrats of course are not innocent in their craving for the limelight or in criticizing their Republican opponents. Neither are we. I actually had the above Will Durant quote taped to my desk for many years. It was there to remind me of my selfish propensity to be very critical of others so that my ideas and subsequently my stature would be held in greater esteem. I struggled to learn the biblical truth that to think of others better than myself is the pathway to a much deeper and satisfying personal security rooted in loving God and neighbor.

Postmodern Influences and Distortions

A second reason for the propensity to believe lies today is the broader cultural environment that influences how, why, and what we think. For many decades, postmodernism has been a popular philosophy that describes much of how our culture approaches matters of truth. Postmodernity elevates one’s own individual and subjective claims to truth over the belief in any metanarrative or overarching objective truth.

Postmodernism asks: Why believe in any external truth if it contradicts your own predisposed opinion or your emotional inclinations? Did Biden win the election or does that depend on if you wanted him to win? Do masks protect people from COVID or does that depend on what political party you prefer?

It is so tempting to believe an explanation that feels right based on one’s predisposition that truth falls by the wayside. The “alternative facts” that Kellyanne Conway referenced so casually early in Trump’s presidency have come to define our post-truth culture. We have become comfortable accepting the “truth” we want to believe as long as it gives us power.

As Hitler wrote of human malleability: “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously…. Even though the facts which prove [that someone is distorting the truth] may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.”

In other words, objective truth can easily cede its authority through deceitful appeals to our emotional susceptibility.

The First Big Lie

The biggest reason for our inclination to lie, though, has been with us since the Garden of Eden. The first lie in the Bible was when the serpent questioned the man and woman: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1) Since God’s command was only with respect to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent lied about God’s restrictiveness and thereby his goodness.

The second lie compounded the distortion of God’s character when the woman falsely told the man that they could not even touch the fruit, when God had only commanded them not to eat it. The final lie in this dialog was the serpent saying “you will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). And yet death did become the result of their sin.

This account not only illustrates our human propensity to distort the generous nature of God who wants us to enjoy his creation, but it also describes the fundamental character of Satan. Jesus described Satan as the “father of lies,” saying that when Satan lies, “he speaks his native language” (John 8:44).

By contrast, Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and described himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). When we lie or repeat a lie even though we know it’s not true, we are not only giving into sin, we are siding with the enemy in a deep spiritual battle. What and who we choose to believe reflects not only our political loyalties but also our struggle with spiritual discernment.

How Should We Respond?

So how do we respond to our country’s political proclivities—and the deceptions of our own hearts—that are destroying meaningful civil discourse and undermining our democracy? Can we live together with any sense of shared purpose and trust, or will we embrace the lies of politicians for the sake of political power and a false sense of security in ourselves?

On a practical level, we can refer to neutral fact-checkers and get our news from a variety of sources with differing and well-formed opinions. Writers and interviewers who treat politicians with professional respect are more likely to present us with facts and honest news.

In addition, we can also ignore commentators and news anchors who yell frequently and consistently ridicule political opponents with unproven accusations. Discerning the integrity and character of our news sources is almost as important as discerning the character of our politicians.

But perhaps the most significant individual initiative we can take is to recognize with King David that the Lord “desires truth in our inward being” and then to respond with David, “create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (See Psalm 51:6, 10.) When we are renewed internally, we can speak the truth in genuine love with our friends, neighbors, and family members, and by doing so we also speak into our culture.

But what if others don’t want to listen because they are so convinced of their own position? What about those who believe conspiracy theories because of Christian leaders and elected leaders who tell them to? What about those who don’t believe respected news sources but only believe their own narrow band of information? What if they honestly don’t know or accept that they are believing lies and especially the “Big Lie”? Do we verbally and aggressively fight them for what we think is right or do we resign ourselves to a passive avoidance or is there some other perspective?

In his excellent book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro quotes Paul J. Griffiths’s implications of Blaise Pascal’s sage advice on engaging in public controversies. Griffiths says we “should engage in controversy with a level of energy and commitment appropriate to the importance of the topic and to the degree of certitude [we] have about the truth of [our] preferred position on that topic.” And then in Pascal’s direct words, “It is not our task to secure the triumph of truth, but merely to fight on its behalf.” Pascal wisely and humbly acknowledges that the times are not exclusively in our hands.

But in his divine providence, God has entrusted to us the call to bear witness to the truth. To do so though with authenticity, we must genuinely long for truth in a way that goes beyond political identities or proving ourselves right. Pascal prophetically wrote, “Truth is so obscure in this time, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

Conclusion

So, in facing our moral crisis of not always knowing either what or who to believe, we can tutor our affections to more fully embrace the great commandments and their implications of loving God and neighbor. We then may have a humbler discernment of what is really true.

The Big Lie is not just about who won the election. It is also the false belief that we can’t trust God’s goodness and sovereign love and instead we worship ourselves, our opinions, our politicians, and our political parties—and that’s the truth.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is one of the most controversial issues today in not only the academic world but in our politics and personal conversations. Last fall, a presidential executive order banned CRT in diversity training in federal agencies. Just this past week, the state of Idaho cut off funding for the teaching of CRT at Boise State. At the same time, many other colleges and universities require CRT to be taught in various forums and classes.

So, the familiar battle lines are drawn. Conservatives see CRTas an un-American Marxist insurgency against our democracy while liberals see CRTas a way to better understand our racial tensions so we can improve our democracy. Which is it? Or is there a way to examine CRT that takes into account both its value and its weaknesses—and leads us back to God’s call to love one another?  

What is Critical Race Theory?

CRT is an application of Critical Theory developed in the Frankfurt School of social research nearly 100 years ago. Since then, Critical Theory has been used in a variety of disciplines such as law and history. In 1989, it was appropriated in the study of racism as Critical Race Theory.

CRT views our history and political judgments through a lens of race. It opens our eyes to how systemic racism from our country’s past affects the lives of people of color every day—from centuries of slavery, to the Homestead Act in 1862, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. CRT helps us see that while we might not have had a personal part in systemic racism in our past, we can be aware of how such laws have had a ripple effect throughout generations.

What Is Valuable about Critical Race Theory?

  1. Provides Valuable Research: A foundational value of CRT is its sympathetic research into the role of race in the laws and societal norms that invariably favor the majority culture. For instance, hundreds of studies show tremendous disparities between Whites and Blacks in health, education, hiring, income, criminal justice issues, and housing. Some might argue that these disparities are the result of more intact families, a stronger work ethic, or better money management skills among Whites. But suggesting that Whites are simply superior in these ways only furthers the assumptions that have led to these disparities over the centuries while ignoring the historical and present reasons for the inequalities. It also leads to a racist addiction to White Supremacy.
  2. Authenticates the Experience of People of Color: A second value of CRT is that it gives people of color an objective understanding of what they experience. They do not have to depend on “politically correct” sensitivities of others to establish that they are in fact being underrepresented and under-resourced in so many dimensions of our society. Just last week, for instance, it was reported that Black farmers received only 0.1 percent of the money from the economic stimulus bill known as the CARES Act last year, while White farmers received 99 percent of the funds even though they didn’t own 99 percent of the farms either by size or number. Whether this was intentional or not is not known but the result is the same. Race evidently made a huge difference in the amount of money our government distributed to White farmers versus Black farmers.
  3. Identifies Institutional as well as Individual Racism: CRT also shows us that racism is not just a matter of “a few bad apples,” but it has and continues to be systematized in many of our laws and organizational structures. We see in the current murder trials of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for instance, how policing practices for Blacks are often different than for Whites. The efforts of so many Republican state legislatures to restrict or hamper voting among minorities (such as having fewer ballot boxes and voting locations in minority districts) is further evidence of institutional racism.

What Is Controversial about CRT?

  1. Marxist Influences: The most politically charged accusations against CRT are those of guilt by association. Some claim CRT is Marxist and contrary to capitalism and democratic principles. Others see it as just an academic justification for the excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. Still others decry it as lacking and even contradicting a Christian philosophical foundation. There is some truth to all of these concerns. The original Critical Theorists were indeed engaged with Marxism but not without critique. They understood that although the Marxist view of life as a struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoise was too simplistic, much of the political life of a culture could be understood as a battle between majority and minority peoples. As Winston Churchill and others have said, “history is written by the victors,” but the same could be said of the present while history is being made.
  2. Misused to Create Divisions: Some of the more radical CRT proponents (and some in the Black Lives Matter organization) have been involved in weaponizing CRT to create destructive power conflicts between racial minorities and a White majority. It too easily can attribute everything to White privilege or focus on microaggressions that can quickly repel Whites from a deeper understanding of the issues. CRT as an ideology can be threatening and counterproductive in effectively dealing with racism.
  3. Avoids Spiritual Truths: It is also true that CRT does not have explicit Christian underpinnings. CRT does not deal with inherent or individual sin but focuses primarily on institutional racism as being the cause of many social problems. CRT is also not nearly as helpful in a prescriptive way as it is in a descriptive way. It has no spiritual framework of reconciliation through confession and forgiveness. Nor does it reflect the limitations of a completely racialized view of life. It is a sophisticated but at times very blunt instrument that cannot solve our great racial and political divisions.

The Bible and CRT

CRT is a divisive concept but not nearly as divisive as the racial realities it addresses. So how do we take what is valuable from this imperfect theory to love one another better?

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah quotes the Lord saying, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This welcoming invitation has often been used as a prelude to negotiations and conflict resolutions—it recognizes that there is a conflict but that there is also a possibility of reconciliation through reason and mutual respect.

This openness to resolution rather than resignation to continued enmity suggests a relational posture for us to take as we seek to heal the tremendous racial tensions in our country. We need all of the insight we can learn through CRT without idolizing or misconstruing any biases that might be part of it. We can recognize CRT’s limitations while also recognizing it as a resource that provides the opportunity to develop greater understanding and compassion.

With humility and reason, we can also acknowledge the many good things about the United States, our Founding Fathers, and our democracy, while simultaneously recognizing racism in past and current laws and attitudes. Awareness of our country’s weaknesses makes us no less American or patriotic; it can make us even more eager to see the United States truly offer “liberty and justice for all.”

It is also significant that in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy quoted above, the Lord is angry about the hypocrisy of the Jewish people on matters of social justice. He tells them that he hates their worship services and won’t listen to their prayers because of their “evil deeds” (Isaiah 1:16). Then, between his words of anger and his call to reconciliation, he urges his people to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Pursuing social justice is a biblical mandate.

Responding to CRT

One of the common arguments against CRT or the idea of systemic racism in general is, “I wasn’t around at the time of slavery and had nothing to do with making these racist laws. Why should I feel guilty?” This may be a natural question to ask, but it’s also a question that consciously or unconsciously reveals an individualistic and inadequate approach to sin.

Although the Lord does not hold us personally accountable for the sins of others, we are affected by them—often for generations. God instructed Moses to make a provision of both sacrifice and forgiveness for unintentional communal sins (Numbers 15:22-26). Nehemiah obediently prayed in confession for the sins of his ancestral family (Nehemiah 1:6).

We also need to be aware of the sin of omission. The Apostle James says that if you know what to do and don’t do it, that is sin (James 4:17). Racism is an overt sin against all people created in the image of God. Ignoring racism is similar to what the two religious leaders did who walked by the desperate man in the story of the Good Samaritan. They did not beat the man themselves but they avoided or omitted doing anything about his condition. The primary issue then is not whether or not we are personally responsible for social injustices, but whether or not we recognize those injustices and engage with doing something about them.

Consequently, instead of either rejecting CRT carte blanche or using it as a cudgel against every racial injustice no matter how big nor how slight, we would do better to urgently reason together about what is racially unjust in our country and work to remedy those injustices with both individual and collective resolve. In other words, to make CRT a political football only relegates it to being a game. But to use CRT as even an imperfect prompt to respond to God’s command to seek justice is a way of loving others as ourselves.

We hear a lot about “cancel culture” in the media right now, but the term seems to mean very different things to different people. For instance, several weeks ago, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) held their annual convention with the theme of “America Uncancelled” to proclaim that they were for free speech. Ironically, they cancelled Senator Mitt Romney from speaking at the conference because of his vote to impeach President Trump.

A few days later, Dr. Seuss’s estate put six of the beloved author’s books out of print for racial and ethnic stereotyping. This led to intense debate and accusations on social media of a liberal cancel culture going wild.  

Last week, Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo blamed “cancel culture” for his sudden political isolation after seven women came forward accusing him of sexual harassment and a federal investigation was launched due to allegations that Cuomo underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing home.

These stories alone might lead us to ask, “Is ‘canceling’ something always bad? How do we balance the value of free speech with the value of respecting others? Most of all, how can we show love in our personal relationships when our opinions about what should or should not be ‘cancelled’ are so different?”

When Our Freedoms Conflict with Each Other

Many conservatives argue that cancel culture, particularly related to racial or gender issues, threatens free speech and religious liberty. Many with more liberal political views argue that silencing or calling out people and groups who exhibit prejudiced language is essential to our freedom of diversity and actually enriches our culture. Which is right or best?

To refer back to the Seuss controversy, it was Seuss’s estate—not the media nor the government—that chose to pull the six books that included images of such things as a White man whipping a man of color (To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) and a White boy holding a gun while standing on the heads of three Asian men (If I Ran the Zoo). Though social media feeds suggest that many Christians are upset about these books being put out of print “for the sake of being politically correct,” it seems as if the estate’s sensitivity to racism in Seuss’s books is actually a reflection of Christian values, whether or not it was intended that way.

We can, of course, find a variety of accounts from across the political spectrum of people trying to cancel the cultural influence of others. The right wants to eliminate the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, while the left wants to remove statutes of presidents who were former slave holders. Colleges promote acceptance, freedom, and social justice even as they refuse to allow Christian student groups that have a traditional view of marriage to meet on campus.

“Cancel culture” has consequently become a term of derision attributed to political opponents but rarely to one’s own efforts to exert control and power over public discourse. Even the trendy term, “wokeness”—coined to describe greater social awareness—has become a symbol of divisiveness. Those who think they are “woke” look down on those who aren’t and vice versa.

Cancelled Cultures

Like so many ideas that seem new to a generation, “cancel culture” in practice if not as a defined term has actually been around for centuries in America. Our country has cancelled not just what people say but who people are.

The most obvious example of this broader understanding of cancel culture is the slave trade beginning in 1619. Our Constitution even specified that Black men were only three-fifths human. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took another hundred years before all African Americans were given the right to vote and even now there are numerous state efforts of voter suppression in African American neighborhoods and counties.

Our country also cancelled Native American culture through the genocidal Trail of Tears, when Native Americans were forced to migrate from the southeast to Indian reservations in the west. A conspiracy-laden political party in the 1850s wanted to prohibit Catholics and immigrants from holding public office—a party known, ironically, as the “Know-Nothing Party.” And over the centuries, women have consistently been cancelled from leadership roles in government, business, and churches.

In other words, our history is laced with efforts to “cancel” other cultures. One significant difference now is that minority cultures have a voice that is being heard as well. This is threatening to a White majority culture and perhaps best explains the growing influence of White nationalists. They don’t like the feeling of White culture being challenged by the policies and pronouncements of those they see as liberal cultural elites in education, media, and government.

In recent decades, for example, it’s often conservative groups that want to keep certain young adult novels out of school libraries. Many Christian schools banned the Harry Potter series due to “witchcraft and sorcery.” Other books are challenged due to “revisionist history,” LGBTQ characters, and offensive language.

But when a children’s book is pulled from publication due to racist images, some jump to the conclusion that the government will soon be putting “other sacred texts such as the Bible” out of print. We are left with the uncomfortable reality that free speech is a two-edged sword.

In the next few decades, as we move to a non-majority racial country with greater wealth and education disparities, we can expect that these battles of who feels unjustly cancelled will greatly shape our political and social climate. But are we doomed to a never-ending family-splitting, church-splitting, country-splitting existence?

The political aspiration in our Pledge of Allegiance of “liberty and justice for all” is inspirational but not transformational. As broken people, can we be liberated and also be just? As Amanda Gorman asked in her profound poem at President Biden’s inauguration, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

The Illumination of Humility

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics within our cancel culture debates is the sense of self-righteousness we are tempted to feel about our opinion. To use a straightforward example: “Cancelling a book for [my reason] is moral, right, and a reflection of biblical values. But cancelling a book for [your reason] is restrictive, oppressive, and even a bit silly.” This attitude leaves little room for listening to others.

By contrast, the word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means, “fertile ground.” When we speak and act humbly, we help create fertile ground for relationship, for truth, and for godly freedom.

The prophet Micah tell us that the Lord requires the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We would do well to filter our personal and collective opinions through the rubric of, “Am I acting justly? Am I acting mercifully? Am I practicing humility?”

This holy triad of values can also inform our decisions about what to “cancel” in our own lives, whether we are making business decisions or parenting choices or wondering whether or not we should speak up when a friend uses a derogatory term toward someone else.

Considering what should be “cancelled” or not is important because words, art, and media have a profound effect on our culture and the way we treat others. We may not have much control over politics or children’s literature or university policies, but we do encounter opportunities every day to speak both love and freedom. In a time that may feel dry and dusty, may we each find fertile ground in our relationships to love one another well.

After elections, many Christians admit they voted for someone who had no chance of winning, rather than voting for someone who at best was “the lesser of two evils.” Some also have done so as a personal protest against the two-party system. Such choices born out of frustration are understandable, but do they accomplish their purpose or are they actually counterproductive?

Statistically, a vote for someone other than the two major candidates is really a vote for whoever wins. For instance, in 1992 Ross Poirot ran the most successful third-party effort in the last 100 years and received a remarkable 19 percent of the popular vote. That still wasn’t enough to win and he likely took enough votes away from George H.W. Bush to give the election to Bill Clinton.

In the heavily contested election of 2000, Ralph Nader took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida for George Bush to win. In 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party probably took enough votes away from Hillary Clinton in states like Michigan and Wisconsin to give those electoral votes to Donald Trump. Are these the results third-party voters really wanted or did third-party voters unintentionally help their least favorite candidate win?

Others vote for individuals they wish were running. Some even make unusual choices like Maryland Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who recently said that he voted for Ronald Reagan in this year’s election. He now has political deniability no matter who wins but was his vote meaningful?

On the surface, third-party votes or what some criticize as throw-away votes suggest that we want to stick with our conscience rather than be a part of electing an imperfect person. The reality of course is that any person we vote for will be imperfect. Any vote we cast will involve compromise. But is voting for someone who could never win really the best compromise we can make? And what are we sacrificing when we make that choice?

Identity Politics

When I lived in Chicago, I experienced the tremendous rivalry between Chicago Cubs fans and Chicago White Sox fans. A perfect day for my neighbor was when the White Sox won and the Cubs lost! He found great identity and pride in being a White Sox fan for life.

Whether we follow sports or not, we all embrace certain identities. We might consider ourselves pro-life or pro-business or pro-gun control or pro-family. When we must choose between two opposing identities, we aren’t always sure how to choose and still maintain who we are.

In this year’s election, for instance, we must choose between Trump and his rampant dishonesty and divisiveness and Biden, who is pro-choice. Most Christians would say that we don’t identify with either of these men in those ways. So many of us, then, are tempted to come to the conclusion that we must vote for someone else, rather than compromise our integrity and identity.

The problem with this is that in choosing to “save” our conscience, we miss the opportunity to be a part of a decision that will affect millions of lives.

A vivid example of this is abortion, which I wrote about in my previous blog. As I indicated then, abortions trend downward under Democratic presidents more than under Republican presidents. Yet it can be hard for someone who is pro-life to vote for a pro-choice candidate even if the real goal is to lower the number of abortions. Identity, in this case, becomes consciously or unconsciously more important than the actual result.

Compromise for the Common Good

Catholic Social Teaching and various strands of Reformed theology speak of the “common good.” This refers to what is good not just for Christians but for society as a whole. The common good is what allows all peoples to “reach their fulfillment more easily.” It reflects the biblical theology that  everyone is created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity and care in society.

Thinking of others in this context adds a necessary ingredient to our political decision-making beyond just our conscience and our identity. It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians in Philippi, “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (see Philippians 4:2)

In the Old Testament, Jeremiah instructed the captive Jews in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (see Jeremiah. 29:7) Jeremiah did not say this because King Nebuchadnezzar was catering to them as a voting bloc, but because the people of God were called to be a witness among the nations. Seeking the common good is a political extension and expression of the Great Commandment of “loving your neighbor.”

With this perspective, we can look beyond identities we may be holding onto and ask, “In terms of biblical values, which candidate would best care for the poor? Who would be a better steward of the environment? Who would seek peace and unity rather than divisiveness? Who would more likely tell the truth and ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God’?”

Conclusion

No candidate or political party or political system is perfect. Whoever we vote for will involve compromise. But not voting or voting for a third-party candidate is also an act of compromise and may actually be compromising our values more than we realize.

It is also good to remember that we are not marrying a candidate and we don’t need to make a moral or lasting commitment to support or defend them. Our vote does not make us supporters of all that candidate does or says and we must be free to criticize what we don’t agree with in terms of policies and practices.

Consequently, and in humility, we need to make the best choice we can in light of how likely each candidate is to promote biblical values and the common good for the country. In this way we can leave behind our fear of “identifying” with any one candidate or platform. Instead we can embrace our first identity as citizens of God’s Kingdom willing to make hard choices to live out that Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

Is it okay for a Christian to vote for a pro-choice candidate for president? This is the question I hear from many evangelical friends. Some say no because one is then complicit in supporting the evil of abortions. They believe that abortion should be the sole issue in voting for a president.

Others who are also against abortion say yes because there are many other pro-life issues at stake. In fact, both Pope Benedict XVI and the Conference of Catholic Bishops permit a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate. So even though the Catholic Church has been the strongest religious voice against abortions, no Catholic is bound to vote on the basis of abortion alone.

But many others are still undecided. Can a Christian in all good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate without feeling they have lost or compromised their convictions and commitments to the sanctity of life? I think such a choice is possible due to the following factors.

The Bible

First, the Bible doesn’t mention abortion at all. Although abortion was common in the ancient world, neither Jesus nor the apostles say anything about it. David, though, had rich insights of how God was intimately involved in “knitting me together in my mother’s womb” (see Psalm 139:13), and Jeremiah records God’s words: “I formed you in the womb” (see Jeremiah 1:5). These verses speak poetically and theologically about God’s sovereign involvement in creating life even if they do not address all of the complex medical and ethical issues regarding abortion.

The Bible is also clear about murder being a sin, a commandment that lies at the heart of the abortion debate. Yet we grapple with perplexing questions: Should all abortions be considered murder or does it depend on the circumstances, such as incest or the life of the mother? Does the stage of pregnancy matter? Why does Ecclesiastes 6:4 describe a stillborn child as one that “comes without meaning and departs in darkness”? Why is the Bible so silent about abortion when we are so vocal?

Religious Convictions

Scripture doesn’t give us answers to these difficult questions, but abortion is such a significant issue that the people of God have wrestled with it for centuries. For instance, the early Church strongly believed in the sanctity of life and was against the killing of any human life through abortion. They cared so much about life that they also resisted serving in the military.  

The ancient priest and scholar, Jerome, however, distinguished between the formed and unformed fetus—a position that echoed early Rabbinic law. Augustine also made this distinction and confessed that he “couldn’t bring myself to either affirm or deny the final state of aborted babies.” These scholars and others wrestled with how human life developed and when the soul becomes alive. Chris Hall provides an extremely helpful commentary on the early Church discussions on abortion in his book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers.

Today, most Christians are against abortions and especially late-term abortions. But many make exceptions for instances of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, arguing that taking life in these situations is similar to reasons for killing in self-defense.

Politicization

A complicating factor in the abortion debates is that in recent decades, the passionate cry against abortion has become not just a moral issue but a political one. This has not always been the case.

Abortion became a key strategic issue of the Moral Majority to unify Republicans behind Ronald Reagan (who ironically had passed the most liberal abortion laws in the country when he was governor of California) against Democrat Jimmy Carter. This fault line between Republicans and Democrats over abortion has intensified since then, although there are still pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. The reality is that a candidate’s position on abortion today may be as much for reasons of political identity and power as it is for deep moral convictions.

We Can Use Our Vote for What Will Actually Make a Difference

A very practical question is whether the next president, whoever he is, will make any real difference in the rate of abortions in the country. Recently David French—a pro-life commentator who is theologically and politically conservative—wrote a provocative blog titled, “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?”

This is a significant blog, as French presents statistics and historical facts that suggest that no matter who becomes president, the abortion rate will likely continue its downward slide from a level that now is actually below where it was when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

In fact, history shows that the abortion rate has declined faster under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether that is the result of presidential policies or other influences. But with those numbers in mind, French argues that presidents are inconsequential to the rate of abortions despite the battle over Supreme Court nominations. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion rates will largely be unaffected.

Michael Gerson is another pro-life, political and theological conservative who recently argued that abortion isn’t the only issue on the ballot to be considered. He believes that “persuasion will matter more than federal legislation” for the pro-life movement. He also asks the question, “Is it really in the long-term interest of the pro-life movement to associate itself with a form of right-wing populism that dehumanizes migrants, alienates minorities and slanders refugees?”

A recent meme quips: “Abortion: The only word that can make followers of Jesus vote against everything Jesus ever talked about because of one issue that Jesus never talked about.” Although this is clearly a generalization, there is truth to it. In voting for a candidate who claims to be pro-life, we could very well be failing to uphold the biblical call to care for the poor, to welcome the refugee, to seek justice and love mercy—all for the sake of the mis-understanding that voting for a pro-life candidate will necessarily reduce the number of abortions in this country.

Conclusions?

I can’t decide for other Christians how to vote for president, especially with respect to such a difficult and serious issue like abortion. But I can offer these reflections for consideration.

  1. The Bible affirms the sanctity of life and condemns murder but is silent about abortion.
  2. The people of God have consistently stood against abortion as wrong and we should continue to persuade our culture to honor and preserve the sanctity of all human life.  
  3. Who we choose as president will not affect the rate of abortions in our country. We should feel the freedom to vote for other reasons without condemning ourselves or others.
  4. Who we choose as president, however, will affect other pro-life issues in the country, and the world, such as poverty, racial and economic justice, gun control, immigration reform, controlling the pandemic, and combating climate change.
  5. No matter who we vote for, we can speak to one another out of love, respect, and an understanding that we each have been created in God’s image. This is another way of being truly pro-life in all we do and say.

Bridget Phetasy, a podcaster who self-identifies as “politically homeless” is quoted in the Dispatch Weekly as saying, “If Trump wins, I reckon America will burn. If Trump loses, America will burn. Either way, I’m preparing for America to burn.”

Confirming these feelings, President Trump says that he “is the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos.” He says that if he loses, “America is gone forever.” Not to be outdone, Democrats are fearful of losing our democracy if Trump wins. They also fear right-wing militias that threaten “we’re a trigger-pull away” from resisting government controls like mask mandates.

Looking at the election itself, President Trump stokes fears by claiming that millions of mail-in ballots will be fraudulent while Democrats fear that millions of mail-in ballots will be disqualified because of Republican interference.

Politicians, commentators, and Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly fearful for our country. It is a fear not only of the consequences of our presidential election but tragically it is also a fear of one another. We have become a tribalized society of identity politics. Some of us fear those who use their racial or sexual identity for political power while we don’t understand the inherent power of centuries of white and male privilege. Some of us fear the political influence of those who aren’t Christians while others fear the influence of those who are.

On top of all of these political fears are the continuing fears of the pandemic and our economic crisis. We have a low-grade fever of uncertainty and of fear that spikes with every new death projection from COVID 19 or when there is another police shooting of a black man with subsequent protests. If we are black, we fear constantly for our lives and if we are a small business owner we fear for our livelihood. And after months of COVID trauma and drama, we’ve come to fear even our fears.

Coping with Fears

It is tempting to dismiss these fears as just temporary or pre-election hype that will somehow go away like the virus is supposed to according to the president. But in our heart of hearts, we know that like the virus, our deep fears are real and will have lasting consequences.

We could deal with our fears by trying to be impervious to them, channeling the extreme confidence of those like Franklin Roosevelt who famously said, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Courage and fortitude are great characteristics in the face of danger and fear, but they in themselves do not eliminate the reasons for fear. Without action, positive thinking can quickly become denial with debilitating results.

There is also the temptation to spiritualize our fears and “just trust God,” but that is likely the right answer to a different question. The different question is “Who do we trust?” as if there is any doubt of whether we should put our trust in God or in politicians. There is no contest! The Psalmist says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” (see Psalm 118:9). Our faith in God is our ultimate security and should not be second to any earthly competition.

A right question in this situation, though, is, “How do we trust God?” in a democracy where we have the freedom not only to vote but to use our votes and political involvement to be “salt and light” in the world. Do we trust God by dismissing our responsibilities as citizens and not voting because there isn’t a perfect candidate? Do we trust God by avoiding biblical issues of justice? Or, do we trust God to give us spiritual discernment to make political choices that would best reflect Christian values and most benefit the common good?

Election Fears

It is commonplace to say that this election is a great inflection point in American history. In a highly polarized electorate, it is also true that Christians are right at that inflection point of influencing which way the country goes. Many evangelicals lean toward reelecting a deeply flawed president in order to maintain their cultural influence on issues like abortion, human sexuality, and religious freedom. Their fear of losing power is greater than their fear of compromising their moral convictions.

Many other Christians lean toward choosing Biden as a compassionate leader who seeks to bring people together. They see him as someone who cares deeply about biblical issues like immigration, racial and economic justice, and environmental stewardship. They are willing to take the risk that the number of abortions and matters of religious liberty would not change much, if at all, with a change of administrations.

In the next eight weeks before the election, it is vitally important that Christians wrestle with these competing convictions in a thoughtful and humble way. Someone who does this well is Ron Sider, who is a pro-life theological conservative. Ron recently posted “Why I Will Vote for Joe Biden,” which sets a high bar for careful reasoning and spiritual discernment that is worth reading and considering. You can read his post here.

But how does thoughtful reasoning like Sider’s help us deal with our fears for our country? It doesn’t take away the reasons for our fears but it does provide careful and knowledgeable insights into the issues we are facing. We often are more afraid of what we don’t know than what we do. We like doctors to give us an accurate diagnosis. We want to know the risks associated with certain occupations or travel decisions. Naming our fears helps us cope with them and Sider helps us to articulate the issues at stake. I highly encourage you to read his words as you wrestle with your own fears and decisions for the upcoming election.

An Antidote to Fear

Finally, I want to point to the words of the Apostle John, who says that “perfect love casts out fear” (see 1 John 4:18). Unfortunately, a biblical love that is “patient and kind, not boastful and not proud, that doesn’t dishonor others or is self-seeking, or easily angered…but rejoices with the truth” (see 1 Corinthians 13) is a rare commodity in contemporary political discussions. Anger, deceit, and ridicule are more often the weapons of political debate.

However, if we as Christians would speak and vote out of love for others rather than out of fear of others or fear of losing what we consider to be power, we would be a winsome witness to a very fearful nation and world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Because we love something else more than this world, we love even this world better than those who know no other.”

In my previous blogs, I wrote about two predispositions for wise decision-making. One was the virtue of feeling conflicted about the complexities of an issue so we can arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Right now, for example, parents and schools across the country face tremendous complexities about how to handle the upcoming academic year. If we don’t feel conflicted about the best way to manage the medical, mental, and social health of our children and teachers, we probably are not fully understanding the issues at stake.

The other predisposition for decision-making was the courage it takes to be moderate in our relationships with others. We may have strong convictions about certain issues but that does not justify a demonization or rejection of those who disagree with us. The fruit of the Spirit includes attributes such as gentleness, patience, and peacefulness, not argumentation or ridicule of others.

But even if we desire to approach difficult political choices with thoughtfulness and kindness, how do we discern what may or may not be right for any given situation or issue? Can we practice godly discernment that transcends political parties, personalities, and talking points?

I find it helpful to go back nearly three hundred years to a comprehensive framework for discernment developed by the English theologian John Wesley. It came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because Wesley taught that there were four inter-connected principles for spiritual discernment. Although Wesley was applying his principles mainly to church and individual matters, I think that they are helpful for political decision-making as well.

Scripture

The first and foundational principle for discernment is the teaching of the Bible for moral clarity and direction. Wesley believed that understanding the Bible in its context and straightforward meaning was essential for discerning God’s truth. He strongly affirmed that “all Scripture is useful for teaching…and for training in righteousness” (see 2 Timothy 3:16).

When I was a staff member among college students with InterVarsity, I used to meet regularly with a student leader who always had a list of questions to discuss, each one beginning with, “What does the Bible say about…?”

That kind of reflexive submission to the authority of Scripture is what I think Wesley had in mind. The Bible’s commandments against sins such as lying, stealing, and adultery set boundaries for how we are to live. The positive commands of Scripture, such as loving others by caring for the poor and for foreigners, are also all directives for us to follow. So, when we start discussing controversial issues like immigration or racial justice or leadership character, we should first of all ask that student’s question: “What does the bible say about…?”

Tradition

But not all political issues can be solved by a direct application of Bible verses. For example, the Bible doesn’t talk about the size of government or capitalism or even abortion. We need additional help. Wesley’s second principle is that we need to listen to the traditional teachings of the church. He agreed with the Apostle Peter that we cannot depend on our own private interpretations of Scripture (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21).

Wesley was primarily referring to the tradition of the early church councils. But I think that the value of learning from the broader counsel of other Christian communities is a wise extension of Wesley’s principle. For instance, Protestants can learn much from the valuable teaching on social and political engagement developed by Catholics. White Christians can learn about racial justice issues from people of color. Listening to the broader Christian community helps us constantly add to the wisdom of our traditions.

Reason

Wesley’s third principle of discernment is that of reason, which is one of the great gifts of being created in the image of God. Reason provides illumination and, in the words of Wesley, “It is the candle of the Lord.”

As we apply reason in the political realm, we draw conclusions from available facts and allow those conclusions to shape our opinions and actions. Currently, for instance, we can learn from numerous scientific studies that wearing a mask does hinder the spread of COVID 19. Our reasonable interpretation of those facts, more than our political affiliation, should guide our mask-wearing behavior.  

But spiritual reason goes beyond facts. Our rational processes grow into wisdom when they integrate a moral consciousness. Our choice to wear masks may be based on the advice of experts, but it is also an expression of the biblical command to love others. In other words, we bring together facts and our rational processes into a spiritual submission to God’s purposes. Reason then becomes a practical expression of loving God and neighbor with one’s mind.

Experience

The fourth principle, that was unique to Wesley at the time, is listening to our spiritual experiences. Wesley believed that God speaks not only through Scripture, church tradition, and our reason, but also through our personal experiences with God. He referred to an “objective internal knowing” guided by the promptings and filling of the Holy Spirit.

The early Church practiced this when they made a spiritual and political decision regarding what requirements should be placed on Gentile converts for them to be fully included with the Jews as the people of God. After lengthy debate over Scripture and tradition, they came to an agreement on community requirements, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

The British politician William Wilberforce is another good example of spiritual discernment in the political realm. Wilberforce devoted decades of his political life to ending the slave trade. His passion to do this came not only from his biblical convictions about human dignity but from God guiding his experience to witness how cruel the bondage of slavery really was. His friend, former slave trader John Newton, also had a divine transforming experience, equipping him to write that remarkable hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Summary

In Wesley’s Quadrilateral, he suggests that we need to study and apply the Scriptures as foundational to all matters of discernment. We also need to listen to the historical (and contemporary) community of believers and apply our minds and experiences as led by the Spirit to properly discern what is right in any given situation.