Dear Friends: The following contains some genuine political opinions, and while it is not meant to be an attack on anyone or anything, if you have simply had enough of political discussion (here I commiserate with you), consider yourself warned. The second half of the article is more important than the first.
On November 8, 2016, I swore that I would pay as little attention to the election returns as possible, that I would watch none of the television coverage, and that I would go to bed early and sleep through it. I accomplished all of those things but the third one. At approximately 2:00 a.m. EST, I awoke and my mind immediately went to that all-important question: “Who is my president going to be?” I looked at my phone, for I knew I would never go back to sleep otherwise, and saw the following two notifications.
12:14 a.m. Dayton Daily News – “Early election results send Dow futures, global stocks plunging”
1:50 a.m. New York Times – “Donald Trump has won Pennsylvania, all but assuring that he will be the next president of the United States”
Oh, the power of words upon the human heart! The sight of those words made my heart jolt in my chest. I could feel myself starting to panic. All my attempts to block off my emotions, to accept whatever fate decided to give me, had failed miserably. I got up and walked out to the top of the stairs. Below, my husband was still up watching the election results.
“Jai! Jai!” I called rather pitifully.
“What’s wrong?” he said, sprinting up the stairs.
“He’s going to nuke people. He’s going to take us all down in flames.”
He tried to comfort me, even saying, “Would it make you feel better if I told you Hillary was winning?”
I knew this couldn’t really be true, as my years of observation had taught me that any Republican who wins Pennsylvania wins the presidency, but instead I just said,
“I’m scared. I’m kind of scared of both of them.”
There in a nutshell was everything I had been feeling for quite some time. In the months leading up to the latest vote to be titled “the most important election of our lifetimes”, I like many Americans had truly struggled with how to cast my vote. I had been raised – not only by my family, but by all those around me – to believe that the Republicans were the “good” party that defended “values”. I grew up in the ‘90s, when Bill Clinton’s sex scandals and the Democrats’ defense of them were seen as a national disgrace. More to the point, I was raised within an evangelical context that fixated on the issue of abortion: to be fair, a very important issue, but it had chained them mentally to the party of Reagan ever since the 1980s. However, it did not take very long in my intellectual development for me to conclude that both major political parties were morally bankrupt and afflicted with the same disease: the inability to love anything other than their own part of America, and the inability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
So I had no gut-level ideological affiliation to guide me, being the much coveted and yet much criticized swing voter. Donald Trump was, for me, never a serious option, and the reason was simple. Had you asked me years ago for a list of people who would make terrible presidents of the United States, I am certain I would have put Trump on the list without even knowing his political views. When he decided not to run in 2012, I thanked God Almighty. Everything about him seemed to repel me: his arrogance, his casual sexism, his inflated sense of worth (both in abstract and literal financial terms), the way he moves his hands, that stuff on his head called hair. It was as if someone had figured out all the things that annoy me and combined them into one very odd person.
But as the campaign wore on, I found that these objections were as nothing compared to those which arose. Although people seemed to love Trump for his “honesty”, I found it did not pass the smell test: he was all bluster. His praise of Vladimir Putin and the ties of his campaign officials to that regime were genuinely troubling, as were his casual dismissals of NATO and his seeming desire to speed rather than slow nuclear proliferation. It also became clear that he had committed sexual misdeeds at least as bad if not even worse than those committed by Bill Clinton, likely even entering the realm of full-fledged sexual assault, and he offered nothing approaching remorse for this.
Yet, even this was not the worst. The worst was the way that he appealed to the lowest common denominator of American opinion, stirring up fears and prejudices and demonizing outsiders in much the same way I had seen Arab leaders blame everything on Israel. Having made his fortune through the international economy, he rejected the central tenets of globalization and capitalism that have been responsible for pulling more people out of poverty worldwide and producing more prosperity than at any point in history. He pandered constantly, advocating a form of protectionism that cannot exist without intense government regulation, the very thing conservatives claimed to hate. More to the point, it was a losing strategy: economic success comes from playing to one’s comparative advantage, not attempting in vain to reverse the tide of history.
So, not Trump then, but who? As a woman, I might have naturally gravitated toward the first female presidential candidate from a major political party. But, why God why? Why did it have to be this woman of all women? Mind you, I believe Hillary Clinton to be a fairly pragmatic, competent operator, as do the vast majority of those who have worked with her, including many conservatives. Yet, scandal seemed to follow her around like some bizarre hanger-on. Just when you thought she had moved on and put all that behind her, something else would happen. And this year, a truly bad thing happened: the e-mail scandal.
The e-mails essentially revealed three things that I found objectionable: 1) She was too casual with national security information, 2) She seemed to have something to hide, 3) The DNC really pulled some crap on Bernie Sanders. To that last point, Bernie’s plans for the country concerned me almost as much as those of Trump, although they were beloved by many people my age and younger. I am among those who regard socialism as a failed economic system – not a morally reprehensible one, just one that can’t deliver on its lofty ideals. It truly seemed to me that Hillary had broken the law regarding the private e-mail server, and I couldn’t dismiss that.
Many of Clinton’s political positions were also out of line with my own, and what possibly bothered me the most was during the second presidential debate, when she attempted to take down Trump over his misogynistic comments, and yet was unable to do so successfully because she herself was so tainted by scandal. That was a horrendous moment, to see that the women of America had no real champion on that stage, because the woman who sought to be our champion had herself dismissed allegations of sexual misconduct against her own husband. And at this point I know there are those who would say, “You can’t equate Hillary’s actions with those of Trump,” and I don’t, but at the same time, it prevented her from earning my vote.
Thus, I moved on to the idea of a third-party candidate. I had favored the notion of a strong third party ever since concluding that both of our two major parties were doing everything in their power to repel me rather than attract me. I had studied multi-party political systems in Europe, notably in Britain and Germany, and believed such a system had benefits, providing people with more choices and encouraging accountability. It was thus with great annoyance that I found that all of the “third-party” options were equally objectionable. Gary Johnson seemed completely inept with regard to foreign policy and in the closing days of the campaign, his own running mate practically endorsed Hillary Clinton when speaking with Rachel Maddow: not a good sign. Jill Stein – well, ideologically, there was really no possibility of me ever siding with her. Moreover, she seemed as clueless as Johnson.
I thus took a rather zen approach to the whole thing: God was in control, and whichever of these bad options he wanted was the one that would win. He raises up rulers and brings them down. He is sovereign. I therefore decided I would use the write-in option to put down the name of one of the few politicians who I felt had distinguished himself in this intensely bitter campaign: my own governor, John Kasich.
Fast forward then to those early morning hours on November 9, when I suddenly felt as if the world was falling apart. But why did I feel as if the world was falling apart? In truth, I suspected that Trump would not follow through on some of his more extreme proposals, and this has now been confirmed as he has backed from them as if they were an angry rattlesnake. As I tossed and turned, I asked myself, “Self, why so troubled? Political leaders come and go. Get some sleep already!” I was finally able to narrow my anxiety down to three major points.
First, I was deeply troubled by the level of division in this country, which has now reached a level not seen since – oh, comparisons are hard…maybe the assassination period of the 1960s? Trump’s win was achieved using a scorched earth policy. Political scientists have known for years that despite complaining about negativity in campaigns, voters respond to it. It is one of those great paradoxes that is not so much of a paradox if you believe in a sinful nature. One look at my Facebook feed shows friend against friend, and I do have friends on all sides of the political “aisle”. The splintering of America is happening all around us, and the next four to eight years are going to be very, very ugly.
Second, I have read two different books in the past year that examine the origins of the two World Wars that set aflame the 20th century world. I am not one for Nazi analogies, and history never repeats itself exactly the same way. What I can tell you is that the conditions present in the 1930s were not all that different from today: economic volatility, rising nationalist sentiment, rising fear of immigrants and foreigners, the election of leaders who are more “extreme”, new global powers looking to expand their imperial reach, and perhaps most importantly, a loss of faith in traditional institutions. I’m not saying that WWIII is on the horizon, but we are mixing a very volatile cocktail, people. My mind turned to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Brexit vote, the moves being made by Russia and China in their near abroad. The people who supported the Nazis did so in order to restore national pride, restore economic prosperity, and restore a traditional “German-ness”. They weren’t looking to murder millions of people: that came much later. Such tragedies always happen by degrees.
Third, I have been profoundly troubled, although not a bit surprised, to see many evangelical leaders embrace Donald Trump, a candidate who by his words and actions could hardly be more out of line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Not all are guilty here. In fact, I have a new respect for Beth Moore, who called out evangelical men for not taking a stand against sexism and sexual assault. But I saw far, far too many people who tried to desperately convince themselves that Trump was a Christian so they could maintain their allegiance to the Republican Party.
I don’t need to name names, as this is not meant to be an attack piece. But suffice it to say, I was not all that impressed by those who only withdrew their support after the revelation of the Access Hollywood video, claiming to have seen Trump in a new light. This video was entirely in line with everything we already knew about Trump, and once again I am forced to conclude that they were holding on to their support by their fingernails and only let go when it was simply untenable.
Put aside the support of Trump in 2016: there is a bigger issue at stake here. There is one thing that ought to matter more to evangelicals than any other, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news to all. We have sold that gospel for political influence. We have abandoned it for the things of this world. We have allowed our hearts to be hardened to the point where we no longer feel compassion for those not like us. And why have we done this? Because we are afraid – terribly afraid that our way of life and our beliefs are becoming a national byword…that we will be branded as bigots and sent perhaps even to jail or worse.
Donald Trump may well have won the presidency when the Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding gay marriage. The next Sunday at my church, our pastor read a prepared statement that expressed the long-held Christian view that marriage is between “one man and one woman”, but that we have a duty to respect those in authority over us. The message was largely conciliatory and did not call for any great act of civil disobedience, but it did end with the note that where government required us to personally do something against the commands of God, we must not obey. Here I heard several shouts of “Amen!” from the congregation.
A few weeks later, I was speaking with one of my former professors at Taylor University in the political science department. We noted how upset many people were over this Supreme Court decision and how the Democratic Party seemed to be pushing away a segment of religious voters. I then had what now seems a prophetic moment where I said to him, “There are a lot of very upset people right now. I don’t think the people at the top realize how upset. They’ve been quiet because they’re afraid of being labelled as bigots, but when they get in that voting booth next November, they’re going to make their voices heard.” I went on to say that I did not know exactly what form their protest would take, but that it would be felt.
For once in my life, I was right on the money. A few months later, Antonin Scalia, the conservative bulwark on the Supreme Court, died unexpectedly. Evangelicals fixate on the Supreme Court because they see it as the key to reversing abortion and, more recently, gay marriage. This development made it nearly impossible for many of them to consider voting for Clinton. On Election Day, I got a YouTube ad paid for by the Trump campaign urging the “silent majority” to rise up and make their voice heard. Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump in this election. They will be disappointed in him.
Here I turn to one of the greatest Christian authors of all time in the book that is his seminal work and the spot-on indictment of Protestant Christianity today: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge, usually titled in English The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote it as a German Christian during the Nazi period, and he wrote with the conviction of one who had been held captive by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion thrown away at cut prices…Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance: and because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing…That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.”
That is Bonhoeffer’s opening shot. He goes on to talk about “costly grace”.
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
He then goes on to make the most important statement of his too short career, nearly writing his own epitaph in the process: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Bonhoeffer is a beloved figure among Christians today, not truly for his theological writings, but because he was killed by the Nazis in the waning days of WWII, convicted of taking part in the assassination plot against Hitler. Bonhoeffer had been raised in a Lutheran family that socialized with Jews. As soon as the Nazis were elected, he knew it was a dark moment for Germany. He opposed Nazi policy from the beginning, even as most of his fellow churchmen capitulated. He knew such capitulation was the death of the gospel.
For a time, he went abroad, but eventually returned in order to train up pastors in the Confessing Church, a collection of German Protestants who refused to take part in the official Nazification of Christianity in Germany. Thus, he was already a marked man before the plot that ultimately led to his arrest. Many Christians today lionize Bonhoeffer for the decision to take action against Hitler via assassination, yet he himself was tormented by that decision and saw it as the low point of his ethical life. He did what he did in the hope that it would save millions of people from death, but he viewed it as ethically murky at best. He threw himself on God’s grace and prayed that he was making the right decision.
What Bonhoeffer was absolutely certain about was the need to train pastors. That is why he returned to Germany rather than seeking to save his own life. When the world starts to burn, you can tell by a person’s actions what they believe to be of vital, eternal importance. Bonhoeffer wanted to train pastors who would preach the gospel. He knew that the true source of all man’s problems, political and otherwise, was a sinful heart focused only on self. He knew that the only way to truly bring peace was through the gospel of Jesus Christ. So when he had to do the thing that mattered most, he sought to promote the gospel in a land that was dark indeed. It cost him his livelihood and his life.
As I was lying there in the early hours of November 9, coming to terms with Trump’s victory, it was Bonhoeffer who was on my mind, and I wondered what he would make of it all. Here we sit as Christians in America, so very concerned with our own comfort. What will people think of us? Will we remain the dominant group? Will we get to go to church on Sunday and sip our cappuccino while sitting in nice cushioned chairs and singing cheery praise songs that repeat the same lyric twenty million times? That is our comfort zone, and we feel it slipping away, whether those fears are real or imagined.
The American church is so fragmented, torn into a million divisions, or should I say, denominations? If we don’t like what we hear in one place, we move on to another. And here again I say, we are so very, very comfortable. Christians have had it better in America than anywhere else, or at least as good. At the first sign that we might be called upon to defend our beliefs – to suffer the tiniest bit – we look for a political savior like the Jews of Jesus’ day. They wanted someone to throw off Roman oppression. He told them to pay their taxes, respect authority, and love their neighbor as themselves. They killed him for it.
Our grace is almost as cheap as our sound systems are expensive. We have forgotten that Christ promised us suffering and not prosperity. We have lost the art of reconciliation and seen it as secondary to things like doctrine – and doctrine is extremely important, but it is nothing without love. We look at immigrants and see only how they might threaten our way of life, consume our tax dollars, steal our jobs. We do not see the “alien and stranger” that God commanded us to love. We are so upset that the “Left” dismisses our beliefs that we write them off entirely. News flash: Christ told us that most people would dismiss our beliefs and hate us.
And yes, I share the concerns of many about unborn children being treated as less than human and disposed of rather casually. And yes, our culture has given way to materialism and hedonism and views of sex that aren’t even so much sinful as outright inaccurate and ridiculous, as if anyone not having sex isn’t a full human being. But if we are to be the defenders of human dignity, we can’t pick and choose who we defend. Love is not just for those who are lovely, because if we are honest with ourselves, none of us are lovely. We are not in some better category because God chose to give us grace. Every person that lives and breathes is a potential recipient of that grace, but will they ever know it if we don’t live it?
So my greatest despair in the face of this election is that we have failed to love, failed to cling to the gospel, failed to put Christ before country. Forget Trump and Clinton and all the rest: do we even know the names of our neighbors? May God send us a Good Samaritan if we are ever in distress, because we are walking by on the other side in our millions!
That was when I decided that as much as I wanted to respond to this election in anger, to cast blame at those around me, to declare it all unjust – that was the wrong response. Politics matters, yes, but it is as nothing compared to the gospel. I felt in my heart a strong desire to love every person on the face of this earth – to in the words of that oft-quoted comment by Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That afternoon, I baked four dozen cookies and handed them out to the people on my street. Some of them voted for Trump and some for Clinton. I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. What mattered was finding some small way to extend love: to live out the gospel.
To my Christian friends, we are in the fight of our lives not for political power, but for costly grace. We must worry less about our own comfort and more about the things of eternal value. We must stop trying to change society from the top down and start from the bottom up: applying the message of the gospel to human hearts. Ban abortion if you want, but abortions will still happen, because there has been no heart change. Place more regulations on Wall Street, but it will not erase corporate greed. Not only on a societal level, but on an individual level, we will never have true positive change until our hearts are transformed by Jesus Christ.
Today, we need a new Confessing Church like the one that rose up in Germany: a group of Christians who will value the kingdom of heaven over the kingdom of this world. We need to realize that the separation of church and state is not to protect the state, but to protect the church from corruption. We need to worry less about the lord in the White House and more about the Lord who is above all.
That is the message I choose to take away from this election. Forgive me for such a long post and for straying at times into the absurd. I have always been passionate about politics, but I see now that I must be more passionate about Jesus Christ, regardless of who is in the White House. Maybe Trump will take us down in flames – maybe he won’t. It would be what we deserve. We must cling less to the things of this world and cling more to Christ.
Whoever you voted for, know that I love you and I respect you. I want to be a good friend to you. I am no better than you. I am just one stupid person trying to make sense of this all, and if I have said anything right, it is the grace of God.
Bonhoeffer quotations taken from The Cost of Discipleship, English translation copyright Simon and Schuster 1995.