As a “slow” blogger, I don’t want to write posts that jump on the latest trends or try to be particularly up to the minute. It’s not that I want to be irrelevant, but rather that I hope to give a bit more time for my thinking to coalesce than is possible when seeking to address the Latest Thing. Also, I hope to address current issues at a level that connects them with larger issues, and it takes some reflection time to be able to do that. And often, what is still worth addressing after a week or a month or a year indicates that the issue has a deeper relevance than most of what attracts our attention for a moment. I hope this post is in that spirit, even if the impetus to write it is the current discourse in the upcoming presidential election. I have been thinking about and working on this topic for nearly two months now, and time has definitely tempered some of what I am might have said even a week ago.
What I want to address is not so much the candidates themselves (I do have concerns about them), but the way Christians are talking about them. My concern is that much of the evangelical rhetoric about the election raises the stakes of the election to unwarranted levels. Certainly this is true in general in America, but I think it is a particular concern for Christians because so many seem to me to be failing to honor both God and neighbor in the way they are talking about the election. In this first post on the topic, I want to address how Christian political discourse is often succumbing to the temptation to violate the third commandment, which proscribes taking the Lord’s name in vain.
For many of us, taking the Lord’s name in vain signals using the name of Jesus or God as a swear word. Certainly, that should not be done by Christians, since we are to glorify God in all we do, and to invoke God without seriously intending to call on him is indeed a species of taking his name in vain. But in the original biblical context, the third commandment is closely associated with the first two, which have to do with exalting the Lord as the one true God, and refraining from idolatry. God commands his people to treat his name (i.e., his character, his reputation, etc.) with respect, reverence, and to use it with care. One of the ways this can be violated is by using God’s name as a way to manipulate other people. As Al Mohler explains it,
Everyone is claiming God is on ‘their side’ in a way that seeks to manipulate Him for their purposes. It has the appearance of being theological. And the most concerning type is the manipulative use of God’s name by ministers who claim His authority in things He has not spoken about.
Mohler goes on to talk about how some people were offering explanations for why Hurricane Katrina occurred, but I think the same idea applies to those who claim that in this (or any) election a Christian “must” vote for a particular candidate.
God has not spoken about any of our presidential elections. (I’ll wait while you do a Bible search for “Clinton,” “Trump,” “United States,” or “America.” You will find “election,” but it has a different meaning than in our context!) No one, then, has God’s authority to say that one of the candidates is the Christian choice, or that there is a moral imperative to vote a certain way. I understand that people feel strongly about the issues in this election, and I also understand that many are truly conflicted about the options available. The candidates are problematic on a number of levels, there are a number of complex issues in play, and of course, no one knows for certain what might ensue in the case of any of the possible outcomes. For these very reasons, Christians need to discipline their speech, beginning with setting aside the manipulative tactic of invoking God’s authority for our preference.
In a wise and important book, Marilyn McEntyre makes the case for seeing our use of words as a matter of Christian stewardship. She writes,
If language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in something like the way good farmers care for the life of the soil, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in soil that has been used up, overfertilized, or exposed to too many toxic chemicals. The comparison, I believe, is pertinent, timely, and precise–and urgent. (Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Eerdmans, 2009, p. 3)
Part of caring for language involves respecting its ability to communicate truth. Manipulation violates the truth-telling function of language. Because manipulative language has a propagandistic aim, truth is subordinated to the speaker’s desire to persuade. In the mind of the speaker, this may be “justified” because he or she is convinced of the rightness of the end, but no human is so right as to be justified in claiming that God has commanded what he has not, in fact, commanded. This is hubris, pure and simple, and invokes the name of God in vain.
As Jesus pointed out when he spoke of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), our obligation to love God is inseparable from our obligation to love our neighbor, so it is not surprising that our need to honor God’s name in our political discourse also has implications for our relation to other people. I’ll address that in part 2 of this topic.