In the first two parts of this series (Part 1 and Part 2), I discussed how Christian integrity can be violated in political discourse when we take the Lord’s name in vain and when we manipulate others rather than persuading them with virtuous rhetoric. Following Augustine, I argued that all attempts at persuasion ought to be governed by the goal of promoting love of God and neighbor by telling the truth.
Sometimes through inadvertence we make arguments based on misinformation. In such cases, though the argument is still false, it is not deliberate manipulation. When a Christian leader makes such an argument, however, and through negligence or laziness does not confirm that his information or arguments are true, his failure of virtue (ethos) represents a lack of love which may qualify as a kind of manipulation. Unfortunately, a more serious moral failing is perhaps more common in the political rhetoric of some Christian leaders: a failure of faith.
Its manifestation in recent political discourse comes in the form of manipulative and ultimately hypocritical arguments offered by many evangelical leaders for why Christians must vote for Donald Trump. There are also manipulative arguments being offered by a few evangelicals for voting for Hillary Clinton, but many more evangelicals are endorsing Trump than Clinton, and so the examples of manipulative rhetoric in support of his candidacy are much more numerous.
I have observed three main varieties of manipulative rhetoric in these discussions. The first, that Trump is a Christian (or in a similar vein, a “changed man“), seems to me an attempt to manipulate by claiming that Trump is a member of the evangelical tribe. Apparently, whatever shortcomings he has should be offset if he is a “baby Christian.” He is one of “us,” so we should vote for him. (I have discussed this at greater length in a previous post.) The second type of manipulative rhetoric is the admission that Trump is a “flawed candidate,” followed quickly by the reminder that all candidates are flawed. Sometimes a “biblical” defense of this idea is offered–after all, David (or Samson, or Saul, or “the harlots“) were flawed individuals, and God used them.
Both of these are manipulative because those who offer these arguments are relying on double standards. The most offensive to me as one who believes in Jesus Christ and holds firmly to the historic, orthodox Christian faith is the denial of the gospel entailed in any serious claim that Donald Trump is a Christian. His own words make it clear he is not a believer in Jesus Christ. There may indeed be reasonable arguments that an unbeliever could be a good president–that’s not the issue. But for evangelical leaders to claim that Christians should support Trump because he is a Christian, despite his obvious failure to understand either who Christ is or his own need for repentance, is either disingenuous or demonstrates their own failure to understand the gospel. Either of these possibilities casts deep shadows over their qualification to be leaders in the church.
Not quite as serious as compromising the gospel (what is?), but still gravely manipulative is the double standard evangelical leaders are applying when it comes to the importance of character in national leadership. Donald Trump’s lack of moral character is undeniable. Nevertheless, a number of evangelicals argue, this should not disqualify him. “After all,” many have said, “we’re electing a President, not a Sunday school teacher.” The hypocrisy of this is palpable when some of these very same people have spoken at length in the past about the importance of character in the highest office of the land (some with reference to Bill Clinton’s lack of character as displayed in the Monica Lewinsky scandal). Apparently, to some evangelical leaders, character no longer matters. Even the supposed “biblical” defense reveals duplicity, for at least two reasons. First, this is no more an argument for voting for Trump than it is for voting for Clinton, or for anyone else. After all, if God can use Donald Trump for his purposes, can he not also use Hillary Clinton to achieve his purposes? Second, apart from revelation, we have no way of knowing what God’s plans are for whoever is elected. Why do we assume that God will use the person evangelicals vote for to accomplish the political ends they desire?
This last point shades into the third variety of manipulative rhetoric I have observed: raising the specter of a liberal Supreme Court. While this has been a concern in every presidential race for as long as I have been voting, in this election, it is touted as more urgent than ever. Certainly, the power of the president to appoint Supreme Court justices is a very important consideration, and to raise it in itself is not manipulation (Joe Carter has a calm and sane article about this issue). It becomes manipulative, however, when it is combined with fear-mongering and the implication that these things are ultimate. It is debatable whether Republican appointments are as decisive as they might seem to be in the first place. But even more problematic is the sense many seem to have that our hope rests in the ideological make-up of the court.
Christian hope does not rest in the Supreme Court, the presidency, or evangelical access to political power. As Michael Cromartie reminds us, the dead are not raised by politics! I think that much of the manipulative rhetoric employed by Christians in political discourse ultimately rests on this theological blind spot–our failure to recognize that there is one God, and we must have no other gods before him (Exodus 20:3). The root of much manipulative rhetoric is idolatry, a failure of faith in the sovereign God of the universe, in the Savior, whose atonement for sin is the only means of reconciliation, and in the Holy Spirit, whose work is to convict us fallen humans of sin and to transform us from glory to glory into the image of Christ. Christians are secure in Christ whether Trump, Clinton, Nero, or Diocletian is in power.
I am saddened that many evangelicals seem to have more faith in politics than in Christ, that they entrust their well-being to earthly power rather than to God. This seems to be the reason for the desperate tone I hear in many political discussions among Christians. Facing a loss of cultural affirmation, many Christians employ Machiavellian tactics in an attempt to hold on to power, and abandon Christian love in order to manipulate others to achieve their political goals. But losing an election is far from the worst thing that can happen to us. What profit is it if the candidate we support wins, but in the process we lose our soul? Many Christians have faced living as marginalized and persecuted people in their societies, and we might learn something from them.
What we must never forget, however, is that all believers are citizens of the kingdom of God, and we are to seek that kingdom first. We are one in Christ, and we are called to love one another as brothers and sisters. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:5). In matters of politics, as in many other matters, we will certainly disagree, and about important things we should have serious conversations. But in those conversations we must always hold fast our love for God and for one another by refusing to manipulate one another. As Paul admonished the Ephesians, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25).