Trump, Moral Relativism, and the American Church

Last night I was talking to a grad student here at UGA that I had just met.  He told me he was very concerned about the possibility of a nuclear attack on North Korea by the United States.  Without thinking I blurted out that having Donald Trump as the decision maker as to how to use our nuclear arsenal scared me to death.  His response surprised me.  He said, “I voted for Trump but I didn’t think it through.  I hate Hillary Clinton so I voted against her but I didn’t really visualize Trump as POTUS.” I did, which is why he didn’t get my vote.

7de7c0aa10e9f514e1a15dc44c5d0144I have opposed Donald Trump since he announced he was running in June of 2015. My take on policy and priorities leans center left, which should make me lean toward Democrats.  While I have considerable policy disagreements with Trump, that it is not what drives my opposition. My conviction stems from being a disciple of Jesus.

There is, however, a former Republican  and now Independent that has piqued my interest. Ewan McMullin wants to regain control of “the heart and soul of conservatism”. I believe the 2020 Presidential election will be a battle for the center-right and center-left of America. McMullin, although more conservative than me, could be  a serious threat to the incumbent if he decides to run. Oh, by the way, McMullin is a former CIA operative and a practicing Mormon.

Now is the time that those who know me are asking, “Why would anyone vote for a Mormon candidate while citing the immaturity of Trump’s Christian faith as a reason for not supporting his Presidency?”  Good question!  Here is my response.

My primary concern is not about what nation Trump attacks next or who he appoints to the Supreme Court, or even the alt right executive orders he seems to issue daily. My concern is the witness of the Church. We are called to be ambassadors for Jesus, to exhibit love and compassion, to speak up about injustice. We are resident-aliens in this world, not citizens comfortable with the status quo. The intensity of that commitment is that the Kingdom of God even takes precedence over family ties (Luke 14:26). Anything that takes precedence over our commitment to Jesus and His agenda is idolatry.

Until Jesus is on the ballot, every candidate will have shortcomings. Forget about looking for perfection.  A candidate can be a very crooked stick and still exhibit the general moral character of love and compassion and an unwillingness to ignore injustice. The President’s lifestyle not his specific religious doctrinal beliefs is what determines the witness of the Church during his or her presidency.  The Church itself, of course, is not dependent on whomever is elected to lift up that which is good and oppose that which is not.  First and foremost the Church should be a community that exhibits the marks of the Kingdom of God.

The issue is not that Trump is “Not My President”.  He is my president and I pray for him daily. The issue is the attempt by right wing Christians to characterize Trump as basically a good guy, a baby Christian, who is just a little rough around the edges. Really?

Have you read The Art of the Deal? Have you paid attention to his professional and personal lifestyle?  Trump’s lifestyle is the very antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount. During his campaign when asked by Jimmy Fallon if he ever apologized for anything Trump replied “I will absolutely apologize some time in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.” He is the apostle for the gospel of “win at all costs”.  Opponents are not to be just defeated but destroyed and humiliated. He advocates seducing the wives of rivals to humiliate them and, during his campaign, bragged about having done so himself.  To Trump there are only two types of people: those who are unflinchingly loyal to him or those who are absolute losers. Everything about him exudes an unstable vindictive predatory character. His “unfortunate” tweets are not the product of an unpolished public figure. They are the product of a calculating, manipulative, pathological personality.

Democracy runs on the basis that there are competing views in society. When someone wins an election, the loser concedes and the winner leaves the loser standing, ready to fight another day.  It is this understanding that no victory or loss is ever final, that keeps American society moving along. Disagreement is the norm, not the exception, of a free, democratic society.

Trump, however, routinely demonstrates he cannot tolerate the presence of opposition! Not even from beauty queens. From the beginning of the campaign to his present Presidency, his emphasis has been on what HE is going to do. By sheer force of his personality and will, without regard for the basics of governance, HE is going to fix everything. This is hubris, not leadership. Hubris plus a vindictive predatory temperament equals authoritarianism.

I believe there were many Christians, like me, who cast their vote, not because they were enthusiastically behind the conservative or progressive candidate, but simply for the lesser of two evils. But then there are those Christians who now are Trump apologists, determined to legitimize his profound evils. Considering all the criticism leveled at the moral failings of candidates in the past it is difficult to see this as anything other than  hypocrisy. When their political agenda is at stake, all concern about character seems to fly out the window.  If you think Trump is the best President in our lifetime, fine. But do not act as if his Presidency minimizes what kind of man he is.

The Church’s mission is not to help candidates win elections but to give witness to the agenda of Jesus. That witness is seen through martyrdom rather than hateful authoritarian demagoguery.

I am not that familiar with McMullin.  But he seems to be a principled man with admirable ethical standards, who aspires to build a more civil society. If that perception is true, he is a welcome change to the political stage, regardless of what his specific doctrinal beliefs are.

For many the fact that Donald Trump is the POTUS is visceral. Social psychologists call it “motivated perception,” a condition where what we see is shaped by what we feel is at stake. Thus the motivation to justify and rationalize Trump’s Presidency is powerful. In 2011 the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. The same question was asked in 2016 nationwide the  Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative. In 2011 only 30% White Evangelicals given the same question said yes. But in 2016  71% of White Evangelicals answered the same question yes becoming the religious segment most likely to believe that someone who commits immoral acts in private life can govern ethically..

When holding a moral standard meant substantial loss, they embraced moral relativity, the cardinal sin of “secular-progressives” they so despise. Again, my point is that Christians who are Trump backers should not minimize nor trivialize the kind of man he has shown himself to be.

Right leaning Christians are not purely to blame for the moral relativity in the American Church. Its roots span the political spectrum and reveal a much deeper problem, much of American Church is not formed by the gospel of Jesus. A great many progressive Christians have concluded that the answer to conservative Christians is to move to the far left Social gospel. Even though they are doing the same “othering” as they criticize the Right for doing, they justify it as “prophetic” and “social justice advocacy.”  But the solution is not a more progressive church. The solution is a more loving church, a loving community of resident-aliens, seeking the welfare of their host culture, seeking truth no matter the implications for our host culture’s political agendas. Right, left, or whatever, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the church abandon moral relativity and once again take up the agenda of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Respect My Authority, part 3 of 3

Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:5-7)

Christians are obligated to be in subjection to civil government regardless of how happy we are with the government itself. The most obvious motivation for our subjection is fear of the consequences of rebelling against the authority but that motivation is a shallow one. Think of it this way. A Christian who remains sexually pure based solely on the fear of contracting AIDS has obeyed the letter of the law while missing the main point. A higher reason for subjection is found in verse 5: a clear conscience.

The fear of punishment is an external motivation that promotes submission. The motivation Paul calls for here is internal—that of a desire to maintain a pure and undefiled conscience. The standard which the law sets is the minimal standard for all men. The standard set by our own conscience is personal, individual, and hopefully higher than the minimum set by human government.

What is the conscience? It is an internal standard, defining right and wrong. It is not present only in Christians. All men have a conscience (Romans 2:15). The conscience of one may be stronger than that of another (1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12). Some consciences have become hardened and insensitive due to sin (1 Timothy 4:2), while the consciences of others are sensitized by obedience (Hebrews 5:14). We must never defile our conscience by doing what it considers evil, nor should we offend others by practicing what their consciences condemn as evil (1 Corinthians 8).

Our conscience is not an infallible guide to good and evil. While we must never do what our conscience condemns, we dare not assume that everything our conscience permits is good, since our conscience can become hardened and insensitive (1 Timothy 4:2).

Conscience was a very important manner to Paul. He sought to serve God with an undefiled conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Timothy 1:3), which he urged others to do as well (1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9). A clear conscience is a prerequisite for love and service to others: But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

Whenever we violate our conscience we hinder our fellowship with God and our service to Him and to others. A violated, guilty, conscience makes us less sensitive to sin and more vulnerable to error (Hebrews 5:12; 2 Timothy 3:6). A guilty conscience makes us tend toward a legalistic, external obedience, based upon appearances rather than on reality (Luke 16:15).

What does our conscience have to do with submission to human government? Mere outward compliance with the requirements of government is simply not enough. This we can expect from unbelievers, if for no other reason than the fear of punishment. But God desires a fuller, deeper, obedience from the heart. This requires conscientious subjection—submitting done out of obedience to God. Such an attitude of submission enables us to retain the right attitude and actions toward government even when we must disobey specific laws in order to obey God.

An internal attitude of submission stimulates us to obey government even when our disobedience cannot be seen or punished. The actions of verses 6 and 7  are the outflow of an undefiled conscience and a spirit of submission. Paul does not tell us here to “obey the laws of the land,” but rather to honor those in authority and to pay taxes. Why is this specific form of obedience named? I believe it is because this is an example of something easy to avoid doing with little fear of being caught and punished.

We can be rude and disrespectful to officials and get away with it. We can even more effectively pretend to be respectful and never have our insincerity detected. We can quite easily report our income in such a way as to avoid income taxes. More often than not, if we are devious, we will not be caught.

But Paul has already told us that government has God’s authority and ministers for Him. Thus, when we fail to “pay our dues,”  whatever these might be, we disobey God. Even if the civil authorities never catch us, our conscience before God will be defiled. Our fellowship with Him will be hindered. Our service to others will be adversely affected. We are called to live by the higher standard: not only compliance to the government, but cooperation in a spirit of submission. Living by this higher standard keeps our conscience clear, our testimony untainted, and our service unhindered by sin and guilt. Living in subordination to civil authority is beneficial to our walk with God and our service to others.

The things which God requires us to give government officials are those things which facilitate the ministry of public officials: honor and money. Both are necessary for public officials to carry out their tasks.
Our subordination to those in authority not only means that we should do what we are required, but that we should provide all that is necessary so that our superiors can do their jobs. Our submission means that we serve and support them.

Romans 13:1-7  is not the only text in the Bible on the matter of “conscientious subjection.” Paul writes generally of this obligation to (Titus 3:1). Peter speaks of submission to human government in the context of suffering (1 Peter 2:13-14). But when Paul speaks of submission to government in this passage, he does so in the context of service.

This passage is part of a larger section with this theme in Romans 12:1–13:7. Paul opens the section in 12:1-2  with a challenge to present our bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service of worship. Paul then moves on to our sacrificial service in terms of the church, the body of Christ, and of the exercise of our spiritual gifts (12:3-8). Then in verses 9-21  Paul writes of our service in the context of love, whether we are serving our fellow-believers or our enemy. This is the context in which subordination to civil government is discussed in Romans 13:1-7.

Paul teaches on the importance of subordination in this whole section. We must subordinate our lives to God, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to Him. We must subordinate our interests to the interests of others if we are to walk in love. We must also subordinate our lives to those in authority over us as civil servants.

Paul seems to me to state a principle: SUBORDINATION IS A PREREQUISITE TO SERVICE AND A MINDSET WITHOUT WHICH SERVICE IS EITHER IMPOSSIBLE OR UNFRUITFUL.

True service is only rendered if self-interest is set aside and replaced by a spirit of subordination. We cannot seek our own interests as a priority and serve others as a priority at the same time. It simply does not and cannot work. Subordination is prerequisite to service. This is precisely the point Paul makes concerning our Lord’s attitudes and actions in Philippians 2:5-8: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Subordination is the key to loving God and others. It goes against the grain. It is not the spirit of our age. But it is what God requires and what the Spirit enables when we walk in Him.

As I said in an earlier post, I see Christians rapidly moving in the direction of opposing government more than submitting to it. We have lost our respect for those in authority and have come to disdain, en masse, those in public office. We have come to view government as God’s opponent rather than as God’s ordained instrument. No doubt there is reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.

It seems to me that the church of today is much more intent upon producing Christian leaders than it is in producing Christian followers. While the disciples of Jesus had their heads filled with thoughts of position, power, and prestige, Jesus constantly talked to them about subordination and service. While we think much about leaders, Jesus talked most about being followers, disciples. Ironically, the way to become good leaders is by learning to become good followers.

Evangelical Christianity is probably more purposeful and aggressive in seeking to influence government and legislation than ever before. And yet I fear that we are less effective than in previous times. How can this be? On the one hand, we seem to be relying on the “arm of the flesh,”
on human mechanisms and motivations, rather than on those which are spiritual. We seem to think that we need large numbers to attract the attention of government officials, and that we will not be able to change men’s minds or voting habits unless we hold over their heads the threat of losing the next election.

Down through history, Believers have had a profound impact on kings and government officials—even though they served God and even though they were in the minority. John the Baptist was a man who stood for what was right and who did not shrink back from pointing out Herod’s sin. And yet, Herod found himself strangely drawn to John and his teaching. He listened intently to him. He would not have put him to death except for his drunkenness, his foolish offer, and his foolish pride (Mark 6:14-29).

Jesus had the attention of the governmental leaders of His day. They were eager to see Him face to face. It was only reluctantly that they played a part in His death. Paul too had a spiritual impact on some of the political leaders of his day. Even today, men like Billy Graham are sought out by presidents and powerful political figures. Why? Because even when they disagree with the powers that be they are subject to God, to His Word, and therefore to the government under which He has placed them.

We do not need to muster more votes or more political clout. We need more “moral clout,” gained by simple obedience to God, to His Word, and to the institutions He has ordained.

To honor God we present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices, we subordinate ourselves to others and to the government He has ordained.

“Respect my authority”

Whether a college, a corporation, or a community they all have their own “culture”. That is the written and unwritten “laws” that govern behavior within the group. There is always an authority to respond to. In every group that I have been part of there are those who respect authority and those that don’t. There are those that comply and those that defy. There are those that cooperate and those that comply without cooperating. Do we as Christians have any Biblical mandate about our response to authority?

Before I answer that question let me share an observation as an old man with lots of experience with Christians in different settings. Over the years I have found Christians are little different than non-Christians in their attitudes and responses toward authority. Compliance is given, but cooperation is not. For example I am just as likely to find a radar detector in the car of a Christian, as in the car of an unbeliever. Christians comply with the law. We slow down as we pass the police car with its radar speed detection equipment. We drive carefully and lawfully when the patrol car is following us. But as soon as we are sure it is safe, we drive normally—and illegally. (I am guilty as charged!)

Now back to my question about a Biblical mandate about Christians and civil authority. The Apostle Paul lived and died as a Roman citizen. In his letter to the church in the most powerful city in the world Paul, in Romans 13:1-7, deals directly with the Christian’s obligation to civil government.
There are a number of reasons Christians and civil government often are at odds with one another, and it is relatively easy for Christians to twist these into excuses for disrespect and disobedience to authorities. Let’s look at this dynamic in the time of Paul’s writing.

The first factor is simple but far reaching, civil government is secular and the church is spiritual. According to the Apostle Peter Christians are aliens and strangers, just passing through this world. Paul writes in Phil. 3:20  that Christian citizenship is in heaven. This difference misunderstood led the state to view the church as hostile to its authority. The church acknowledged that Jesus is Lord because their highest authority is God. The Roman government of Paul’s day acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord”. The church refused to acknowledge this and so the Romans considered Christians as atheists. It was a small leap for the government to see this atheistic institution as treasonous. The practical application of “Jesus is Lord” is that Christians are required to obey God, rather than men“. With each conflict the government’s suspicions of the church were confirmed. The result of the secular/spiritual conflict was that government officials, either unconsciously or willingly, used their authority to actively oppose the church and to persecute Christians.

In this political climate with civil government viewing the church with suspicion, and even fear, Christians were tempted to see government as their opponent, and as an enemy of God and the gospel of Jesus. Therefore civil disobedience might easily become common practice rather than a necessary exception. Submission to governmental authority was a vital topic in a day and time when the church and civil government were on a collision course. So what? What does that matter today?

I believe the church is on a very similar course today. In the earlier days of our nation, our government was founded on certain Christian assumptions and convictions. If our early government founders and officials were not Christians, at least their beliefs and values were compatible with Christian doctrines and practices. Our culture and our government today are post-Christian.

I am amazed when I hear Christians talking as if their views and values are still held by a majority of Americans. These are those that still mistakenly believe that if we could just mobilize the moral majority and encourage them to speak out—especially by voting – it would turn things around. I believe this view is, for the most part, unrealistic and untrue. I believe that Christian moral values are largely an unpopular minority view. Consequently, I expect that government will increasingly regulate, hinder, and even oppose Christian objectives whenever they conflict with the government’s objectives. Not surprisingly in this political climate some Christians are becoming increasingly disdainful of the laws of our land. Some even teach that if we disagree with a particular law, we are both obliged to disobey it, and justified to disobey other laws in protest.

Now if a good time for us to read Paul’s words in Romans 13:1 “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities”.
What? No, God’s Apostle by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit would not tell persecuted Christians to be in subjection to the pagan, Christian hating Roman government would he? Yes he would and he did. This principle was not only vital for the first century church, but it is just as vital for the 21st century church. Let’s unpack what Paul says God requires of the church in our relationship to civil government: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities”.

First notice that this is a clear, categorical commandment addressed to all mankind, without exception. Every person  includes both believers and unbelievers. Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Subjection includes obedience, but implies much more. Subjection means recognizing an authority over us to which we are obliged to not only obey but to respect.

The governing authorities  are quite simply those authorities which govern us politically. This is pretty straight forward and under normal conditions in any country, it is the government which is in place.

Are there exceptions to the rule or precept Paul has laid down here? Certainly there are Biblical examples of those who chose to “obey God, rather than men” (Daniel 3, 6; Acts 4:19-20; 5:27-32).
I believe that while the Christian may not, in good conscience before God, be able to obey the government in every instance, the Christian is never free to set aside true submission to the government. In other words, even when we cannot obey civil authority, we can always demonstrate a submissive spirit. According to Paul’s precept a submissive spirit should never be set aside when it comes to those in authority over us.

For example, in Acts 5 the Sanhedrin demand that the apostles (Peter and John) stop preaching in the name of Jesus. This they cannot do without disobeying God. Though they could not and would not stop preaching in the name of Jesus, they did not challenge the authority of this body. Their answer was evidence of their submissive spirit and intent: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).  Submission usually is demonstrated by obedience, but even when we must disobey, it is to be done with a submissive spirit.

To summarize: Submission to the authority of legitimate civil government is required by God, at all times and in all cases. Submission usually, but not always, results in obedience. But even when disobedient because of a conflict between God’s command and government’s laws, we are still to have a submissive spirit toward civil authorities. Submission means giving honor to who honor is due.

In my next post we’ll look at Paul’s reasons for our submission to human government. For now ask yourself if you have a respectful, submissive spirit to our government. Do you want to obey God or men? Man’s way is rebellion and disrespect of authority. God’s way is “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities”.