Category Archives: Politics

Seven notes on Kristoff’s “Pious Paul” hit piece

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristoff wrote a hit piece on Paul Ryan (specifically regarding the GOP health care bill) which ended by using Jesus’s words to condemn “Pious Paul” to hell. Here are seven quick notes on the article.

  1. Before I criticize the article I want to recommend Kristoff’s book Half the Sky. It’s an important book which sheds light on the oppression of women worldwide. It’s “prophetic” in a secular sense in that it tells the brutal truth and has enough content to annoy liberals and conservatives alike. (Personally, I think the authors are unfair in their treatment of the Apostle Paul.) But there’s also a massive amount of common ground on which all people can find unity and the stakes are incredible.
  2. The article consistently takes Jesus’s words out of context.
  3. It’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to public policy. As I’ve tried to make the case here, what I want is a government which is informed by biblical values and acts within its realm of limited responsibility based on those value. Often, partisan liberals and conservatives opt for a more wooden application, one that is rightly identified as hypocritical. (See Matt Walsh’s tweet “Liberals on entitlements: “The Bible says give to the poor!” Liberals on gay marriage: “This isn’t a theocracy! Keep religion at church!”)
  4. Kristoff opts for this simplistic approach and uses it to bludgeon Paul Ryan. Two important layers of religious/moral reasoning are missed. First, Kristoff implies that Ryan does not care about the poor. Perhaps he has already forgotten what he wrote in Half the Sky, that Christians give significantly more of their incomes to charity – including non-religious charity – than non-religious people. I don’t know Paul Ryan’s heart, but it’s wrong to assume that his (or conservatives in general) don’t care about the poor. The question isn’t just whether or not we have concern, but what role the government should play. Second, even if we agree that the government plays a role, we have to exercise wisdom in developing policy. Some government charities do more harm than good, particularly through undermining social structures which form the basis of a well-functioning society. All this is dismissed in Kristoff’s piece.
  5. Since I just read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind what I see in Kristoff’s article is a clash of moral visions. Kristoff, like most liberals, bases his moral reasoning primarily on the care/harm moral foundation. Something is right/wrong based on whether or not someone is helped or hurt. He then applies Jesus’s words to back up his moral intuitions. Ryan, as a conservative, also bases moral reasoning on care/harm, but uses other foundations as well. Specifically, he probably cares about proportionality (“do people get out of the system what they put in?”) and liberty (“is the government impinging on personal freedoms through excessive taxes?”) These other foundations stand in tension with care/harm, making for a more morally nuanced approach to healthcare (I’m not saying better) that Kristoff either doesn’t understand or ignores. Kristoff should read Haidt if he hasn’t already.
  6. The article perpetuates the false narrative that religious conservatives are hypocritical and don’t care about the poor. Whether or not you agree with their policies, this myth about motives needs to end. Are there some hard-hearted religious conservatives out there? Yes, and I’ve met them. But Kristoff himself noted in Half the Sky, those same religious conservatives are often the only ones on the front lines of caring for those most in need.
  7. I’m not going to offer an assessment of the Health Care Plan. I have too little knowledge. Maybe it deserves a strong critique. But Kristoff doesn’t need to malign Paul Ryan’s motives to do so.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.

A Pro-Life Perspective on the 2016 Presidential Election

First, an overly long introduction:

Several days ago I said on Facebook: “Ultimately, I’m more concerned with the process Christians use to come to their political conclusions, than the conclusions themselves.” To that end I’ve tried to comment on those processes – values, conscience, love of neighbor, concern for life, etc. – and avoid sharing my conclusions. But, I’ve become convicted that at some point I am being passive aggressive in my approach, hinting at my own conclusions without stating them outright. That’s not my goal – my statement above is perfectly earnest – but I think it still falls short.

With that in mind I have decided to offer my conclusion[1] on one particular issue which is a high priority to me, the issue of abortion. I am not a single issue voter, but I believe this issue to be one of the most central issues when it comes to justice. For me it is both a clear issue, and an issue which the government ought to concern itself with. It is a cultural issue to be sure, but it is also a political issue.

In offering my conclusion, I am not dismissing all other possible conclusions. Feel free to disagree. My own family (my parents on down), for as much as we agree on central beliefs and core values, have come to a range of conclusions on this topic.[2] This doesn’t diminish my respect or love for them. I’m sure the same is true in my church and among my friends – even those who are consistently pro-life. If you disagree with my conclusions I will continue to love and respect you. Still, since I love my neighbor – in this case the most vulnerable of my neighbors, and those who are the victims of systematic injustice – I feel obliged to stop hinting and just be out with it and do my best to advocate on their behalf.

The case against Hillary Clinton

This case is perhaps almost too obvious to even mention, but Hillary Clinton is pro-choice. To make matters worse she has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood – an organization that was exposed for unethical behavior and which advocates for the most extreme positions on abortion. Last year I attended a protest of Planned Parenthood[3] and I still believe that the organization should be defunded by the federal government.

Not only that, but the Democratic Party has doubled down on its support of injustice when it adopted a party position which called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment[4]. Hyde is what prevents the government from using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. Clinton is in agreement with the DNCs position.

All of this is to say that I find the DNCs – and Clinton’s – call to care for “all children” bitterly ironic. In a year where a softening of position on abortion could have won over conservatives who are dissatisfied with Trump, Clinton moved in the opposite direction. I feel sad for pro-life Democrats. There used to be at least a small haven in the party for them – not anymore.

The case against Donald Trump

Given what was said above, many pro-lifers, including many who I deeply respect, feel that there is no other option than to vote for the only candidate who appears to have a shot at defeating her: Donald Trump.

But this alliance is a big gamble and, as I hope to demonstrate, self-defeating in the long-term.

The gamble goes as follows: We know that Clinton will appoint justices who will strike down any law limiting abortion. Trump has offered a list of judges who would be friendly to the cause. Therefore, we are morally obligated to vote for Trump.

There are several problems with this gamble and central to that is the core problem with Trump himself – his character. Trump’s character – he’s proven himself to be a bully, to be untrustworthy, to be vulgar, to be disrespectful of others – women, the disabled, foreigners – is antithetical to what it means to be pro-life. To be pro-life is to respect all people, to stand up for the vulnerable, to stand up to bullies, to speak the truth, and to be considerate. None of those characteristics apply to Trump as he has demonstrated over and over again.[5]

The second problem is his shifting position on abortion. He has been pro-choice for much of his life, even supporting partial birth abortion. During the campaign, in one horrendous week, he went through a whole range of public positions on abortion – from saying women should be punished to defending Roe v Wade. All this makes it hard to believe that Trump has any kind of actual principled position on abortion. And given his character issues above, it’s easy to conclude – even if not correctly – that his current position is one of political expediency. It was politically expedient for him to submit that list of judges so that he could “shore up” the “evangelical” vote. It was politically expedient for him to pick Pence as his running mate. Will it be politically expedient for him to actually appoint those judges should he become president?

The third problem is that many of his other positions grate against a consistently pro-life message and seem to undermine human dignity. He is draconian on immigration. He seems oblivious to issues of racial justice. He defended the use of torture. All of these issues are, in my mind, connected to the same root as the issue of life within the womb: the belief that all people are precious to God and should have their basic God-given rights defended. But my problem is not even necessarily with the positions – but who is holding and expressing those opinions. It is one thing for a candidate to say he is a “Law and Order candidate”. Fine, I like law and order. But that only works if law and order flows from a virtuous government, not from a bully president. From a bully it would certainly mean oppression and injustice.

Either the pro-lifer who supports Trump does not believe his character is as bad as it appears to be[6], or is making a bargain. He knows he wants to stop Hillary and so he is willing to go to Trump. Even given all the issues above, he is willing to make the trade. Supreme Court justices are just too important.

But I fear that this trade won’t work out for the pro-life cause in the long run.

The pro-life cause is fought on two major fronts: cultural and political. Both matter. When a pro-lifer decides to vote for Trump they are fighting the political front. Clinton is a sure loss on this front and Trump, if he is true to his word, offers a potential win – Supreme Court nominees.

But, by aligning themselves with Trump they guarantee a loss on the cultural front. They lose any moral ground. They show that you can say just about anything, or demonstrate any kind of personal character and, as long as you give lip service to pro-lifers, you can get their vote. Pro-lifers would go from those who use the political system to advocate for justice to those who are used by the political system to win elections, whose votes are simply bought with empty words. Furthermore, the rest of the culture will see the hypocrisy: You claim moral high ground on the issue of abortion but you debase yourself with a vote for Trump?

In this election we’ve already lost our political power. Let’s not also lose our prophetic voice.

A loss of our prophetic and moral voice is a long-term loss. Generally speaking, politics follows culture. Therefore a cultural loss, even if it results in a political win, will have long-term and potentially devastating consequences for the pro-life movement.

A quick note on Gary Johnson

A lot of conservatives turned off by Trump are turning to Libertarian Gary Johnson. This is understandable. On abortion, Johnson’s position is somewhat mixed. He believes that abortion should be legal up until the point of viability but he also believes that Roe v Wade overextended the reach of the federal government and that states should be able to decide individually. He supports bans on late-term abortions. He also supports mandating parental notifications for minors seeking abortion. Ironically, though he is not strictly pro-life, he might be the most pro-life candidate on the ballot. Still, Christians will have to decide whether or not supporting a candidate who believes that most abortions should remain legal can be done without violating their conscience. For me, that’s too much of a pill for me to swallow right now.

[Update 8/15]

There are two pro-life candidates of note, though both are long-shots at the time of writing this, and it is unclear whether either be on on the ballot in my state. The first is Michael Maturen of the American Solidarity Party, a political party based on Catholic Social Teaching. The second is Evan McMullin, a republican who has broken away from the party and has launched an independent bid for President. I note these two candidates only to make the reader aware of their presence (since they are no part of the vaunted two-party system they won’t likely get much media attention) and not as an endorsement. You’ll have to investigate the remainder of their platforms to understand your own political alignment.

[/ Close Update]

Where does that leave pro-life voters?

From a pro-life perspective this is election is an utter disaster. It’s simply a matter of picking your poison. I think Christian pro-life voters should seriously consider not voting for Trump or Clinton and find a third party candidate to vote for, one which will not sully their conscience. From a human perspective, it’s hard not to be despondent. But we operate from more than just a human perspective.

More than ever we need to put our trust in God and in his sovereignty.

More than ever we need to operate from a position of conscience and love.

More than ever we need to do that hard moral and cultural work of standing up for the most vulnerable.

More than ever we need to support young women in crisis.

More than ever we need to encourage young men to take responsibility for their actions.

More than ever we need to be a prophetic voice of justice for all.

More than ever we need to pray.

Our political weapons look dull and/or double-edged. But our spiritual weapons are as mighty as ever.

Notes and further reading

[1] By saying “my conclusion” I want to emphasize that this conclusion represents me and me only. I am a pastor, but I am not speaking on behalf of my church or its leadership. I expect and welcome a difference of opinion within the body of Christ and the local community. We are each beholden to our own conscience as we stand before the Judge.

[2] The best defense of a Trump vote was recently published by theologian Wayne Grudem, who I have deep respect for. Ultimately I think he is naive about Trump’s character, and I disagree with him about what a Trump presidency would likely mean for our country, but I completely agree with the process by which he came to that conclusion. But, if you Grudem’s arguments seem compelling then please read this devastating responseUpdate 10/10/2016: Wayne Grudem subsequently rescinded his support for Donald Trump here.

[3] My rational for why I attended the Planned Parenthood protest.

[4] Russell Moore on the DNCs shift in position on the Hyde Amendment.

[5] There are many, many articles which have been written about Trump’s character and I’m not going to belabor the point. The “straw that broke the camels back” for me was probably when Trump viciously went after Cruz’s wife immediately after reposting something about how he was going to make Christianity great again(!), but that was only after a long line of more fundamental problems. In addition to his character, and perhaps more fundamental, are what appears to be his core beliefs. This article has some issues, but it still makes a strong case that Trump has a lot more in common with Nietzsche than Christ.

[6] I have heard it argued that Trump has one public persona and one private persona and that the private persona is far more kind and gentle. That private persona, it is argued, it the “real Trump.” He’s brash and bombastic for political purposes. My response to that is two-fold. First, doesn’t that imply duplicity on his part and strengthen the argument against his trustworthiness? Second,. I don’t have access to private Trump and so the only judgment I can make is the one he himself presents to me. You know a tree by its fruit. You know a man by his words. His words are what is most self-condemning.

[*] The pro-life argument against Trump has been made on a couple other occasions. Here’s one if you are interested. Mere Orthodoxy.