The Makings of a Prince: Erasmus, Machiavelli, and Idealism vs. Pragmatism in Political Rule

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The following is an adapted version of a term paper I wrote for a graduate level class in 2013.  I hope that many of you will appreciate the juxtaposition of these two worldviews, especially in light of our current times.

Introduction

“You cannot be a prince, if you are not a philosopher; you will be a tyrant.” So declared Desiderius Erasmus in The Education of a Christian Prince, a lesser-known yet exemplary contribution to the mirror for princes genre.  His call to look to the ideal as guidance for political leadership was representative of his time and stands upon a long tradition of political thought dating back the Plato’s Republic.  Frequently citing both works of classical antiquity and medieval Christian scholarship throughout his work, Erasmus notes, “I do not mean by philosopher, one who is learned in the ways of dialectic or physics, but one who cast aside the false pseudo-realities and with open mind seeks and follows the truth.  To be a philosopher and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.”

Erasmus’ mirror is written as a guide to attain his desired form of government. To achieve this end he summarizes the thoughts of others more than he attempts to promote new concepts of political theory.  The mirror for princes genre, “…usually depicts a stable and harmonious relationship between the ruler and the ruled,” according to Erasmus scholar Erika Rommel, and Erasmus’ suggestions for a prince, “are prescriptive, rather than analytical, and charged with a moral imperative.”  Erasmus wrote to further calls for a more virtuous rule as found throughout the western tradition.  He sought to keep this hope for an ideal governance alive at the tail end of the Renaissance, even while writing amidst the darker historical realities of war, schism, and rebellion of early sixteenth century Europe.

In contrast, as Erasmus penned his guidebook for princes, a freshly completed mirror of an entirely new perspective opened with the charge, “Let us leave to one side, then, all discussion of imaginary rulers and talk about practical realities.”  Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince broke from the long tradition of writing on an ideal form of governance and instead sought to offer a view of pragmatic guidelines based on common problems faced by rulers in his present age.

Machiavelli ”…therefore proclaims the need for clever management or brutal force to maintain the status quo.  In devising his policies – domestic or foreign – the Machiavellian prince is motivated by self-interest.”  The difference between these competing mirrors rests upon conflicting moral visions set forth for rulers of a state. Where Machiavelli promotes self-interest, Erasmus promotes the traditional expectation for rulers to seek after the common good, with an additional emphasis on a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice.

At first glance, the two mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli could not be more different in content and purpose. These two divergent paths highlight a vital question for the study and practice of politics that has plagued the field in recent centuries. Is it the business of politicians to primarily consider the ideal or the real?

A former undergraduate professor of mine opened his classes by observing a stark distinction between the pragmatic and the theoretical for the study of government.  As a self-proclaimed realist and lecturer on international affairs, he concluded that these two branches of political study had little impact on the other when it came to practical decision-making for a ruler of state.  This professor followed in the tradition often attributed to Machiavelli, one institutionalized whence the study of politics shifted from the mastering of an art to the calculations of a science.  He suggested that the world of policy and political action must operate within the harsh realities of the real world.

Representing a current trend in political study, my professor’s views suggested to his students that any discussions of the ideal in political thought, while an interesting mental exercise, have little impact on the actual business of governance.  This assertion raises the question, is a distinction between the real and the ideal a truism, or is it actually a false dichotomy?

Proponents for the relevance of political thought to the realm of political action contend that many situations demand use of both approaches and often utilize one view to support or justify the other. It is with this contemporary debate regarding the theoretical versus the practical in governance in mind that the divergent mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli are compared below.

Although Erasmus’ advice for a Christian prince is steeped in the idealism of classical Western political thought, his goals were grounded in a firm belief that this vision, at least in adapted form, could be made into a reality.  Machiavelli’s attempt to define political rule in terms of “practical realities”, on the other hand, lowered the responsibility of the prince to improve society through an absolute moral ethic, yet, at the very last, he relies on an emergence of his realist prince for national redemption.

Ultimately, both works attempt to solve the very real political ills of their era with aspirant hopes of a better, and potentially ideal, political future.  Underlying theoretical assumptions about the nature of man, the role of the state, and the theological implications of salvation, make both works simultaneous mirrors of the real and the ideal.  In these works pragmatism is prescribed for the sake of some form of perfection.  Even if that form of perfection is suggested with limitations, the belief is ever-present that an ideal can be reached through the activity of the real.

The Purpose of the Mirrors

Written in 1515 after Erasmus is named a counselor to future king and emperor, Charles V, and awarded an annual pension, The Education of a Christian Prince began with the stated goal, “I, a theologian, am acting the part of a teacher to a distinguished and pure hearted prince – one Christian to another.”  Presented in 1516 to the then sixteen-year-old prince, Erasmus clearly saw his work as an attempt to influence the political future of Europe.

One biographer noted of his writings in this period, “The goal of his work was to make of Christians Christians in reality and not in name only, and to show them the way to the great example, the great teacher.  Only in this way can the world again do justice to God’s intentions.”  The Holy Roman Empire, an ostensibly Christian regime, had a troubled and violent past that did little to strengthen the message of the church in the world.  Thus, Erasmus saw his mirror as one attempt of many to use his theological wisdom to correct the perversions of his society and purify Christendom from the top down.

In contrast, it is widely speculated among scholars that Machiavelli’s work was written in 1513 with the hope that he might obtain employment from a member of the powerful Florentine Medici family through private circulation of his thoughts.  The self-interested motives parallel the messages of self-preservation found throughout the work.  As a mid-level political appointee, Machiavelli claims the work was produced after he had, “long thought about and studied the question of what makes for greatness.”  He continues,

But my hope is to write a book that will be useful, at least to those who read it intelligently, and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world…For anyone who wants to act the part of the good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good.  So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.

The above passage sets the tone for the rest of the work and laid forth the foundational elements of Machiavelli’s legacy.  First, he implies that the tradition of mirror literature couldn’t be useful to a real life ruler, for these mirrors typically address fantasy worlds or mere thought experiments.  Second, he identifies the most unrealistic quality of the tradition as the expectation that rulers ought to be virtuous above all else.

Third, he states that the true goal of a ruler is to stay in power.  As it is impossible, through his logic, for a ruler to remain in power and always act virtuously, it is best for a ruler to be equipped to know how and when to be unrighteous.  The rest of the work aims to prepare the ruler accordingly.

Typical analysis holds that Machiavelli’s goals are more realistic given his upfront explanation of the ever-present corruption of political rule.  Yet Erasmus did not start with an unrealistic assessment of his contemporaries, for, in the words of Halkin, “His grievances were born out of a harsh analysis of the role of the Church in the Catholic world. The obstacles that he perceived in the way of the Gospel were scandalous and menacing realities: war, Machiavellianism, greed, immorality.”  While the use of Machiavellian here is retrospective (there is no indication that Erasmus read The Prince while writing his own mirror) the inclusion of these qualities as problems he sought to fix is vital.

At the outset of the work Erasmus was not naively blinded to the harsh realities Machiavelli desires to address.  Rather, the theologian offers his work as an attempted remedy to a society in turmoil.  It is meant as a means to prevent, not encourage, the continued proliferation of political abuses.  The ideal works, likes those of Erasmus, sought to hold the prince to a higher moral standard, while the realistic approach of Machiavelli seems to merely excuse a prince’s baser motives as a means to maintain or expand power.

Moreover, Machiavelli assumes that men cannot be good in the face of an evil and still succeed.  Erasmus, on the other hand, has faith that his message could change the entire empire – if heeded by those in power.  As European contemporaries, albeit in very different political roles and geo-political contexts, they both recognized with a bold-faced certainty the challenges that faced the rulers of their age.  The difference came in the reflections each desired their princes to see as they looked into their respective mirrors and learned how to become a king.

Competing Portraits of a Prince

Concerned primarily with the virtue of the ruler, Erasmus pronounces, “What is it that distinguishes a real king from the actor? It is the spirit befitting a prince.  I mean he must be like a father to the state.  It is on this basis that the people swore allegiance to him.” In similar fashion he later quipped, “For it is the character, not the title, that marks the king.”  His view on the intrinsic value of the prince’s own virtue led to his emphasis on the education and moral formation of a prince, starting in infancy with careful selection of nurses and, later, tutors.

Deeply influenced by Christian thought, Erasmus believed that it was not just in the virtues of antiquity that a prince ought to be trained, but also the specific commands of Christ.  The primacy of religious belief for the makings of a good prince formed the central pillar of Erasmus’ vision for ideal leadership in a Christian state.  He penned, “Before all else the story of Christ must be firmly rooted in the mind of the prince…He should be taught that the teachings of Christ apply to no one more than to the prince.”

Through a biblical model of self-sacrifice, the common good would be promoted and the prince made truly virtuous.  Erasmus concluded, “A man who is great because of his own good qualities, that is, his virtues, will be great even if his princely authority is stripped from him.”  Thus the prince who is Christian, philosophical, and true, should risk loosing his power rather than seek to keep it through baser means.

Machiavelli’s prince, however, has an altogether different appearance.  Encouraged to train for facing the worst in men, the prince “…should do what is right if he can; but he must be prepared to do wrong if necessary.”  Sebastian de Grazia, noted biographer of Machiavelli, suggests that instead of following the popularized paraphrase of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:30, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ Niccolo’s norm, lends itself to the notion of, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” These two rules resemble each other in that they both are urging reciprocated conduct: the scriptural based upon desired treatment of the self, Niccolo’s on the anticipated fallenness of others.

Once again critiquing the traditional examples of political thought which, “…constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could,” Machiavelli insists that it is impossible for men to both attain virtue and rule well.  He continues, “…for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.”  The blatant self-preservation of the Machiavellian prince starkly contrasts with the self-sacrificial model presented by Erasmus.

Moreover, Machiavelli counters the inherent need for the Christian prince to attain virtue in more than name only with his assertion, “So a ruler need not have all the positive qualities I listed earlier, but he must seem to have them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you have them and never make any exceptions, then you will suffer for it; while if you merely appear to have them, they will benefit you.”

Machiavelli asserts that the motive for the prince’s behavior ought to be based on an opportunistic assessment of what would keep the ruler in power rather than an adherence to absolute norms.  As he counseled, “So you should seem to be compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest, religious, and, indeed, be all these things; but at the same time you should be constantly prepared, so that, if these become liabilities, you are trained and ready to become their opposites.”

Erasmus, however, envisioned a different form of preparation for the Christian prince.  He claimed, “It is not enough just to hand out precepts to restrain the prince from vices or to incite him to a better course – they must be impressed, crammed in, inculcated, and in one way and another be kept before him, now by a suggestive thought, now by a fable, now by an analogy, now by a proverb.”

His is a deep and thorough formation of the entire character of the prince.  It is by constancy and devotion to moral absolutes that a prince’s legacy will be determined. “The prestige of a prince, his greatness, his majesty,” he elaborates, “must not be developed and preserved by fortune’s wild display, but by wisdom, solidarity, and good deeds.”

Machiavelli is not without a belief in human agency.  He bases the ability of the prince to maintain his power on a doctrine of self-preservation and individual initiative and, like Erasmus, dismisses views that belittle political changes as the sole realm of fate or political pre-destination. “God does not want to have to do the whole thing,” Machiavelli states, “for he likes to leave us our free will so we can lay claim to part of the glory by earning it.”

While out of character for most of The Prince, such lofty language found in Machiavelli’s final chapter suggests that even with the acknowledged constant brutal realities of the depravity of man, he still seeks hope in the ability of some men to lead their polity beyond a state of chaos or servitude.

The question remains, to what end ought princes apply their free will?

Self-Interest vs. the Common Good

A primary distinction between the more traditional mirror of Erasmus and the modern mirror of Machiavelli is the chief end for a prince to aspire.  Highlighted above, the idealist works trumpet the importance of serving for the common good, while the realist view of Machiavelli encourages princes to seek after their natural inclination for a self-interested preservation of power.

Erasmus viewed this element of his work as one intertwined with the chief ends of antiquity.  In referencing Plato’s Guardians, he cautioned, “Only those who govern the state not for themselves but for the good of the state itself, deserve the title ‘prince.’  His titles mean nothing in the case of one who rules to suit himself and measures everything to his own convenience: he is no prince, but a tyrant.”

Seeking synthesis in the two great philosophical traditions of antiquity, he continues with supportive summarization of Aristotle’s Politics.  Erasmus warns his readers,

A prince is vitally concerned with the needs of his subjects, even while engaged in personal matters.  On the other hand, if a tyrant ever chances to do something good for his subjects, he turns that to his own personal gain.  Those who look out for their people only in so far as it redounds to their personal advantage, hold their subjects in the same status as the average man considers his horse or ass.

Considered in light of Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice for rulers to change as needed in order to maintain their rule, as articulated in The Prince, Erasmus’ mirror begins to read as a harsh condemnation for all forms of political rule grounded in the self-interest of the rulers over the ruled.

One defense of Machiavelli on this score is his political context.  The relative political instability of the Italian principalities may warrant a reading that it was in the common good of those states for the ruler stay in power.  Still, this argument cannot overlook the classical emphasis on the character of the prince.  It is not enough, claims Erasmus time and again, for the action of rulers to have virtuous ends.  These ends must be achieved through virtuous means, carried forth by a ruler whose character is submitted to a higher standard, specifically for Erasmus, submitted to the Trinitarian God of Christian teachings.

To encourage his prince to follow in the way of Christ, Erasmus charged, “It is the duty of a good prince to consider the welfare of his people, even at the cost of his own life if need be.  But that prince does not really die who loses his life in such a cause.”  Erasmus’ awareness of the potential end for a virtuous prince to be one of death bespeaks not of an ideal polity but of a weary admission of the baseness of the world.  In fact, for Erasmus, the self-interested view of governance espoused by Machiavelli was the very heart of Christendom’s greatest ills:

Now, while everyone is looking out for his own interests, while popes and bishops are deeply concerned over power and wealth, while princes are driven headlong by ambition or anger, while all follow after them for the sake of their own gain, it is not surprising that we run straight into a whirlwind of affairs under the guidance of folly.

Considered in light of De Grazia’s Machivellian adage to ‘do unto others as they would do unto you,’ greater clarity emerges on the distinctions between Erasmus and Machiavelli.  The heart of their disagreement, it appears, is not over which one is more based in reality.  Rather, they differ on how a prince ought to handle the anticipated foibles of humanity: a question of both practicality and ideology.

Wickedness and Redemption

DeGrazia suggests that Machiavelli’s apparent rejection of the biblically based Golden Rule was stemmed from, “The doctrine of men’s evil disposition – reiterated several times in the qualities chapters of The Prince.”  In another popular translation of The Prince, Machiavelli concluded his observations on the ends justifying the means,  “For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar.”  When faced with vulgarity and meanness in others there is only one person for the ruler to trust: themselves.  “No method of defense is good, certain, and lasting,” Machiavelli insists, “that does not depend on your own decisions and your own strength [virtu].”

While a prince ought to aspire to some good, and he apparently has some freedom to achieve self-betterment and self-control, he also cannot loose touch with the inherent vulgarity of men, including his own.  “It may be difficult for men to resist their wicked tendencies and easy for them to flow into sin; doctrinally, at least, they still have the choice of resistance, of control, of good acts.”  The choice to be better, however, is not assured for even the prince, let alone his political competitors.  The only fact a prince can count on is that others will act through their vulgar nature, and he must prepare and respond in all things with this anticipation in mind.

Thus, not only must a prince be prepared to use baser methods if he anticipates a challenge to his authority, he is also free to lie or abuse his own people if the situation requires such action to secure power.  As he writes, “You will find people are so simple-minded and so preoccupied with their immediate concerns, that if you set out to deceive them, you will always find plenty of them who will let themselves be deceived.”  According to Machiavelli’s mirror, the certainty of vulgarity in all men both justifies and demands baser actions on the part of the ruler.

The shrewd approach recommended to Machiavelli’s prince is to maintain the appearance of moderation in all things, with an ever-watchful eye for the next attempt to steal, threaten, or undermine their power.  While a reaction to reality, the moral justification (or lack thereof) for less than virtuous leadership is based on a theoretical assumption regarding the nature of man.

Moreover, his supposedly pragmatic rejection of ideal regimes begins to form his own theoretical imperatives.  He leads princes to assume that the baseness of mankind is so great the only way to counter these forces is through equally base actions. Such is a basis of a new moral theory.

Machiaevelli’s mirror, supposedly offered as a practical guidebook for rulers’ reality, begins to read as a dystopian contrast to works like Thomas More’s 1515 Utopia (the namesake for the genre).  Machiavelli’s ethic and the picture the world he paints, given his absolute claims regarding human nature and the only proper response to human depravity, may be just as much a work of fantasy as very mirrors he set out to condemn.

On the question of sin, Erasmus looks to the baseness of mankind first through the cross of Christ.  To avoid abuses of power he argues the prince ought to learn how,

Nature created all men equal, and slavery was superimposed on nature, which fact the laws of even the pagans recognized.  Now stop and think how out of proportion it is for a Christian to usurp full power over other Christians, whom the laws did not deign to be slaves, and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery.

To Erasmus, all men are depraved but for those who call upon Christ there is also hope for redemption from their own depravity. This view, as articulated in his mirror, does not mean that Erasmus denied the political and cultural realities of his time.  Rather, he looks to the prince as a natural source for moral guidance and reformation in social matters.  He notes the tendency for corruption and “unruly” natures of magistrates and common people alike and thus concluded, “There is just one blessed stay in this tide of evils – the unsullied character of the prince.  If he, too, is overcome by foolish ideas and base desires, what last ray of hope is there for the state?”

The language in these passages emphasizes the difficulties facing the prince in light of the depravity of man.  He also cautions against attempts to corrupt princes, due to the power by example they hold for the people.  “Just as one who poisons the public fountain from which all drink deserves more than one punishment,” asserts Erasmus, “so he is the most harmful who infects the mind of the prince with base idea, which later produce the destruction of so many men.”

Instead of rejecting the possibility for social improvement through political leadership, Erasmus saw the potential for a prince to help correct these ills.  His ideal was a Christian society where the rulers looked to model their headship of the people after Christ’s headship of the Church.  For the prince, “All his plans, all his efforts, all his interests will be turned to the one aim of ruling over the province entrusted to him in such a manner that when Christ makes the final reckoning he will win approval and leave a very honorable memory of himself among all his fellow men.”

While not an enterprise that guarantees success, his vision is perhaps not so idealistic that it could not have been achieved.   To Erasmus, his words and counsel offered more than a mere dream, for he “…actually believed he was following the path of progress inherent in historical time.”  His vision for the Christian prince did not call for a perfect society free of corruption, sin, or danger.  For Erasmus, hope for societal redemption in Christendom could begin with the turning of a single man: the prince.  The goal of The Education of a Christian Prince was idealistic, but his means were fundamentally pragmatic.

Concluding Thoughts: Evaluating the Mission

Erasmus’ mirror sought to give “instruction on a subject that no theologian would dare to undertake.  In these years Erasmus was conscious of his strength and his boldness.  He had a mission to fulfill.”  Unfortunately, his mission to see a renewal of piety and peace in all sectors of a united Christendom appears to have been a losing battle from the very start.

Scholars note that Charles V, “was not a model of the Christian, peaceful prince” and “probably did not read” the copy of Erasmus’ Christian Prince, gifted in 1516.  Yet even in the face of rejection in his own time, Erasmus continued to believe that “…history would definitely bring improvement on all fronts – partly as the outcome of a natural process, but mainly because God would have it so and even used his detractors to this end.”

Erasmus was not alone in his ultimate appeal to God for the future success of his goals.  While hardly a religious work, Machiavelli’s concluding chapter mentions God at least half a dozen times. DeGrazio surmised, “The references to the divine in The Prince comprise significant metaphysical and theological statements, with political bearings just as significant.”  Bemoaning the sad state of Italian affairs as the oft conquered and vanquished, he cried out to his future prince, “Italy, so long enslaved, awaits her redeemer.”

To some degree his work was as much a failure in his own age as that of Erasmus.  Machiavelli never gained the employment with the Medici family he aspired to, nor did he live to see the redemption of Italy from internal conflict and external conquests.  Yet the final words of his practical rulebook are dedicated to a famous stanza by Christian Humanist Plutarch, which prophesies a restored future for the Italian people.  Trapped in a depraved world where the vulgarity of men must be countered at every turn, Machiavelli awaits the ideal of his country’s savior.

In an entirely different context, Erasmus quotes wisdom from Plutarch’s own mirror, Discourse to an Unlearned Prince: “When you who are a prince, a Christian prince, hear and read that you are the likeness of God and his vicar, do not swell with pride on this account, but rather take pains that you correspond to your wonderful archetype, whom it is hard, but not unseemly, to follow.”

Erasmus saw no need to appeal for the coming of a political savior for he saw the political realm in light of the salvation of Christ.  The Christian prince, while an important figure in God’s ordained social hierarchy of the time, was not the savior of Christendom.  In fact, it was only through imitating the real savior, Jesus Christ, that he could ever hope to become a true prince in both spirit and name.

One mirror, in the name of pragmatism, offers his people a vision of the future that may always search fruitlessly for a missing ideal. The other, through a hopeful vision for a social incarnation of an already realized ideal (that of the victory of Christ), suggests a pragmatic response to the corruption of his time.  Both works, composed during a watershed era of Western history, can serve as a reminder for students and practitioners of government that the ideal and the real, the theoretical and the practical, are often linked more closely than some professors and experts may lead us to believe.

Even the most hardened realist bases their assumptions on some form of philosophical principles and moral ethic. In turn, the loftiest ideals carry practical implications for the here and now.  To overlook the interconnected nature of the pragmatic and the theoretical risks misunderstanding our political history and thereby endangering the cogency of how we shape our political future.

In light of recent political events, these two mirrors also challenge us to ask and assess the following of our contemporary politicians: what are the ends they seek and by which means will they achieve them?

We cannot set aside questions of ethics, morality, and character as if they have no bearing on political leadership.  Erasmus understood the significance of a ruler’s virtue for the purpose of inculcating (or undermining) the virtue of the people.  Even the realism of Machiavelli had to wrestle with these notions, finding that pure pragmatism devoid of moral assumptions and ideal ends does not exist.  Christendom as a ruling political empire in the West may be a notion of the past, but as Christians we can still learn from the wisdom – and follies – of those who came before us.

Seen in a certain light, our times are very dark indeed.  Which path will we choose?  Which path will you advocate?  A power hungry and base self-preservation, searching after some form of national redemption and redeemer?  Or a self-sacrificing vision, not defined by titles or earthly victories, but rather built upon the eternal victory of Christ and a refusal to partake in poisoning the virtue of the public well against the witness of His image?

 

*I had trouble copying footnotes to WordPress for this post.  When I have more time I will update with appropriate citations.  In the meantime, let me know if any questions arise regarding my quotes, assertions, and sources.

Bibliography

Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Bejczy, Istvan. Erasmus and the Middle Ages: The Historical Consciousness of a Christian Humanist. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Benner, Erica. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009.

De Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Halkin, Leon-e. Erasmus: A Critical Biography. Translated by John Tonkin. Cambridge , Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” In Selected Poltical Writings, by David Wooton. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.

Olin, John C. “Erasmus and Reform.” In Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings, by Desiderius Erasmus, 1-21. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1973.

Rummel, Erika. Erasmus. New York: Continuum Books, 2004.

 

Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure: A 2016 Voters Guide for Disaffected Christian Conservatives

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If you are an evangelical Christian and an independent conservative, like me, you are probably incredibly torn on how to vote in the upcoming presidential election.  Even for those of you who are used to seeing your vote in terms of a “lesser of two evils,” you are struggling to identify just who or what that lesser evil is.  You are not alone and your uncertainty is completely justified.  Lacking a natural candidate, we find ourselves faced with a multitude of options and none of them seem particularly satisfying.  So in an attempt to clarify the options before us, I offer this voting guide for disaffected conservatives concerned with Christian values in the civic sphere.

I divided the options open to conservative voters into five major choices: 1) Vote for “The Nominee”; 2) Vote for “Her”; 3) Vote for “The Other Guy”; 4) “Choose Your Own Candidate”; and 5) Vote for No-One.  Skip ahead to those sections most prevalent to you, or read through them all at your leisure.

The premise of this guide is that all of these choices are morally available to us in this country, and as such we should give them due consideration.  While I’m sure some “friends” in your social network are pressuring you to make a certain decision as “the only right one,” I don’t happen to believe such a choice exists before us and there seems to be good reasons for almost all, if not all, of these five options.  Use your own discernment and make the choice that best aligns with your conscience, your faith, and your understanding of voting and citizenship.

If you already know who you want to vote for then good for you! Obviously you don’t need help making this decision so this isn’t a piece written for you.

For my fellow undecideds, if this begins to read a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks where nearly every choice leads you to an untimely end, I feel you.  Yet choose one of these five we must, even if that choice is one of inaction.  I hope that this piece can be one source to help you decide in the coming months how to best utilize your freedom to vote (or not to vote) as you deem best.

A few disclosures before we start: I try to note my own biases where relevant, so for the record I am a white, highly educated, Evangelical (Anglican) Christian millennial, currently a stay at home mom, and a registered Independent who resides in the “purple” state of Virginia.  I am pro-liberty and pro-life which often leads me to support libertarian based policies on the economy, immigration, and foreign policy, with deep reservations over some libertarian perspectives on our common morality.

Prior to this election I mostly voted Republican and in the 2016 primaries I supported Rand Paul and John Kasich.  Before becoming a mom I pursued a series of degrees related to politics (international relations), history, and Christianity and travelled to many countries outside the US, especially in the Middle East.  I am, in essence, the personification of a typical #NeverTrump voter.  However, I try my best to outline which of you might find Donald Trump the best choice this year.

Our choices in 2016 – By the candidates:

1. Vote for “The Nominee” (a.k.a. Donald Trump)

Donald J. Trump likely needs no introduction at this point.  It is the pending nomination of this megalomaniac billionaire as the Republican nominee which has primarily created the conundrum we face.  If you are anything like our family, you watched the primaries with a mixture of shock, horror, and denial.  You still can’t believe the same political party so fixated in the past on public virtue has deemed his antics and rhetoric an acceptable representation of their message.

Yet many public figures, several of whom you probably respect, have come to embrace or even actively endorse him in recent weeks.  Personally, I have a hard time looking past his erratic nature, constant lies, childish personal attacks, racially charged rhetoric, irresponsible policy suggestions and obvious ignorance, but apparently not everyone finds these issues to be disqualifying.  Or at the very least, his failures are deemed to be the lesser evil set before us and thus a vote for him is considered a necessary, if unpalatable, choice.

Why Yes

Even if you ultimately choose to cast a vote for Donald Trump, chances are it will be hard to say you support the candidate himself.  This makes you what I think of as one of the “vote for The Nominee” advocates.  Like many of the current leaders within the GOP, you acknowledge you will probably vote for Mr. Trump, but wish to do so with as little of a connection to the actual man as possible.  You remain concerned about a number of issues raised by Trump’s candidacy, but you think a Republican president, no matter how inconsistent or foul, is still a better option than the alternatives, primarily Hillary Clinton.  Ultimately, Donald Trump represents a placeholder: flawed, perhaps, but the best pragmatic option available to you for the advancement of conservative principles in this election.

The most pressing reason why this choice might be right for you is if you are primarily concerned with appointees to the Supreme Court.  You hope to ensure with this election that the court will remain ideologically balanced following the sudden death of Antonin Scalia.  You even hope that the court could turn in favor of conservative judicial interpretation following the potential death of more justices in the next four years (a morbid thought for the otherwise pro-life, I know).

You hope for this because it could have major ramifications on future cases related to critical issues like abortion, religious freedom, gun rights, healthcare, executive power, and immigration.  For some social conservatives and gun rights advocates this could be an important enough issue for you to justify a vote for Trump on its own merit.  You may even find yourself desiring to print out his list of hypothetical nominees and bring it with you on voting day as a reminder for why you are doing this.

It is still a risk to support him primarily on this basis.  For even though Donald Trump has released a very conservative list of potential nominees, he has already left room to negotiate his way out of those names if he deems it necessary.  He also has not really assured with clarity or consistency that any future justice appointees beyond Scalia’s replacement would share this ideological bent.  And even if he did promise that tomorrow, would you believe him?  Perhaps not.  But you argue that with Trump as president there is at least a chance for justices of a conservative nature to be nominated, whereas with Hillary Clinton there is a zero-percent likelihood that she would nominate an originalist with a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-marriage record. You take that argument for what it is: a hope and a prayer.

This brings us to a second reason to vote for “The Nominee.”  To you, general elections for president are primarily about the two major parties and you only want to vote for someone who can possibly win.  I personally disagree with this assessment.  However, if this is how you see the world then you really only believe that you have two choices, not five.  In that case, you must judge which wretched candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, best represents you and/or is best for the country.

Perhaps you will conclude that you trust a Trump administration if not Trump the man.  Perhaps you are so appalled by the worldview or record of Hillary Clinton that you believe she is still worse than what Trump has to offer.  Or maybe you just hear something you agree with in the policies Donald Trump has suggested, and you agree with it enough to compromise any other beliefs or concerns that a vote for him may entail.

If you are wary of Free Trade, NATO, Muslims, illegal immigrants or desire to not just secure the border but also dramatically increase deportations – among other single issue policies like energy, military growth, tax cuts, healthcare, and preserving social security – then you may find yourself desiring to vote quite openly by name for Donald J. Trump, warts and all.  Included in this group are also those so tired of politicians that you believe it would be best for someone lacking political experience to try their hand at the presidency.  In this case you may not need to read on, for Donald Trump is your best candidate for 2016.

Whatever your reasons, some (perhaps many) of you will likely end up voting for this man come November.  If you do, I’d like to add a request from those who, like myself, find that this decision is hard to reconcile with our beliefs.  No matter your reasoning, I ask that you do not let partisan patterns of coloring the world in favor of your chosen candidate lead you to blindness of this man’s weaknesses or keep you from speaking out against the things he says or does which are abhorrent.

It’s one thing to decide to vote for him; it’s another to advocate for him or remain silent in the defense of your “lesser” evil.  If he does win and attempts to make any of his more criminal policy suggestions into reality, such as order attacks on the family members of terrorists or use the powers of the federal government to crack-down on journalists who don’t portray him in the best possible light, I hope you will be among the first to speak out against him no matter who he nominates to the Supreme Court.

Why No

If you have concluded that it is an unacceptable option to elect someone as leader of the free world who is crass, emotionally unstable, unprepared to address the basic demands of the office, and willing to suggest heinous, unconstitutional, and even criminal policies just to claim a news cycle, then Donald Trump is not your candidate.  From the ugly rise of the young alt-right to the embrace of the blatant racism found in his recent attacks against the judge overseeing his Trump University fraud case in California, you are appalled at the type of support this man is receiving.  You can’t fathom such ideas being rewarded with the powers of our chief executive. Bad behavior should be met with consequences, even if they are painful for all involved, not reinforced with rewards.

For some of you, his less than ardent commitment to conservative principles (to put it nicely) might be enough to rule him out.  Yet while you may have deep policy differences with the Trump campaign, chances are your deepest reservations are tied to concerns about his character, rhetoric, lack of experience, and motives.  While all of his policies have been declared by the candidate himself as inherently “negotiable” and as mere “suggestions”, I’m afraid his character is not.  As Thomas Sowell aptly noted, “A man in his 60s has life-long habits that are not likely to change. Age brings habits, even if it does not bring maturity.”

If you were persuaded early on by arguments from Christian leaders like those offered by Max Lucado on decency, or later by Russell Moore on the potential damage that support for this man could have for the fellowship and witness of Christians within minority communities, then Donald Trump is probably not the best option available to you.  You are unswayed by arguments like the one regarding the future of the Supreme Court for you question Trump’s intentions to follow through on his promises.  Or, you see great deal of potential evil in other areas that also concern you like immigration (border walls and racial insults bring to mind the worst of modernity?), or dangers for foreign policy (talked to anyone from the intelligence community lately?) or the economy (tariffs and trade wars not your thing?) that outweigh, or at least render even, any possible gains from a hypothetical conservative court.

It’s probably disquieting to relinquish the possibility of replacing Antonin Scalia with another like-minded justice, but you still cannot find yourself able to support or advance the leadership offered by Donald Trump.  You are willing to take this hit and surrender the future of the Court for the next few decades in exchange for “principled dissent.” It is all in God’s hands anyway, therefore you decide to release this future back to Him.

It’s possible that you are willing to look beyond the social conservative purity tests of pro-life/pro-marriage (for example, you voted for pro-choice Republican candidates in the past).  Therefore you aren’t compelled by a need to vote solely on that basis. Or you find it difficult to use the Trump campaign’s official support of these types of “Christian” policies as justification to overlook the other ways he daily undermines your closely held understandings of public virtue, human dignity, compassion, truth, and leadership.

Maybe you are someone versed in psychology or patterns of abuse and you just can’t bring yourself to vote for a person who so openly engages in dysfunctional and potentially clinical behavior.  Or perhaps, like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, John Kasich and other figures who have publicly announced their difficulty or inability to vote for Trump, you don’t know how you could explain or justify this decision to your children or grandchildren.  You you don’t want them to ever look up to this man or believe his public behavior is in some way acceptable, defensible, or worthy of support.

You are so concerned by the ramifications that a Trump presidency presents for the safety, prosperity, and common decency of this country, or for a compromised ability to witness Christ to a needy world, that you are willing to consider options beyond the Republican nominee. If any of these describe you, I encourage you to keep reading.

2. Vote for “Her” (a.k.a. Hillary Clinton)

I know what you are thinking: “Is this a joke?”  Sadly, I’m quite serious.  Not only is Hillary Rodham Clinton – another candidate not needing an introduction – an option by way of her likely nomination by the DNC, but she is most definitely a very real choice for traditionally Republican voters thanks to the deep problems presented by the nomination of Donald Trump.  Yes, please take minute to let that fact sink in.

As one astute pundit noted, thanks to Trump’s frequent outrageous statements and behavior Clinton is now able to at least appear reasonable, rational, and presidential, if not actually embody those qualities in the eyes of a majority of the nation.  Her June 2, 2016 foreign policy speech highlighted this contrast well, likely the first of many such speeches to come.  But is she really a safer or more responsible choice than Trump?

Why Yes

My guess is that most conservatives who vote for Hilary Clinton will ultimately choose to do so on the basis on foreign policy and not a shared morality.  It is her strongest general election argument and it is no surprise that this is how she has chosen to frame her opposition to Trump.  This might be an option for you if you worry about the temperament of the person who has access to our nuclear codes and our highest levels of intelligence briefings.  If you are a neoconservative in foreign policy and this lens of national security is one of your primary policy concerns, then it should be an easy choice – one that some prominent conservative ideologues have already publicly announced.

But even if you are a critic of Clinton’s often abysmal record, including her tendencies toward ill-fated military engagement, her handling of Benghazi, and her questionable judgment behind the ongoing classified email investigation, she still might prove to be the safer or less frightening choice.  Personally, I lean toward non-interventionist policies and don’t support much in her record.  Yet I am schooled enough in foreign policy and international relations to understand that maintaining a less than desirable status quo is preferable to emotionally charged unpredictability, incompetence, and incoherence on the world stage.  You don’t get to stop the camera and take 2 (or 22) in diplomacy and war.

In fact, stability could be why, in the words of my life-long Republican mother, you may find yourself thinking in awe that “Hillary Clinton might be the best hope we have to save the republic.” I don’t think most Christian conservative voters are looking to permanently switch parties (although Reince Priebus and his ilk are doing an excellent job at making a case for why we should reconsider political allegiances).  Neither are you looking to support most of Clinton’s agenda.

But in an election filled with deeply pragmatic choices of compromise, voting for a candidate whom you believe to be, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, “wrong about absolutely everything, but…wrong within normal parameters,” could be the lesser evil.  Ironically her famous “3 A.M. phone call” argument is even more relevant in this election than ever. Who cares about the Supreme Court if we elect someone who could potentially trigger a nuclear WWIII?

You assess that choosing Hillary Clinton, even if you have a long history of antipathy towards her, probably means lower risks of economic collapse or international political instability.  For those radical conservatives (count me as one!) who support sanity in our immigration policy, it means a movement toward some kind of realistic solution for the millions of undocumented workers who could otherwise be paying taxes, given newfound dignity, and integrated into our society.

Toss in a dash of Alexander Hamilton’s now popular adage, “If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.” Add a pinch of the notion that most of you who vote for, or at least acquiesce to, Clinton in 2016 will almost immediately look for challenger to support in 2020, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty persuasive argument.

I’m not saying there will be some kind of come to Jesus moment where a bunch of us decide the Democrats have been right all along.  Rather I am suggesting that for many of you there is newfound reason to reevaluate your distaste for certain politicians and view them with fresh eyes.  Perhaps you think it’s time to ask anew just why Hillary Clinton is so wrong for the presidency in light of the realities of who the republican nominee is and what he has chosen to represent.

I found the knee-jerk response of prominent politicians like Marco Rubio to reveal our own madness on this matter: just why is Hillary so bad that we must have Donald Trump, a man Rubio publicly deemed “an erratic individual,” a “lunatic,” and “con-artist,” at all costs?  The answer to this query is not as obvious to me as so many die-hard Republican partisans now assert.  If you are considering a vote for Clinton – or at least a non-vote for Trump – I expect you agree.

Honestly, I think most conservatives who will not be voting for Donald Trump, whatever that looks like, have at least unconsciously accepted some, if not all, of these arguments.  Barring a major shift in our national political behavior, either Trump or Clinton will be president.  If you are choosing a #NeverTrump position I’m not sure you can also faithfully be 100% #NeverHillary, even if you decide that you cannot personally cast a vote for her.

Some of you, it’s important to note, share a few key interests with the Democratic Party platform, such as addressing environmental conservation, racial injustice, or gender inequality. It’s ok to be a voter who changes up party support from time to time.  If this description fits you then you maybe this choice isn’t going to be all that difficult in the end.  You may find the Clinton campaign to be a more natural fit given the options.

For those who believe that you must vote for the candidate of one of our two major parties, I think Clinton offers a very realistic alternative worthy of consideration as your version of a “lesser evil.” It is not the most desirable option and it carries significant trade-offs, as discussed below.  For many of you the reality of another Clinton family presidency is downright depressing. But again, when faced with bad options sometimes you have to make less than appealing choices.

Why No

Well, the reasons here to not vote for Clinton are aplenty.  Most of them fall along party lines and you already know them well.  You have likely voiced them vociferously at TV screens and family dinners for years.  However, I think the most important reason to not vote for Hillary Clinton is if pro-life policies are of the upmost importance to you, as well as a whole host of other social issues.  A Clinton presidency will be at least as radical as the Obama administration on issues of human sexuality, marriage, and abortion, if not even more so.  This could have very serious ramifications for Christian businesses, schools, and possibly even churches.

If you care about the Supreme Court appointments first and foremost, then she is definitely not a good choice for you.  If you are concerned with restricting our military presence overseas, believe she ought to be in jail, or find the thought of Bill Clinton back in the White House chilling, then this is also not a great option for you.  If you believe that we can’t possibly survive another 4 years of a liberal political agenda in this nation and Dinesh D’Souza’s political films rank among your favorites, then you should probably rule her out.

None of the positive arguments listed above negate her colorful past full of lots of “gates”, unanswered questions, and evasive pretension.  They don’t fix any real perception of how trustworthy she is, or address concerns about her judgement.  They also can’t effectively be used to defend against her liberal voting record and philosophy on just about every major policy area of concern.  So basically if you aren’t swayed by arguments that you need to restrict your voting choices to two corrupt liars with different letters listed behind their names, or if you aren’t all that worried about potential crises like trade wars, nuclear wars, and unconstitutional acts as manifested in a potential Trump presidency, then she is probably not your candidate.

3. Vote for “The Other Guy” (a.k.a. Gary Johnson)

Gary Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, is the newly chosen nominee for the Libertarian Party.  As of today he is the only other presidential candidate who will appear on the ballot in all 50 states.  Depending on your social network, there is a decent chance that you have never heard of him or see him merely as “The Other Guy.”  Unlike Trump and Clinton, he already has a running mate, another former two-term Republican governor, Bill Weld of Massachusetts.  They are billing themselves as the “governor ticket” and are currently engaged in a media frenzy to try to raise money and get their names out there.

Their first major hurdle comes in regards to the debates, for the committee overseeing the general election presidential debates currently mandates that candidates must be polling nationally at 15% or higher in five major polls in order to be included.  This is a very difficult feat for anyone other than the nominees of our two major parties. For some perspective on the difficulty of this task, Johnson also ran for the Libertarian Party in 2012, winning just shy of 1% of the popular vote with 1.2 million votes.

However, in a recent poll (the only one where his name was even included) Johnson was polling at 11%, so there is still reason to believe the Johnson/Weld ticket could possibly see unprecedented third party success come November.  As an aside, I think if you are even toying with voting for Johnson and happen to be queried for a poll, it is to everyone’s benefit for you to say that you would vote Libertarian just to get a third voice on the stage come this fall.

Why Yes

The motto of the Libertarian Party, as defined by Gary Johnson, is that they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  This is a great choice for you if your primary concern is to see a return to (or a beginning of?) conservative economic principles in this country.  If you fundamentally want to see the size of the government decrease and a more strict enforcement of the constitution, the Libertarian platform is your answer.  Particularly so in this election with both candidates of the two major parties openly campaigning as authoritarians who see the federal government as a vehicle for solving most problems at home and abroad.

Johnson is also a good choice for those who advocate for free trade, more open borders, legal status for immigrants, entitlement reform, and limited intervention overseas.  You may also be drawn to this ticket if executive political experience is one of your most treasured qualities to look for in a president and vice president.  It is also possible that you may choose to support them if you are looking to mix-up the two party dominance of the past and want to make it more commonplace for emerging third parties to gain traction and exposure.

You recognize they are unlikely to win this year, but you also believe that it is precisely this kind of thinking which has kept our electoral options very narrow and unappealing in the past.  You reason that if everyone who said they would vote third party candidate “if only they could win,” actually did vote third party, then someone like Johnson might have a fighting chance for success.  So while you can’t change the entrenched habits of others, perhaps starting this year with changing your own is a step in the right direction.

All these reasons probably sound great to disenfranchised conservatives (especially my fellow millennial voters), and in some ways they really are.  But the Johnson/Weld ticket does come with some serious detractions, especially for voters who previously or currently consider(ed) themselves to be social conservatives or values voters.  You need to ask yourself if you can accept pro-choice candidates who seek to uphold federal precedent on abortion (but who are against late-term abortions), if you can see any benefits in the legalization of marijuana, if you are willing to stop looking to the federal government to define marriage, and if you believe that when a person is engaged in commerce they must serve all customers regardless of any personal or religious objections to the request.

These are not easy questions, and my guess is that there may be some compromises you are ok with and others you will have a really hard time supporting.  Of course, most of these compromises are also found in a vote for Hillary Clinton without the ideological benefit of a commitment to fiscal conservatism, constitutionalism, and limited government. It is also important to note that on most issues (the proverbial wedding cake example is a troubling exception for Johnson) libertarians advocate that it is not the role of the federal government to tell you how to live so long as you aren’t using your freedoms to hurt others.  So while they may support, say, LGBT causes, they aren’t for using something like the public education system to enforce or promote this worldview.

For those of you who, like myself, have lived in blue states for most of your life where it is common for fellow conservatives to not share all of your social convictions, these compromises may seem more commonplace and necessary than they will to our red state brethren.  Also, you may find that the libertarian approach to some of our more contentious social divides presents an attractive way forward in a live and let live kind of way. Johnson/Weld remains a great choice for those of you who are fundamentally concerned about the direction of our economy and the size and scope of our federal government.

Why No

If the core issues of social conservatism are at the heart of your voting choices then Johnson/Weld is probably not for you.  They are both, as mentioned above, pro-choice, supportive of LGBT causes, and are in favor of the legalization of most drugs.  In fact, Johnson himself was formerly CEO of a company that makes cannabis products and openly admits to recreational use of marijuana in the recent past.

While much of their advocacy is through the lens of a limited federal government, on the whole they come as advertised: socially liberal.  If this is not a compromise you are comfortable making, even considering the unpalatable nature of this year’s choices, then you are unlikely to want to vote for Johnson.  The Libertarian Party certainly has some prominent pro-life members (like Ron Paul or primary challenger Austin Peterson who gained short term support this month from the likes of Glenn Beck), but the core of the Party has not been terribly friendly to social conservatives on the whole.

The ideological narrowness of the Libertarian Party has not only restricted their ability to build coalitions in the past, but it also raises questions about their potential effectiveness as a third party moving into the future.  If you are looking to vote for a likely winner, or if you at least want to support a movement you can get behind in years to come that will also welcome your differences of opinion, this might not be your best choice.  Finally, if a robust and global military in the neoconservative tradition is important to you, or if you are deeply concerned about border security, you probably won’t be satisfied with their policy proposals.

4. “Choose Your Own Candidate” (Vote for Another 3rd Party Candidate or Write-In)

While most of the pros and cons of voting for an obscure third party or writing-in a candidate of your choice align with the points I make below for choice #5, it’s worth noting this as a separate option unto itself.  In terms of other third party candidates we may still be in flux with who will run, although it is increasing unlikely – but not impossible – for a new independent challenger to get their name on the ballot in all 50 states.  Another third party candidate of note is Darrell Castle and his running-mate Scott Bradley of the Constitution party, who are currently approved for the ballot in 18 states.

Why Yes

This might just be the best choice for the truly desperate or dispossessed.  If none of the other three candidates listed above are acceptable choices to you, but you still want to vote for someone and not just stay home or leave the ballot blank, then this is the only recourse left.  Of course, the much hyped white knight scenario would certainly ease the conscience for many conservatives, and should such an independent candidate emerge in the next few weeks they would be worth your scrutiny and potentially your support.

Darrell Castle presents another alternative who is, at the very least, actually running for president. If you happen to live in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, or Wyoming, you are in luck!  While he will have limited ballot access, the Constitution Party’s core policies of limited government and social conservatism could be a sweet spot for those in search of a Trump alternate.

If you are comfortable with the way the Constitution Party mixes the roles of church and state and you want to vote for someone who is definitely pro-life, Castle may be your candidate and I’d encourage you to read up on him and his party in greater depth.  For those who like his policies but who will not have his name on the ballot in your state, you can always choose to write him in.  There are also a few other third party candidates who may appear on your ballot, the most prevalent being Jill Stein of the Green Party, whom you can certainly research further.  But if both Hilary Clinton and Gary Johnson are a no-go for you, I think it is highly unlikely you will find much common ground with her liberal/progressive agenda.

Of course there is always the possibility for a write-in of your choice, and I have seen many of you suggesting that you will utilize this option to vote for your favored primary candidate, another politician, or perhaps your favorite dog.  This option is for you if you believe that it is 100% crucial to make a positive vote for someone but absolutely cannot see yourself voting for any of the actual names on your ballot.

Short of a massive write-in campaign, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn of some former Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush supporters attempting to organize such a movement in the coming months, it is unlikely that your choice will get much coverage and it is almost certain, although technically not impossible, that your candidate will not win.  If these facts do not bother you, and if you interpret voting as an endorsement of someone who’s core policies you can support without reservation, then this ultimate “Choose Your Own Candidate” option is definitely for you.

Why No

Alternate third party nominees lacking full ballot access are not a good choice if you believe that your candidate should at least have the logistical and practical potential to win.  If you can’t find an alternate who you are more comfortable supporting than the three major candidates listed above (Trump, Clinton, Johnson), then it is probably best to forgo this choice in favor of the other four options. If you are like me and you are wary of supporting someone who isn’t actually running for president and who hasn’t asked for your vote, then the write-in idea also isn’t for you.

The “Choose Your Own Candidate” route isn’t great for those of you who see the necessity for political compromise and wish to practically walk that out as best as possible given the options before you.  If this is the case you may want to reconsider Choices #1-3 and pick the best (or least bad, depending on your perspective) among them.  If there are certain single issue policies that matter more to you than all else (such as the Supreme Court) then you will also want to pass on this option.

If you question your ability to find anyone who’s acceptable to your own standards outside yourself, then you might want to rule out this choice for the sake of good judgment.  I’ve never taken that option seriously, but yes, apparently there are people in this country who see the write-in option as a chance to write-in their own name or that of their favorite cartoon character.  If this type of behavior bothers you or seems to dishonor and belittle our electoral privileges then you might not want to partake in the practice.

5. Vote for No-One (Stay Home or Leave Blank)

This final choice is one of negation.  You will either stay home or, as Jeb Bush has asserted, show up but leave the presidential section blank and still vote down ballot. It is a choice that is made by millions of Americans every election season for a wide variety of reasons.  While the typical assumption for low voter turnout is disengagement in the political process, if you are reading this guide and yet still consider it an option this stereotype does not apply to you.  It is not unheard of for alienated groups to use the negating power of a non-vote for political purposes.  You may also choose this route as a deliberate act of no-confidence when faced with unacceptable choices or an ambivalence over which candidate you’d rather see in office.

In my own decade of political activity I have personally chosen this option for a number of different reasons. I did not vote in the 2008 presidential election, in part because of a cross-country move that August and in part because of a personal distrust and dislike for either candidate. Over the years I also have not voted in a large number of primaries and mid-term elections because, quite frankly, I had more pressing personal matters and major life changes (moves, marriage, babies) to attend to than figuring out my absentee ballot options or making the necessary arrangements to get to the polls on election day. I don’t regret these choices, they were not usually a decision made of out political ignorance or apathy, and I don’t think less of myself as a citizen or a person for not voting in those elections.  Yes, I sleep great at night!

My guess is that I am not alone in such supposedly delinquent behavior, for many of you have probably done the same over the years for one reason or another.  For others of you this particular option is a new choice under consideration as you have participated in every election from the school board on up for decades.  You may have previously thought it irresponsible or disrespectful to not vote.  Yet you are considering this choice anyway due to the unprecedented lack of acceptable choices set before you this year.

Why Yes

Personally, I see a lot of shaming out there related to this choice, or sometimes any choice other than voting for one of the two candidates representing the major parties.  The option to not vote might be for you if you don’t find these shaming arguments compelling or if you are willing to look beyond the pressure of your peers to make a choice for yourself.  I think one of the best pieces written about this option for Christian voters is by Russell Moore for Christianity Today.  If you haven’t read it yet I highly encourage you to seriously weigh his points made here.

In essence, if you find it morally compromising to vote for a pro-choice candidate but also cannot support Donald Trump for any number of deeply held matters of conscience and morality, choices #4 and #5 may be the best or only options for you.  In your assessment, the lesser of two evils argument does not apply when you can’t clearly weigh one set of evil over another.  Perhaps you have taken to the oft quoted teaching of Charles Spurgeon, “Of two evils, choose neither.”  In this sense you may feel more than ever as strangers in this world and you really don’t see much benefit, political or otherwise, in supporting either Trump or Clinton.  But you certainly see the great harm in choosing both.

While you probably take your civic responsibility seriously, you take your obligation to faithfully represent Christ more so.  Through your personal discernment – or alongside your particular branch of the church – you find it irreconcilable with your beliefs to support any of the candidates on the ballot this year.  Maybe you have compromised your values in the name of pragmatism in years past to only to fail to see any fruit come of these choices.  Or maybe you are just wary of joining a movement whose leader routinely disrespects others, uses the basest of methods to stir up conflict or strong-arm support, and vilely expresses appreciation for authoritarian and violent behavior.

Perhaps you come from Christian traditions that were mostly apolitical prior to the rise of the religious right and you question if that was really such a bad thing.  Maybe you think the loudest way to speak up for the downtrodden and the dispossessed, to represent conservative Christian values and socially conservative causes in this country, is to stay silent this year.  Much like the powerful image used by the pro-life movement in it’s advocacy, you wish to use your freedom to not vote in order to publicly stand against the status quo.  You will use this decision as your version of a piece of tape over your mouth, announcing through silence that neither candidate of the major parties is the right direction for our country.

This might be a good option for those of you who aren’t keen on third parties or write-ins, and who would otherwise vote Republican or Democrat but can’t justify voting for either candidate this time around. It is also a good choice for those of you who abhor the limited nature of our two party system and who rarely feel represented by either major party or the handful of third-party alternatives. Regardless of your reasoning, you recognize that not voting (or voting third party/write-in) will only impact the general election by omission.

You are essentially conceding that other people will decide who our next president will be.  What you are not conceding is that your choice to not vote somehow hinders your ability to advocate for your causes within the political process through other means, or silences your ability to voice opinions both before and after the election. Winning isn’t everything, and just because you aren’t backing a potential “winner” doesn’t mean you have lost your right to engage in our public discourse.

Contrary to arguments that not voting for Donald Trump, be it through any of the options discussed in choices #3-5, is a vote for Hillary Clinton, you believe that your vote isn’t owned by a specific party and that every time you go to the ballot box you have the freedom to choose whomever you deem best.  The logic of “any non-Trump vote is a Clinton vote” is only true if you were otherwise obligated or assigned as a Trump voter courtesy of his party affiliation.

As a registered independent, I find this type of reasoning offensive and reject the manipulative motives of those who use it to solicit votes.  But perhaps, being a conservative who would otherwise vote for the republican nominee were he not quite so odious and unfit this year, you recognize that in not voting for Donald Trump you are in some ways helping the cause of Hillary Clinton.

Teasing through all of these accusations, you still likely assert in the end that your vote is for whomever your actually voted for and no other.  Or in this case of non-voting, you see that it is an active choice to not participate and therefore not a magical vote cast for whichever candidate others don’t want to win.  Rather you are pursuing a stand alone civil action of dissent from the whole process.

Still, my guess is that you, like me, have considered many of the pros/cons of a Clinton presidency listed in choice #2 and have made (or will make by November) some kind of peace with that potential outcome should it arise, regardless of which option you will actually choose. I think it is an imperative for any #NeverTrump AND #NeverHillary advocate to contemplate this outcome.  If you skipped over reading choice #2 then perhaps you should reconsider and at least more carefully weigh this one in light of your objections to Donald Trump.

Regardless of who wins you will probably work on some level to challenge the agenda of either administration and you will look to support a new candidate in 2020.  You likely believe that not having voted for either Trump or Clinton makes it easier for you to act with integrity as a transparent voice for your beliefs, your concerns, or your favored policies within your own sphere of influence.

Finally, you decide that claims it is somehow selfish or disrespectful to veterans, suffragettes, or civil rights activists to not vote in a presidential election present a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom in our country.  To you, the key to exceptionalism in American society is first and foremost our constitution, the bill of rights, and the freedoms they protect.  This includes the freedom for civil disobedience, dissent, or inaction.

When a soldier risks their life for this country, you believe they are sacrificing for our security and for our continued freedom, not for the obligation of all citizens to vote, or to vote in a specific way, or to vote for a predetermined number of political parties.  It’s the freedom to have all five of these choices in an election that contributes to our greatness. I am grateful to live in a society where we are not in any way obligated or forced to vote in a particular way.

Therefore, we aren’t actually compelled by some invisible gun to make a choice for one candidate or another, and this is a fact that you count as a blessing.  Moreover, your concerns about both candidates run so deep on a moral level that were you forced to choose one or die, you might just choose death.  Sorry to be melodramatic, but isn’t that how some comments on the subject make you feel these days?  Thank goodness that particular hypothetical scenario lies only in the minds of people who believe they must bind themselves to a narrow selection of options in order to make this choice.  If you are considering the alternative options of #3-5 then this type of thinking doesn’t apply.  You are free to choose any of the options before us that best fit your heart, soul, and mind.

In the end, you believe that while federal politics is important, you care a whole lot more about your integrity, your family, your church, and your local communities.  You see potential for how you can be a good citizen, a good neighbor, and perhaps most crucially, a good Christian, without voting for either Trump or Clinton in 2016.

This is your version of rendering unto Caesar this election  While you openly acknowledge that our next president, whomever he or she may be, could come with great cost for you or the work of the church, it is a decision that brings you peace.  You have peace because is a decision that you can explain to your children or grandchildren without reservation.  You have peace because it is a decision that you have confidence in before the thrown of God.  Having decided all this, you are ready to move on to whatever is next as you strive to be salt and light in this world.

Why No

It should go without saying that if you are one of those people who sincerely believes that you must vote for either the Republican or Democrat nominee in our general elections, if you genuinely believe not voting is somehow disrespectful to those who sacrificed in order to grant voting rights to others, or if you think that there is some kind of moral obligation for all citizens to at least vote for someone, then this option is not for you.  If you are still compelled by a lesser of two (or three) evils argument then I think you are best served by choosing between the candidates listed on your ballots.

If you are concerned about local races, especially if you will have any congressmen, senators, or governors on your ballot in November, then you will probably want to rule out not turning up to the polls as an option, even if you decide to leave the presidential section blank.  Just because you can’t find a candidate for the general election doesn’t mean you need to reject all forms of voting for the year.

Like most of the options listed above, if the core of your voting decision has to do with the future of the Supreme Court over and above all other concerns and costs, then you will likely want to forgo this form of political dissent. Also, if you discern that one of the major candidates presents a clear and present danger to the future of this country (and I suppose that assessment could fall on either side) it might be in your best interest to vote for the main challenger to that percieved threat.  This may especially be the case if you happen to live in a state where the race appears to be close between Trump and Clinton in Oct/Nov.  You may therefore feel the need – possibly at the last minute – to help tip the election in one direction or another.

Concluding Thoughts

Voting is often an intensely personal decision with very public implications, especially when the stakes are so high and the debate so open.  I think this year is destined to get even more emotional as the discussion about the leading candidates and their causes will continue to center on personal attributes, qualities, and history, instead of on specific policies. The greatest challenge we have before us is ultimately not in deciding which course of action best suits us and our calling, but in respecting those fellow Christians who choose differently.

In a world of less than ideal options, many of which can be legitimately critiqued on the basis of faith and morality, we will likely not all come to identical conclusions.  Yet we can remain unified as a church.  We can seek to place the kingdom of heaven before the kingdom of this world, learn to reconcile our differences, and strive to put Christ first in our lives. Chances are that no matter who wins in the presidential election 2016 we will need each other more than ever before in the coming years.  So let’s not loose sight of unifying the fellowship of believers, even as this fellowship walks out our civic duty in variant ways.

The Persecuting Church: Conservative Evangelicals and the Support of Donald Trump

bible-and-flag-iiThe years proceeding the 2016 primary season have been fraught with contentious, and often troublesome, developments regarding the moral and religious direction of our country.  In all honesty, I was prepared for a persecuted church. What I was not prepared for was the advent of the persecuting church.

The rise of Donald Trump as the frontrunner for the GOP is not, in retrospect, a very surprising event.  As a people Americans love to be entertained, especially when we mix entertainment and politics.  As a people we worship the material things of life, and are all-too-eager to point to accumulated wealth as a marker of good character. Add to this the political inefficiency and decay of the last seven years, the leadership vacuum it has created, and high levels of dissatisfaction found across our nation and the stage was set.

When people are hurting, when people are fearful, when people feel impotent and unheard, they are primed for the rise of a demagogue. And a demagogue who is a former reality TV star, who also happens to be “very, very, rich” by his own boasting, seems tailor-made for such a time as this.

What is both shocking and saddening in recent months is the widespread acceptance and promotion of Donald Trump’s candidacy among evangelical voters. We all witnessed the embarrassing endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr. – son of the founder of the Moral Majority – who praised the Christ-like qualities of this vain and unrepentant owner of strip clubs and casinos.   I sat disappointed, yet not surprised, when Pat Robertson – the former leader of the Christian Coalition – all but kissed Donald Trump’s golden feet while hosting him at Regent University.  We now watch day after day as sundry Evangelical pastors and leaders throughout the country declare their support for Donald Trump’s supposed leadership strength.

I say “supposed” strength lest anyone forget that we serve a God whose ultimate act of strength was to become man and die a painful and disgraceful death on a cross.  That is the type of strength we ought to admire, one of humility and sacrifice, not the image of Nietzsche’s strong man who disparages, tramples and mocks anyone who stands in his way.

Donald Trump’s Christian supporters like to claim that we don’t vote for a pastor-in-chief, rather we vote for a commander-in-chief.  Leave aside the fact that many of these people are the same ones who four years ago were suspicious of Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon.  Or that in 2008 and every day since a large number of these church-goers have berated Barak Obama regarding his lack of Christian orthodoxy, his ties to Jeremiah Wright, or even suspicions that he is actually a Muslim.  Leave aside the immense hypocrisy of a people who claim to care about moral issues in politics such as abortion or the sanctity of marriage but who willingly disassociate themselves from any vision of political leadership that asks our president to lead us with wisdom in justice and truth.

What person of integrity, what person of faith, can honestly say that the qualities they look for in a commander-in-chief are any of the myriad of despicable character traits that Donald Trump exhibits every day in this campaign?

I think the true answer lies in one of Donald Trump’s biggest, most repeated claims: that he is a “winner.”  Evangelical Christians have been anything but winners of late, most especially those who associate with the remnants of the political movement created by the religious right of the 80’s and 90’s.  We’ve been losers in popular culture, losers in the legislature, losers in the economy, and losers in the Supreme Court.  So why not join with the one man who is telling you that you will be a winner?

He will win for our economy and solve your financial troubles.  He will win in foreign policy and crush the enemies you fear.  He will win so that all people will declare Merry Christmas come December irrespective of what they are actually celebrating.  He will win on the border and with immigration so big that you won’t have to learn Spanish or worry about people taking jobs that you don’t really want to do in the first place.  He will win for Christianity and make sure all those martyrs beheaded in the Middle East and those martyrs in Chickfila drive thrus across the nation are avenged and put back where they belong – on top.  It’s time for Christians to win again!

Never mind the cost of all this winning.  Never mind that Jesus taught us that his followers would not win in this world.  In fact, we ought to expect to be loathed by this world.  Never mind who gets trampled upon as long as we win so huge we can’t even believe it.  Illegal immigrants and their legal children, all Muslims regardless of character, women who don’t want to be objectified, liberals, homosexuals, journalists, critics: none of these people matter as real people upon whom we ought to show compassion and treat with respect so long as we can win.

In supporting Donald Trump, American Christians say to the world that they mostly just care to win; it does not matter who gets hurt or damaged along the way.  In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will use their privilege and their voice to threaten, intimidate, and bully anyone who is different, anyone who disagrees.  In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will persecute those who persecute them. 

Jesus said we ought to bless those who persecute us.  Donald Trump says we ought to condemn, sue, disparage, and beat down those who persecute us.  Here is a cold, hard truth: in the ethic of Donald Trump, Jesus Christ was a dope and loser who was so stupid and lacking in support that he ended up penniless and dead in a cave instead of being a winner like The Donald.   

The danger of evangelicals who support all the nonsense that comes pouring forth from this man’s mouth transcends typical political discussion.  This is not a question of Republican vs. Democrat on issues of policy or ideology.  This is a question of basic human dignity.

You can’t dissociate yourself from the vile filth that fills Trump’s Twitter feed in a constant stream of insults and ignorance in order to justify support of him.  A vote for Donald Trump IS a vote for his tarnished character, a vote for the inculcation of untruths, and a vote for his methods of appealing to the most despicable parts of our nature.

Some Trump supporters like to point out that no one is perfect, no not one.  But do you honestly think that means we should go out there and find someone who actively promotes all the worst that our base humanity has to offer and vote for that guy?

Are all politicians flawed?  Yes.  Are some politicians very flawed, if not corrupt and criminal? Most definitely.  Yet the logic does not follow that we ought to support for president a fiend who would prey on the fears and disappointments of our hearts to win our vote, just as his casinos prey on the lusts of our bodies to win our money.

In staring down the potential future of the persecuted American church I have moments of fear but am mostly filled with peace.  The testimony of millions of saints who have gone before us and faced the worst horrors the world could devise yet still stood for Christ with grace and dignity warms my heart and gives me hope that we could do the same should our time come.

It is this new future we taste of today, a future of a church so obsessed with success, so desiring to win at any cost, and so willing to trample others in the process, that I now fear.  I am ready to face persecution for the cause of Christ.  But I will not stand idly by as our brothers and sisters choose a path that leads us to persecute our enemies, both real and imagined, in the name of Christ.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that it does not ultimately lie in the hands of con artists, liars, and despots.

This is not the first time, nor sadly is it likely to be the last, that Christians will fall victim to the whims of those in power who wish to exploit our weaknesses for their personal gain.  But this season is deeply convicting for those who, like me, see the dangers without more clearly than the dangers within.

It reveals to us in the most humbling of ways that God uses a multiplicity of means to refine his church.  Most importantly, these political developments act as a clarion call for our ever-present need to do exactly what was spoken over millions of Christians earlier this month on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”

Misplaced Indignation: Religious Liberty, America, and the Church

For the past several months I have looked on silent and increasingly confused as Christians of all walks have indignantly decried the perceived attacks on religious freedom in this country as outrageous, unexpected, and contrary to the very essence of the American way of life.  After soaking in statements from conferences in Washington DC, cable news punditry, and the ever verdant blogosphere alike, I cannot help but wonder at the biblical naivety expressed by these self-fashioned defenders of my faith.

In case perusing what colloquially passes for “the news” has not been high on your to-do list of late, religion in American is under attack by the Obama administration.  From the stifling of military chaplaincy to the enforced funding of birth control in the HHS mandate, religion – and particularly Christianity – is now commonly said to face unprecedented levels of persecution in this, God’s intended “Shining City on a Hill.”  Founded as a Christian nation, Obama and his immoral leftist and irreligious cronies now threaten the very intellectual foundation of our country.  We perilously stand before the obliteration of this longstanding religious fiber that once defined America – a feat that may be accomplished in as little as four years. Something must be done; and that something is to vote Republican (i.e. for Mitt Romney) in November.  So the story goes.

My above sardonic tone aside, I actually agree that many of the current concerns about restrictions on faith are valid (in substance if not always in rhetoric) and if you have yet to investigate these issues I challenge you to research them further.  What irks me, however, about the emerging breed of religious freedom advocates is the continual insistence that these “persecutions” are shocking or that it is somehow unfathomable for Christians to face challenges like this in – of all places – the United States.

It is true that America has, in the past, had the good fortune of being heavily influenced by Christian teaching and morality and that this influence bred a certain respect and reverence for religion in the public square.  Just pickup the oft cited Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville to survey one case in point.  Additionally, many of our founding principles were undeniably shaped by Christian thought, even as the weeds of competing philosophies took a rather defiant residence in our national character.

My own hesitation to use these observations as definite signs that we are – or ever were – a “Christian nation” aside, even if it was unquestionably true that America has a uniquely divine identity, would that fact be enough to warrant the current level of moral outrage expressed over attempts to curtail the free expression and practice of religion in this country?  Somehow, I doubt it.

Call me old fashioned, but when striving to understand how best to live out my faith I occasionally turn to the eternal wisdom and instruction of the Bible.  You know, that book in which George Washington makes no appearance (unless you are reading from The American Patriots Bible, in which case I think we may have greater problems to tackle than just the subject of this post).

What I find therein leads me to think that we might have the focus of our indignation all wrong.  Instead of foaming at the mouth over the the loss of our nation’s moral identity in the hands of malevolent socialists gone wild (I speak as a conservative to a presumably mostly conservative audience), maybe we should take some time to put our own house in order and confront the weaknesses and debilitating comforts of the American church.  As radical as it may sound, perhaps what we find in the holy scriptures are commands that direct us, when countering those who wish to spit on us or silence us, to approach our enemies in love and with a willingness to suffer for Christ, and not just to pontificate for Christ.  Perhaps what we hear are calls for our own repentance.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Christ repeatedly speaks to us in the Gospels of the inevitable persecution his followers will face and the ways we will be hated by the surrounding world.  And while he challenged us to stand firm in the face of such trials, I don’t recall the passage where we are commanded to spit right back at them and shamelessly mock their unjust and sinful ways.  When we face persecution, like the martyred saints of last two millennia, we do so not for the defense of a nation or a political ideal, but in defense of our faith and in solidarity with the global body of Christ.  We do so as those who can face slaughter with a peace that passes understanding, and as a people who know that their true home is not of this world.

In Matthew 24 Christ says that in the end days, as we await his return, we “will be hated by all nations because of me.”  Mind you, he does not say that we will be hated by most nations, especially those in the 10/40 window, but never in God’s favored land yet to be founded and named after an Italian cartographer (or a British merchant, depending on your preferred historical cup of tea).

The severity of persecutions faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe far outweighs the inconvenience posed by our present legal battles in America.  Yet many of our beleaguered spiritual siblings manage to bear their crosses with a greater grace (and much less surprise) than anything we have collectively mustered in recent months. If facing the consequences of refusing to pay for someone else’s birth control is too much for us to handle without sputtering about the “injustice” of it all, how could we ever hope to stay strong and pious if we were to encounter threats of imprisonment or death?

I find little in the Word to assure me that America will ever be free – in both the civic and private realms – from a widespread hatred of righteousness.  This does not mean I believe those who speak out against restrictions on the practice our faith are wrong or misguided, so long as they carry out their advocacy in a Christ-like manner that honors, not besmirches, him and the testimony of his bride.  We cannot forget that the tone of our rhetoric is never to be set by the opposition, as much as the legacy of the Andrew Breitbart’s of this world may suggest otherwise.  Last time I checked, anger was not a fruit of the spirit.

Acknowledging that persecution is a fact of life for all Christians does not necessitate a passive response.  What it means is that we should never be shocked – or indignant – when we encounter the hatred of the world, especially when we find it in our country, our states, and our neighborhoods.

There is strength yet to be discovered in prayer-filled patience, quiet persistence, and the power of a still small voice.

The popular insistence within evangelical circles that the United States is a Christian country has rendered the ministry of the American church soft.  We have become lazy in our evangelism, dull in our catechism, self-indulgent in our theology, callous in our cultural critique, and fractious in our devotional unity.  But why bother fixing the problems of the Christian church when you can just fix the problems of the “Christian” nation instead?  Political involvement is a facet of life Christians should take seriously, but never as a replacement for the work of the church, and never with a belief that one party or one politician can somehow remedy the problems that Christ himself refused to address or combat.

If our country has morally declined in recent decades to clear the way for seemingly unprecedented attacks on our faith, perhaps the real blame lies, well, with us.  Perhaps our problem (or at least the key source of our latest bout of cultural and political decrepitude, the fallen nature of man aside) is not with those pesky feminists, multiculturalists, socialists, leftists, rightists, abortionists, sexists, atheists, fascists, racists, and every other kind of -ist or -ism that may come to mind after all.  Perhaps the real problem facing America is a tepid church – a Laodecian church – that only gets hot to defend its little kingdom and only gets cold when it has to look the other way for the sake of social or political pragmatism.

If there were ever a cause for righteous indignation, a church with so many resources at its disposal and so little societal fruit just might be it.

Hummers, Terrorism, and Societal Sin

I wrote the following short essay for a class on National Security Affairs in a slightly modified form. It is a response to a very specific prompt regarding a possible connection between American Hummer owners and Saudi supported terrorism.

Some American champions for environmental and energy security posit a chain of logic that begins with Hummers and ends with terrorism. The basic argument goes as follows: Hummers, and other large fuel inefficient vehicles, require abnormally high amounts of gasoline to function. The refueling rate disproportionally increases US demand for petroleum, which reinforces US need for foreign oil. Inevitably, this sustained demand for petroleum imports secures continued American dealings with the Saudi oil market, which in turn increases Saudi wealth that is, at long last, used to finance terrorism.

Although vastly over simplified, there are a few claims in their argument that sound valid – if not compelling – and warrants further consideration.  To investigate the charged connection of Hummer owners to terrorism it must first be established whether the Saudi government, as the beneficiary of Saudi oil profits, financially supports terrorist acts or organizations.  Only then can we delve further into the potential guilt of an average gas guzzling American driver in aiding and abetting the very plague they so vociferously seek to vanquish.

While it is commonly held that Saudi funding of Wahhabist terrorism is a problematic roadblock to our counter-terrorist operations, it is difficult to prove that there is a direct relationship between the Saudi government (i.e. the Saudi oil market) and the subsequent funding of terrorist organizations by Saudi nationals.  As a rentier state, the wealth of the nation is managed through government control of their petroleum resources and the profits are then distributed among the citizenry.  The recipients with the largest share of these funds are the numerous members of the Saudi royal family, several of whom are known financial supporters of terrorist activity.  What cannot be proved outright, given the diffused – and somewhat confused – power structure of the Saudi government, is whether there are any official state ties to this illicit use of funds.

That said, is well established that the Saudi government directly funds Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, several of which are known ideological training grounds for religious motivated terrorism.  In both cases the money generated by oil exports flows into the coffers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is channeled, either by high ranking citizens or through the financing of learning centers, to support terrorist organizations world wide.  Concluding, therefore, that Saudi government does – if only through demonstrably indirect means – use their wealth to support Wahhabist terrorism, we now return to the culpability of the average American motorist in enabling their behavior.

It is certainly true that without the pressing American need for petroleum Saudi Arabia and her people would, at least in the short term, have significantly fewer financial resources to apply to terrorist affiliated activity.  Also, there is a genuine hypocrisy in the loud protestations made by Americans against the financing of terrorism or the deplored reliance on foreign oil while they continue to drive large gas guzzling trucks and SUVs like the Hummer.  Yet a complete US rejection of Saudi oil, while posing a devastating blow to their market, would not cripple the industry.  The world is full of emerging economies eager to supply petroleum to a new class of drivers, most of whom would not give a second thought to the indirect support of terrorism these purchases will enable.  Still, this brutal geopolitical reality does not outright excuse the part of the American consumer in propping up Saudi success while knowing full well that the money they spend on imported gasoline furthers the cause of our self-described enemies.

At this juncture it is crucial note there exists an implicit claim in the opening argument that not all cars are created equal in the way of supporting terrorism via the Saudi oil market.  This premise begs the question: are some car consumers more virtuous or patriotic than others?  The ever so qualified answer is both yes and no.  Certain vehicles, like Hummers, are clearly higher consumers of gasoline per mile driven, but there are also more complex factors to consider when calculating the total impact of a single driver on the global petroleum industry.  For example, someone may own a Hummer as a luxury vehicle but seldom drive it do to the high cost of refueling or personal lifestyle habits.  Meanwhile, a conscientious Prius owner supposedly trying to do their patriotic duty to lessen our oil dependence, could drive hundreds of miles a week in long commutes and actually use more gas per month than their Hummer owning neighbor.  To be fair, it is far better for the commuter to drive a Prius than a Hummer, but the underlying reality is that ownership of large vehicles does not automatically equate to above average gas consumption.  The problem is not so much the size or efficiency a particular vehicle as it is our entire vehicular driven culture and industry.

It should be acknowledged that the issue of oil dependence and the resulting support of terrorism is a problem of systemic injustice.  We can rebel against or opt out of certain societal ills but others are so ingrained in the cultural mores of a particular era that they must be endured even as the upright work for eventual change.  Sometimes you have to take part in the system in order to change the system.  This does not justify the wrongs associated with a broken or unjust institution, but it may lessen the individual culpability of the people who, by necessity, comply with the broken social patterns of their day.  An element of God’s grace is forgiveness for the ways we are entangled in the societal sins of our specific place and time, as no civilization or era has ever been free from forms of systematic injustice.  However, if we see these problems within our society and choose to ignore them, stay silent, or deny the evil as evil, then a very direct wrong has been committed.

Our fault will lie not necessarily with driving gas-powered vehicles, but in willfully reveling in these luxuries while ignoring the darker consequences of our cultural indulgences.  Americans of conscience ought to buy fuel efficient vehicles not only because of the relief it will lend to their checkbooks but because of the benefits it will have to greater issues like decreasing our petroleum consumption and lowering our carbon footprint (personal views on anthropogenic global warming aside, ways to decrease airborne pollutants should appeal to all).  Efforts to diplomatically tackle direct or indirect financing of terrorism can be advocated though our political system, including concerted efforts to popularize policies like suspending foreign aid to Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, Americans ought to challenge the underlying causes of the gas driven society, perhaps through city planning that is more amenable to walking or widespread private investments in the innovation of new energy technology.

Is it morally wrong or unpatriotic to drive a gas-powered car? I don’t believe so.  However, it may be morally repugnant to see the harmful effects of America’s gas guzzling culture and choose to do nothing to change it for the better.

Happily Ever Always

Why aren’t we able to create or sustain heartfelt images of goodness?

image

Everything I have ever learned about writing or story-telling, either in classes or through the media of our age, emphasizes that there is no plot worth telling without a crisis, a climax, or a great trial.  The characters of depth – the roles which actors clamor over and are in turn praised most consistently for portraying – are the ones who are dark, twisted, and complex.  Genius, we are taught, is displayed through intricate articulations of the hardships, disappointments, and perverse things of this life.  In short, you cannot have a good story without having a great evil.

Goodness is most often thought of and therefore portrayed as flat, dull, and even insincere.  The tales which tell of good things or redemption typically hold off to depict these values until the very end and we are left with the iconic, and perhaps now ironic, “happily ever after” which no one actually dares to maintain for anything longer than a fleeting moment.  The evil may be vanquished and overcome in the final minute or on the last page, but I would wager that most of these yarns were only able to show the good in contrast to a more complete vision of the bad.  A triumph can mark an end but it rarely, if ever in our stories, becomes a genuine beginning.

It is natural for our anecdotes and legends to mirror the experiences of our lives and the sad truth is that evil, sin, and injustice are an undeniable part of our existence.  It is therefore little wonder we glance askew at happy tales, thinking that these must either be shallow in message or that they couldn’t possibly be the whole or real story.  This reality, we assume, must involve hypocrisy, tragedy, and the truth of our depravity laid out naked and bare.  Even through our occasional sappy tears at “feel good” plots we undercut the happy endings of our times, ever aware of the foibles of humanity.  The climactic marriage scenes, you think, could easily follow into divorce; the sports triumphs may lead to tales of drug abuse, injuries, and public disgrace; the redeemed man will more likely than not lapse back into the problems and addictions of his past.

But what of redemption that lasts?  How can we claim that salvation is transformational and the ultimate fulfillment of our existence if we cannot even sustain images, characters, and tales of goodness without dabbling in evil to keep things interesting or “real”? I am not an advocate of smoothing over the difficulties of this world or the truth of our own flaws and sinful natures, but it certainly seems that we should consider more intentionally how to restore a proper sense of the the good in the sagas we write and tell.

If we all acknowledge that the need to depict evil in our stories stems from our daily reality, then why is it that we attribute such imaginative mastery to those who craft these dark characters and plots?  The hard thing is not to tell of what we already know but to tell of that which we do not know, or rather, of what we can only see in part.  It is a much higher calling to depict the good – with the penetrating and rich qualities this ought to entail – than to merely replicate the bad which we are constantly mired in.

Evil, even in its most startling forms, requires little creativity or inspiration to conjure up.  We find it every time we read the news, step outside our front door, or examine our own hearts.  Perhaps this is why we see so few examples of genuine goodness in our art, because “the good” is what demands true talent, imagination, and hours of reflection to fashion and bring into being.

I don’t necessarily advocate the perspective of artists like Thomas Kinkade who seek to depict life as they think it would have been without the introduction of original sin into the order of creation.  Neither do I think it possible to achieve complete perfection or holiness in this age, either in our lives or our creative endeavors.  But what I do promote, and what I earnestly desire a new generation of artists and writers to undertake, is a concerted effort to depict what life can and will be like through the active and complete redemption of this world. These efforts will be incomplete, perhaps some will even be false or misguided, but why else have we been gifted with the power of the baptized imagination if not to envision something beautiful and whole amidst the destruction and brokenness of our present reality?

I am daily convinced that our redeemed imaginations are to be used as a means of communicating hope to this world.  God’s goodness as a rich and constantly unfolding actuality, not merely as a foil for the more compelling evil or as a line tagged on to the end of a story, is what we all hunger for.  May we ponder anew how to be vessels that introduce this true good into the world through the stories we tell, the characters we devise, and the images we create.

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

~ Psalm 27:13-14

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

~ Romans 12:21

This essay was originally posted April 8, 2011 on my tumblr blog.