The images of protestors pouring into the United States Capitol building will long be seared into our collective memories. This chaotic and disturbing event came on the heels of an exhausting, painful year that ended with a close, disputed election.
Disputed elections aren’t all that new. It took 36 days to resolve Bush/Gore in 2000, which hinged on a nail-biter in Florida and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote. In 2004, some Democrats in Congress objected to the counting of Ohio’s electoral votes. Like the GOP objections last week, their claims were ultimately rejected. So Bush was certified for 2004, and Biden for 2020.
But the fallout from the 2020 election feels different, especially for Christians. It’s not just that Americans are divided; it’s that brothers and sisters in Christ are divided: over Trump, over whether the election was legitimate, over racial issues, over COVID. This division has bred hatred, discord and disunity among believers — all things God’s Word explicitly denounces.
How are we to move forward in our relationships with Christians who see things differently? Post-election, some of us are furious and scared. Others are relieved, if not overjoyed. Yet God is still on His throne, working all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11). Christ’s command for us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace remains (Ephesians 2:3).
It’s OK for Christians to disagree
“How can anyone be a Christian and vote for Trump?” my friend asked. Likewise, many Christians can’t imagine how fellow believers could not vote for Trump.
The Bible is clear on matters that are essential to our salvation. The Bible is mainly a book about our relationship with God, fellow believers, and a watching world for whom we’re to be a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). We have disagreements with other Christians on unessential matters, and are told to follow the law of love, respecting one another’s differing consciences (Romans 14:1-12, I Corinthians 8-10).
Is it OK to read Harry Potter? Drink alcohol in moderation? Watch football on Sunday afternoon? These are things on which sincere Christians differ, but which don’t threaten our essential unity in God’s family. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
What about voting? The Bible lays out some broad parameters for the role of government. But as with Harry Potter and football, Christians will differ on the details — on how to implement government most wisely for the common good.
The role of government
In his helpful book “How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age,” Jonathan Leeman argues for three God-given purposes of government.
First, to render judgments that promote justice. We see this in the “life for life” principle of Genesis 9:5-6. This principal points to a larger theme of fairness: Lesser crimes should receive lesser punishments, or “The punishment should fit the crime.” Governments should promote justice with fair sentencing for criminal acts of all kinds — and by anyone. This includes police officers, government insiders, even the President of the United States. Nobody can be above the law — otherwise that person becomes the law.
Second, to build platforms of peace, order and human flourishing. We see this in the context of Genesis 9:1-7, coming on the heels of a worldwide flood. The government is to render judgments that promote justice so that God’s larger plan for the world can advance. Namely, humans filling the world and ruling it responsibly. Just look where we are today with life expectancy, overall health and extreme poverty compared to 100 years ago — especially in countries with responsible, ethical governments.
Third, governments should set the stage for God’s plan of redemption to unfold. We see this in I Timothy 2. The Apostle Paul urges us to pray for those in leadership in order that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Sounds good. But there’s a greater goal: the salvation of others (I Timothy 2:4). A good government respects religious liberty for everyone. This allows Christianity to compete in the marketplace of ideas, lowering the barrier for others to come to saving faith in Christ. The government can’t mandate religion — at least not the true Christianity of the Bible, which requires an internal transformation. But it ought not to hinder it, as some governments do.
Abortion, character and COVID
A mutual understanding of the purpose of government gives us a framework to discuss how to best get there — or who will best get us there. In this last election, there were three options: Trump/Pence, Biden/Harris, or neither (third party, write-in, no vote — they’re all a protest against the two main choices). We’re selecting people, yes, but we’re also selecting a slate of policy preferences. We’re saying, “I’d like the country to move in this general direction.”
Does who we vote for fall in the realm of clear, biblical command? Or does it fall in the realm of wisdom and conscience, with each Christian needing to weigh the options according to what God calls our government to do? I would say the latter. Our vote should proceed from faith and a clean conscience, because anything that doesn’t proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
So what does this look like? What about abortion, for example? The Bible and medical science make clear that abortion is the killing of an innocent, defenseless human life. It’s therefore a grievous evil. If you’re a Christian and you think abortion is OK, that’s not OK. Maybe you’re thinking: “Abortion is wrong for me; I wouldn’t do it. But who am I to impose my morality on others?” But every law reflects someone’s morality. Our nation’s laws reflect our collective morality — and are thus a hodgepodge of negotiated compromises. Go back 200 years, for example, and in the United States our collective morality allowed for slavery.
As a pro-life individual, can you vote for a pro-abortion candidate and maintain a clean conscience? I typically can’t. But some Christians found Trump’s character flaws to be a deal-breaker. Some even suggested that Christian support for Trump would have grave moral consequences for our corporate witness. Others took the view that his pro-life and other policy achievements made him worth the trouble and that his character flaws, while real, were not disqualifying. (Remember, we voted before last Wednesday.) The larger point is this: There are reasonable Christians on both sides. We should be able to disagree charitably, without impugning motives.
What about COVID restrictions? The irony on this issue is that conservatives are liberal (less supportive of restrictions) and liberals are conservative (more supportive of restrictions). What does the Bible say about the virus? Well, not much. But we should love our neighbors. We should seek the welfare of our communities. Christ has overcome the fear of death, but that doesn’t mean we act in a way that could hasten it. Likewise, being asked to wear a mask should not offend us. Freedom is great, but setting aside our rights for the sake of others is even greater (I Corinthians 9:19-22; Galatians 5:13). This doesn’t mean we can’t find creative ways to worship corporately or in smaller groups.
I’ve noticed that my lockdown-supportive friends can earn from home, and handsomely. The impact has been more severe — and longer lasting — for lower income individuals who can’t do the same. The mental health effects of mandates and quarantines are also worth considering; maintaining good health is not merely physical.
In short, sometimes where you stand depends on where you sit. We tend to look askance at people doing things we wouldn’t do — while assuming our actions arise from only the purist of intentions. Maybe we should reverse these? Be more generous in our interpretation of the motives of others than we are about our own. Look for a possible plank in our eye before reaching for a supposed speck in the eye of our brother or sister (Matthew 7:5).
Polarization and isolation make it harder
One problem is that we’re more polarized today. In past generations, there was more overlap between the average Democrat and the average Republican. Now, there’s a chasm. This is especially true among those who are most politically active. We tend to live in silos, surrounded by an echo chamber reinforcing our own beliefs and stereotypes about the “other side.” Last fall Pew Research found that about 80 percent of both Trump and Biden supporters had few or no friends who supported the opposing candidate. Add to this a drop in civic engagement, church attendance and social functions in the wake of the pandemic, and you’ve got a lot of lonely people stuck in their homes, listening to the political entertainment of their favorite cable anchor while crafting angry Facebook and Twitter posts about “them.”
As Christians, it falls on us to show the world what genuine community should look like. Our social engagement should be marked by modesty, sound reason and charity. We can appeal to the heart, but we should not bypass the mind. We’re seeking to persuade, not manipulate. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). Don’t make sweeping generalizations about those who differ. Present your ideas not with condescension but as gifts. A gift is offered in love to do the other person good. The tone of the offer matters, as does our willingness to accept the gift’s rejection. The relationship matters more than the argument. Play the long game.
4 practical steps
1. Pray for and respect our leaders.
We’re commanded to pray for our leaders whether we voted for them or not (I Timothy 2:1-4). We should also speak of them to others in ways that are honorable (Romans 13:7). There is a way to critique without malice.
We should also pray that God will give us more leaders with integrity, who will govern in ways that promote human flourishing and that allow the gospel to advance freely.
2. Consider a variety of news sources.
Have you noticed that the pundits are often one-sided? It’s either Trump can do no wrong, or Trump can do no right. They’ll all have to move on to something else now, of course. But here’s the point: Look for people who are willing to praise or critique a leader based on the issue and the action. These are the folks who are trying to be objective rather than being defined by a personality or collective “group think.”
3. Make new friends.
It’s time to extend an olive branch. Did your candidate lose? Don’t wallow in despair. God is still on His throne. We can trust Him come what may. His church will endure and overcome. Did your candidate win? Resist the urge to gloat or be vindictive. Such behavior is unacceptable from Christians. Resist the culture of contempt. Be redemptive in what you say and do.
Commit to building at least one real-world, face-to-face relationship with a Christian with different politics. You might find some within your own church. Seek to understand how they’ve arrived at their perspective. Issues like COVID lockdowns, taxes or racism can be abstract until we see their influence in the lives of real people.
4. Take a break.
Thanks to Google, a bazillion cable channels and social media, you can always dive deeper into election fraud, Biden’s memory lapses, Trump’s next presidential run, or whatever currently has you in a death grip. There’s always a post you haven’t read or a video you haven’t seen. Shut down your feeds and your screens and take a break for an hour, a day or even longer. Then reenter wisely. For example, reading a news magazine – where the journalist has had some time to reflect – is healthier than a bunch of hot takes on Twitter.
Part of trusting God is trusting His sovereignty. If you’re burdened about the state of our nation and its future, pray and unload your angst into God’s hands. Finally, if you sense His leading, start investing at the local level where you can make a difference. After all, it’s harder to worry about the future when you’re working to make it better.
Copyright 2021 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.