Memo to public evangelicals
This election year, disagree with grace
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It is the eve of his reelection bid, and the president of the United States, a handsome widower, has tumbled into a romance with a liberal lobbyist. Sharpening his pool cue, President Andrew Shepherd sizes up his political future as he sizes up his shot.
Shepherd looks an awful lot like the actor Michael Douglas, and his chief of staff, A.J. MacInerney, like Martin Sheen. And none of this really happened except on the set of the 1995 movie The American President.
In the film, MacInerney is worried Shepherd’s romance will tank his reelection chances. Lining up his next shot, Shepherd disagrees: “This is not the business of the American people.”
“With all due respect, sir,” MacInerney replies, “the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.”
Being a Rob Reiner film, The American President is nakedly anti-conservative. Still, MacInerney’s fictional line dovetails with real political trends.
Take, for example, this Jan. 2 headline in The Wall Street Journal: “These voters will decide the 2024 election. They don’t like what they see.”
Four WSJ writers interviewed ordinary voters in a few of just 25 swing counties that have backed the winner in the last four presidential elections. These voters, we learn, have a lot of gray hair, and are more likely to be retired and living in smaller cities or rural areas. They also have lower median incomes and are less educated on average, according to U.S. Census data. But like MacInerney’s contrarian Americans, they think for themselves. And here’s what they think about 2024’s presidential pickin’s: They’re looking mighty slim.
Some voted for Biden in 2020 and got a sock puppet for the progressive left and $6 gas. Others voted for Trump and got fake election results—or an insurrection—depending on whom you ask. And if polling still means anything at all, more of this unseemly cage fight is coming our way. The clever voters in those swing counties said they’re worried America’s best days are behind her.
Since the dawn of presidential politics, some segment of the electorate has considered every fourth November an exercise in choosing between the lesser of two evils. What fewer realize, or at least talk about, is that we aren’t choosing between just two evils, but ultimately 537—a president and VP (plus staff and appointees) and two chambers of Congress (plus staff and appointees). Each election extrudes an entire governing apparatus. Thus, the sentiment “I vote for the man, not the party” or not to vote (which is, in the end, to vote by default), seems to me akin to fiddling while Rome burns.
But as we head into a trial-tainted presidential primary season, here’s what’s bugging me most: evangelicals. In a January video report, Tom Beaumont, an Iowa-based correspondent for the Associated Press, notes that “the evangelical community may be divided in a way that we haven’t seen in decades.” Divided by politics, he means, and specifically by Donald Trump.
Sadly, he’s right. Whether insurrectionist or revolutionary, Trump is still polarizing even the elect. To which I say, fine. Be polarized. But only politically. Hold fast to your well-considered opinions. But deliver them with hands of grace. Allow room for Scripture and the Spirit to shape in fellow believers opinions that differ wildly from your own, always remembering that time you were passionate in your convictions—but wrong.
If the past is prologue, we will see public evangelicals biting and preening in 2024, squabbling for scraps from the tables of the media elite. It should not be so. Jesus did not say, “They shall know you by your infighting.” He said, A house divided against itself will not stand.
This election will come and go. This nation will rise or fall. Be not troubled. For what else can happen, Augustine said, but what He intends? And it is amid the very events that shake the world that our conduct as believers, especially toward one another, matters most.