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Losing the prophetic edge

Have evangelicals become too afraid of being called political partisans?

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Losing the prophetic edge
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Have you heard these slogans? “Prophetic, not partisan.” “Neither Republican nor Democrat, but Christian.” “We don’t follow the Donkey or the Elephant; we follow the Lamb.”

Over the last two decades, these phrases (and others like them) were very popular among conservative evangelicals. They expressed a desire, especially among Christian leaders, that the church maintain its prophetic credibility and refuse to be co-opted and used for partisan political purposes. What should we make of this impulse and these slogans?

To start, we can acknowledge the danger of political idolatry that the slogans attempt to address. It is possible to be upside down in one’s allegiances, to offer the allegiance that we owe to God to some earthly authority, whether a family, a church, a political party, or a nation. It is possible for a Christian to say, “My country/party/family, right or wrong,” and to mean by it, “I will neither acknowledge nor condemn the evil done by my country/party/family; in fact, I will whitewash every instance of it because of my allegiance.”

At the same time, we ought to recognize that the “prophetic not partisan” slogan made (some) sense when our nation was largely united on matters of basic morality. When the law of God was embedded in our nation’s laws and customs, our political debates centered on the best means to accomplish righteous ends. In that environment, avoiding rank partisanship perhaps made sense. But when that moral consensus is lost, then the “prophetic not partisan” mentality is simply a steering wheel by which the world will manipulate Christians.

How so?

Consider the following train of thought. As a Christian, you are seeking to love God supremely and then to love your neighbor as yourself. Love for neighbor is always concrete and particular. You ought to love your family, your community, your state, your nation. This means, among other things, that you want to pursue justice and the common good in civil society.

As a result, when you engage in the political process, your goal is to see as much of God’s moral law (as summarized in the Ten Commandments) enshrined in law and culture as possible, and, conversely, to resist the imposition of wickedness and rebellion in law and culture. Thus, you want society to respect and protect authority, life, marriage, the family, property, and the integrity of the legal system. You want the state to encourage and incentivize biblical justice. Call this your basic Christian political posture.

Applying this basic political posture to the present moment in America, you know that one political party is committed to high-handed rebellion against nature and nature’s God, in the form of abortion on demand, the destruction of the natural family, contempt for law and order, and the weaponization of the legal system. On the other hand, for all of its flaws, the other political party retains some grounding in the objective moral order that God has embedded in creation. As a result, you make the decision to support the second party as a vehicle for resisting high-handed wickedness and pursuing justice in civil society.

How do you know if you’ve made prophetic credibility into an idol? Well, are you concerned with appearances or reality, with reputation or truth?

In sum, your reasoning is this: Because you love God supremely, you seek to love your neighbor, which means you pursue justice in your nation, and you view the Republican Party as the imperfect vehicle for pursuing civic justice.

But the truth is that if you reason that way, you will immediately be accused of being co-opted by partisan politics, of sacrificing Biblical fidelity on the altar of rank partisanship, of losing your prophetic credibility. And these accusations are in fact attempts to steer you, to hinder that basic Christian political posture by appealing to your desire to maintain your prophetic credibility.

You will be accused of supporting vileness because you choose to vote for Republicans. They will attempt to steer you through guilt by association (“Do you really want to be associated with health, wealth, and prosperity MAGA pastors?”). Just as Ahab accused Elijah of being “the troubler of Israel,” you will be accused of being a Christian Nationalist, or MAGA, or a J-6 insurrectionist. Such accusations are barefaced attempts to hamstring Christian political action. And this steering will work, if you have made your prophetic credibility into an idol.

How do you know if you’ve made prophetic credibility into an idol? Well, are you concerned with appearances or reality, with reputation or truth? In other words, if, in reality, your support for a particular party or candidate is simply a matter of faithful stewardship of your vote and voice, do you care how the matter appears to others? Is the appearance of partisanship enough to make you flinch? If so, then you’ve succumbed to the idol of prophetic credibility.

Here’s a more concrete test: If you are a Christian leader who has been vocally Never Trump, are you equally vocal about being Never Democrat, given that they are the Party of Romans 1, giving hearty approval to all manner of idolatry, sexual deviancy, envy, murder, and other evils? And if not, have you succumbed to the idol of prophetic credibility?

In the Scriptures, the prophet’s credibility was established by God, not by his audience. In fact, God regularly required his prophets to set their earthly credibility on fire in order to be qualified to be his prophets. As a part of his prophetic calling, Isaiah preached naked for three years. Hosea married a prostitute. Ezekiel cooked his food on cow dung. In other words, when it comes to his prophets, God takes great pains to sear the nerve of earthly credibility in order to preserve prophetic faithfulness in the face of worldly rejection.

Could it be, that in the present moment, our efforts to maintain our prophetic edge by avoiding the appearance of partisanship have actually silenced that prophetic edge through incessant “both-sidesing” and burying prophetic clarity and calls to action beneath acres of nuance?

Could it be that, in the present moment, prophetic credibility in God’s eyes demands that we cannot escape the accusation of partisanship in the world’s eyes?

Joe Rigney

Joe Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of six books including: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013) and Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).

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