On November 8, America chose Donald Trump to be its next President. For some, his election was a moment of rejoicing. For others, it signaled the end of the world. Either way, his election marked the end of a long, bitterly divisive campaign season in which many Americans felt forced to align behind one of two candidates whom they considered equally detestable.
The news coverage of the campaign made it clear that large segments of the voting public considered President-elect Trump a bigot and Hillary Clinton both untrustworthy and a liar. One candidate was investigated twice by a federal agency, while the other was best known for his prideful, crass and unapologetically cruel treatment of others. In all, the campaign season was marked by a succession of undesirable surprises.
What can we learn from the election? We can examine each facet of the campaign season and identify hints of idolatries into which America may have fallen. Yet the Evangelical church should use this campaign and the election as a warning. Perhaps God is calling us to examine our own role in the state of the American nation — and humbly consider the idols that others see us worshipping.
In every age, Christians engage in idolatry that syncretizes the cultural standards of the day with our faith.
America, the Church and Judges
In a recent talk at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Craig Bartholomew compared our current situation to book of Judges. He introduced two noteworthy trends:
- In Judges, there is a predictable cycle that follows this pattern: The people rebel, God raises up an enemy to punish them, the people repent and cry out and God raises up a deliverer to save them.
- This cycle is a downward spiral. In each successive case the people’s rebellion becomes worse, the punishment more severe and the deliverer more immoral.
Samson is arguably the worst of the deliverers — and Bartholomew implied that both of our candidates fit his archetype. It is a clear sign of a very ill national community when its deliverer looks like Samson, Bartholomew stated.
To be fair, supporters of both candidates had legitimate arguments, as did those who voted for a third party candidate or for no one at all. And it’s unlikely that the world will end tomorrow. We should not expect to see Mad Maxian bands of raiders looting the countryside during President-elect Trump’s time in office. Nor should we expect that President-elect Trump will (or can) deliver on all his campaign promises. As a whole, President-elect Trump seems like a wild card, and it’s impossible to predict what his term will actually bring.
Instead, let’s reflect on how we came to a place in which these two were our candidates. More specifically, what part did we, as God’s church, play in bringing the nation to the point where we detest the very people we choose to lead us? After a brief period of thanking God for a deliverer, grieving over his wrath brought upon our nation or quiet wonderment at the display that this election season has put on for the world (whichever you believe is most appropriate), perhaps now might be a time to engage in critical self-reflection on the idols of our nation, and especially the idols that the church has whole-heartedly accepted.
The Evangelical Church has been known for taking a stand, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, on major social issues such as abortion or homosexuality. However, Matthew 7:5 reminds us that we tend to be blind to those idols that we have accepted, and that the first duty of the Christian is to correct him or herself before trying to correct others:
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Bartholomew grew up in Apartheid South Africa and pointed out that the South African church actively avoided engaging with the rampant racism of the nation. Some historians make the same point in relation to the German church and Nazism — and the early American church and slavery.
In every age, Christians have engaged in idolatry that syncretizes the cultural standards of the day with our Christian faith. It is easy to look at others to see where their idols led them astray. However, it is much more difficult to look at ourselves and see where our idols have led us astray. Further, Malachi 2-3 reminds us that when God corrects a nation, he starts first by correcting his representatives where they have gone astray:
For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction…. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 2:7-9; 3:3-4)
1 Peter 2:5 tells us that we, as the Church, are God’s holy priesthood, and Malachi 3 continues to tell us that God will purify and redeem the nation through his priesthood. The comparison to the smelting of gold to remove impurities shows that such correction will not be a painless process, but it will be a redemptive, restorative and beautifying one.
Bartholomew also made the point that the American Christian church is ‘spoiled for choice’ when it comes to identifying its idols: comfort, wealth, power, influence and access seem to be the obvious ones. However, many foreign Christians can see our faults more clearly than we can. They raise important questions about our willingness to defend corporate greed and wrongdoing, our blithe acceptance of divorce in light of our bitter recrimination of homosexuality, our love affair with weapons of death (especially in the South) in light of God’s call to be peacemakers, and our ambivalence towards the moral production and consumption of food, especially the moral treatment of livestock and our nation’s health and obesity issues.
Perhaps, as a Church, we should even consider our radical individualism, classical liberalism (the founding political philosophy of America that builds on the work of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and others positing libertine freedom expressed in legally defined civil rights or liberties, representative democracy, and often associated with free-market capitalism) and practical hedonism (in the form of philosophical pragmatism and utilitarianism) that have defined our national politics and worldview. Are these at all acceptable from a biblical perspective? Have our attempts to correct these systems involved significant syncretism on the part of the American Evangelical church?
The American Christian church is ‘spoiled for choice’ when it comes to identifying its idols.
Reflection is Painful
Any true reflection of our own failings in light of scripture and truth will be painful. However, Hosea 6:1-3 tells us that God wounds us, but that he also heals us. As humans we are prone to pride and desire to hold up ourselves as the standard. This is a failing that American Christianity has often fallen into in its dealing with Christianity in Africa, South America and Asia.
It may be time that we ask our Christian brothers and sisters in the global South and East what idols they see in our church. We should have the humility to listen rather than reject or argue. And then we should take the time to reflect seriously and responsibly on their response and our best actions in light of it. The wounds of God are faithful, as are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6).