Does God Really Care How Evangelicals Vote?

The Rev. Duke Kwon advised his congregants that Jesus' teachings don't fit neatly in political categories. (Tom Gjelten/NPR)
The Rev. Duke Kwon advised his congregants that Jesus’ teachings don’t fit neatly in political categories. (Tom Gjelten/NPR)

For more than 30 years, conservative evangelical Christians have been tied to the Republican Party. While the pattern seems to be holding this year, with most conservative white Christians supporting Donald Trump, some evangelical leaders are now questioning the logic behind the political alliance.

Prominent among them is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church group in the United States. In a recent lecture titled “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” Moore recalled the first time he noticed conservative Christian activists distributing voting guides at his church.

“Even as a teenager,” Moore said, “I could recognize that the issues chosen just happened to be the same as that year’s talking points from the Republican National Committee.” Christian political outreach, he said, had already moved beyond simple matters of faith.

“On many issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position — on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families,” Moore noted. “But why was there a ‘Christian’ position outlined on congressional term limits and a balanced budget amendment and the line item veto?”

Moral Majority

Forty or 50 years ago, liberal Christians were more likely than conservatives to be identified with specific political positions, largely because of their support of the civil rights or anti-war movements. White evangelical Christians began uniting behind the Republican Party with the emergence in 1980 of Moral Majority, a movement organized by evangelist Jerry Falwell in support of Ronald Reagan’s candidacy.

The Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump, with his record of questionable behavior and divisive rhetoric, has introduced new political tensions in the evangelical movement, however, with more leaders warning of the dangers of a lockstep association with one political party over another.

“You’re Christian first,” said Timothy Keller, the popular pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, speaking at a recent conference. “You’re white, black, Asian, Hispanic, second.”

The idea that Christians should separate their faith and political identities has been echoed by other evangelical leaders. Duke Kwon, the pastor at Grace Meridian Hill church in Washington, D.C., last week called his congregants’ attention to the words of Jesus as recorded in John 18:36.

“He said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ ” Kwon said in his sermon, noting that Christians should therefore not assume that the teachings of Jesus “fit the categories and definitions of this world.”

“Why should we be surprised,” Kwon asked, “when he doesn’t just sign off on a whole party’s single platform? Why should we be surprised when someone that really follows Jesus might be a person that confounds people, keeps them [saying], ‘You don’t seem to fit.’ And the answer can be, ‘Well, my savior didn’t fit either, and I’m just following him.’ ”

In an interview at his church, known for its diverse but passionate urban congregation, Kwon noted that even if Scripture suggests a correct “Christian” position on an issue like the sanctity of life, there are other issues to be considered, such as concern for the poor, the foreigner or the planet.

“There is a sense in which you ought to be split across different party platforms and different candidates,” he said. “Because, hey, there are these four issues I find embodied in this person and these two in this other person.”

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Tom Gjelten

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