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The Next American Election: What It's About

Updated: May 8

There are lots of hard polarities in the Christian worldview. Light versus darkness. Good versus evil. Holiness versus wickedness. Life versus death. Truth versus falsehood. Love versus hate.


These are the stock categories of pastors, whose job it is to help the rest of us forsake sin and embrace sanctity, to flee the devil and follow the Lord. And since most Christians hear explicitly Christian discourse only from our pastors, we will tend to apply such binary categories to everything in our moral lives.

Theologian and historian, John G. Stackhouse Jr. gives his take on the 2024 American Election

And that would be—sometimes, in some respects—sub-optimal.


(I write about the limited, if crucial, role pastors should play in politics here. Pastors can and should advise politicians. But pastoring and politics are so different that almost no one can practice both.)


In Christian ethics, to be sure, there remain hard polarities. “Jesus is Lord” is the fundamental confession of the early church, and it remains simply and utterly true. No one and nothing else rules, and should be allowed to rule, instead of, or even alongside of, Christ.


What it means to obey and follow our Lord, however, is often a matter of discretion and even of compromise.


I grew up thinking it wasn’t. I grew up thinking that in every moral moment, there was a way to respond that was simply good, entirely correct. The challenge was to discern that pure option and decide for it.


Further Bible reading, however, caused problems for that pristine view. So did life.


In the Old Testament, there are two figures who receive extended biographical treatment without any recorded sin: Joseph and Daniel. Paragons of virtue, these men are ordained by God to use their considerable talents to advance the regimes of Israel’s two notorious imperial enemies, respectively: Egypt and Babylon.


Moreover, God forces the nation of Israel itself to move into Egypt (in the persons of Jacob and his family) and into Babylon (in the Judean exile, hundreds of years later) in order to, among other things, prosper those nations—even as God later delivers Israel from them.


That pattern seems . . . strange.


In the New Testament, when it comes time to pay taxes to Rome, Jesus doesn’t balk. Instead, he seems to miraculously supply the payment and sends Peter off to make it (Matthew 17).


Nowadays, certain Anabaptists, among other Christians, like to calculate what portion of their taxes go to fund warfare and then withhold it as a matter of conscience. Jesus and Peter, however, paid the full tax to the Roman Empire. Why did they do so?


Perhaps because they were observing what I call a “Holy Spirit pragmatism” that governs so much of the early Christian movement: pick your battles, putting first things first.


Jesus and Paul said and did much that elevated the status of women—planting the seeds of feminism, I’d claim (and do here). But they didn’t push harder than their culture would tolerate so that the early church didn’t get crushed as a disturber of gender peace.


Paul taught much that would lead to the abolition of slavery. But he didn’t quite order Philemon to liberate Onesimus and he told slaves to do their jobs heartily as servants of the Lord, not their (unworthy) human masters—which was hardly a summons to class revolution (Colossians 3:23-24).


Jesus might also have paid the tax, however, because the alternatives to the Roman Empire were worse: barbarians who knew only how to invade and plunder, not how to unite and govern, as the Romans did. As Paul and Peter both wrote (Romans 12; I Peter 2), God ordains worldly authorities to resist evil and provide whatever peace and order they can.

Those pacifists today might well object to the sins of the Canadian or American or British governments whose militaries they refuse to sponsor. But without such armed forces, we will be invaded by the likes of Putin or Xi, not by some kinder, gentler regime. And how would that advance the Kingdom of God?


God works in the real world, and so must we. Until Jesus returns to assert his global lordship in full, we will be stuck with leaders who are definitely not-Jesus. And that has some implications for politics today.


The implication upon which I want to focus today is the normal business of democracy: compromise-finding and deal-making.


Many Christians, it seems, are just like so many of our neighbours in loudly and totally opposing those with whom we disagree. This “New Moralism,” as I call it, evidently feels good. Nothing, it seems, is more delicious than self-righteousness. But absolutist thinking in the wrong domain is unhelpful, and truly un-Christian.


You know who doesn’t compromise? Dictators.

Dictators can get things done, that’s for sure. One might think of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic—in many ways quite different (Trujillo was far more brutal) but also both effective in bringing stability, unity, and prosperity to their countries. Yet Singaporeans and Dominicans rejoice today in democracies: less efficient, but far more just and free.


Democracies are frustrating—and on purpose. Properly designed, they frustrate change by making it difficult for any one party, let alone any one class or individual, to wield power. The U.S. Constitution is particularly designed to prevent one bad outcome: tyranny.


Today, however, many Americans seem to want tyranny, so long as it’s their man on the throne. Not a few of them look to Hungary’s strongman ruler Viktor Orbán as a positive model.


Only thus can the rest of us understand why so many Americans continue to regard January 6, 2021, as a positive day for U.S. politics. In this attempt to set aside the results of the American election, the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob and the U.S. Congress put under siege by fellow citizens. This is no longer democracy, of course, but incipient civil war.


In this next election, therefore, Americans face a stark choice: between a politician possessed of no great statesmanship who is completing a long career of compromise, and a candidate who trades in absolutes (even as they can shift without notice), including locking up his opponents and staffing the government with personal loyalists.


Cards on the table? I can’t believe that one of the major parties of the richest, most powerful country in the world, a nation with most of the world’s top universities and leading companies, can produce no one better than Joe Biden to lead them. But Biden, at least—and this is today’s crucial point—is not just a Democrat, but a democrat. He subscribes to the rule of law, to the necessity of political compromise with one’s opponents, and (crucially) to the orderly succession of power when one loses elections to those opponents.


The person likely to become the Republican candidate has shown himself loudly impatient with democratic institutions and processes. He is not a democrat, but something else.


Woke: An Evangelical Guide to postmodernism, liberalism, and more by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Unlike typical elections in the West, therefore, this next American election is not about differences in platforms or policies. It certainly features such differences, and many people will vote on the basis of those differences, as if it’s just another contest between progressive and conservative positions. (I discuss those general positions in my latest book Woke: An Evangelical Guide to postmodernism, liberalism, and more here.)


But this election is of another nature altogether.


It is about democracy, about commitment to a community covenant to work things out together: slowly, painfully, and carefully, according to mutually agreed procedures. It is about Americans choosing to carry on functioning as Americans, versus some Americans simply triumphing over and subduing other Americans—which, again, amounts to civil war.


Don't get me wrong. I disagree with President Biden and the Democratic Party deeply and broadly. I have no particular penchant for the progressive.


Here in Canada, I do appreciate Premier Eby and the NDP in British Columbia and I mourn the steady Texafication of Alberta under the UCP. (I love Texas, where my folks are buried, but I don’t love its political culture.)


But as hapless and feckless as have been Premier Higgs’s Conservatives here in New Brunswick (Have a surplus? How about reducing emergency room wait times to under twelve hours? Or getting family doctors for the thousands without one?), they’re ‘way better than the secularist administration of former Liberal premier Brian Gallant.


And federally? Don’t get me started on the prime minister. As impossible as it seems for the Conservatives to nominate a truly impressive leader, Mr. Trudeau needs to be shown the door.


In short, I have mixed feelings about the American and Canadian political options. But I don’t have mixed feelings about the defense of democracy and the necessity of working things out with our neighbours.


I used to despite Canada’s Liberal Party, in fact, for stealing good ideas from other parties in order to stay in power. But now I bless them for doing what politicians are supposed to do: compromise. (And the Liberals often stole from the best, notably Tommy Douglas’s NDP.)


The great Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz is often quoted as saying that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” But he was wrong.


The outbreak of war is the end of politics. The mindset that we can no longer work with our neighbours, but must view them and attack them as enemies, is the end of politics. It’s the end of life together.


There is a coarse and violent mentality on the rise on both the left and the right in Western politics these days. This furious self-righteousness brooks no compromise, seeing opponents as odious obstacles and policy alternatives as despicable distractions on the way to utopia. And that utopia must be won by any means necessary.


People who are evidently very willing to accept compromise when it comes to the moral character of their leader ought to be willing to accept compromise when it comes to the moral character of their opponents. People who are evidently eager to make America great again ought to fear dismantling the glory of American civilization: its constitutional government. And what's good for the right ought to apply also to the left.


I doubt I will write any more here about the U.S. election this year. I want merely to make this one point.


As important as it is to want one’s preferences, even one’s virtues, enshrined and empowered in government, it is fundamentally important to preserve and defend the very life of that government, its constitutional order based on democratic respect for each citizen, each neighbour. The responsible Christian will insist on supporting that order of liberty and equality over the victory of his or her preferred party platform.


Why? Because no platform and no government are perfect. And democracy is the best means we have yet devised of both correcting each platform and holding accountable each government. The alternative is to grant too much power to those who cannot be trusted with it: people like us.


Only Jesus can rule as Lord. The rest of us badly need democracy, however imperfect, because we are badly imperfect. I pray my American cousins will compromise where they should and won’t where they shouldn’t, as I hope they will pray for us, too.


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