It’s impossible to be the president of the United States and to follow Jesus. But we Christians love fighting about this or that candidate as if they will bring the sword of the Lord to bear upon this land.
This doesn’t mean that someone can’t be a Christian and president, but that their ability to actually follow Jesus’ call to discipleship is automatically stunted. In fact, it might be impossible. But that doesn’t keep candidates from trying to cater to Christians voters, especially evangelicals. Of late, conversations have centered around Donald Trump and Ben Carson. CNN notes:
It must be galling for Donald Trump to watch his grip on the polls begin to slip, especially in Iowa, where it looks as if the evangelicals prefer Ben Carson, an avowed Seventh-day Adventist. It’s clear that the majority of Republicans likely to attend a caucus in Iowa fall into the evangelical camp. They know who is talking their language. And it’s not Trump, who has long cast about in search of language that might work. “I believe in God. I am Christian,” he once told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I think the Bible is certainly, it is THE book.”
Every election the spirituality of candidates ends up being a central concern. Last election the controversy was over whether evangelicals would vote for a Mormon in Mitt Romney. Now many are torn over who to follow: another Bush, a soft-spoken Seventh Day Adventist, or a billionaire radical capitalist. Many have opted toward Trump, who is possibly the least spiritual of the bunch. This perception was highlighted in a question to Mike Huckabee:
The next question was to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was asked – as a minister – if Trump had the moral authority to be president. Some in the crowd booed. Huckabee rejected the question: “The last [thing] I need is to give him some more time,” Huckabee said.
The faith of candidates is a big deal at this stage of the game. All of this is fueled by the belief that America is at its core a Christian nation. This idea come up in the “pre-game” show debate, called the “undercard debate,” where Bobby Jindal appealed to the Christian Right:
Jindal ended the first debate with an appeal for Americans to think of their country in Christian terms: with faith that a frightening situation could be saved.
“The idea of America is slipping away. As Christians, we believe that the tomb is empty. As Americans we believe that our best days are ahead of us,” Jindal said, meaning the tomb of Jesus Christ, which Christians believe was found empty because Christ had been resurrected after death. “We can save the idea of America,” Jindal said. “Before it’s too late.”
At this point it isn’t possible to know for certain who the final choice of Republicans will be. The debate earlier tonight brought out the rhetorical boxing gloves, to be sure. And the God card will continue to be played, but it seems what’s really getting played are Christians in America who put their energy and hope into the Christianness of a candidate. This issue plays out with Democrats as well, even if less blatant. But as I stated at the beginning: It is impossible to be the President of the United States and fully follow Jesus. If you vote, don’t blame your choice on Jesus. He’s too good for that.
The Earliest Christians on Politics and Violence
In Matthew 5 Jesus calls his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” to “not resist an evil person.” In the latter phrase, some scholars rightfully note that the word “resist” in Greek (including the Hebrew Bible LXX) often supposes a military context and is translated “warfare.” A better way to render Matthew 5.48 according to scholars like Walter Wink and N.T. Wright is: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” This is why the author of Ephesians 6 can say that the battle is not against “flesh and blood” (human enemies) in order that we “take a stand” (resist/oppose) against the spiritual forces of evil.
In Romans 12 Paul reminds early Jesus followers that the wrath of vengeance belongs, not to people who are in the church–but to God. He goes on to say, and now I’m paraphrasing: And just in case you wonder what will happen to evil people in the world who bring disorder to God’s good creation, know that the vengeance that you delegate to God will get delegated (in a limited way) one step further: to the pagan authorities. They are not you, so the sword of judgement is never yours to wield. In fact, bearing the sword would mean that you really haven’t given up on vengeance, so let them deal with that and obey them so you don’t come under the same judgement.
This is a radical claim in this heated election season, without a doubt, but is why I couldn’t care less what religion a candidate claims to adhere to.
I’m going to demonstrate why the personal faith of our candidates doesn’t matter. I do this at the risk of offending some fellow Christians who don’t hold my same viewpoints on the following issues. This certainly is not my intention as I always try to approach divisive issues with passion balanced by charity. I hope what I say is full of both love and zeal.
Growing up, I was taught that America is God’s second chosen nation. We are a country that provides liberty for all who believe in the holy institution of democracy. When we fight wars, its always so that oppressed peoples can be liberated, just like Jesus would want them to be. War leads to peace, which yields freedom for all.
This nation emerged in history at the appropriate time to modernize the barbaric and to be an example of Christ to the nations–at least this is the impression I had as a child and young adult. Interestingly, when issues like the genocide of Native Americans came up, it was mourned and quickly left in the past. The same was true of slavery. These things took place in our early history because people simply didn’t know better. Nevertheless, the logic was that this nation was founded on Christian principles by devout godly men – sincere followers of Jesus. I now see this glossy story as a legitimizing myth. It is impossible to found, maintain, defend, and expand a nation while following Jesus’ teachings. Here’s why.
Early Christians, in the few hundred years following the New Testament period but before the Constantinian Shift** (which eventually led to the marriage between the cross and the sword), usually refused to be connected to any profession connected governmental leadership. For instance, consider these words from Hippolytus around 218 CE (one of many examples of this conviction):
The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established…brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.
The early Jesus movement in most contexts, convinced as it was that Jesus commanded his followers never to resort to violence, understood that certain jobs were inconsistent with being fully devoted disciples of Christ. Of course, working as soldiers or magistrates were not the only ways to have one’s commitment to the faith called into question. Any profession that promoted actions and attitudes inconsistent with holiness were usually deemed opposed to following Christ.
Having a career that placed oneself in a position to use violence (directly or indirectly) always makes it impossible to fully follow Jesus. Violence is opposed to the way of Jesus. In fact, state sanctioned violence crucified the incarnation of God. And according to the Scriptures, God raised Jesus from the dead and exposed the governmental powers of their evil. Colossians 2.15 says:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Jesus’ resurrection disarmed the powers (both visible, meaning emperors and kings; and invisible, meaning forces of evil) of their ultimate weapon – death via capital punishment. The greatest violence of the state couldn’t hold down the true King!
Can Presidents Apply the Convictions of the Earliest Christians?
Of course, the question of executing criminals may not be as big of a deal for a modern day leader. The President, under the right policies could oppose the death penalty. And if that were the only access to violence that our President had, then perhaps he (or she) could in fact faithfully follow Jesus. But we know that the President of the United States functions as our Commander-in-Chief (head of the military). He is at the top of the military hierarchy. When drones strikes occur under the President’s watch as innocents are unjustly killed, those actions are a direct extension of his authority. When Osama Bin Laden was shot in the head by a Navy SEALs team, the blood was on the hands of the President (as well as the soldiers and all who were involved).
As we noted, Jesus taught: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matt. 5.39, KNT). In the same breath he added: “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you” (Matt. 5.44, CEB). The New Testament is clear: you cannot follow Jesus and carry the sword of vengeance. Some will argue that God allows the government to use the sword to “punish evildoers.” This is true, not to the extent evangelicals often think; but yes, the governments of the world are here to maintain order.
Yet, even in the passage that is often appealed to, Romans 13, we clearly see that the church and the state are never thought of as blending roles. In other words, a “church person” would never simultaneously be a governmental leader (at least, not for long) as Paul saw things. You can’t wear two hats, a religious one and a secular governmental one, and follow Jesus. Jesus invites us to count all things as rubbish besides knowing him.
So, in this heated election season, I’m convinced that any discussions about which candidate is more “Christian” is mere folly. To invest too much energy into the faith of a candidate plays into the hand of the imperial madness of the election cycle.
Faithfully following Jesus in all obvious areas of discipleship and being President is impossible in our current system. For this reason, I don’t think we need to worry about which faith a candidate subscribes to. If you vote, which I see as a gray area, cast a ballot for the person who will do a better job for the most vulnerable in our world.
See a vote as the lesser of two evils and nothing more. Don’t waste time worrying about if the candidate is Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Mormon, or unaffiliated. Remember, it’s impossible to follow Jesus in this one basic matter of discipleship (nonviolent love) and to be the President of the United States. So don’t blame him for your choices at the voting booth.
*To be clear, I am not saying that it is impossible for someone to serve in a violent profession and to be a Christian. I know many Christians who are in the Army, Navy, police force, and in government office. I think they are wrong on how they read the Bible on this issue, but I would never call them non-Christians. In this article I try to make a distinction between being a “Christian” and being a follower of the way of discipleship in Jesus Christ. Someone is neglecting an element of discipleship if they resort to violence. That is my point. It is not a judgmental point, but one that comes from a posture of grace and love.
**I realize that this shift, although drastic, was gaining momentum in some sectors of the church prior to Constantine. However, those endorsing violent professions were considered outside of the mainstream of the fold.