The Labels “Republican” and “Evangelical” for a Christian Pilgrim

A top-rated relative asked me what I thought of Peter Wehner’s piece in the New York Times, “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself An Evangelical Republican.” This was my reply:

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I kept saying “Amen” the whole time. I feel the pain of anyone who is sick, sick, sick of being “evangelical” and “Republican” in the Trump era.

Republican

But as for formal voter registration, I remain registered as a Republican and will continue to do so as long as 1) there are effectively only two political parties in the U.S. and 2) the GOP platform aligns more closely with my views than does the Democratic platform. I could totally see another faithful Christian choosing differently here. I feel quite open to disagreement here, especially since November 8, 2016.

I have publicly vowed (something I do not do lightly) never to vote for a pro-abortion candidate on the strength of this article by John Piper, which has never ceased to be persuasive to me. He basically argues that being pro-bribery, pro-extortion, or pro-racism would disqualify a candidate—so why wouldn’t something even worse, pro-killing-babies? This makes it unlikely that I will ever vote for a Democrat, if only because they (as Kenneth Woodward describes with chagrin in his Getting Religion) chose a long time ago not to permit a pro-life wing to develop in their ranks. As long as they think it’s okay to murder unborn babies, I’m out.

Though I would love to say “good riddance” to the Republicans, and though the national leadership is frustrating and galling and emetic to me, and though I think David Brooks is right that they’ve made a deal with the devil and ruined the “evangelical” name for a generation—registering as an Independent (which would feel so good!) only means that I don’t get to vote in primaries and try to push the party back toward my more or less “conservative” political ideals. I have little hope right now that that will ever happen, but I have even less hope that it will happen with the Democrats—even though I do share some of their values and I refuse to demonize them. Politics is about choosing the best means to ends that a lot of us, left and right, still agree on.

I’m willing to abstain from given votes: I did not vote for Trump but went third-party. But I want to abstain as a Republican so that the party leadership comes to see me and mine as a constituency to please. 2016 showed us that anything is possible in American politics. It’s possible that the party will lurch back toward its Burkean conservative roots. There are other “Biblical Refuseniks” out there. There have to be, if my Facebook feed is any indication. I’m holding out a little hope that I’m letting the feelings of the moment sway me too much, that the good the GOP has done isn’t all rotting around me.

Evangelical

As for “evangelical,” words about religious groups will always have sociological and theological definitions; they’ll be defined by the people that actually make up the group and by the ideals that were supposed to have formed it and still, at least officially, guide it.

Sociologically, empirically, the polls seem to be saying that self-described “evangelicals” are woefully shot through with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and nationalistic civil religion. They apparently deserve their hero, Donald Trump. I don’t identify with that crowd at all; I’m ashamed of what they’ve done to the precious Bible word, “evangelical.”

But, theologically, I do identify doctrinally with the 1) biblicism, 2) conversionism, 3) activism, and 4) crucicentrism (the Bebbington Quadrilateral) that generally define evangelicalism among people who try to map out such things. And until the sociological and theological definitions drive so far apart that one has to give, I’m happy enough to call my theology “evangelical” (Bible word, remember). Labels will always be contested. I think this one still is; neither side has won.

I’m a Christian; I’m a pilgrim who lays no permanent claim on this world—yet. I’m waiting for the next age when Christ will put it all under his feet. So I care a lot more about “evangelical” than I do about “Republican.” And I lead with neither, especially now, and especially if doing so tends to conflict with my goals as a Christian pilgrim.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “The Labels “Republican” and “Evangelical” for a Christian Pilgrim”

  1. Obviously, I have no truck for Trump. (Though Trump had a truck on the White House drive that he toyed with like a toddler.) But I think you’re wrong on two points, first, about the function of remaining in a major party and, second, your tacit assumption of how third parties (don’t) work.

    Let’s proceed from the assumption that the primary goal is to exert the maximum amount of influence on a major political party. While abstaining from voting in a cycle or voting for a third party while remaining Republican would be preferable to just pulling the ol’ party lever, it exercises relatively little influence. That’s because the signal being sent is opaque. Did Mark not vote because he doesn’t like Trump? Was it because his Congressperson was not pro-life? Was it the natural effect of a midterm for the party controlling the White House? Was the weather bad? Etc. If a party doesn’t really know what you want, it can’t effectively change to give you what you want. So it’s lacking because the signal is opaque.

    It’s also lacking because it’s a weak signal. Simply put, staying home on election day is not nearly as strong a signal as changing parties. This is because party leadership knows that party affiliation is the “stickiest” affiliation we have in America. There are dozens of data points I could point to, but here’s my favorite. When polled, a majority of parents say that the thing they would most struggle with when their kids get married is if their child wanted to marry someone of the opposite political party. That study showed that party affiliation is demonstrably stronger than views on racism, sexuality, or religion. When you abstain with your vote, the party doesn’t really have to worry. It knows that you’ll put it with a great deal more abuse before you’ll really consider leaving and not just huff about things.

    Now to my second point, that I don’t think you properly appreciate how third parties work in our two party system. Yes, leaving a major party involves a (relatively minor for the reasons above) source of influence as you can no longer vote in party primaries. However, because of the clarity and intensity of the signal sent, it can have much more influence on major party ideology in the medium to long term. I’ll give you a historical example that illustrate the point even if the folks involved are repugnant. (It’s a point about process rather than substance.)

    After 1948 conservative Southern Democrats were increasingly angry about the national Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights reform. So they staged a convention walkout and created the National States’ Rights Party, known popularly as the Dixiecrats. Their signal was clear: to protect white supremacy. That they forfeited political capital in order to create a third party proved the strength of their commitment. Over the next three decades, the Dixiecrats exercised influence on the national political stage out of all proportion to their actual numbers. They successfully delayed civil rights reform by national Democrats who were worried about losing electoral college delegates from the Deep South. Ultimately, they were absorbed by the Republican Party, which up until the 1940s had a reasonable claim to be the party with a deeper commitment to civil rights. But Republicans gave up black voters in exchange for Southern white Democrats, turning the South from deep blue to deep red.

    Again, this was a reprehensible transformation exposing moral bankruptcy on issues related to race in Right-wing politics. But it shows how third parties can influence major party ideology. They win by making major parties worry about losing. They signal strongly and clearly that their votes are for sale to the party that changes its own views to absorb those voters.

    All of that to say, there are good logical and historical reasons for you to leave the Republican Party in order to more effectively influence the Republican Party.

  2. Great thoughts, Paul. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me. Seriously, I actually knew this. =)

    Where I said I was open you jumped in; you’ve made some powerful and helpful arguments. And you are much more politically astute than I. I will chew dutifully on your thoughts. I would so love to say good riddance to the GOP of today. I feel with Peggy Noonan (of many months ago) that it is an almost wholly different institution.

    I tend to see presidential primaries as a bit more significant than you apparently do. But those elections are a minority of all elections, so perhaps indeed my calculus ought to shift to be more like yours. Hoping some other astute friends who pay better attention than I do to American politics will chime in.

  3. Catching up to your feed… While Paul’s example is a good one, simply moving as an individual to any currently existing third party carries very little effect unless you are moving en masse with a significant minority of other voters. The Ross Perot phenomenon, as loony as he was, is another example. The Giant Sucking Sound was actually disaffected Republicans (mostly) being siphoned off by Perot. Result? Bill Clinton.

    Unless there is a Galvanizing Unifying Idea (see the Dixiecrats) the various third parties will be little more than annoying gnats buzzing around the body politic. I just don’t see any kind of idea like that today. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, powerful ideas can spring out of nowhere (seemingly) and galvanize the electorate, or at least a sufficient portion of the electorate. But at the moment I don’t see anything like that.

    It is a distressing time politically in North America. If you think you have it bad down there, consider the clowns we have running the show up here. Not much hope on the horizon, although I like our Conservative Party leader. He might be too nice a guy, though.

    The only consolation is that our hope is in the Lord, not in politicians!

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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