a quick thought about true Christian responsibility in voting for a president

Posted by PeteEnns on October 17, 2016 in politics 6 Comments

trump-clintonI’ll make this short.

In a public lecture given in 2011, N. T. Wright (“Kingdom and Cross”—which I make my Bible intro students watch every year) talks about the American Evangelical tendency to get tied up with power and place false hope in the political system.

The true Christian responsibility, Wright reminds us, is not to align with power, but to critique it prophetically in all its forms, to remind the powerful that no matter how powerful they are, they answer to the Creator.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians are not to be involved in the political process. It only means that they acknowledge that no political process or candidate is ever the source of hope because no candidate is ever free of corruption. A prophetic critique is the Christian responsibility and always needed.

I would add that how that responsibility is given flesh and bone will vary. prophet-of-doomPersonally I don’t think shrill “the end is nigh” speeches function as true prophetic critiques in our climate, nor do I think that this is simply a matter of parroting a few Bible verses or praying loudly. (Let’s use some common sense.)

A true prophetic critique takes a lot of thought, humility, rhetorical self-awareness, theological depth, and cultural awareness. In a word, what the Bible calls “wisdom”—seeing how what is good, right, and just speaks into a given moment.

In this election year—judging by the internet blowing up daily— I think it is safe to say that no matter how dangerous or ungodly we feel the other candidate is, there is room for significant prophetic critique for either candidate. Supporting a candidate does not mean you cannot also point out where they fall short.

Indeed, it is our responsibility to do so. Even if—perhaps especially if—we are convinced fully of one candidate over the other.

The true Christian responsibility in any election is, if anything, to be prophetic. It is not simply to collapse into political polarization. To do so is what N. T. Wright calls idolatry, but that is a topic for another post.

***Speaking of N. T. Wright, I am reading through his latest book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s CrucifixionI’m finding it a to be a very helpful discussion on looking at “sin” “death” and “salvation” against the backdrop of the biblical story as a whole rather than the common and personal preoccupation with “going to heaven.” ***


  • Two Quick Points & One Question:
    1. I’ve seen that same lecture that Tom Wright gave and agree whole heartedly with it. It’s got quite a lot of valuable to students, laity, professors & ministers. Did I mention laity?! Ya them too.
    2. I agree with your article and think there has been a vacuum of “wisdom” and “prophetic critique” in much of the discussion that’s been had this election cycle throughout the evangelical church.

    Can you give us an example of a “prophetic critique” for this election cycle or point to a colleague who has made one that you think embodies the thrust of your article?

  • Thank you Dr. Enns for continuing your theological work with thought toward current events and a heavy dose of “common sense”; I loved the post.

    (Portions of) 1st Samuel 8:6 & 19 & 12:17-18 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel;… But the people refused to listen to Samuel…. (Samuel asks) Is it not wheat harvest now? I will call on the Lord to send thunder and rain. And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the Lord when you asked for a king.” Then Samuel called on the Lord, and that same day the Lord sent thunder and rain. So all the people stood in awe of the Lord and of Samuel.

    This is always the first story that comes to mind around election season.

  • I guess I’m missing basis for this requirement. Why is it a Christians responsibility to prophetically critique a candidate for office? Why that domain (politics) over any other domain (academics, business, the arts)?

    Yes we apply God given reason and wisdom but it feels like we are over-reaching to give us this responsibility and make it Christian duty.

    For me it’s about choosing the best candidate. Much like choosing between two jobs, two colleges, or two houses to live in. All are done in prayer but none have more or less spiritual significance.

  • Hey Pete,

    Thanks for reminding me of this.

    Full disclosure: I was a huge Wright fan for YEARS before (d)evolving into a “hopeful agnostic” (or something like that).

    Wright, for me, was like a resting place, allowing me to breathe while exiting the (church) building. Several things that I found to be really helpful and inspirational in his writings were soon “securalized” into how I look at the world today (think MLK meets Cornel West meets Simon Critchley). I wrote a post in December of 2012 highlighting at least six of these things. But, your post made me think of another…

    The true Christian responsibility, Wright reminds us, is not to align with power, but to critique it prophetically in all its forms, to remind the powerful that no matter how powerful they are, they answer to the Creator.

    I think I would translate this sentence in the following way:

    To be a citizen of both the human and American communities is not to align oneself with power, but to critique it prophetically in all its forms, to remind the powerful that no matter how powerful they are, their power is temporary and contingent.

    I used to find it super helpful to think about politics in the way you described, paraphrasing Wright. But, I no longer see the necessity (or even benefit) to forcing theological language into this framework. For me, it also seems to create a lot more problems, when the texts from which these ideals are defended are honestly scrutinized.

    I’m not at all saying that there isn’t a legitimate genealogical case to be made that some of these ideals came from Christianity’s inception or its early adherents, but I’d love to know what some others think about the usefulness of specifically Christian language being attached indefinitely. In other words, if we can get to this way of approaching politics from other sources, what makes a specifically Christian approach unique and necessary?

    Thank you for your time.

    • I hear you, RD. I am sure there is a back story here.

      For what it’s worth, I think NTW might agree with you here, at least to a certain extent. He talks a lot about how God’s program is for a new humanity, not so much creatiing Christians. Though I know what you mean.

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