Is Evangelical Thinking About Voting For or Against Trump Really Godly?

Oct 23, 2020 by David Fowler

Is Evangelical Thinking About Voting For or Against Trump Really Godly?
With early voting starting, it is again time for evangelicals to start explaining why they will or will not vote for Donald Trump. Some will say that voting for Trump is a bad Christian witness while others will say his personal conduct can be excused because his policies are more consistent with biblical positions on abortion and religious liberty. What I’ve read brought to mind what Martin Luther wrote to Pope Leo X in 1520 as part of his tract, The Freedom of the Christian, and made me wonder if both camps are missing something vitally important.  
Luther wrote: “I have been quick to snap at my opponents not because of their bad morals but because of their godlessness.”

Until a few years ago, that would have sounded a strange note in my ears, because I understood good morals and godliness as coterminous for a Christian. Godly people had godly moral values and behavior. But, what Luther was saying is that one can bear the name of Christ, be a leader in the visible church, behave in a morally upright fashion, and still be godless.

Why Luther’s Statement Is Important to the ‘How-should-I-think-about-Trump” Question

I believe Luther’s statement relates to what the Apostle Paul said godliness was. In I Timothy 3:16, he describes godliness as a “mystery” and probably for good reason, because it has nothing to do with good or bad behavior. Here is what he wrote:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
Paul is saying all Christians know—it is “without controversy”—that true godliness is a person—Jesus Christ, the second person of the Triune God taking on a body and human nature—and what was true of Him. 
Indeed, this definition of godliness is “mysterious” to those who have not come to apprehend the wisdom and power of God in it (I Corinthians 1:23-24) and who still think of godliness as something they do, some kind of thing or commodity they can hold out to the world as evidence of their godliness – as a sort of badge of their growth in evangelicalism (Compare to Paul saying he wasn’t godly even though he “advanced in Judaism,” Galatians 1:14). 

Application to the ‘Christian witness’ camp

In other words, for those in the first camp, not voting for Trump may be important because being associated with his crude behavior could undermine the badges of godliness they have worked up through their good morals, church work, and the like for others to see and upon which they can commend themselves to others as being “good Christians.” If so, this sounds a lot like the Pharisees who could not see how Jesus could be from God because he hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and the like.  
When proof of “godliness” is bound up in or relates only to what one does or does not do, or to who one does or does not hang out with, and is not centered in the person of Jesus Christ being formed in them by the very Spirit of Christ working in them, then, as Luther was saying, that is moralism, not godliness. 
This is not to say that Christians are free to live any way they want, but it is to say that the foundation for how Christians live is found in Another living in and through them, not in themselves.
In my view, those who cannot in good conscience vote for Trump need to make it clear that not voting for Trump is not what makes them more or less godly in God’s eyes. “Evil things come from within and define a man,” not the externals themselves (Mark7:23).
In fact, I submit that it is dangerous for a person who is a Christian to let others think that godliness is strictly about do’s and don’ts and about external behaviors. That is why the apostle Paul attacked Peter publicly for separating himself from the Gentiles when a group of Jews showed up for dinner (Galatians 2:11-19). Peter’s actions were even leading Barnabas, Paul’s Jewish missionary companion, into thinking justification might be about something other than one’s identity being found in the person of Christ living His righteousness out in them (Galatians 2:20).

Application to the ‘Policy Camp’ 

Those in the “I-vote-for-policy” camp have a similar challenge, just the flip side of it. They need to be careful not to imply to those who do not understand what godliness is that only policy matters to a Christian voter and that godly behavior is irrelevant. 
In other words, if those in this camp say only that they are voting for Trump because of his policies, e.g., on abortion and free exercise of religion, without addressing or saying anything about what godliness is for a Christian, that silence could allow non-Christians to conclude that “conservative” Christians care only about having the political power to advance their political agenda, and they don’t care about what they think Christians should care about—Trump’s behavior being so un-Christian like.  
This, too, has the dangerous tendency. It lets people lie complacent in their own ungodly thinking that godliness is only about what one does, what we can do by the exercise of natural will, grit, and determination, to be more godly and not what Jesus Christ has done to justify us or what He is now doing to restore the image of God in us.

What Both Camps Might Want to Think About

For Christians, I believe this election cycle and the presence of a person like Donald Trump on the Republican presidential ticket is a great opportunity to help the people of our nation where I think the need is the greatest—disabusing those in and outside the visible church of their false notions of what godliness is and is not. That is what Luther was trying to do, and God used the godliness of which he spoke and which he expounded to change a large swathe of Europe. 
America is the beneficiary of the theological Reformation that spread from Luther’s Germany to England. And, I believe that godliness, as so defined, is the predicate for the salvation both evangelical camps say they want, not Biden’s comparatively less crude behavior or Trump’s more pro-life and religion-respecting polices.
If the salvation for which evangelicals say they long is more about Americans as people than about America as a geo-political entity, then we might do well to use this election cycle as an opportunity to talk not just about candidates and policies, but about true godliness. Lord knows we need it.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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