Trump vs. Biden: How to keep politics from dividing Christians
Dan Sims, a member of the Caldwell Church of Christ…
David Lipscomb, an influential leader in Churches of Christ from the Civil War until World War I, urged Christians to refrain from voting and participation in civil government.
More than a century after the Tennessee preacher’s death, his approach to Caesar — and candidates with last names such as Trump and Biden — is gaining new devotees fed up with America’s political polarization.
“The church harms its influence when it becomes political, and Christians cannot vote without becoming political,” said Sarah Blackstone, 38, a member of the Broad Street Church of Christ in Mineola, Texas.
“This distracts from our purpose — to change hearts and lives for Christ by bringing him to them,” added Blackstone, who along with her husband, David, a Broad Street deacon, has given up voting. “By engaging in politics, our focus is then shifted to legislating lives instead of transforming them.”
Jonathan Storment, preaching minister for the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, Ark., said he writes in “Jesus of Nazareth” every four years, prompting his mother to quip, “Oh good, we can look forward to four more years of self-righteousness.”
“But I believe that no one political party or candidate ever fully endorses the ethics and politics of the kingdom of God,” said Storment, 39. “The New Testament ethic is not reduced to talking points and single issues but a claim on the entire universe and especially on the people who have bent their knee to Jesus as Messiah.”
Both Blackstone and Storment cite Lipscomb as a major influence.
In a new book, “Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government,” Restoration Movement scholar John Mark Hicks suggests that the present political climate has “awakened” interest in Lipscomb’s approach.
“Lipscomb’s understanding of the kingdom of God, rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, subverts the present Evangelical church, which seems deeply committed to nationalism, patriotism, and political power,” writes Hicks, a professor of theology at Lipscomb University, the institution that Lipscomb and James A. Harding cofounded as the Nashville Bible School in 1891.
Beyond Churches of Christ, the past quarter-century has brought “a movement of younger evangelicals who have refrained from voting as a matter of choosing the pursuit of holiness over political power of the ‘world’ — replicating the very move of David Lipscomb” and nonvoting groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Amish, said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The Civil War played a big role in shaping Lipscomb’s political theology.
At one time, Lipscomb — who edited the Gospel Advocate from 1866 until his death at age 86 in 1917 — owned five slaves.
“In hindsight, Lipscomb saw the Civil War as God’s chastening scourge that was necessary for the liberation of African slaves from their southern masters,” Hicks writes in “Resisting Babel.”
As a result of the Civil War, Lipscomb “came to believe that not only was violence unacceptable for Christians, but any participation in civil affairs that supported coercive political policy was contrary to the spirit of Jesus.”
Lipscomb believed “that humanity had transferred its allegiance from the peaceable reign of God to the militant and selfish interest of human governments,” the author explains. “Civil government, in Lipscomb’s view, had not only subverted the kingdom of God in the mind of most Christians but replaced it.”
Lipscomb’s beliefs shaped Churches of Christ significantly enough that those congregations “were known as the largest ‘peace church’ at the time of World War I,” Hicks told The Christian Chronicle.
But that legacy of pacifism and nonvoting didn’t last long as the fellowship came to embrace military service and political activism.
“Churches of Christ went mainstream in the mid-20th century as church members became increasingly prosperous,” said Loretta Hunnicutt, a history professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “Christianity in general — along with the Stone-Campbell Movement in parts of the country — experienced cultural dominance, especially after World War II.
“Rejecting voting doesn’t make much sense after those experiences,” she added, “as it would have made sense to Lipscomb’s post-Civil War generation who felt scarred by politics in unique ways and were still something of a group of ‘outsiders.’”
Hunnicutt said she has a close friend who follows Lipscomb’s model, but he was reluctant to share his views with her “because he had received so much condemnation from others who believed it a Christian’s duty to vote.”
“There are cross currents at work, really,” the Pepperdine professor said. “Some are turned off by politics because of our current national polarization, and some feel Christians must continue to engage in order to bring good change. And as always, regional and socioeconomic differences abound.”
“Some are turned off by politics because of our current national polarization, and some feel Christians must continue to engage in order to bring good change.”
In the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 73 percent of respondents who gave their religious affiliation as Church of Christ said they were certain they were registered to vote at their current address.
That compared with 89 percent of Episcopalians, 85 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adherents, 84 percent of United Methodists, 80 percent of Southern Baptists and 67 percent of Catholics.
“One thing to bear in mind about the figures: They don’t take into account that the share of people who are eligible to vote varies across religious groups,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. “For instance, 14 percent of Catholic respondents … told us they are not U.S. citizens. … That’s part of the reason the share of Catholics who are registered voters is slightly lower than for the Churches of Christ.”
Among Church of Christ respondents, just 3 percent said they were not U.S. citizens, Smith noted.
Political scientists with ties to Churches of Christ said they have not seen a major uptick in members aligning with Lipscomb’s approach.
“I know of just a few individuals around here who take the Lipscomb view,” said Stephen H. Morris, a political science professor at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. “Most aren’t even familiar with it.”
Many young Christians don’t vote, but Lipscomb seems to have little to do with it, said Neal Coates, a political science professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“The reason that young Christians do not vote in high numbers is consistent with the reasons young Americans do not vote much,” Coates said. “They do not want to be a blind follower of a political party. They do not yet understand the connection between their lives and public policy. And they do not trust the government.”
For Tim Tripp, choosing to support neither President Donald Trump nor former Vice President Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election has everything to do with the specific names on the ballot.
“Neither candidate for president is a man I consider to be a person of integrity or character,” said Tripp, senior minister for the West Side Church of Christ in Russellville, Ark.
But Tripp, 56, said he disagrees with Lipscomb’s stance on not voting.
“I think Christians should participate in the government and use the power of the vote to elect candidates that value and uphold the Christian worldview,” said Tripp, who plans to vote in other local and federal races.
On the other hand, Patrick Barber, minister for the Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut, said he agrees with much of what Lipscomb maintained concerning voting and government.
“If Herod and Pilate were opposing each other on the ballot, who would Jesus vote for?” asked Barber, 45, who used to be a Republican but no longer votes. “I think he’d opt not to cast his vote in favor of either one.
“I agree that Christians should avoid placing their hope in government rather than God, and I agree that Christians should do everything within their power to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Barber added. “If involvement in secular politics distracts us from the love of God and one another, then maybe we should re-examine our involvement. It’s a gray area, and we should be gracious to those with whom we disagree.”
“Perhaps the present political climate encourages some to reclaim Lipscomb’s sense of allegiance to the kingdom of God and withdraw from the support of and participation in civil politics and voting.”
Even if most 21st century Christians reject Lipscomb’s perspective, a new generation’s discovery of the late preacher’s views is refreshing to Hicks, the “Resisting Babel” author.
“Perhaps the present political climate encourages some to reclaim Lipscomb’s sense of allegiance to the kingdom of God and withdraw from the support of and participation in civil politics and voting,” the Lipscomb professor told the Chronicle. “Lipscomb would be pleased to hear some reject political engagement in order to devote themselves wholly to the kingdom of God.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
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