A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

th

Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Irish evangelicals and evangelism

Reading about an evangelical Christian being sacked from South Tipperary County Council for persistent evangelism and subsequently winning the court case, prompts some (wildly generalised) thoughts. Please do add your own to a conversation – these are just descripitve musings ‘out loud’ rather than value judgements. Perhaps you will disagree or want to add your thoughts. I’m no lawyer and could be off on a tangent here:

First, there is a strong cultural strand to this story; it just would not have happened in Belfast with long familiarity with evangelicalism. Now I don’t know Mr McAteer and how he does evangelism. There are winsome ways of sharing the gospel and there are ways that I imagine could get people’s backs up (monologuing etc). But however done, Mr McAteer’s behaviour was interpreted as culturally alien. Irish Catholic culture tends to have a deep-seated suspicion of personal talk of Jesus and the Bible, it is, for many, much too ‘in your face’. If Mr McAteer had been a passionate Tipp GAA man who always talked hurling, I somehow doubt he’d have lost his job.

Second, here’s equality legislation working in favour of minority religious views and associated behaviour (evangelism). The ruling took the view that John McAteer was dismissed not because of anything to do with his work, but that he refused to stop talking to colleagues and members of the public about Jesus during work hours.

Now this is an interesting interpretation of European legislation: someone’s practice of religion is covered within the Employment Equality Acts. In other words, evangelism (seeking to persuade, communicate and tell the gospel) is actually protected in the workplace. Do you see implications for this at your work? What, for example, are implications for those in health care or counselling, where (as I understand it) there are relatively strict guidelines about ‘talking about God’ with patients / clients? What about in a corporate setting – is ‘religion’ out of bounds at the lunch table in Google or Intel?

Third,  reading between the lines, it seems that the management of South Tipp Co Co took the view that insisting on talking about Christianity was seen as inappropriate, out-of-place and socially awkward.

In other words, their reaction pretty well mirrors that of most contemporary evangelicals towards evangelism.

In the past, public evangelism was a primary marker of evangelicals.  I’m talking about door-to-door, street work, tract distribution, mission campaigns etc.  While they haven’t disappeared altogether, like McAteer, those that continue to engage in evangelism with strangers in a public setting are in the small minority and tend to make most other evangelicals as uncomfortable as the management of South Tipperary County Council.

Comments, as ever, welcome.