Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pete Enns on How to Think Christianly about Presidential Elections

Years ago I heard an instructive story from the mouth of a woman who had been a student of my father at the old Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  It was the 9th of November in 1960, and overnight it had been determined that John F. Kennedy had nudged out Richard Nixon in the election to become America’s 35th President.  This woman, a student at PCB, was of course an Evangelical/Fundamentalist Protestant and, hailing from central Pennsylvania, predictably a conservative Republican.  She and her friends at the college were shattered over the prospect of, not only a Democrat, but a Roman Catholic Democrat leading our nation.  But, she assured me those many years later, her fears were assuaged when my dad, an inveterate Calvinist, reminded her that God was sovereign in this event as in all others in his universe.

Dad was, of course, on solid biblical ground in his assertion of God’s sovereignty over the results of the election.  St. Paul, writing in (probably) the winter of 57 CE, wrote to the Christians of the imperial capital Rome:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1, ESV).
Centuries earlier the Book of Daniel recorded a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, of a large and verdant tree that was hacked down to a stump to henceforth be watered with dew and share the ground with the beasts of the field (Dan 4:4-18).  Daniel interpreted the dream as a coded prediction that God would inflict the king with lunacy in order to teach him a fundamental theological notion:
… [Y]ou shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field.  You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (Dan 4:25, ESV).
Ultimately, then, the Christian should not worry him- or herself to death over such matters as Presidential elections in the knowledge that, as Abraham Lincoln averred, “The will of God prevails.”  At the same time, as comforting as the confession of God’s sovereignty can be, only the theologically naïve can derive from it the corollary that God always works so as to guarantee results designed to issue in America’s greater prosperity and “blessing.”  As should be obvious to all somewhat objective Christian onlookers, America is not a “Christian nation,” let alone a nation with a unique covenantal relationship to God, self-serving claims to “American exceptionalism” notwithstanding.

As is so often the case, the key to understanding the issue lies in a proper view of eschatology.  In the New Testament it is clear that God is in the business of establishing his kingdom “on earth as in heaven.”  This kingdom was inaugurated in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, and it will one day culminate in the glorious consummation of new heavens and new earth.  It is to this king that we Christians owe our ultimate allegiance.  And it is in that kingdom that we find our ultimate hope.

This is the point made by Pete Enns in a penetrating blog post this week entitled, “Dear Christian: If the Thought of Either Romney or Obama Getting Elected Makes You Fearful, Angry, or Depressed, You Have What We Call a Theological Problem.”  What Enns makes perfectly clear is that all politicians and political parties thrive by presenting an eschatology, a vision of where we ought to be and how we should get there.  And it has always been thus.  In the Roman Empire, the birth and/or accession of a new emperor was hailed as euangelion, “good news.”  Inscriptions found in the eastern part of the Empire refer to various emperors, including Augustus, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Hadrian, as sōtēr, “savior, deliverer.”  Classic is the famous Priene Inscription (Asia Minor), dated to 9 BCE, which speaks thus of the accession of Octavius (Augustus):
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him…
The resonances of these terms would not have been lost on the Greek readers of the New Testament when they were applied exclusively to Jesus of Nazareth and the story/message about him.

In today’s America, both Republicans and Democrats offer rival eschatologies to whet the appetites of the nation’s citizens.  Often these rival visions are expressed in simple — indeed, simplistic — slogans.  In 2008, then-candidate Obama offered America “hope” and “change.”  One might suggest that such words are ambiguous at best, and they would be right, but he was successful.  In 2012, Republican challenger Mitt Romney likewise is trying to hook voters with his one-word mantra, “jobs,” likewise nebulous —didn’t President Obama likewise have a jobs plan that the Republican-dominated Senate put the kibosh to?  What is important to recognize, however, is that such eschatologies derive their power from the overarching narrative to which they provide the climax.  And whether or not a particular person finds such an eschatological “hope” compelling depends on whether the person is able to place him- or herself inside the particular narratival American worldview of which it is part and parcel.

Enns’s major point is spot-on: no political system, no political party, no individual politician, can ultimately deliver the goods and bring about the eschatological vision to which we as Christians are supposedly committed.  This point is as simple as it should be obvious to any thinking Christian.  But the degree to which so many Christians in my (and Enns’s) acquaintance see such elections as life-and-death struggles and portray the potential election of Romney or (more often) Obama in apocalyptic terms suggests an unfortunate fact: too many American Christians thereby show themselves to be Christian Americans rather than American Christians.  To put it differently:  too many American Christians have assimilated a mythological American metanarrative — whether the Left’s “progressive” narrative or the Right’s backward-looking “rugged individualism” — rather than the Biblical narrative which finds its goal in the new creation set in motion by the gospel events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

I am not saying that Christians should consider presidential elections to be unimportant.  Dualism is not Christian, and political quiescence in the face of democratic privilege is irresponsible at best.  After all, matters of social justice, war, economy, health care, freedom, and life itself are, to say the least, important.  And each of us must use our minds and think Christianly about the relative weight each must be given to make an informed decision.  Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the “right” person will win the election and lead America to greater prosperity.  Indeed, there is no guarantee America will continue to exercise global hegemony for the indefinite future.  After all, all great empires, from the Roman to the British, have risen and fallen.  But the world carries on, and will do so until the blessed hope of our Lord’s return to consummate the kingdom he came initially to establish.  And this prospect should not cause any Christian to become fearful or depressed.  For our ultimate hope does not reside in the United States, but in the Kingdom of God, and in King Jesus who will continue to reign until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:25).


  1. Thanks for the reminder not to fear but to focus on God.
    Great article except for the fact that you forgot to take your Democratic Party blinders off. Obama has never dealt with a Republican-dominated Senate and Progressivism is not "forward thinking" as much as it is an alternative path whether or not you label Republicans as "backward-looking." Probably would be a more powerful message if you left your allegiance for ONE of the American, earthly, political juggernauts at home for this one. :)
    That said, I look forward to your musings on a regular basis and have gleaned a multitude of insights from them. Wings soon?

    1. Matt, my descriptions of both the "progressive" agenda and "rugged individualism" were intended to be critical, because I adhere to neither. Both the "liberal" utopia of social freedom and the "conservative" vision of individual economic freedom are, I believe, idolatrous dead ends. Let me know when you can get out for wings.