A couple of years ago, I was chatting to a friend, and I suggested that the decision of theologian Wayne Grudem to publicly endorse Donald Trump in 2016 raised serious questions about Grudem’s judgement. My friend responded (presumably in defence of Grudem) that at least it could be said that Trump’s vice-presidential pick, Mike Pence, was an evangelical Christian.
That response reflects a view which has long been common among evangelical Christians – the view that if a candidate is an evangelical Christian, then there is a strong case for supporting that candidate. Some people might think that this view is basically the same as the way that in many countries, people tend to vote for someone of their tribe – or the way that Freemasons would be likely to vote for a Freemason. But Christians would argue that this goes beyond “He’s one of us, so we should vote for him.” Christians prefer to think of it in terms of supporting the candidate who has Christian values – who is more likely to be honest, and to vote the way a Christian should vote, a way that is moral.
I must confess that for years I tended to take that view. If a committed Christian ran for office, then there is a good case for voting for the Christian candidate. Today, however, I would say that it is not that simple.
Why? Because, it seems to me, Christian politicians are often as seriously flawed as other politicians in important respects. And there are two that (it seems to me) are good illustrations of this.
The first is Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is currently the American Secretary of State, and thus one of the most powerful politicians in the world. According to Wikipedia,
“Pompeo is affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Pompeo serves as a local church deacon and teaches Sunday school. In 2014, Pompeo told a church group that Christians needed to “know that Jesus Christ as our saviour is truly the only solution for our world”.
Furthermore, in January this year, he said in a speech,
“In my office, I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and His Word, and The Truth. And it’s the truth, lower-case “t,” that I’m here to talk about today.” And he went on to say “We need to acknowledge that truth, because if we don’t, we make bad choices – now and in the future.”
Which sounds good.
Hence it seems strange that last month, in a speech in Texas, he referred to his training at the US Military Academy at West Point, and said
““What’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. It’s — it was like — we had entire training courses. It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.” ”
Furthermore, he was laughing as he said it.
A Christian commentator remarked ““that’s not the resume of the Secretary of State… that’s the resume, if we look at the Bible, that’s the resume of Satan.”
There seems to be a stark contradiction in what Pompeo said on those two occasions.
What are we to make of this?
For some years, I have been reading Daniel Larison, who writes on foreign policy at The American Conservative. Larison is a sober commentator who is not given to exaggeration; and if he says something, I take it seriously. Since Pompeo is the US Secretary of State, it is not surprising that Larison has commented frequently on Pompeo’s statements. And there is a word that comes up again and again and again. See if you can spot it.
On the 15th of March, Larison wrote a column entitled: “Pompeo’s Obnoxious Yemen Lies”
On the 29th of April, it was “Pompeo’s Risible Yemen Lies“
On the 5th of April, in an article entitled “Challenging the Administration’s Many Iran Lies“, Larison begins “Mike Pompeo lied about the nuclear deal again this morning in his interview with Norah O’Donnell . . . “
On the 28th of March, in an article entitled “Secretary Pompeo Has No Credibility“, Larison begins
“Mike Pompeo spoke at the National Review Institute this week and made several false statements about North Korea, Yemen, and other issues.”
He goes on to say
“Pompeo has spent the last ten months lying to the American public, Congress, and everyone else when he says things like this, and he never seems to pay a price for it. ”
And he concludes with the words
“Pompeo is the chief representative of the United States abroad besides the president, so his habit of making things up out of thin air and telling easily refuted lies can only harm our reputation, undermine trust, and cause even our allies to doubt our government’s claims. Thanks to his constant misrepresentations and fabrications, nothing that the Secretary of State says can be believed. “
If you are interested in the truth, and look into the things that Daniel Larison saying, I think you’ll find that he isn’t exaggerating.
Let’s move on to Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator from Nebraska.
Sasse’s credentials are a lot more impressive than those of Mike Pompeo. For me, the thing that is really impressive is that “For the next year, he served as consultant/executive director for Christians United For Reformation (CURE). During his tenure, CURE merged with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), and Sasse became executive director of ACE in Anaheim, California”
I have been following CURE and ACE for over 20 years, and both have had rock solid reputations. They have been bodies that I would trust completely and look to for wisdom.
Furthermore, Sasse co-edited the book Here We Stand!: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation with respected preacher James Montgomery Boice. If Ben Sasse has a long association with these people, he must be solid.
His record for political courage is also strong. He stated publicly in 2016 that he would not vote for Trump – he was the first sitting Republican senator to say so – and has probably been more outspokenly critical of Trump than any other Republican in Congress.
And, on top of all that, he’s smart. He went to Harvard, and has a PhD from Yale.
And yet . . .
Last month, Sasse published an article about foreign policy, in which he said that America needed a “foreign-policy imagination that is broader, more adaptive, and more creative.” He wrote:
“I am an unstinting advocate for American engagement in the world, and I think the impulse to withdraw from America’s important, long-standing commitments is a very bad thing. U.S. global leadership is indispensable, not only for the security of America’s friends and partners, but for protecting America’s own interests. When hell breaks loose on the other side of the world, it inevitably boomerangs home. When the United States doesn’t lead, chaos inevitably follows. If America continues to drift toward global disengagement, it will be sucked into all sorts of troubles that it can’t envision right now.
The lesson of the two World Wars and of the Cold War is that the United States cannot avoid the world. America ultimately must lead a system of alliances. When it does otherwise, the consequences for the United States and its partners are much worse than policy-makers are liable to anticipate in the short term, when disengagement can seem appealing.”
Daniel Larison’s comment is simple: “Almost everything that Sasse says here is untrue or significantly misleading.”
Larison has plenty of good comments, but it seems to me that the key thing is this:
“The experience of the last 20 years shows that the U.S. is much more often responsible for creating chaos and instability when it “leads” through military action and support for regime change. The more active and forceful U.S. “leadership” has been, the more destructive our foreign policy becomes.
One of the core conceits of Sasse’s case for interventionism is that our “leadership” is good for the U.S. and the world, but there is considerable evidence from just the last two decades that it imposes enormous costs on us and causes terrible harm to many other countries.”
And I must confess that as I read Sasse’s words, I was astonished. “Untrue or significantly misleading” is an accurate description of much of it. So much so, that Sasse appears to live in a fantasy world, in which America’s actions on the world stage are always a force for good around the world, and governments disliked by America’s political leadership are wicked. While Sasse has been critical of Saudi Arabia, he has also voted against ending U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen. This is astonishing. America’s support from Saudi aggression in Yemen has been utterly reprehensible – and yet Sasse has consistently supported it.
What do I make of this? I think Sasse actually does live in a fantasy world . His view of world affairs is, in many ways, divorced from reality. He describes Putin as ‘evil’, and China is ‘a bad actor’ in the world.
It seems to me, however, that any fair minded person who looks objectively at the facts regarding the conflicts and wars that have been going on over the past 25 years, would have to conclude that the governments of China and Russia have not been nearly as responsible for stirring up death and destruction as successive American administrations. And it isn’t even close.
It is noteworthy that while Sasse’s article mentions China and Russia a few times, it never mentions America’s part in the disasters in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are not mentioned at all, and while he makes some derogatory remarks about the Syrian government, he doesn’t mention America’s support for Jihadist militants in the war in Syria, who brutalised Christians and members of other minority religious groups.
Loving the truth
How do I account for this? How could a sincere, intelligent, Christian be so completely wrong?
As I pondered this, the word that came to me was “delusional”. And as I thought further, a verse from the Bible came to me: II Thessalonians 2:11 “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” So I had a look at it.
What Paul actually says in this passage is:
“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.“
Now, this clearly doesn’t apply to Ben Sasse. Paul is talking about unbelievers, who reject the gospel.
But it struck me that the words “they refused to love the truth” might be relevant to Sasse. You see, when Paul says “the truth”, he is talking about the Christian gospel. But there are a lot of things that are true. And some of those things can be highly uncomfortable to us, because they don’t fit with things that we really like to believe.
Loyalties . . . and idolatry
And when it comes to politics, people have a lot of deeply held beliefs. And even more importantly, politics involves loyalty – loyalty to political leaders, loyalty to political parties, and loyalty to one’s country. Admitting that the leader you have supported is seriously flawed can be difficult. Admitting that your party has got something seriously wrong can be difficult. But perhaps admitting to the failings of your nation is the most difficult thing of all. Patriotism is a powerful force. To admit that the foreign policy that your country has pursued over the past 20 or 30 years is seriously mistaken isn’t easy. To admit that the foreign policy your country has pursued has brought large scale death and destruction can be painful.
And the fact is that Ben Sasse holds very strong beliefs about America. He wants “an American-led, American-powered global order. “
But his belief in America strikes me as being naive, unrealistic, and verging on arrogance. What if a politician from China spoke of “the value of a Chinese-led, Chinese-powered global order?” Or a German politician spoke of “the value of a German-led, German-powered global order?” Or an Indian politician spoke of “the value of a Indian-led, Indian-powered global order?” To believe that an American-led, American-powered global order is inevitably going to be be a good thing – especially after Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – is astonishing.
In our world, and especially in the world of politics, people often speak as if loyalty to a great leader, or to a party, or to a tribe, or a nation are important virtues. Failure to show such loyalties is often described as treachery. And that is especially true of loyalty to one’s nation. But the truth is that such loyalties are not always a good thing, for they often blind people to the truth.
And I will go further. The Bible doesn’t use the word ‘loyalties’. But it does speak of idols. In the Old Testament, idols are always statues made of stone or wood. But in the New Testament, the apostle Paul speaks (Colossians 3:5) of covetousness as idolatry. And if wanting other people’s property can amount to serving idols, can we not make gods of human political leaders, or parties, or tribes, or nations? Can we not put faith in a leader or party or tribe or nation that should be reserved for God alone? Can we not give loyalty to a leader or party or tribe or nation that should be reserved for God alone?
It seems to me that Ben Sasse’s faith in America as a force for good in the world, and his belief in the value of “an American-led, American-powered global order” comes pretty close to idolatry.
And that’s a problem.
At its heart, I think that politics itself is a big part of the problem. Politics demands (and creates loyalties) – loyalties that have always been around. But as I read the New Testament, it seems to me that those loyalties were pretty much absent from the New Testament church. The early Christians, for the most part, knew nothing of loyalty to political leaders, to political parties, or to nation states. I don’t think that is accidental.
That may also be true of some modern Christians – but it is not true of many. There are many modern Christians who have political loyalties – and in particular, loyalty to their country. And in practice, that becomes loyalty to the foreign policy pursued by their country, and thus loyalty to the allies chosen by our governments – which, in my opinion, is dangerous ground.
Last year, an article in the New York Times bluntly stated:
The United States is not directly bombing civilians in Yemen, but it is providing arms, intelligence and aerial refuelling to assist Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they hammer Yemen with airstrikes, destroy its economy and starve its people. The Saudi aim is to crush Houthi rebels who have seized Yemen’s capital and are allied with Iran.
That’s sophisticated realpolitik for you: Because we dislike Iran’s ayatollahs, we are willing to starve Yemeni schoolchildren.
Schoolchildren? Yes, and not just schoolchildren. The UN recently warned that if a proper ceasefire is not brokered by the end of the year, the total number of dead could rise to 233,000, with 60 per cent of the deceased being children under the age of five.
The UN’s projected count includes 102,000 killed in combat and 131,000 who will die due to a lack of food, health services and infrastructure in the war.
As Daniel Larison put it,
“It can’t be emphasized enough that U.S. policy in Yemen is both deeply immoral and irrational. Our government is a partner in war crimes and crimes against humanity . . . .“
And Mike Pompeo is a forthright advocate of this policy, and Ben Sasse voted against ending U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen.
When loyalty to one’s nation leads to being so deluded as support the mass killing of thousands of children, it’s no small thing.
I don’t think idolatry is too strong a word.