Why Adventists Can’t Talk about Politics
By Loren Seibold | 11 April 2019 |
Just before the election in 2016, a long-time Adventist Today reader wrote an indignant letter to the editor. One of our website writers had mildly disparaged Donald Trump, then candidate for the office of President of the United States. This reader, a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor, informed us that he was canceling his membership and would no longer be supportive of Adventist Today. We had become “way too political,” he said.
I was more curious than concerned. It seemed to me that we’d been remarkably restrained. Donald Trump had by that time described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, said uncountable offensive things about women including that he could fondle women’s genitalia with impunity, called women he thought unattractive “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals,” and blamed Megyn Kelly’s menstrual period for his discomfort when talking to her. He also mocked a man with a neurological handicap, told a crowd to “knock the crap out of” a protester, advocated torture “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” threatened the religious liberty of the entire Muslim faith, and promised that he would kill not just terrorists but their innocent wives and children.
There’s enough there to give pause to any thoughtful Christian person, it seemed to me. Even if you agree with Donald Trump’s policies, and believe he has both the integrity and the ability to implement them, you should at least be able to understand why other of your Christian sisters and brothers are offended by him.The irony was that this particular reader had filled his own Facebook page with endless supportive memes about Mr. Trump.
Yet a religious publication was “way too political” if it even noticed that Mr. Trump said and did things that were questionable by Bible standards.
The No-Politics Rule
In fact, we here at Adventist Today, with a few exceptions, have kept mostly out of election politics. I had been taught as a young pastor that politics was one thing I could never have a public opinion about. It’s a minefield. Don’t tear your congregation apart over mere politics. It doesn’t matter very much compared to our end-time message, they said, which is far more important than than anything happening in the political world.
Never mind, I suppose, that our central teachings, the ones remembered in our name, have always orbited political events, historical or anticipated. I remember church members weeping on the Sabbath after the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States. Even more memorable was the unrestrained relief the first Sabbath we got together after Kennedy was murdered. “The Lord has held back the winds of strife!” rejoiced our pastor, and we enthusiastically amened. We were almost giddy—an odd reaction for people who said we hoped for Jesus’ soon return. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone right then to grieve that a young man had lost his life, a young family their husband and father. It was enough that the president was gone—a man who, it was said (though no president has ever made his independence from his religion clearer), was taking his orders directly from the Vatican.
I asked some church members their thoughts about the no-politics rule. “Never,” one told me. “Don’t ever mention it. You keep your opinions to yourself.” “Do you keep your opinions to yourself?” I asked. “That’s different,” one said. “I’m not a pastor.” “How about if the candidate stood up and said, ‘I plan on restricting religious liberty’?” I asked. “What if he said, ‘I am going to mandate a single day of worship for everyone’—naturally, it would be Sunday—‘and anyone who doesn’t worship on that day won’t be allowed to get to have credit or a bank account.’ Should I mention that?” “Of course,” he said. “That’s prophecy.” “But if a candidate is immoral, if he is cruel, if he has declared his intention to enact laws that will hurt certain groups of people, that I can say nothing about?” “That,” he said “is entirely different. Stay out of it.”
Why, I wondered, is it entirely different? I agree that a stated intention to enforce a particular day of worship, unlikely as that seems right now, would have to be addressed. But is there no overlap at all between our biblical faith and a candidate’s economic, social and military policies? Think about the relative weight the Bible gives to honesty, mercy, generosity, justice, kindness and peacefulness, vs. cryptic prophecies whose interpretations have been fluid throughout our history. The possibility of a Sunday law would alarm Seventh-day Adventists, but under the above rule we must remain quiet over a decision to use our country’s military in a way that increases civilian deaths overseas? The threat to curtail religious liberty even in small increments would exercise us more than leaving millions of poor people without ordinary health care? The prophetic possibilities in the Middle East would cause us to lose sleep, but not our neighbors working for poverty wages? The availability of abortion upsets us, but not laws that leave children hungry and homeless?
That we tend to choose as religious priorities the distant future over the immediate, the ideological over the personal, the abstract over the concrete, the possible but unlikely over a genuine crisis—that, it seems to me, is one of the most curious things about us.
There are, of course, no ideal leaders. (A bumper sticker I saw said, “Just for once, I’d like to be able to vote for the greater of two goods.”) Nor is there any truth to the notion that democracy is reliably moral and good. For us, here and now, it has worked better than the alternatives. Yet as long as people can be manipulated, democracy is manipulable too. When a democracy’s leaders are thoughtless and selfish, it can fail its citizens just as readily as other models of government.
I think most Christians would say we should hold our political leaders accountable. But on what basis? More to the point here, in countries in which we choose our leaders by majority vote, on what basis do Seventh-day Adventists choose them? Can we talk about that at all?
Aristotle, Habakkuk and Jesus
In democracies, persuasion is the path to leadership. The tools of persuasion (per Aristotle) are ethos, logos and pathos, which translate roughly as what a person is, what he says, and how he inspires you. At best, all three contribute to a decision. But that works only if voters are equipped to listen thoughtfully—not necessarily true in America’s entitled but badly-informed electorate. The ethos, logos and pathos methodology is easily perverted, which in an information-clogged world sometimes means that the loudest and most outrageous voices win.
In the most recent American presidential election each of the candidates offered policies—logos. Each came with an ethos: Donald Trump a successful businessman and show-biz personality who behaved as a lout, Hillary Clinton smart, experienced, but with a reputation for being a shady political operator. Yet most commenters agree that it was pathos that got Donald Trump elected. He appealed to feelings, though not necessarily our most noble ones. Somehow (and perhaps this is a peculiar to Christians, we who are accustomed to exercising faith), a majority of white Christian voters were able to set aside his unchristian insults and outrageous accusations, his litigious history and obvious character flaws, in favor of what we believed him to be. Like James Dobson when he declared Donald Trump an undercover born-again Christian, we projected upon him what we wanted to see.
In Habakkuk, God tells the prophet that he has deputized the Assyrians to punish Israel for its injustice and violence. Habakkuk, surprised, reminds God that the Assyrians are cruel and violent, a far too heavy weapon for the purpose. But God insists that he has chosen Assyria to do his work, and his people will have to suffer it. Here, perhaps, is a theology for accepting a bad and immoral leader: he may be acting on God’s behalf. Did some of us Christians feel that we could suspend judgment about Mr. Trump’s character flaws and inexperience, because if his policies matched what we thought God preferred (such as repealing Roe v. Wade) then God was going to use him in spite of himself?
Yet if one believes that Donald Trump is God’s man for our time, where is the support for it? Unlike Habakkuk’s prophecy about the Assyrian army, there is no prophecy choosing Donald Trump. (I think we can safely set aside the eschatology of an internet preacher I listened to who based her argument on the King James rendering of a phrase from 1 Corinthians 15:52: “at the last trump.”)
Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” Many of us who voted against Mr. Trump took seriously that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18 NKJV) and feared that a man who so often spoke evilly would act evilly, that a hurtful man would make hurtful policies.When people show you who they are, shouldn’t you believe them?
Jesus tells of a man who asks one of his sons to work in the vineyard; he says that he will, but doesn’t. The other son says he won’t go to work, but shows up anyway (Matthew 21:28-32). The latter is better than the former, says Jesus, because actions trump talk. By that lesson we Americans should await the outcome of this president’s actions, though we may wonder what will have happened to the United States of America by the time we can say whether or not he has been God’s unlikely servant.
Let Justice Roll
Dare we Seventh-day Adventists take a collective interest in politics? It isn’t hard to see that political questions are at times hopelessly entangled with religious questions. If saying “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17) were enough, the church wouldn’t need attorneys or a religious liberty department.
The fundamentalist and evangelical churches preach and write about abortion and homosexuality. Through most of our history, we Seventh-day Adventists have filtered all our political concerns through eschatology, avoiding other political discussions. And here is what we have lost: the understanding that social justice ought to be as much a part of our political awareness as is religious liberty.
Most of the Hebrew prophets were activists for social justice. They moved from the personal to the political when they addressed entire classes of people—the poor, the priests, the monarchy, the merchants, the rich. God is speaking with political purpose when he says, “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, … skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat” (Amos 8:4-6). God is speaking politically when he threatens Israel with the Assyrian military for their violence and injustice (Habakkuk 1:2-3). And God tells Jeremiah that the kings and the leaders are responsible (Jeremiah 22:3-4). All of these remonstrances are inescapably political, and though we are no longer a monarchy or a theocracy, what would make us think the Seventh-day Adventist Church should talk only about religious liberty, but not make social justice part of our political conversation?
There is our problem: we are unable to converse, and are terrified of dissent. We would rather be right than be in conversation. Our pioneers talked and disagreed; we disagree and quickly take shelter behind a rather shaky definition of unity. How many times in the past nine years have you heard about the General Conference being God’s highest authority on earth, and that everyone should fall into line? Infallible authorities can’t discuss. They can only declare. Even laudatory efforts at conversation, like the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, fizzled at the end. Our official church publications must necessarily be so cautious that they can offer little guidance through controversial issues. (That’s why independent Adventist journalism, such as you find at AdventistToday.org, is so important. It is our intention to keep civil and courteous conversation flowing.)
That is not to say we Seventh-day Adventists haven’t changed. Because there are politically-tinged topics we can’t converse about, important parts of our theological heritage have fallen away. Some Seventh-day Adventists in America now define good Christian citizenry by evangelical, Republican and libertarian talking points. Noncombatancy, a teaching rooted in our historical respect for the ten commandments, has in the United States succumbed to a Christian-scented patriotism. We used to say that should our institutions take public money our mission could be compromised. Not anymore. If there were a crisis that led to the religious rights of Muslims being suspended to maintain law, order, and safety (something many Christian conservatives already favor), I fear even religious liberty might become too controversial for us to discuss comfortably.
Political topics will, I suspect, remain verboten in all but gatherings of like-minded Adventist friends, and I doubt they’ll ever be safe in Seventh-day Adventist pulpits. But one thing we can do is remind Seventh-day Adventists that there is more to politics than religious liberty; that we are to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” That will be reflected in how we vote, to be sure—but more importantly, in how we act.
- See Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” ↑
- The quote includes the words “in session”, though that qualifier sometimes fades in usage. Many important decisions are made in the between-session councils composed almost entirely of general conference, division and union administrators. But even if we only made pronouncements in God’s name when in quinquennial session, the concept is problematic: we still have the equivalent of a pope, just one that can be infallible every five years. ↑
Loren Seibold is executive editor at Adventist Today.