Below is the text, as prepared, of President Matthew A. Scogin’s speech on christian political discourse, delivered to a Hope student and employee audience via Zoom from Diment Chapel, on September 24, 2020. President Scogin’s remarks were followed by a faculty panel discussion and live audience Q/A.
40 Days from today is election day. We’re in the thick of it now. We’re in the middle of an election season, and it’s not just any election season. This election season is proving to be the most volatile election season that our country has seen in a very long time. And this election season is falling in the midst of a world that seems like everything is broken all around us.
One thing that’s happened is all of this brokenness now has a political element to it. COVID has a political element to it. Masks have a political element. Racial justice, forest fires, everything seems to have a political element to it. I didn’t even mention killer bees or the Tiger King!
Everything seems to have a political element to it, and everyone seems to have an opinion on all of these things. Everyone certainly has an opinion on the election.
But the question tonight is “What does God think about all of this?”
That’s what we are trying to descipher tonight.
The title of our event this evening is Who Would Jesus Vote For. I hate to start by disappointing you, but that title was a tease.
We’re not actually going to answer the question. In part because, of course, we don’t know the answer to the question. But more importantly, because it isn’t actually the right question to ask.
In the 1990s, a youth group leader right here in Holland, Michigan began a grassroots movement asking teenagers to consider the question, coined by Charles Sheldon in a bestselling book from a hundred years prior, – What Would Jesus Do. It spread and before long, Christian youth around the world were wearing WWJD bracelets.
It can certainly be helpful to ask that question and try to project Jesus into a situation and imagine how he might have responded – especially one that is as thorny and volatile as today’s political environment.
But it can also be dangerous. Because we can attribute to the Jesus we imagine things that Jesus never did or said. The Jesus of our imagination may not act anything like the real Jesus.
It also dangerously gives the impression that God gives simple answers to complicated questions. It presumes that Christianity is just a shortcut. Most of this time, it isn’t the case that when we are facing a complicated dilemma, God slips us the answer underneath the desk. In the classroom, that’s called cheating.
God isn’t like that.
A better question is: HOW should Jesus shape our politics? We all have our own political loyalties, ideas and dispositions…. The question is: when your politics meet Jesus what should happen? That’s the real question I am going to try to answer tonight.
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus challenges the politics in all of us – right, left, Trump, Biden.
This means one net result from my speech (if I do it well) is that everyone should feel challenged; in other words, my goal is to offend everybody, equally.
So I won’t be checking my email for the next two weeks…. Just kidding! But seriously, if you have criticism to share after tonight, that’s great – just email email@example.com.
For my comments I want to ask three questions:
- How should Jesus shape our political allegiance?
- How should he shape our political beliefs?
- And how should he shape our political discourse?
Let’s start by asking ourselves the question: How should Jesus shape our political allegiance?
Quite helpfully, we have a situation in the Bible where Jesus himself was asked about his political allegiance. The story occurs when Jesus is questioned about paying taxes to Caesar.
The question was posed by two groups: the Pharisees and the Herodians. We know this question is a political question because the Pharisees and the Herodians were opponents on political issues.
The Pharisees were religious leaders who opposed the Roman occupation of the Jews. The Herodians were pro-Herod Jews; they supported the rule of Rome.
Their question gets at the heart of their political division. They ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
In essence, two opposing political parties asking him to take a side, asking “which party do you belong to?” Do you support Rome, or not? It’s like a group of Trump supporters and Biden supporters coming to Jesus and asking “who are you going to vote for?” It’s a dramatic scene.
And the question is a trap, because either answer has Jesus in trouble. If he says “no, don’t pay the tax,” he is essentially calling for rebellion against Rome. But if he says, “yes, it’s fine to pay the tax,” he is essentially supporting the Roman occupation – showing allegiance to Caesar. That means all his talk about the Kingdom of God is just that – talk; ultimately he too bows to Rome.
It’s a gotcha question. And we’re familiar with this type of question today.
When politicians today get questions like this, they briefly acknowledge the question and then pivot – start talking about something else. And you and I are watching the TV thinking: just answer the question! But it’s not their fault. They can’t answer the question because it has been specifically designed to trap them.
That is exactly the case here – but Jesus doesn’t pivot. He answers the question directly without falling into the trap. And the Bible says the crowd was amazed at his response.
What’s his response?
First, he asks somebody to bring him a coin. They brought him one, and he asks, “whose picture is on the coin?”
They say: Caesar’s. Jesus says: ok, that means this is Caesar’s coin. So, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – what belongs to him, and has his image and likeness stamped upon it. But then he says, “and give unto God what is God’s” – that which has God’s image stamped upon it. Meaning, you. Your heart. Your life. Your allegiance.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t pick a side between political parties, but he does pick a side between politics and religion.
Because which is more significant: paying a tax? Or rendering your life to God?
In surrendering your life to God, Jesus is saying: God comes first in your life, and in your politics.
He’s not advocating rebellion against Rome, but He IS calling for total rebellion of your HEART against anything that isn’t the authority of God.
In other words: your allegiance belongs to God.
This should be the “first principle” for Christians as we engage in politics. Our allegiance to God is primary.
That means that, before you’re an American, you’re a citizen of God’s kingdom. Before you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re a Christian. Before you follow Biden or Trump, you follow Jesus.
It means that we let Jesus inform our politics – not the other way around!
It means we reorder our politics around the values of Jesus – not try to fit Jesus into our agenda.
Too often we elevate politics to the level of religion. And we end up more in love with our political party than we are in love with Jesus.
This elevation of politics to the status of religious conviction stems at least in part from a uniquely American tendency to revere our country.
Have you ever seen a church that has a cross and an American flag displayed up front? That’s not OK. It implies that God and the country are on the same level. God is a million times more important than the United States.
Or have you heard the phrase “for God and country”? Pledging allegiance to God and country in the same breath implies that they are of the same importance. That is a problem.
That’s Jesus’ message to us when he says “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”
Allegiance to God over country and party also has implications for our political positions.
Just as we shouldn’t exalt politics to the level of religion, so too we shouldn’t let political opinions rise to the same level of religious conviction.
You might say, “well, I get that, but aren’t there some things that are clearly right and wrong?”
The answer, of course, is yes. There are many things that are clearly right and wrong – as moral matters. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are right and wrong politically.
Morality doesn’t translate cleanly to public policy. To do so – to make that one-to-one translation between morality and policy – is to elevate our political leanings to the status of religious convictions.
And we can’t do that, because policy isn’t as clear as morality. Yes, there are some things that Scripture is clear about, that are true or false, right or wrong. But just because something is TRUE doesn’t mean that it should be LEGISLATED. Just because something is WRONG doesn’t mean that it should be ILLEGAL.
For example, pornography is wrong. But because we believe in free speech as a first principle, very few people would argue in favor of making pornography illegal.
Just because something is wrong doesn’t mean we should make it illegal. And just because something is right doesn’t mean it should be mandatory.
Let me give another example… The Bible is very clear: it is a commandment to take care of the poor. That’s a moral absolute – it’s a matter right and wrong. But that doesn’t mean all Christians have to support government redistribution programs. It’s OK to disagree on HOW we take care of the poor. It’s OK to look at government welfare programs and ask “do those programs really help pull people away from life on the margins… OR do they just enable them to live there?”
So, if you say, I’m a Christian and the Bible says we have to take care of the poor, therefore I’m only going to vote Democrat… You’re being overly simplistic, and Jesus was OK with complexity.
Let’s take another example that has become a flagship issue for conservatives – abortion. The way I read the Bible, abortion is wrong – a moral absolute. But again just because it is wrong doesn’t mean we have to agree that it should be legislated in a certain way.
It’s OK to ask questions like: What would actually happen if we made abortion illegal? Would abortion rates go down or up? What money would change hands? What are the unintended consequences?
So, if you say I’m a Christian and I’m pro-life therefore I’m only going to vote for politicians who promise to appoint pro-life judges…. I guess what I have to say about that is “it’s a good thing politicians can’t lie!”
Because if they could and if they caught wind of the fact that the Christian political thought process was that simplistic, there would be a temptation to think, “well if that’s all it takes to win your vote, I’m just going to say I’ll appoint pro-life judges to get your support.” With no intention of following through. And then Christians have been taking advantage of.
Twenty years after Roe v Wade, it was upheld by another Supreme Court case – Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992. The five justices who voted to uphold Roe in that case, had one thing in common: they were all appointed by Republicans. Three of them were specifically appointed by presidents who promised to appoint pro-life judges.
So, when Christians say I’m only going to vote for the person who promises to appoint pro-life judges, that kind of thinking opens us to being used.
Finally, Christians should be very alarmed by any politician who uses God’s name or Scripture as a way to score political points.
No party owns Jesus. He cannot be mapped on to a political divide. When asked about the tax: he didn’t pick a side! So using God’s name to promote a particular political platform is mapping something onto Jesus that he refused to map onto Himself. And you know what? There’s a name for that: it’s called using God’s name in vain.
I’m not saying I don’t want Christian politicians, but I am saying that it is OFF LIMITS to use God for political gain.
And as voters, we should be more savvy. Christians shouldn’t follow someone just because they sound like one of us.
Politics requires the kind of shrewd thinking that Jesus calls us to. Politics is messy; it’s about compromise. We can’t enter that space unwilling to allow for complexity and shades of grey.
The coin that Jesus asks to see illustrates this. We know exactly what Jesus was looking at when he asked to see the coin, a Denarius, because originals exist to this day. If you go to a museum to look at a Denarius, you would see the image of Caesar, as well as an inscription. It says: Caesar Augustus, King, High Priest, Son of God.
This was a common claim for a Roman Emperor to make. But it’s blasphemous for Jews and Christians.
Jesus is the only King and Son of God! Yet Jesus says – pay the tax. In doing so, Jesus rejects purity of moral absolutism.
Moral absolutism applied to politics is one of the main problems with discourse today. Christians treat their political positions as THE only Christian position, the position Jesus would vote for. And that comes from a misalignment of allegiance: where is your primary loyalty? Your positions; the positions of your party? The values of this country? Or the Kingdom of God?
That’s the first section, allegiance. Our allegiance must be to God first. Give to God your allegiance, your life, your heart. Don’t let politics become your religion. And, don’t elevate political issues to the same level as moral issues; “give to Caesar” by accepting the messiness and complexity of politics.
The next question is: how does allegiance to Jesus affect my political beliefs?
The answer is: quite a lot. We all have our own political beliefs, but if your primary allegiance is to God, he should challenge your views wherever you fall on the political spectrum
Here’s what this means… If you’re a conservative, Jesus should make you more liberal. If you’re a liberal, Jesus should make you more conservative. I’ll take those two points in turn. And give both liberals and conservatives each a turn in the hot seat.
First, your politics should become more liberal if you’re a conservative.
To be clear: I’m saying that you should become more liberal, not A liberal. You don’t have to stop being a conservative. But there are certain things you HAVE to care about if you’re a Christian – and some of these are issues that typically fall on the left side of the political spectrum.
What areas? I’m going to list four specific issues, with a Bible verse for each, and you’ll notice that the principle from scripture sounds a lot more like something that would come out of the Democratic party than the Republican party.
- Poverty: Leviticus 25: If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him . . . take no interest from him or profit.
- Racial Reconciliation: Ephesians 2: For Christ Himself has made Jews and Gentiles one people and has broken down in His crucified body the dividing wall of hostility. AND Revelation 7: behold, a great multitude . . . from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing together before the throne . ”
- On the Environment: Genesis 2: The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
- And Immigration: Leviticus 19: When a stranger sojourns among you, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
I’m not saying that one verse from the Bible proves anything; you can find a Bible verse to support just about any position. However, on these specific issues, you can find a lot more to support what is traditionally a more liberal political viewpoint. That means: these are priorities on God’s agenda that Christians can. not. disregard..
Jesus summarizes it (and shows how personal this is to God) when he says in Matthew 25
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. Whatever you did for one of the least of these you did for me.’
God’s agenda takes “the least of these” and makes them his most important priority.
There is plenty of room for disagreement about our approach to these issues. Conservatives, don’t have to adopt liberal solutions. But SOME conservatives are guilty of disregarding these issues entirely. Not talking about them at all. That’s out of bounds. Christians cannot have a coldness or hardness to these issues.
Now, liberals, your turn for the hot seat… If you’re a liberal, your politics should become more conservative when you meet Jesus.
Again, you don’t have to become A conservative, but MORE conservative.
Instead of pointing to specific issues, I’m going to zoom out a bit and look at three principles. They’re principles that scripture presupposes, and they typically fall in the conservative camp. These are truths that liberals who are Christians must acknowledge.
- The first is our understanding of human nature. Scripture challenges the typically more liberal assumption that humans are basically good and capable of being improved. The Bible is clear that we’re fallen, and that there’s deep evil in all of us. Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” One version adds “and beyond cure.”
This means that when it comes to government programs, liberals must remember that where there is an opportunity to take advantage of something, people will do so. Because the heart is evil.
And this impacts how we should understand the source of injustice… Nelson Mandella said that no one is born racist, “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin.”
With all due respect to Mr. Mandella, I don’t buy it. Because if racism has to be taught, the question is, who is doing the teaching. And you say “it’s these evil cultures, societies, and structures that teach us to be racist.” Then the question is, who put those evil structures together and who built those evil cultures? You say, evil people who got in there and had too much power. But then who taught those people to be evil… You keep going back, but there’s never a real answer.
If you don’t believe that racism comes from within, there’s no other answer that makes sense.
A popular meme on social media shows a group of babies sitting together representing different races and it says “no one is born racist.” It’s a beautiful sentiment but if you know anything about real kids (and I have three of them!) you know that actual children look for anything that is different about someone else – and pick on it. Because we were born fallen, selfish, and prideful.
The most systemic, far-reaching injustice in our world is that which is within the human heart.
Being naive to this is what allows politicians to appeal to bigotry for political gain. And if you heard Fred’s chapel talk yesterday he talked about how this has happened too many times throughout American history.
2. Number two: liberals must be cautious about sweeping change. Scripture challenges the assumption that change happens quickly. Consider the parable of the mustard seed: an analogy for the coming Kingdom of God, the mustard seed starts tiny, grows deep roots, then sprouts and grows, before it gets large and provides branches and shade.
The Bible is saying that’s how effective change usually works, and when somebody (a politician) promises otherwise, we should be suspicious.
Massive change all at once often ends with unintended consequences and mixed success. Conservatives get labeled as anti-progress, but a lot of that instinct comes from a wise – and Biblical – view that true and effective change is slow and thoughtful.
3. Finally, the modality of change: liberals must be cautious about letting the church abdicate its role to the government. Acts 4 paints a clear picture of the church’s responsibility to share possessions and give so that “there were no needy among them” (Acts 4:34). The church is supposed to be the “first responder.” But government spending on social programs can cause what economists call the “crowding out effect.” For example, when federal spending to help the poor increased from 0% to 4% of the GDP under FDR’s New Deal, church-based charity to help the poor dropped by 30%. The government has taken over much of what the church was intended to provide.
As before, there’s room for debate about the specifics here, but the point is that there are some truths about the world presupposed by Scripture which typically fall in the more “conservative” camp. These are things that liberals must acknowledge.
So whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, Jesus should challenge your political leanings.
The real takeaway here is: we shouldn’t hold our political convictions so tightly that we’re not open to the voice of Scripture. And it’s most important to look at parts of scripture that grade against your natural human instincts politically. There’s a lot in the Bible. You can’t just focus on the parts of the Bible that you naturally agree with and that you like. Because if you’re only letting those parts inform your thinking and your politics, you’re not growing.
We tend to like parts of the Bible that are challenging to others and ignore parts of the Bible that are challenging to ourselves.
As we let Jesus challenge our political beliefs, it actually creates more space for robust discussion and healthy disagreement.
Which leads me to my final point: discourse. As Christians engaging in politics, Jesus should teach us how to disagree well.
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that our country disagrees a lot. We’re very divided. And we don’t disagree well! It gets nasty.
Many say that the division in our country is characterized by ANGER. If only that were true: anger, while sometimes with negative effects, is ultimately a productive emotion. It occurs when we see something we believe to be wrong and feel like we can do something about it. It has great social purpose, and can catalyze problem solving.
Arthur Brooks says the problem with our divisive political climate isn’t anger, it’s CONTEMPT. Contempt is not just seeing those who disagree with you as incorrect or misguided, but seeing them as worthless.
That’s what has to change… seeing those who are different than we are – including those we find offensive! – as lacking worth.
Jesus has a line in Matthew 11 where he says “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” I’ve always been puzzled by that line. Why would anyone be offended by Jesus? I know what I’m offended by! What I find offensive is: injustice, human trafficking, racism, homophobia, hate crimes.
But do you know what’s even more offensive than those things? A God who forgives those sins!
And the God we serve does forgive those sins. And we must do the same. Because in God’s eyes every person is loved and has worth.
Following Jesus comes down to two things – a radical devotion to God (that’s the allegiance we talked about) and radical love for each other. (That’s what should shape discourse.)
And if we enter into political discourse with radical love for each other that will change the nature of our division.
The solution to our destructive discourse isn’t less disagreement. Our goal is not uniformity of ideas!
Neither is our goal civility – that’s too low of a standard for Christians. Some say we should strive for “civil” discourse. And yet sometimes it is OK to disagree passionately. If I told you that my wife Sarah and I were being “civil” to one another, you wouldn’t applaud us, you would tell us to get counseling!
The solution to a country filled with contemptuous discourse is the opposite of contempt, which is LOVE.
LOVE is compatible with frustration, conviction, even anger! We can have passionate and animated disagreements in LOVE! But love is NOT compatible with hatred. With contempt. With the desire to be “right” or prove myself “better,” at the expense of another person.
Following Jesus should make us more loving people, and more loving in our political discourse.
What exactly does this mean? I think it first must entail listening to others – showing respect for their convictions. There are people at Hope College who think differently than you. It is loving to get to know them and listen to them.
As one of our rules of discourse I think it should be the case that you aren’t allowed to criticize someone unless you can frame their argument in ways that they would recognize and support. This can’t be done without first paying them the respect of listening.
If someone is criticizing me and they haven’t really listened to me first, I’m going to write them off – and I probably should! Because they aren’t actually criticizing me. They are criticizing what they think I am.
We like to categorize people and then criticize those categories.
To avoid that we have to listen. Our world is not set up for listening… It’s set up for posting and speaking. Talking about each other, rather than to each other.
My opinion – and I say this with trepidation because I know it may be unpopular – but in my opinion social media is NOT the place to have political conversations of any kind.
I simply do not see the value of posting anything political – any commentary, any opinion – on social media. I see how it makes you feel better to get something off your chest, but I don’t see how it helps anyone other than you. I don’t see how it adds anything to our discourse. I DO see how it hurts relationships and furthers division.
And on top of that, no one is listening. They aren’t hearing it on social media. They aren’t being challenged by it. No one has ever changed their mind in the history of the world based on a comment they read on social media. Instead it leads to a virtual shouting match.
If you want to challenge or confront someone, the ONLY way to do it is through a one-on-one conversation – in which you listen as much as you speak.
That, I think, is how we Christians should approach political discourse: make listening the first priority. Stepping into the political arena with love and the acknowledgment that however bad we think the other side is, God adores them as his children.
So back to our big question…
How does Jesus inform our political engagement? First our primary allegiance is to God – above country, political party or political issue. Second, Jesus should challenge your political beliefs – making you more liberal if you’re a conservative and more conservative if you’re a liberal. Third, our discourse should be characterized by love and listening.
As I conclude my comments and turn it over to the panel discussion, I just want to make one final comment, which is simply a reminder for us as Christians to keep all of this in perspective.
Yes this election is important. Yes, it matters. Yes this seems like a consequential moment in history.
But, at the same time, let’s not over-exaggerate the importance of this election – or any election for that matter. And let’s keep our hope in Jesus stronger than our hope in government.
Psalm 146 says this:
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
In Biblical times someone was generally in power for their entire lifetime. And even after a lifetime of governing – the Bible says their plans will come to nothing.
We are electing someone for only four years. As Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address: “no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years.”
There is a limit to what anyone can do in four years. So don’t put your trust in princes…
The next few lines from Psalm 146 are remarkable:
5 Blessed are those…whose hope is in the Lord their God.
6 .. He remains faithful forever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
10 The Lord reigns forever
Those verses list all the groups of people we talked about earlier – the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant. We said every Christian MUST care about these people. But notice who is ultimately taking care of them – God is!
God is the one who upholds justice. And so, if someone wins the election and you worry about what it means, God is saying “I got this. I’m in control and my reign lasts forever”
Do you know what’s happening in heaven right now? There is a Jesus rally that has been going on since the beginning of time. The Bible says in Revelation that the heavens are roaring with praise because God is on the throne.
Do you know what will be happening tomorrow? The heavens will be roaring with praise because God is on the throne.
Do you know what will be happening the day after the election? The heavens will be roaring with praise because God is on the throne.
No one in heaven will protest or throw a party, shed a tear or celebrate based on the results of the election.
Instead, they will continue roaring with praise, “holy, holy, holy,” because God is on the throne.
And if we really want to know – what would Jesus do… that’s our answer. He is and always will part of this ongoing raucous celebration of our good Father. And maybe that’s what we should do too.
Join in that rally – praising God. Because our hope is in Him, the one who saves. The only one who is worth of glory and honor and power.