Some Christians are said to be speaking “prophetically” when they offer opinions contrary to the prevailing views of the political party currently in power. I say “some Christians” because the complimentary label “prophetic” is typically reserved for members of the Christian left when they are denouncing Republicans and conservatism. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is one typical example. In an ad for a speaking event earlier this year, Wallis was referred to as “One of America’s Greatest Prophetic Voices.” Acting and speaking “prophetically,” however, is best seen as a non-partisan, equal opportunity affair. When someone is said to have a prophetic voice it means, simply speaking, they are consistently willing to clearly speak truth to power no matter who is in power and despite the consequences.
Jim Wallis used his prophetic voice during the Bush administration to speak against the war in Iraq, American imperialism, torture, and the “money changers of the temples of Wall Street” among other things. However, Jim curiously came down with a case of prophetic laryngitis during the years 2008-2016. I wonder why. Coincidentally, these just so happen to be the years Barack Obama served as President.
This silence was emblematic of the left as a whole. Gone were the concerns over the ever-growing surveillance state, the exponential expansion of drone warfare, and imperialistic ambitions abroad. No more protests against the wars in the Middle East. No more calls for the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison.
As it turned out, prophetic voices were needed more than ever during the Obama administration. As Gene Healy of the Cato Institute put it in April of this year, “By the time Obama hit the dais at Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our 44th president had already launched more drone strikes than the 43rd carried out during two full terms. Since then, he’s launched two undeclared wars, and—as Obama bragged in a speech last year defending the Iran deal—bombed no fewer than seven countries.” Healy adds, “instead of ‘breaking the war mentality,’ Obama has institutionalized it.” Many on the Christian left were content to either ignore or give outright sanction to what they once condemned in order to protect one of their own. The prophetic voice became a rubber stamp.
The prophetic voice of the Christian right was tested prior to the 2016 election. “Never Trumpers” came down with a strange case of conscience during and after the primaries. By and large, these were individuals who had a long track record of supporting the least conservative, most “establishment” GOP candidates for President. When most conservatives were saying “anyone but McCain” and “anyone but Romney,” future Never Trumpers were telling everyone to get in line. They ridiculed fellow conservatives for considering a third party candidate or simply not voting.
Then in 2016 when establishment candidates, Jeb Bush followed by Marco Rubio, were unable to secure the nomination, the Never Trumpers all of a sudden became very interested in writing in protest votes, not voting, or supporting an independent candidate, former CIA agent Evan McMullin. Falling in line behind the nominee was not an option now that roles were reversed. Never Trumpers even went so far as to begin referring to “the Religious Right” as if they were not a part of the Religious Right themselves. This epithet was now reserved only for the evangelical supporters of Donald Trump. However disingenuously it may have begun, the Never Trump movement may perhaps represent the beginning of a new willingness among some conservative Christians to stand up to the Republican Party when it contradicts their deeply-held beliefs. Will they begin to represent a prophetic voice during the Trump administration?
Now that Trump is headed to the White House, conservatives are already showing a willingness to change their tune as the left did under Obama. Donald Trump is being widely applauded for convincing Carrier Corp. to keep over 1,000 jobs in America rather than sending them to Mexico. Trump utilized his “art of the deal” skills to pledge a $7 million tax break to Carrier. Success! He’s already making America great again! But just a few short years ago conservatives were blasting President Obama for “picking winners and losers” by extending millions of dollars worth of federal loan guarantees to companies including Solyndra and Fisker Automotive.
Obama considered these loans “investments” but critics such as House Speaker Paul Ryan complained, “Picking winners and losers in the economy through spending, through tax breaks, through regulations does not work.” In one of his presidential debates with Obama, Mitt Romney quipped, “You don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers!” Obama wasn’t supposed to interfere, he was supposed to let the market work. Now, rather than reducing taxes for all businesses (which may soon be around the corner) Trump has given a tax break to one specific company. He picked a winner. This is what Republicans used to call “crony capitalism” during the Obama administration. I guess the market needs help now and then just so long as a Republican is in charge.
What might a prophetic voice look like moving forward? For the Christian left, it’s now safe to rejoin the anti-war effort. Or is it? Trump has indicated a desire to be far less interventionist than his predecessors. If this is the case, Democrats may play the foil and embrace a more hawkish agenda. Even if the party most sympathetic to their views presses for the expansion of the war state, progressive Christians ought to refuse to play along. They can regain their voice rather than remaining silent as they did during the Obama years even if it means undermining the Democrat Party. On the other hand, if neo-conservatives have their way and are able to convince Trump to continue foreign interventions, regime changes, drone warfare, and worldwide arms sales, the peace movement could enjoy resurgence.
Conservative Christians face a great challenge. The temptation to grow silent will become strong as Republicans now control the White House, Congress, possibly the Supreme Court, and an ever-growing number of state governments. Many of the criticisms against George W. Bush went away during the Obama administration even when Obama continued or even expanded the same policies. Will conservatives do the same thing now that (arguably) one of their own is in charge? If it was wrong for Obama, it ought to be wrong for Trump.
At the time of this writing, the New York Times has just published an op-ed from the NeverTrumper’s candidate, Evan McMullin, entitled, “Trump’s Threat to the Constitution.” McMullin warns, “We need a new era of civic engagement that will reawaken us to the cause of liberty and equality. That engagement must extend to ensuring that our elected representatives uphold the Constitution, in deed and discourse — even if doing so puts them at odds with their party. We cannot allow Mr. Trump to normalize the idea that he is the ultimate arbiter of our rights.” Agreed! Will “upholding the Constitution” now include repealing unconstitutional mass surveillance programs and police state powers, reversing the trend of perpetual (undeclared) war, and an unending list of property rights violations? Donald Trump is not the arbiter of our rights but neither is Evan McMullin, Paul Ryan, or whoever the next favorite of conservatives turns out to be.
Of course, the best thing progressive and conservative Christians can both do is reconsider their ways and take a long, hard look at the most consistent expression of Christian political thought!
So, what about libertarian Christians? Some libertarians refuse to vote on principle, others voted for the Libertarian Party candidate but privately breathed a sigh of relief when Hillary Clinton lost, and others would have gladly had Hillary forced upon us rather than Trump. The message of liberty ought to remain consistent regardless of who wins and loses elections. We continue to renounce aggression and coercion. We continue to uphold the value of each individual made in the image of God and peaceful interactions with our neighbors. We continue to embrace persuasion and education, education, education. Moving forward, we can renew our efforts to join God in what he is doing to build his kingdom regardless of what the State does.
On a practical note, libertarian Christians can best express a prophetic voice by getting our hands dirty in kingdom mission. As theologian Scot McKnight puts it in his wonderful book, Kingdom Conspiracy, “At the very heart of kingdom mission are kingdom people, the church of King Jesus. In one short expression, then, kingdom mission is first and foremost church mission.” Yes, church mission. When is the last time we sought to “do something” about the world’s problems we like to talk so much about as an expression of the love of our local church? What if the time, attention, passion, angst, frustration, hope, volunteering, and maybe even money we devoted to the presidential election and “politics” as a whole this past year were dedicated to the politics of kingdom mission as and through our local churches?
Libertarian Christians are good at talking about the superiority of the kingdom of God over the State and the temporal kingdoms of humankind. Do we do anything about this truth? In an interview about his above-mentioned book, McKnight declares, “God’s mission is the church, that is, God’s mission is the Body of Christ, that is, God’s mission is to rule in Christ over those who submit to Christ’s rule. Those who submit to that rule are kingdom people, that is, church people. God’s mission is the church.” The most prophetic voice we could express is living and loving as the church in the world. If we can’t begin to live this out in the tangible context of our local churches, how can we expect to speak prophetically in the ethereal context of “the world”? My encouragement for us as libertarian Christians in light of this last election, or any election, or if there were no elections, is to creatively and constructively devote ourselves in practical ways to our King’s mission together with his kingdom people, the church.