There is a sharp public conversation brewing over evangelical attitudes on impeachment. Christianity Today editorialized that Christians should support removing President Trump through conviction in a Senate trial or by electoral defeat in 2020 because he’s immoral. In response, nearly 200 evangelical notables in a public letter insisted the president merits Christian support because he’s advancing moral causes, including support for Israel.
Unfortunately this conversation fails to clarify the real issues and exemplifies American evangelicals’ quick preference for superficial moralism over deep reflection on political matters. Those looking to Scripture for conclusive answers on impeachment are sure to be disappointed.
Why do American evangelicals find it so difficult to speak politically with nuance beyond that of a Sunday School curriculum? Partly because much of evangelicalism is now several generations removed from Protestantism’s great traditions and divorced from the universal church in favor of an American individualism laced with Scripture. Its public policy pronouncements tend to project from evangelicalism’s focus on each believer’s personal relationship with Jesus.
A rapid response to CT in First Things from a serious evangelical theologian did not escape this tendency. Instead of the sophistication which one would expect from a publication founded by Richard John Neuhaus, the author resorted to parotting Romans 13 as a supposed call for deference to established authority. The president has flaws that must be endured with patience, he insists. Apparently, the electorate is to behave as the Prodigal Son’s longsuffering father.
As a mostly modern cultural movement without deep roots in historical political theology, evangelicalism has a hard time addressing statecraft in a serious way. Instead evangelicals, including their ostensible thought leaders, resort to predictable appeals to the Ten Commandments and winsome Christian witness, as did CT; or they claim merely to offer grace to sinners and render unto Caesar his due, as did CT’s respondents. Evangelicals martial Bible verses and evangelistic concerns rather than weighty arguments about the public good through the prism of Christian teaching.
The state, as the universal church has traditionally taught, is ordained for corporate order and justice in every society. Its purposes are indeed moral. But its call to morality is more approximate and of a different kind than the personal holiness to which individual Christians are summoned. The kingdom of God is celestial, perfect, pure, and eternal; the kingdoms of this world are terrestrial, tainted, contingent, and provisional. The task of the Christian is to navigate the latter with the wisdom of the former, but first to understand the difference between them.
The current impeachment resulted from a presidential phone call to Ukraine. It involves the character and judgment of the chief executive, congressional responsibility to challenge perceived misconduct, and the constitutional call to remove officeholders based on undefined crimes and misdemeanors. The questions before the Senate and the nation are not only moral but also economic, political, and geopolitical.
The decision to remove President Trump from office does not depend on the Great Commission or Trump’s character as a “good” or “bad” guy. It depends on the requirements of the US Constitution as they relate to the presidential office. No standalone Bible verse offers clear direction. There is no “orthodox” Christian response that all believers must adopt to maintain their fidelity. A genuine spiritual commentary will recognize that all the actors in this drama, just as in dramas of history, play some providential role for purposes yet undefined according to human understanding.
American evangelicalism, for all its spiritual and humanitarian energy, more often than not, fails to recognize irony and contradiction in human affairs. In its ceaseless and admirable quest to advance the gospel, it prefers unequivocal moral clarity. But such clarity is rarely evident in statecraft. And contrary to pleas from evangelical commentators, it is not available in the current impeachment debate.
There are strong arguments for and against impeachment that should be debated by the rules of our political system and a proper understanding of public morality as passed down through historic church teaching. Hasty judgments based on private preferences and trite biblicisms have no place in a responsible approach to world affairs. The Christian realist confronts every political dilemma with a posture of sober detachment and careful inquiry.
Short of man’s salvation and the world’s redemption, neither of which are jeopardized by impeachment, few things merit the kind of mass hysteria we are seeing across the evangelical spectrum today. For an experimental nation dependent upon an informed electorate, historical perspective is needed; hysteria is not. For our experiment to succeed, cooler heads and wiser minds must prevail.