Diverse Christian Leaders Clash on Election Results, Strive for Common Ground
Christian voices on the left and right have different takeaways from the midterm elections. Yet they express broad agreement about upholding human dignity in policies.
Months of campaigning concluded late Tuesday when election results came rolling in coast to coast. But what the midterms mean for the nation will be hotly debated for months to come, including by leading voices in faith communities.
Experts estimate 113 million Americans voted this cycle, the highest midterms turnout since 1966. Republicans strengthened their hold on the U.S. Senate, gaining two seats. (Two Senate races are still yet to be called.) With a gain of over 30 seats, Democrats retook the majority in the U.S. House. Partisan clashes are likely in the new term, which begins in January.
Pastor Jentezen Franklin of Free Chapel in Gainesville, Ga. has heard these concerns. “Voting matters,” says Franklin, who participates in the White House Faith Leaders Initiative. “I don’t see this election as a ‘disaster.’ The people have spoken. Now maybe we’re going to have to really work together instead of just calling each other names.”
Black Protestant leader Jacqueline Rivers co-leads the Seymour Institute in Boston, Mass. She praises aspects of the results, though coming from a different political viewpoint.
“No one party normally controls as much of the House as the Republicans did going into this election,” says Rivers. “I was pleased that the Democrats at least retook the House. They lost ground in the Senate, and so many state legislatures are now controlled entirely by Republicans.”
Missouri Moves Right
Many contests were won on narrow margins, notably the Missouri Senate race. Incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill faced off against Republican Josh Hawley, for years a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Douglass Leadership Institute (DLI), chaired by African American minister Dean Nelson, led a statewide voter education drive in Missouri. The conservative group knocked on a total of 320,000 doors in four states. Prior to this race, Nelson had assisted on a pro-life initiative in the Church of God in Christ denomination.
“This one pastor runs an inner-city ministry here in St. Louis,” says Nelson in a phone interview. “In the past, he asked Claire McCaskill to come and speak at his church. Through the [pro-life] efforts, he has completely switched his position. Not only was he not supporting her, but he helped organize 15 folks from the area who distributed faith-based voter guides door-to-door.”
Their team encountered objections, including about the improving economy. “It’s true that the economy is going gangbusters,” says Rivers, who also teaches at Harvard University. “The policies of this administration have helped big business, but people on Main Street rarely see the benefits.” She points to stagnant wages in particular.
“I understand the criticism, but on the ground I see people doing better than they were years ago,” responds Nelson. “Anecdotally, we were challenged finding people we could pay to go door-to-door. One pastor said all his people are working now!
“We should give President Trump a chance to see his policies do even more benefit for those in the African American community — and all Americans, for that matter.”
Human Dignity and Objectionable Rhetoric
Dan Darling, who serves on staff at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, urges Christians to see past partisan loyalties.
“Americans live in almost two different worlds,” he says. “We hear two different kinds of news and two different takes on facts. The increasing tribalization is real, and Christians should try to transcend that.”
He highlights state results on diverse issues, reflecting the broad focus of his book The Dignity Revolution. “If you care about human dignity, some good things came out of this election,” says Darling. “West Virginia and Alabama passed referendums on abortion. Then Louisiana overturned Jim Crow-era jury laws and returned to a unanimous jury system. This helps better ensure fair and equitable [decisions].”
Yet some see certain lives being devalued by those in power. “What I am really concerned about is the administration spewing hate and division,” says Rivers.
“This caravan of people coming north requires a thoughtful response. Instead, the President calls it an ‘invasion’ to stir up his base. To be clear, I’m not for an extremist liberal agenda. I repudiate that as well.”
Nelson agrees with her analysis. “Some things the President says, I wish he would say a different way,” notes the black minister. “He’s been accurately accused of stoking the flames.”
He offers an analogy to explain his support for President Trump. “If I’m hiring a surgeon, I would want to make sure he performs his duties well — over his bedside manner,” says Nelson. “Rather than simply listen to the words he says, look at the results.”
Taking A “First Step” Before Year’s End
The diverse faith leaders expressed support for the FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform bill that has yet to pass the Senate. “This is one of few bipartisan-supported legislative efforts that’s coming together,” said Pastor Franklin. “It could pass before the end of the year, is what I’m hearing. I can’t guarantee that. But the President said he would sign it, which is a huge step.”
The charismatic minister leads a multi-site church with campuses in three states. Having heard conservative concerns on the bill, Franklin believes it balances justice and compassion.
“If people commit serious crimes, there ought to be tremendous ramifications,” he says. “When you have kids who go in for nonviolent crimes, whether it was selling drugs or doing something stupid like stealing a car, it’s terrible. But they don’t need to have ‘felon’ on their record for the rest of their lives. It kills any dream in them. It kills any opportunity for them to ever get a decent job. At some point, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
For his part, Nelson notes that DLI team members have met this week with Senate leaders to discuss the bill. Liberal black Protestant Jacqueline Rivers concurs that the effort has merit.
“I pray it will happen, as criminal justice reform is so necessary,” says Rivers. “At a Notre Dame lecture last weekend, I discussed how many people are imprisoned in the U.S. It actually exceeds the number who were imprisoned in the Gulag Archipelago of the Soviet Union.” The Justice Department confirms these figures.
Franklin praises how the FIRST STEP Act addresses such concerns. “This bill says, yes, you messed up and made a mistake,” he explains. “But you are not a mistake. Here’s a pathway you can take to rebuild your life.”
Divided States of America
Contentious elections underline today’s rising polarization, including among people of faith. New surveys from LifeWay Research and Fox News both show the two parties splitting further apart in their views.
Pastor Franklin regrets vitriol on both sides, particularly noting that against President Trump. “We need to not just tolerate but actually respect one another,” he says. “If you can’t honor the person, honor the office.”
Some in communities of color hardly feel respected in the current political climate. “I would have more hope if there had been a stronger message to the Republicans that they were on the wrong track,” concludes Rivers. “One good piece of news is that many Democrats elected are, in fact, moderates. But I’m not very hopeful about the moderates winning the day.”
Author Dan Darling points believers to a higher calling. “It’s important for Christians to make voting decisions and be engaged,” he says. “Yet as citizens of another kingdom, we will never be fully at home in any earthly movement.”