Former President Donald Trump launched his third bid for the White House last night. He spoke to an invited crowd from the ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida, where he declared, “America’s comeback starts right now.”
As you know, Republicans are divided over whether Mr. Trump should be their nominee again in 2024. Some are celebrating his announcement and believe that he is the only candidate who can “make America great again.” Some believe he did much good but that it is now time for the party to move on to new leaders such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Some believe he has damaged their party and blame him for their midterm losses. And some Republicans (the “Never Trump” group) consider him unfit for office.
Of course, the Democrats have their own internal issues. Some want President Biden to run again, believing he is their best chance to defeat Mr. Trump. Some want anyone but Mr. Biden to run again, believing that he is too old and that the party needs new leadership. Some in the second group believe Vice President Kamala Harris should be their candidate; others believe it should be anyone but her.
All this to say, it is a misnomer to claim that America has a simple two-party system.
Third-party candidates sometimes change the electoral calculus as occurred in Georgia, where the Libertarian Party candidate received 2 percent of the vote, forcing the two parties’ nominees into a December 6 runoff. More voters consider themselves “independents” (35 percent) than either Republicans (33 percent) or Democrats (29 percent).
In addition, many Americans are deeply unhappy with the leaders and policies of both parties, including those they typically support. This fact is troubling for our politics but good news for the gospel.
The “double-negative election”
Writing for The Atlantic, political commentator Ronald Brownstein called the recent midterms the “double-negative election.” He explained: “Most Americans consistently say in polls that they believe that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have mismanaged crime, the border, and, above all, the economy and inflation. But roughly as many Americans say that they view the modern Republican Party as a threat to their rights, their values, or to democracy itself.”
He cited an NBC national survey in which half of registered voters said they disagreed with most of what Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats want to do. However, more than that said the same about congressional Republicans and Mr. Trump. In a different survey, about half of all voters said they had little, or no, confidence in either party to improve the economy.
Brownstein’s article was published on October 28, eleven days before the November 8 midterms. However, his analysis proved to be prescient. I heard him interviewed the day after the election, when it became clear that the expected “red wave” would not materialize. In his view, our “double-negative” political climate explained why neither party generated enough support to gain a decisive edge over the other.
Exit polling after the midterms reinforced his narrative: roughly three in four voters described the condition of the US economy as either “poor” or “not so good.” And 73 percent said they were angry or dissatisfied about the way things are going in America today. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump were viewed favorably by only roughly four in ten voters.
In a “double-negative” culture, many feel forced to choose the lesser of the evils, voting against political leaders and parties more than for them.
What color is Wednesday?
As I have written recently, many in our post-Christian society have adopted politics as their religion. Cultural scholar Ryan Burge observes, “Our politics has become religion. It has a religious fervor to it now that it didn’t have even twenty or thirty years ago.”
More Americans are finding community through political alliances rather than in church congregations; political activism is replacing religious activity for many. Partisan politics now provides a sense of belonging, devotion, and moral certitude, all hallmarks of religious engagement.
But this is what philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a “category mistake,” like asking, “How much does seven weigh?” or “What color is Wednesday?” Human history is littered with examples of humans trusting human inventions to do what only God can do.
Paul exposed the illogic of such idolatry: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (Acts 17:24–25). But we choose to worship what we make, not because idolatry is logical but because it feels empowering.
We would rather control than be controlled. We would rather use our deities than submit to them. We can see the people we elect (and we can unelect them); we cannot see the God who sees us.
“Partakers of the divine nature”
Two consequences follow for followers of Jesus.
One: We must refuse the lure of political religion.
I am grateful for those who choose public service. In fact, I am convinced that God is calling more Christians into public service than are answering his call. We are to pray daily “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:2).
However, no matter what we think of any political leader, we should remember that they are finite and fallen like us. We are to “honor the emperor” but we are to “fear God” (1 Peter 2:17). If we must choose, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Two: Our broken culture needs the hope found only in the gospel.
You and I are called to “become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4). Transformed lives are our most powerful and attractive witness.
I became a Christian because I wanted the Christ I saw in the Christians I met. May someone say the same today because of me—and you—to the glory of God.