The Power PrincipleKevin D. Paulson July/August 2019
On the evening of March 26, 2018, on CNN’s 360, a group of evangelical Christian women were asked to respond to the most recent allegations of marital infidelity against the president of the United States. Speaking as a Bible-believing Christian pastor, with many of the same moral convictions as those women, I found my heart sinking at what I heard. And it wasn’t the first time. The conclusion is inescapable that in a quest for political influence and power, conservative American Christendom is truly engaged in a race to the moral bottom.
What matters, for the purposes of this article, is not so much the issue of moral shortcoming on the part of any political leader, but rather, the extent to which glaring logical inconsistency and hypocrisy in the name of power-seeking threaten both the liberties of the republic and the credibility of the Christian faith.
Listening to those evangelical Christian women, one could be forgiven for gagging at the breathtaking flight from reason so obvious in the statements they made. Among other things, it was claimed that when one becomes president, he becomes a different, presumably better, person than he was in the past. That past moral indiscretions supposedly don’t matter once a person is given a high and new responsibility. That “we didn’t, after all, elect a pastor,” and that “things are going so well under this man’s leadership (economically and otherwise) that accusations of this kind shouldn’t make any difference.”
Some of us, thankfully, have long memories.
It wasn’t so many years ago that many of these same conservative Christians were demanding the ouster of another president from office on account of very similar allegations. Who, among these vaunted guardians of moral character in the public square, insisted during that not-too-distant scandal that “we didn’t elect a pastor,” or that the presidency supposedly transforms its occupants and lifts them above a sordid past? Who at that time, among these acolytes of theocracy, was heard declaring that the economy was going so well under the presidential leadership then in power—as indeed it was, for those who remember—that allegations of marital misconduct didn’t matter?
The answer to this paradox is simple, yet at the same time tragic and dangerous. It’s all about power.
It is abundantly clear now, if not so much so at the time, that an overriding reason the former president’s moral misdeeds caused so many conservative Christians to demand his removal from office was less the deeds themselves than the fact that the former White House occupant wouldn’t support the Religious Right’s crusade to use civil government to achieve its moral goals. According to the apparent consensus just now among conservative American Christians, a bad character disqualifies a public servant so long as the character in question supports a political agenda they don’t agree with. If, by contrast, the character in question supports an agenda they do agree with, that character can be as vile and perverse as any imaginable, and these so-called guardians of virtue won’t care.
It wasn’t without cause that one political commentator on CNN, after watching the aforementioned interview with the conservative Christian women, stated that he couldn’t recall any Bible passage that gave Christians the right to sacrifice religious or moral principle for the sake of political gain. How many times have I heard, ad infinitum, the lament of fellow conservative Christians that they faced a “binary choice” in the recent presidential election, and that as a result, despite their moral objections to both candidates, they decided on the one who promised to follow the “Christian” political agenda? But again, speaking as a Christian with a lifelong faith in the God of Scripture, whatever happened to the option of simply trusting the Lord to take care of our freedoms and the prosperity of our land? If political choices are deemed unacceptable, are these the only remedy? Has politics become the Christian’s only hope in this present world?
In case America’s conservative Christians haven’t noticed, the following verses are still very much in the Bible:
“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 118:9).
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3).
Sadly, once some conservative Christians decided to hitch their agenda to the promise of secular political power, it wouldn’t be long before such power would be all that would matter. Like any other political constituency, getting their political way is now all that counts; never mind the moral character of those leaders who might do their bidding.
Selective Moral “Mulligans”
I can’t say I ever heard this term until recently, except as someone’s last name. Apparently it refers to giving someone a second chance in the context of a game, such as golf.1 The origin of the term appears to be unknown.2 (In Christian theology, such words as “dispensation” and “indulgence” are comparable, though not in every sense identical.) My first encounter with the word “mulligan” in the present political context was several months ago, when a prominent leader of the Religious Right used it with reference to conservative Christian support for the current president of the United States.3
A similar moral “mulligan” was granted by a good many conservative Christian voters during the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama in December of 2017, in which one of the candidates was accused of sexually abusing underage girls. One Alabama voter, interviewed by a number of media outlets, made the following statement: “If he—he went to the Lord and asked for forgiveness for that and hasn’t done anything like that in—since then, I believe that if the good Lord’s forgiven him, as a Christian I have to forgive him also.”4
Another respondent, in a Facebook post addressing the Moore allegations, declared: “God has forgiven Roy Moore, and He will forgive those who vote for him.”5
The TV anchor receiving this post responded, “I wish I could see your face as you’re typing. Like, are you serious?”6
Very serious, I’m sure—as serious as those conservative Christians who keep publicly absolving the current U.S. president, like one voter interviewed recently in Pennsylvania who quoted the verse, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7). Another conservative Christian voter, interviewed for CNN’s “Out Front” the evening of March 27, 2018, insisted that the current president’s alleged moral lapses are “between him and God.” Again, one wonders what these voters’ thoughts might have been during the presidential sex scandal of two decades ago.
It might even be that part of the problem lies as much with evangelical theology as with evangelical politics. In his best-selling 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? evangelical author Philip Yancey quotes favorably an author who writes of “God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness.”7 It seems this understanding of the divine pardon of human sin remains widespread in mainstream evangelical circles. Yet the Bible is very clear that God’s forgiveness is very conditional:
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
Jesus also made it clear there were conditions for receiving His Father’s forgiveness: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, 15).
The apostle John wrote, in a verse familiar to most: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
In none of these verses can any hint be found of forgiveness without repentance. The notion that God forgives people irrespective of their sorrow for sin or the lack thereof, irrespective of whether or not the sin in question has been renounced and forsaken, is utterly without biblical support. Yet it is deeply troubling how frequently this “unconditional forgiveness” doctrine surfaces when a public figure—in the church or the world—either admits falling into sin or is accused of a particular sin. Even more troubling, as we now see in the American political process, is the selective manner in which the “unconditional forgiveness” principle is so often applied.
The big problem with both the former U.S. Senate candidate and the current U.S. president is that, if the above Bible verses are taken seriously, forgiveness is not possible without repentance, which obviously doesn’t include lying about one’s sinful past. (Keep in mind that if some choose to believe the accused instead of the accusers in the above cases, it makes no sense to talk about forgiveness or second chances, as these aren’t necessary if no wrong has been committed.) If, in the case of either of the above individuals, we were to witness a candid confession of wrongful deeds and a plea for forgiveness from the individuals wronged as well as the Lord, changes would certainly be in order, and any political advantage sought by opponents from such failings would likely be lost. But how, in light of the above verses, can Christians speak of forgiveness when denial, not repentance—irrespective of the facts—is the course being chosen?
And why, we cannot cease asking, are these moral “mulligans” granted only when the offender is a political ally? As the commentator quoted earlier rightfully asked: On what biblical basis can Christians justify such a selective moral standard?
Too often in history the hypocrite and the tyrant are one and the same. What Jesus and the apostle Paul said about prominent religious figures in their day comes pointedly to mind (Matthew 23; Romans 2:17-23). Back during the 1980s, when the Meese Commission on Pornography was holding hearings, a state attorney from North Carolina reported that while at least 80 percent of his state’s residents were conservative Christian churchgoers, North Carolina held “the largest number of pornography outlets” of any state in the union at that time.8 The state attorney then added, “Is it the churchgoers who are creating the market, or is it the other 20 percent?”9
A prosecutor from the same state added with a bit of folksiness: “You know, we also have this saying in North Carolina—that we will all vote as long as we can stagger to the polls.”10
Some may find this amusing, but in truth it is both sad and frightening. Hypocrisy is very much the Siamese twin of intolerance, and the resort by Christians to civil power is not only an invitation to both evils, but an acknowledgment of spiritual impotence. The late New York governor Mario Cuomo, speaking on the abortion issue at an assembly of the student body at Notre Dame, said it well: “Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin? The failure here is not Caesar’s. This failure is our failure—the failure of the entire people of God.”11
More recently columnist Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and himself a devout evangelical Christian, made this observation: “The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.”12
Along similar lines, evangelical pastor Tim Keller, writing in The New Yorker, has stated, “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’”13
In its chronicle of the final events before Jesus’ second coming, the biblical book of Revelation describes history’s final apostate religious movement as one that sacrifices principle for political power and the ultimate tyranny. This sacrifice is called spiritual “fornication”—an illegitimate union between professed Christendom and secular politics (Revelation 17:2). Far from being evidence of strength or supremacy, this alliance is depicted by the same Bible author as indicative of spiritual collapse (Revelation 14:8)—the “utter corruption” of which Michael Gerson speaks.
But God’s true people, by contrast, are depicted in the same book as employing an entirely different method—one that honors free choice as the only viable path to moral integrity and the ethics of the Christian gospel (Revelation 22:17). Like their Savior Himself, who waits to be invited into the human heart instead of forcing His way in (Revelation 3:20), the final and faithful remnant of sacred history will summon the world to judgment through the power of both example and the spoken word, honoring the sacred power of the human will in their proclamation of the truth about God’s and His call for us to honor Him in thought and deed.
3 Quoted in Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/
4 Peter Hasson, “Moore Supporter: ‘As a Christian I Have to Forgive Him,’ ” The Daily Caller, Nov. 10, 2017, http://dailycaller.com/2017/11/10/moore-supporter-as-a-christian-i-have-to-forgive-him-video/.
5 Grackle Green, Facebook post reported by Michael Smerconish, CNN, Nov. 18, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxlRZjjr-NQ.
7 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1997), p. 15.
8 Philip Mobile and Eric Nadler, The United States of America vs. Sex: How the Meese Commission Lied About Pornography (New York: Minotaur Press, Ltd., 1986), p. 58.
11 “Abortion Not a Failure of Government, Cuomo Says,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 13, 1984, p. A1.
13 In ibid.
Kevin Paulson writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Editor’s note: While this article of necessity repeats much-discussed details regarding the president of the United States, its focus is not to malign him personally. Allowing for Donald Trump’s rather freewheeling history and his aversion to full disclosure of past shortcomings (a rather common failing, massively magnified by a rather unique self-confidence), it must be granted by now that his vision for making America great again includes a very self-conscious intent to defend what he sees as religious liberty for Christians. The danger arises from the fact that he naturally looks to others to fill in the gaps to this agenda; as the article explains, that means the religious worldview of a vocal faction of religious conservatives. While this magazine will always share their dismay at moral decline, we cannot share their increasing distrust of the deeper meaning of the first amendment and their willingness to use political power to re-Christianize the nation.
Article Author: Kevin D. Paulson
Kevin Paulson is a much-published author, editor, and minister of religion. He writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.