The upcoming election is already proving to be one of the most contentious in recent American history, with a flurry of ads and social media campaigns taking aim at some of the most sensitive topics in U.S. politics. Questions of race, the economy, foreign policy, the COVID-19 response and scandals continue to trend as areas the general public is most concerned about, with President Trump and former Vice President Biden battling for November votes. One of the most important questions from a Christian perspective is also one of the least-discussed for lack of a clear answer: who would Jesus vote for?
Last Thursday, September 24, Vox Populi hosted a lecture and panel discussion, which did not definitively answer this question. The event was instead predicated on discussing the complexities of framing politics in a Christian perspective, to provide insight into how Christians should approach this year’s election in a way that is faithful to principles of discipleship and civic responsibility. The virtual event ran from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and featured a roughly 40-minute lecture by Hope College President Matthew Scogin, as well as an approximately hour-long panel discussion led by Dr. Jeff Tyler, chair of the religion department and an expert on Christian history. The panel largely focused on questions of how religious beliefs tie into the democratic process, important elements of political science that play into the electoral process as we recognize it, why elections are significant to daily life and how social media has impacted our political culture (for better or for worse).
President Scogin began his address by pointing out that the title of the night’s event (“Who Would Jesus Vote For?”) was indeed a misnomer; the speech would not address whether Christ would vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. He also pointed out that the title of the event references a global phenomenon popularized by a youth pastor in Holland. The phenomenon would ultimately become “What Would Jesus Do?”, a question which many readers are certainly familiar with. President Scogin then transitioned into his lecture, which addressed the question “How should Jesus shape our politics?” This was done by discussing how belief in Jesus should shape three elements of politics: political allegiance, political beliefs and political discourse. His lecture utilized familiar anecdotes and symbols within Christianity and politics. For example, among these anecdotes was the “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s” passage of the New Testament, the frequent intertwining of scripture and political promises on the campaign trail of politicians, the sharing of property in the early church in Acts 4 and the nerve-wracking role that social media has played in our political culture. The speech challenged and convicted viewers, and Vox Populi was well-prepared for this effect by disabling comments on the broadcast.
Dr. David Ryden, chair of the political science department, was the first panelist. Dr. Ryden began by touching on a sermon by the famed Tim Keller, a renowned pastor, writer and public speaker. Ryden quoted a Keller sermon by warning of the dangers of “political complacency, political primacy and political simplicity.” By this, Keller meant that politics should not be casually avoided by Christians, as this leads to a deprivation of political engagement, which is an important facet of loving one’s neighbor. Neither should Christians place politics first, as this challenges the authority and centrality of Christ’s life, and neither should Christians assume simple solutions to the reality that is complex political problems.
Dr. Sarah Estelle, of the Department of Economics and Business, was the next to speak. Dr. Estelle chose to speak on the difficulty of finding a label non-aligned with “conservative” or “liberal,” as well as the importance of setting ourselves apart as Christians with regard to politics. Dr. Estelle also touched approvingly on President Scogin’s point that not everything which is moral needs to be regulated, either by outlawing it or mandating it. Professor Estelle also highlighted how valuable it is to find people who agree with you, as that is an important element of developing one’s ideas.
Dr. Fred Johnson of the history department gave an especially moving testimony on how his fascinating background and life experiences have influenced his worldview regarding politics. Regarding the title question of the event, he said “…but in considering that question it made me think about how I got to this moment right now… and I thought about that time as a teenager, lying on the ground after being beaten nearly to death by four white cops in Prince George’s county, Maryland.” This unjust brutality puzzled him because he was a believing Christian who had given his life to Christ. Johnson also talked about his experiences running for Congress in 2008, his experiences in the Marine Corps, and ultimately ended with “I am beholden to nobody but my master.”
Dr. Rachel Schutte of the political science department was the final panelist and spoke about the gravity of trying to make the “right” choice when it comes to the dichotomous way the U.S. political system is ordered. Schutte mentioned how the electoral system makes the average citizen confused and upset, as well as the importance of having our views challenged and questioned. However, “sitting back, I think, as a Christian, is not acceptable… that sitting back means that, being ‘apolitical,’ you’re being political. Right? Then your politics are just being in favor of the status quo.” She closed by describing the uncomfortable dance between our religious views of how the world ought to be and the political mechanisms we desire to achieve it.
The panel went exceptionally well, with the perspectives of the panelists contrasting and comparing to each other in a pleasant way that expanded upon topics discussed in the lecture. There were few disputes between the panelists, coming down largely to differences in personal perspective, and about the importance of voting with conscience as opposed to voting for a certain desired outcome.
The Anchor interviewed Dr. Johnson on Monday, and he had this to say about the importance of the event: “The way that I understand Christianity and the way that I read the Bible, it is a book dedicated toward liberation and freedom; freedom from sin, and also freedom in the way we live our lives. And we have a choice in how we choose to do something. That mindset is not conflictual with some of the major ideas of the Enlightenment and rationality. In fact it’s very rational to want to be free in both spirit and mind and body, and you can only do that in a democratic society such as ours… [The Lockean principle of consent of the governed] places the individual at the center of things. We’re responsible for our faith, instead of someone telling us what to believe, and as we said in class [History of U.S. Foreign Policy] just a little while ago, if you have the right to believe what you want, you have other freedoms as well.”
Camryn Zeller, an economics major from the class of ’21, had this to say about the event: “I really appreciate that Hope College has become a place where the community encourages each other to step into difficult conversations and challenge one another in the opinions we hold. Since he started at Hope, President Scogin has modeled this behavior for both students and faculty alike on countless occasions. His address on Thursday did not shy away from controversy, yet reminded the Hope community that our true authority should be the word of the Bible. I think between President Scogin’s remarks and the panel of faculty afterwards, everyone probably heard an opinion that they agree with and they heard that opinion be challenged in a charitable and loving way. For me, I appreciated witnessing the exchange between Professor Schutte and Professor Estelle. They hold fundamentally different beliefs about the role of third-party voting in our elections but were able to have a conversation about their opinions by addressing the difference in their ideas, not by attacking each other as people. All in all, I would highly recommend watching the event from Thursday (the link is in your Hope email). Christians are called to be different in the world, and that includes the world of politics. Thursday’s event is a great example of how Christians can enter ‘Christianly’ into the world of political decision-making and reconcile the polarization and hostility we often see in our world today.”
The Anchor, as well as Hope College proper, is grateful to Vox Populi and Student Congress for sponsoring this event, as such a crucial topic is rarely discussed in such an elegant and civil manner.