I am writing this as the US election enters the final week of campaigning, and it feels as if the whole world is holding its breath awaiting the outcome. Amidst the monumental challenges we face as a result of the pandemic, this election feels like an epochal event, as if the fragile threads that are holding our world together might snap if US voters inflict four more years of a Trump presidency upon us all.
Rarely in modern western societies has religion played so significant a role in politics, with the result apparently hanging on the Christian vote. Catholics and evangelicals are bitterly divided between those who support Trump because of his cynical manipulation of the so-called “pro-life” lobby, and those who support the rather lacklustre Biden mainly because he is not Trump, though his modesty, integrity and deep personal faith are attractive qualities. As the election draws near, it’s interesting to watch the seismic shifts taking place as a growing number of evangelical leaders shift their allegiance to Biden, having finally woken up to the threat Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric poses to a society that is already on the brink of explosive violence. Some Catholic bishops are also taking a stand against their Trump-supporting brethren. The newly-appointed Cardinal Wilton Gregory – the first ever African-American Cardinal – has spoken out against police brutality and “the virus of racism”, and he has condemned as “baffling and reprehensible” the willingness of Catholic groups to be “egregiously misused and manipulated” by Trump.
The strange ecumenical alliance between Trump-supporting Catholics and evangelicals is perhaps the shadow side of the more positive ecumenical initiatives that emerged after the Second Vatican Council. Whatever the many failings of the institutional church, the Catholic tradition weaves together revelation and reason, grace and nature, philosophy and theology, in ways that can put a check on the more extreme forms of religious emotivism and scriptural fundamentalism. I find myself reflecting on this in the light of my own experience of evangelical Christianity when I lived in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, when that country was still bitterly divided after a civil war fought between the armed forces of Ian Smith’s white minority government and the guerrilla armies of the black nationalist movements.
During those years I met evangelical Christians who had been working for racial justice for many years, but I also met white supremacists who were convinced that God had created white people to rule and black people to serve, and who could cherry pick biblical verses to prove them right on every one of their entrenched prejudices. It was this experience that finally decided me to be received into the Catholic Church, with its more inclusive congregations and its more robust socio-political ethos rooted in the social teachings of Vatican II. But that evangelical experience left me with a deep awareness how easily Christianity can be used to justify profoundly unjust relations of power and exploitation, rooted in the belief that one is chosen, redeemed and singled out by Jesus for special treatment. Within this problematic interpretation of the doctrine of grace – one is saved by faith alone – there lurks an anti-intellectual, fundamentalist approach to issues of sin and redemption, scripture and salvation, which can feed a deeply individualistic cult of Jesus idolatry, such as I believe we see among the more extreme forms of US Christianity today. It is also a cult which is promulgated around the world by well-funded missionary campaigns, with all its accompanying baggage of coercive power and patriarchal control.
Yet there is another side to the Christian faith which I believe has been neglected in the culture wars that rage in the US and spill over in insidious ways into many forms of political Christianity today. Underlying all Christian teachings and stories of faith is the conviction that people can change in dramatic ways. Christianity is, after all, about personal conversion and transforming grace. Catholic social media suggests that this openness to conversion has failed to budge those who occupy entrenched positions on both sides. Liberals may by and large avoid the vitriolic insults and accusations that their opponents hurl through the virtual ether, but there is a self-righteousness to some versions of liberal Catholicism – a readiness to label everything that falls short of a particular version of justice and peace as “evil”, and to be as willing to claim absolute certainty about right and wrong as those on the other side. Thus the battle lines are drawn, and we face each other across an abyss of mutual anger, fear and resentment.
I believe that we need to seek healing along the path of conversion, trying to understand why others think and feel as they do. This is not to give up on the struggle for justice, but it is to follow the prophet Micah’s advice to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8). Cardinal Newman said that ‘to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.’ Perfection, in the thought of some early theologians, is not a state we arrive at but a constant dynamism of being. To be open to life – and to the cryptic interventions of the Holy Spirit – is to have one’s hard edges knocked off, one’s certainties challenged, and to discover the wonder that comes from living in deep dialogue with others who are different, knowing that we are all constantly being changed into the likeness of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 3:18)
Whatever happens in the US election, the Christian faith is about the hope that comes with our capacity to change. Doctrines develop and change and so do people. What remains unchanging is the mystery of God’s trinitarian love for all of creation, the forgiveness, healing and redemption that Christ offers unconditionally at every step of the way along life’s tortuous and winding path, and the goodness that persists before and beyond the most seemingly intractable evil. Popes and presidents come and go, but faith, hope and love endure.