Today, millions of Americans will go to the polls for what both leading candidates–sitting President Donald Trump (Republican, conservative) and former Vice-President Joe Biden (Democrat, liberal)–are calling the most important election in a generation. From a broader Christian perspective, I have written about political moments before, reminding readers and voters about:
- the power of cultural stories;
- the dangers of political and personal hypocrisy;
- concerns about trumpery and the banishment of truth;
- the damage of conspiracy theory thinking;
- the dangers of relying on the media to tell us about what our neighbours are really like;
- the reality that Bible-believing Christians differ on social issues;
- and how most people will be disappointed by the outcome of the election (though in this 2020 American election, it is possible that a candidate will get a majority of the votes).
I have also written “A Plea to American Christians on Election Day” in 2012 and 2016–ideas that also appear in a Pints with Jack Podcast that coincidentally releases today, looking at the fifth chapter of The Screwtape Letters.
In each of these conversations, I have chosen not to share a particular political persuasion or support a political party–though I have critiqued leaders on various parts of the left-right spectrum. Indeed, personally, I wouldn’t fit very well on a simple right-left political map. I care deeply about what happens in the United States in this season because, as the most wealthy, innovative, and powerful nation on earth, the outcome of this election has an enormous local and global consequence. I care about freedom, justice, truth, equality and human rights, and the alleviation of suffering and harm. So of course I care about what happens.
But as a Christian theologian, I have also been trying to awaken Christians in America and readers throughout the world to the deeper roots of our faith, founded in the self-sacrificial, redemptive death of Christ and the hope of his resurrection. As a theologian, I am concerned that Christians in America–as well as in Canada and Britain–have sometimes gotten lost in the local concerns of their culture rather than the deepest truths of the Gospel (Romans 12:2).
So, in a practical way, how do Christians in America and throughout the world pray on election day? Here are 5 ways to bow the knees of our hearts with the political moment in America in mind on this day (Prayer of Manasseh 1:11).
America is deeply divided–a crack in the community that goes deeper than traditional divisions of right and left, religious and non-religious, young and old, rich and poor, North and South, Black and White, Christian, other, and “none of the above.” Beyond the walls of America, there is fear, sadness, and sourness toward the country that is both the economic giant of the world and the self-appointed political leader of the globe. There is a lot of anger within the US and toward the US.
Although it isn’t always clear how prayer changes the world, it is entirely useless unless it changes our own hearts.
In prayer, we should set aside bigotry, offence, moral arrogance, pettiness, and feelings of hatred in our hearts. It is true that we may be experiencing righteous anger on occasion. Regardless, our prayer must be an echo of the cross, joining God’s heart of love toward our neighbours within the nation and across the world–even when we disagree deeply with one another. Prayers for others to be “correct like me” are bound to grate against the melodies of heaven. Instead, with humility and in friendship, we pray in love for brothers and sisters, for our neighbours, friends, and enemies.
America is, I believe, the greatest and grandest of all political experiments. But it is an experiment founded on human thought and built on blood-soaked land, always transforming and renewing, and crucially, critically flawed even in all its productivity and creativity. It is an experiment that faltered before and may falter again, as images of the Confederate flag or memories of Texan succession movements remind us.
Moreover, there are doubts about this election that have emerged, including voter suppression, foreign interference, and concerns about the quality of voting systems. On top of this, there is an incumbent has not yet clearly and unconditionally affirmed a peaceful transition of power if he were to lose (let me know if he has done so since the time of this writing)–and as he has some legitimate pathways to winning, also cast doubt upon that outcome. As the President of the US is the head of the Executive Branch and civil administration, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the National Police and the national security agencies, this could be a concern.
I believe that American conservatives and Republicans, even if they are in a situation where they must mourn a political loss, would not support political or military maneuvering that rejects the will of the people. But peace remains a point of prayer, as revolution rarely occurs without great bloodshed and heartache. There are dangerous, illegitimate, and unstable regimes throughout the world where we pray for peace and prosperity. So peace is what we pray for America as the election is decided in the days and weeks to follow–not least because many Americans are afraid.
While this is not a unique problem to America, as the only Western superpower with a large, vibrant Christian community with political sway, the United States stands out for its religious points of view. This has sometimes been a case where progressive and liberal Christians have aligned themselves with political movements that have failed to deliver on what they promised. Christian progressives have at times been shockingly quick to jump into bed with political solutions to social problems and to name people who disagree with them as “enemies” or even people who should have a right to speak, which dims the light of their Christian conviction.
Most recently, though, the concern is the conservative Christian alignment with President Trump. This is not just a reluctant or pragmatic acceptance of his faults in the longer journey to a conservative or Republican or capitalistic vision of a good society. Rather, some Christians have honoured this man because he eschews truthfulness, uses mockery as a weapon, winks at racism and sexism, and refuses to listen to his counsellors. Conservative Christian credibility is at Scopes Monkey Trial levels from the 1920s, a moment in history where Bible-believing Christians look foolish in the national eye. And this current folly may cause a complete transformation of the community, as it did a century ago.
And, frankly speaking, the greatest barrier I have when talk about Christian faith is American Christians. Perhaps we all disagree on moral issues. But the degree to which the Christian community in America on both sides has lost its historic, self-critical ability to distinguish itself as a moral leader as it trades faith for political power and love for social shaming is a great sadness to many within and without America–and a great confirmation to anti-Christians, who have always said that our religion was really about power and control.
Do American Christians right now look like Christ dying on the cross, taking the world’s sin upon himself in an act of transformative love? Or do they look like the Romans who put Christ on the cross? Our prayer must be that Christians can be a light to the world again and that the street-level, fence-sharing, neighbourhood-changing, cross-inspired love of normal American Christian life may one day displace these troubling and cartoonish images of greed, power, and hatred.
I understand that this is a terrible thing to write down. Ultimately, though, we must trust that God is strong and continues to guide the world.
A trust in God as provider–Providence–is not fatalism or an excuse to inactivity, but is a call to action. Our prayers must still be “Thy Will be Done”–even if we are sure in our hearts what we believe the best thing to be in this situation. Even Christ surrendered his will for God’s plan at his point of greatest anxiety. Frankly, our viewpoint is limited by time and space, and we must trust in our prayers to One who sees beyond the little corners of our world.
This prayer is, as well, a call to action–to live out the image of community and culture that we want our political leaders to shape. If we are waiting on people on Fox and CNN–the commentators, the politicians, or the everyday folks featured in news clips–to change the world, we have misunderstood our role. It is up to us to shape our physical and virtual neighbourhoods into places that reflect the heart of Christ–places where there is freedom, justice, truth, beauty, and goodness. Immigration policy, economic shaping, foreign developments, overhauling systems, revolutionizing technology, framing for the future–none of these political actions prevent you from being a neighbour in your time and place.
It is here that we rise from prayer and turn to our neighbour and our neighbourhoods.
Because of COVID-19, political uncertainty, and a changing sense of what an “election day” is, most people will not actually be voting on election day. A week before the election, more than half of those expected to vote had already done so in advanced polls or by mail-in ballot. In a very real sense, praying for America on election day is too late. The die may be cast–at least in terms of political outcomes, though not in a million other ways.
But this reflection only serves to remind us of a responsibility that we have to pray for the United States of America as a normal, everyday, prophetic, sacrificial, and loving Christian duty. Election day is one day of many–one day of most days, honestly–where the fate of the world is in America’s hands. Prayer for the United States, its leaders and its peoples, is a simple generosity–a few moments each day or each week where we lift up America to God. I don’t know if this will change America in any measurable way, but it will transform our hearts.
And, in our economy of the Spirit, any single prayer or pray-er could be world-changing. As all the other powers of the world come and go with the restorations and radical changes, this is one revolution for which the blood is already shed, and all that remains is hope.
Artwork by Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, known as Diego Rivera.