VOTE YOUR CONSCIENCE: Party Must Not Trump Principles. By Brian Kaylor. Jefferson City, MO: Union Mound Publishing, 2016. 219 pages.
As I write this review it is just a few days after the first 2016 Presidential debate, and less than six weeks until the 2016 elections. Those who choose to vote, and I will be voting, will elect leaders and representatives from local to national. Most prominent, of course, is the Presidential election. This is a most unusual year. Both major candidates carry tremendous baggage, though I would argue that one carries much more than the other. There are minor party candidates but our system isn’t designed for truly multi-party elections. The electoral college requires that the winner garner a majority of electoral votes. It’s been a while since a third party candidate won even one state. It won’t happen this time either.
For people of faith elections pose interesting challenges. The government is not a religious entity (though sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between state and church due to a strong tradition of civil religion). There are no officially religious parties, though people tend to line up with a particular party that seems to best align with their perceived moral visions. I am a registered Democrat and have been since seminary. I am a Democrat because overall it better aligns with my moral principles, which are fueled by my faith tradition. Others will choose a different party because they have chosen to emphasize a different set of principles. This year the candidacy of Donald Trump, a man who seems to have little serious religious sensibilities (beyond the Power of Positive Thinking), is receiving overwhelming support from White Evangelicals, despite what many consider unchristian statements and positions. Their decision is largely due to Trumps promise to nominate so-called “pro-life” judges and support “religious liberty,” including removing the restrictions on political endorsements.
It is always dangerous for both church and state when religion and politics become overly intertwined. That doesn’t mean that people of faith shouldn’t get involved in public life, but there is a fine line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. One of the fine lines has to do with power. When we think that we can gain power by aligning with a party, then things get dicey. Too often we become beholden to the party, and then party “trumps” principles. That’s the problem that Brian Kaylor, a journalist and Christian, seeks to address.
Vote Your Conscience is Brian’s latest book and in it he attempts to give some perspective on the upcoming 2016 election. That means you’ll want to get a copy quickly if you prepare yourself for the election, an election that poses challenges to people of faith. Kaylor's major concern, and I think the reason for releasing what is a self-published book, is the embrace by white evangelicals of Donald Trump. Throughout the book, Kaylor will throw a barb at Hillary Clinton, but that seems to be more an attempt to be "balanced" than it is a full-fledged analysis of her politics or alleged ethical lapses (the infamous emails). He does acknowledge that of the two major party candidates Hillary Clinton is more likely a Christian than is Donald Trump, but it’s not the faith of the candidates that’s at issue. What’s at issue is the role that faith plays in voters’ decision making.
As someone who has deep concerns about the prospect of a Trump presidency, and as one who supports Hillary Clinton, I found myself at times in full agreement and at other times in disagreement. My concern is that while his analysis of Trump's candidacy, which has been marked by statements that should give Christians pause before supporting him—we can start with his vulgarity, and then move on to his name-calling, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rants, embrace of torture, his misogyny, just to name a few issues and behaviors where he falls short—has received close attention, his analysis of Clinton's ethical lapses seem to be based more on Republican talking points. Like I said, I intend to vote for Hillary, so I'm a bit sensitive to how she is portrayed. She has baggage, but not so much baggage that it disqualifies her as a leader.
Nonetheless, this book can be a useful primer on ways in which we might approach the upcoming election, along with future elections. It is important that we keep our allegiances in the proper order. No candidate and no party will completely align with our faith positions and principles, and therefore they can’t be the final determiner. Voting requires us to bring our ethical vision into the conversation. Principle should stand above party. Kaylor reminds us that ours is a kingdom vision. This is an important word for churches who can be tempted to become political tools, usually as a result of promises of power and influence.
This is a helpful book because it raises important questions about how we judge candidates, not just presidential candidates, but at every level. He asks us to think about how we can become tools to bless political ends that are antithetical to the gospel. One thing that Brian in the book is name names and point to episodes where seemingly spiritual songs are sung in praise of nation or party. He suggests that every Sunday is a patriotic Sunday, but by patriotism he speaks not of this nation we both inhabit, but the realm of God. With that in mind, he suggests that “if on any given Sunday we’re not having a patriotic service for the Kingdom, we’re doing something wrong” (p. 132).
I think the book has great value. Brian is passionate about the kingdom of God and his knowledgeable about politics. He is rightfully concerned about where we place our allegiance. Brian has an interesting discussion of the use of marriage language to describe the partnership on the part of evangelical leaders such as Richard Land). Though the level of alignment is different for liberal/Progressive Christians, we can also become overly entangled with the Democratic Party (though on the left end there is more talk of third party participation). As I read the book I felt like it might be good to read it in partnership David Gushee's A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith inUnsettled Times. David rights to a similar audience (white evangelicals, many of whom have become conjoined with the Republican party), and with similar concerns, but a bit more dispassionately. It is interesting that both Kaylor and Gushee raise the possibility of voting third party, especially if one lives in a state where such a vote won't tip the election in one way or another (that is, if you don't live in a battle-ground state you might want to vote third party, to send a message to the two major parties.)
Perhaps when the election is over there will be room for a post-mortem that will reveal the value of putting some distance between church and party. We may learn some valuable lessons. In the meantime, we can vote our principles/conscience, even if there is no perfect choice. The books by Kaylor and Gushee, among others, can be a helpful guide.