“Honor the Emperor”: One Year Later, A Plea to the 81 Percent

It promises to be a quiet Election Day for me. The two cities on either side of Roseville are having contentious mayoral races, but Roseville residents have nothing on their ballots but an uncontested school board race and what strikes me as the obvious choice to approve a bond that will allow our aging public schools to be updated.

Vote sign, reversed
Licensed by Creative Commons (Dean Terry)

Whatever happens, it won’t feel much at all like the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November 2016, from which I emerged so shell-shocked that I fired off the angriest post in the history of this blog, aimed squarely at the 81% of fellow white evangelical voters who — unlike me — cast ballots for Donald J. Trump:

At least as “evangelical” pertains to Americans of European descent, it’s now clear that it chiefly describes the voting bloc that did the most to entrust the most powerful position on Earth to the worst candidate ever nominated by a major political party in this country.

A year later, I find myself writing less and less about Trump, in part because I feel less and less sure that anything I write will persuade anyone in the 81% that they made a terrible decision. But on this dismal anniversary, let me make one more (final?) appeal to my fellow evangelicals — either as they vote today, or as we come up to the second year of the Trump administration.

As an evangelical, I don’t know where else to start than Scripture:

[F]ear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17b, NIV)

I don’t have much more to say about the religious problems inherent in 81% of white evangelicals voting for someone like Donald Trump. I guess I wish that fewer of my fellow evangelicals would act out of their fear of Democrats, gays, Muslims, and immigrants, and instead act out of a fear of the God whose image is found in all the people we’re prone to demonize, whose Word calls us to live as people of faith, hope, and love, and whose “judgments are true and righteous altogether” (Ps 19:9, KJV).

But on this day of civic significance, I mostly pray that the 81% will reconsider what it means to follow the second half of Peter’s famous admonition: “…honor the emperor.”

Obviously, we need to live this out in the context of our political system. We have no emperor; American Christians instead need to honor democracy. In a system that gives authority to the people, we submit ourselves “for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Pet 2:13) not by approving whatever our leaders do and say, but by honoring the institutions, procedures, offices, and underlying values of our democratic system.

How do we do that? On a day like today, we vote. The rest of the year, we participate in the institutions of civil society; we study our nation’s history and follow current events.

We honor democracy in all those ways. But in the present moment, we also honor democracy when we reject our current president’s attempts to equate the presidency with himself.

In short, we fulfill the democratic equivalent of “honor the emperor” by honoring the presidency, not whichever of our fellow citizens temporarily holds that office. So first — if I can adapt what I wrote last Election Day — we should resolve never again to support any presidential candidate

who appeals to every one of the lowest impulses in the American character… who has no meaningful experience predictive of success in the highest of political offices… whose character lacks all of the traits — wisdom, prudence, humility, empathy, willingness to learn from mistakes, openness to multiple viewpoints, commitment to national service — that normally check the arrogance common to presidents.

Second, we honor democracy by supporting a press that is free to ask hard questions of the president and by supporting the right of dissenters to protest the president’s words and deeds.

Third, we honor democracy by honoring voting; we should oppose partisan gerrymandering and reject attempts to justify voter suppression with unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud.

Fourth, we honor democracy by paying attention to local and state issues that are not the responsibility of the president or other federal officials, not letting the incessant noise of national politics deafen us to important questions closer to home. (One reason why it’s important to vote even in an odd-numbered election year, even when there’s nothing but a school bond at stake.)

Finally, we honor democracy by electing other representatives who will prudently and courageously use their constitutional power to check and balance the president’s power. So as primaries loom for 2018, look for candidates who will pass laws that benefit the common good, investigate executive action and inaction, approve justices and judges who will protect our constitutional rights, and, in extreme cases, remove a president from office.

None of this is particular to Christians. But through our actions as responsible citizens of a religiously plural democracy that separates church and state, we take care “to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Pet 2:12, NLT).