With Your Vote, Are You Worshipping Religious Liberty or Are You Worshipping Jesus?

by John Ellis

There remains a fundamental tension in Christianity. Flourishing is good, nevertheless seeking it is not our ultimate goal.” Charles Taylor[1]

Voting can be a sticky wicket for Christians. Rarely, at least on the national stage, are we presented with options that align comfortably with a conscience informed by the Holy Spirit, God’s Word, and the various means of grace. This results in many followers of Jesus taking the tack of “holding their nose” while voting, having resigned themselves to some form of the lesser of two evils argument. I believe, though, that our collective approach to voting often reveals ethics shaped more by the world and less by our Faith. Pursuing holiness and living out Kingdom ethics are not options that we should lay aside when stepping into the voting booth.

Pursuing holiness while living out Kingdom ethics is often at odds with our definition of the “good life.” And voting is often seen as a means to an end – the good life. For generations upon generations, white evangelicals in America have been weaned on a steady diet of human-centered ideologies that promote individual happiness and shrunken concepts of flourishing. Shrunken by Kingdom standards, that is.

Elevating human flourishing high enough to encompass an eschatological horizon runs counter to our sin nature, though. In a word, it’s hard. Like our first parents in the Garden, we want to define the good (human flourishing) and, like Adam and Eve, we believe we have the inalienable right to that good, no matter what. Like the prodigal son, we want our inheritance on our terms and in our timing. Because, looking around us, human flourishing seemingly runs at odds with pursuing holiness and Kingdom ethics, and in our flesh we want to reset the terms and level the playing field. Why should the wicked enjoy life and not me, especially since my godly parents and grandparents gleaned so much from the American Dream? What about me?

The psalmist describes this tension in Psalm 73. In verses 2 and 3 he confesses, “my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Contrasting the wicked’s flourishing with his own physical and existential turmoil, he complains “these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning (verses 12-14).” By God’s grace, though, the psalmist concludes his lament with a prayerful return to praising the Most High God:

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
    you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
    I have made the Lord God my refuge,
    that I may tell of all your works.

With verses 23-28, the psalmist reveals the eschatological framework within which God’s children are to live and work. The end is God’s. As is the beginning and the here and now. And the end, for those who are God’s, is an eternity of flourishing. For those who are not God’s, though, their end is eternal perishing. Trading our end for the pleasures, comfort, and security offered now is akin to Esau trading his birthright for a pot of porridge. This doesn’t mean that pleasure, comfort, and security in the here and now, when given by God, are to be scorned or refused. The trick is being willing to let go of temporal pleasures if and when changing circumstances place flourishing in the here and now at odds with living out Kingdom ethics in the pursuit of holiness. Charles Taylor sees this clearly. “Loving, worshipping God is the ultimate end. Of course, in this tradition God is seen as willing human flourishing, but devotion to God is not seen as contingent on this. The injunction ‘Thy will be done’ isn’t equivalent to ‘Let humans flourish’, even though we know that God wills human flourishing.”[2]

The Apostle Paul lived his life with an eschatological focus, and he implores followers of Jesus to do the same. In fact, while explaining “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is it to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18),” Paul reveals that God’s “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (v. 19).” In aggreement with Charles Taylor, human flourishing and, by extension, the flourishing of all of creation, is God’s will. That doesn’t mean, though, that God’s timing matches our desired timing. For Believers, this raises the question: How are we to interact in the here and now, whether offered temporal flourishing or not? 

Again, Charles Taylor is instructive here. Pointing out that all humans and civilizations have an understanding “of what human flourishing is”, the eminent Catholic philosopher points out that we all struggle to live out human flourishing. That struggle, “define[s] the view or views that we try to live by, or between which we hover. At another level, these views are codified, sometimes in philosophical theories, sometimes in moral codes, sometimes in religious practices and devotion.”[3]

Looking around us, as well as taking measure of our own life and actions/ethics, we can see our society’s priorities, as well as our own. Or, perhaps better defined, our idols. How we define and, hence, how we pursue flourishing presents a clear picture of what we worship – individually and corporately. For Christians, it’s important to keep in view that it’s not that God doesn’t want us to flourish, it’s that He asks us to “deny [ourself] and take up [our] cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).” Not only are we not promised flourishing, at least as we like to define it, it’s not really something we should expect, much less demand. Often, as history bears out, and demonstrating the truthfulness of Christ’s words “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake (Matthew 10:22)”, faithful followers of Jesus do not tend to flourish in the here and now in the ways in which society at large defines flourishing. Shamefully, white evangelicals in America, setting aside the “all” in Christ’s prophetic utterance that “you will be hated by all”, demonstrate through our political involvement that we believe that culturally defined concepts of flourishing is where we think our true treasure and birthright are stored. Narrowing that down, our collective approach to voting reveals, among other idols, that we worship the concept of religious liberty and not Jesus.

The theme(s) and research for this article have been born out of my work on another, larger (much larger) project combined with current responses holding court in white evangelicalism regarding voting ethics as November 3 looms large (I’ve since published 3 installments of that larger project; you can read the Intro by clicking here). In short, bending almost completely to a pragmatic embrace of the lesser of two evils argument, white evangelicals in this country have largely sold their vote to a man who is obviously a living renunciation of the fruits of the Spirit. Crowned in our arguments as a modern-day Artaxerxes standing behind Nehemiah, President Donald Trump is seen as the only one who can save our way of life. Ignoring much of the tangled brush seeded throughout discussions about “our way of life,” I’m going to focus on the argument that a vote for Trump is a vote for religious liberty. In a subsequent article, I’ll interact with the anti-abortion argument also undergirding the lesser of two evils argument that concludes in pushing Christians to vote for Trump (that article has now been published and can be read by clicking here), but, for the purpose of this article, my main contention, mentioned above, is that voting for Donald Trump for the sake of preserving religious liberty is at odds with worshipping Jesus. In the course of wading into that thesis, though, a brief response to an expected rebuttal will help us transition into the meat of my argument.

A false dichotomy is an argument that claims that two propositions are mutually opposed. Often called a false dilemma or either/or, this type of argument ignores the potential for overlapping arguments. The logical form is: Either A is true, or B is true. A is not true. Therefore, B must be true. So, for example, some of those who disagree with my thesis may point out that it’s possible to be greatly concerned about religious liberty and love Jesus first and foremost. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

True, of course. But, if that rebuttal is made, it will be made at the expense of an honest evaluation of my thesis. I employ the word “worship” for a reason.

A well-known and oft-quoted verse tells us that “no one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24).” I do not contend (nor do I believe) that Christians should be unconcerned with religious liberty nor that should we kick a gift horse in the mouth if God graciously allows us to live under an earthly regime that prioritizes religious liberty. For me, the question is: at what ethical expense should Christians pursue religious liberty? First, though, what is religious liberty? And, is it a priority baked into God’s economy for His people in the here and now?

Ask many conservative Christians in this country to name the foundational tenets of this country, and religious liberty will be undoubtedly included in the list. While I don’t necessarily disagree, where I disagree (and where history disagrees, I believe) is how religious liberty is defined and to what degree religious liberty was on the minds of the founders and the hearts of the colonists. Having grown up in the Deep South in a devoutly politically conservative and devoutly Christian family, I am familiar with the perspective my “tribe” has when viewing the events and ideologies that gave birth to the United States of America. Fleeing religious persecution as a primary reason for the continued migration to the New World as well as the cultural formation of America was hardwired into the education that I and many other, if not most, white evangelicals received. Religious liberty is codified in the evangelical mind in ways that parrallel our own desires and expectations regarding religious observances that we were taught and believe were denied Christians outside these shores.

Pushing back on that “God and country” perspective, historian Gordon S. Wood provides the counterpoint. His book The Radicalism of the American Revolution does a masterful job of contrasting the liberties and freedoms found across the British Empire. The Empire of the eighteenth century was an almost completely different political animal than that of James I. “Since the early seventeenth century the English had radically transformed their monarchy: they had executed one king and deposed another, written charters and bill of rights, regularized the meeting of their parliaments, and even created a new line of hereditary succession.”[4] Truly, the culture of the British Empire in which the American experiment was birthed was vastly different than the culture experienced by the Pilgrims, that group of pioneers much lauded by white evangelicalism for their brave search for religious liberty. In fact, according to that perceived despot King George III, “the pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its constitution is political liberty.”[5]

As a group, subjects to the English Crown in the eighteenth century enjoyed more liberties than any previous people groups in the history of the world. The colonists, while “thought to be a particularly unruly lot, crude if not barbarous, and especially defiant of social and political authority,”[6] were, in many regards, as Gordon S. Woods points out, more English than those living on the British isles. The liberties enjoyed by the colonists surpassed their cousins across the ocean. And did they ever love their liberties. Contrasted with the rest of the world, including England proper, no outside force was oppressing the colonists.

One area, though, where liberty in the colonies failed to rise to the ahistorical luxury of much of the rest of the Empire was in the arena of religion. The colonists, for all their desire for personal autonomy, were, by and large, mostly unconcerned about religious liberty – at least for anyone else. Ask Roger Williams. Or any Roman Catholics scattered throughout the colonies not named Maryland. Ask any citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia who did not adhere to the official religion of Anglicanism. As Thomas Kidd explains in no uncertain terms, “It is a myth that the Puritans wanted ‘religious freedom.’ They were seeking to freely practice biblical Christianity, but they did not tolerate dissent.”[7] Since only around 17% of the colonists attended church by 1776, it’s to be expected that religious liberty was not a concern that enthralled the hearts and minds of the majority of people clinging to the eastern shores of North America.[8] You wouldn’t know all this, though, from the conversations within white evangelicalism about America’s history.

While religious liberty is codified in the Bill of Rights, it wasn’t really until 1801, when the Danbury Baptists decided it was important to feel out the new President’s position, that the concept of religious liberty began to form into the shape that modern-day evangelicals recognize. For this country’s founders, pluralism (Republicanism) and various perspectives on Federalism held far more import than preserving and/or protecting specific religious rites. In fact, and as a side note, while starting off hand in hand, religious liberty eventually reveals itself as the enemy of pluralism. The persecuted Baptists, on the other hand, had a different perspective and agenda. The deepening of republicanism was not at the forefront of their minds when they appealed to Jefferson. “The issue of foremost importance to the Baptists was whether ‘religious privileges’ (and the rights of conscience) are rightly regarded as ‘inalienable rights’ or merely as ‘favors granted’ and subject to withdrawal by the civil state.”[9]

In his response in the now famous “Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” Thomas Jefferson “outlined two objectives … first, to broadcast ‘a condemnation of the alliance between church and state, under the authority of the Constitution and, second, to explain why he declined to follow his presidential predecessors in issuing proclamations for public fastings and thanksgivings. The letter thus addressed matters of both constitutional principle and politics.”[10]

Much ink and time arguing has been spilt and spent on deciphering Jefferson’s use of the wall metaphor in that letter. However, my aim isn’t to adjudicate that particular debate.[11] I bring up Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptist” with two objectives in mind: 1. To introduce readers to the historical fact that religious liberty has been an evolving concept not only in American jurisprudence but culturally as well. Again, the founders were far more concerned about enshrining pluralism into society than protecting specific religious observances. 2. To provide a soft transition for those who have a David Barton-shaped view of Jefferson and this country’s founding into the reality that Thomas Jefferson did not view the Bill of Rights the way most white evangelicals of the twenty-first century do.

According to Daniel L. Dreisbach, “the prevailing interpretation of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment shared by Jefferson and his contemporaries” was that “the federal Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, served a dual purpose: to assure the citizenry that the federal government would not encroach upon the civil and religious liberties of individuals and to guarantee the states that the federal government would not usurp the states’ jurisdiction over civil and religious liberties.”[12] Translation: laws restricting civil and religious liberties were not considered verboten if implemented at the state level.

This is what’s called a jurisdictional view of the Bill of Rights. And this view is on clear display in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams. “While we deny that Congress have a right to control the freedom of the press, we have ever asserted the right of the States, and their exclusive right, to do so.”[13] While equivocating as the need arose and political expediency demanded, Thomas Jefferson was not opposed to individual states cracking down from time to time on a wayward press; like his fellow founding fathers, he just didn’t want the federal government to do it. As far as the prevailing, original view of the “religion” portion of the First Amendment, we need to look little further than the opinion authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, speaking for a unified Court, in the decision for Barron v. Baltimore. Specifically referencing religious liberty, Chief Justice Marshall, in no uncertain terms, declared that the Bill of Rights “contain no expression indicating an intention to apply them to state governments.”[14] Like the freedom of the press, the founders and their immediate descendants were concerned about curtailing the federal government’s power not the states’ when it came to religion.

To be sure, the prevailing opinion has shifted quite drastically. In fact, contemporary thought, beginning really in the early twentieth century, believes that the Fourteenth Amendment, unofficially overturning Barron v. Baltimore, extends the Bill of Rights’ reach to the state level in many instances. If I were a betting man, I’d bet lots of money that if a state, say California, attempted to regulate indoor worship during a pandemic, white evangelicals, arm in arm with lawyers, waving copies of the First Amendment would storm the courts. If their beloved Thomas Jefferson and his founding compatriots were to meet them at the courthouse door, a quick class in Constitutional law by the founding fathers would upset the God and Country applecart of the evangelical complainants. Again, my point is less about the history and more to merely point out that our societal definition of religious liberty and Constitutional theory, including within white evangelicalism, has been a shifting target throughout this country’s history.

Taking a brief step into the philosophical weeds, Enlightenment epistemologies intended to square with the increasing overthrow of Aristotelian ontologies by Epicurean atomism ontologies informed the philosophes whose work shaped the republicanism of America’s founding fathers. The famous opening line of Rousseau’s The Social Contract rings loudly throughout the formation of the United States of America: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”[15] This realization by the Genevan led him to conclude, “Man’s first law is to watch over his own preservation; his first care he owes to himself; and as soon as he reaches the age of reason, he becomes the only judge of the best means to preserve himself; he becomes his own master.”[16] No doubt, you do not need to squint too hard when reading The Declaration of Independence, as well as other founding documents, to see Rousseau’s fingerprints on the United States of America. To be clear, the founders owed as much, if not more, to men like Hobbes and Locke, picking and choosing the aspects of the Enlightenment philosophers that best accorded with their own vision for a republican, pluralistic society. The Social Contract, though, provides not only insight into the overarching philosophy of eighteenth century republicanism but also a sharp contrast to the ontology and epistemology of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul did not shy away from pointing out that humans are not born free, at all. It is only through Christ that we are freed from our slavery to sin. But, and this is an important and contrasting point to much of American ideology, those who repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus do not achieve libertarian styled freedom that finds human flourishing in the belief that “mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”[17] Instead, we are saved to a life of joyful obedience to our King. We trade a malevolent master for a completely and unchangeably benevolent Master. Living in ways that seem good to us is what landed all of humanity and creation in this mess to begin with.

Taking another step, the pluralistic concept of religious liberty is actually at odds with a robust biblically informed faith. As David VanDrunen writes, “Religious conviction is usually not a mere internal and private affair but a commitment that shapes external behavior and public conduct, often in ways that adherents regard as unsuitable for compromise.”[18] And, as should be obvious to anyone not cloistered, Christian ethics exist in sharp conflict with our society’s pluralistic ethics. When we claim the desire for religious liberty within a secular framework, it’s hard to see how we’re actually defending the right to live as followers of Jesus.

Chasing religious liberty is likely a running away from Jesus’ promise that the world will hate his followers. Looking to the model left us by our Savior, our initial expectation should be suffering for Christ’s sake. While religious liberty is a precious gift if we’re given it; religious liberty is not our birthright in the here and now. Our eternal inheritance is not part and parcel with temporal religious liberty. Claims to the right to participate in twenty-first century America’s definition of liberty is less about worshipping and serving God according to the dictates of the Bible and more about preserving our place in the public square which, in turn, preserves our specific American Dream-fueled way of life characterized by comfort, power, and wealth. We do not want our Faith to cost us anything. As American citizens, it’s our birthright to not have to carry any crosses. Fighting back against the social imaginary in which we live, we need to ask ourselves, what informs our definition of flourishing?

Seeking to preserve that definition of flourishing by hitching our ethical wagon to a man like Donald Trump squares far more comfortably with Saul Alinsky than it does Jesus’ command to “sell all that you have … and come, follow me (Mark 10:21).”

In his book Rules for Radicals, Alinsky seeks to rehabilitate the word compromise. Recognizing that compromise often “carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles”, Alinsky, instead, urges his “radical” disciples to view the word as “key and beautiful.”[19] In the chapter “Of Means and Ends”, Alinsky lays out the groundwork for the pragmatic efforts of radical organizers. After giving several rules of ethics for employing seemingly undesirable means in the achievement of a desired end, he urges “that the kind of means selected and how they can be used is significantly dependent upon the face of the enemy, or the character of his opposition.”[20] The stakes determine our ethics.

In 2016, the stakes of keeping Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office were sufficient enough for many white evangelicals to drop what has been revealed to have been a charade that character matters. In 2020, the stakes are apparently even higher because many of those who refused to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 have now committed to do just that on November 3. And make no mistake, voting is an ethical action. (Edit: In my larger work referenced and linked to above, I dive much further into Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to argue that white evangelicalism utilizes his pragmatism. That can be found in chapter 1 of the series.)

Look, I’m not attempting to sway those professing Christians who have convinced themselves that Trump is a paragon of virtue or those who believe that our President isn’t as bad as people like me say he is. My intended audience are brothers and sisters in Christ who recognize that pulling the lever for a man like Donald Trump requires a firm pinching of the nose (a pragmatic compromise). To them, I ask, where in the Bible do you see the liberty to traffic in pragmatism in order to preserve a culturally constructed definition of religious liberty that, in fact, contradicts Jesus’ promise to his followers? What are you chasing? And what are you giving up in that pursuit? Is your liberty to do church in the luxurious ways in which you’ve become accustomed worth the compromise of Kingdom ethics? Which side of the tension embedded in the Christian doctrine of flourishing do you give the most weight to? Believers throughout the ages have faithfully served Christ without compromise while under severe persecution. Religious liberty is not needed to be faithful. Compromising Kingdom ethics in order to preserve religious liberty may, in fact, be faithlessness.

As God’s new covenant people, we are not called to worship religious liberty; we are called to worship Jesus without compromise by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Voting for a man like Donald Trump requires an unbiblical compromise of our ethics as we ally with self-serving autonomy, no matter how “good” the ends we are striving for are.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 18.

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, 17.

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, 16.

[4] Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 13.

[5] John Brook, King George III (London: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 56.

[6] Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, 13.

[7] Thomas Kidd, Who Is an Evangelical?: A Movement In Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 29.

[8] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 15.

[9] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between the Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 33.

[10] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between the Church and State, 43.

[11] For those interested, I highly recommend Daniel Dreisbach’s book that I’ve quoted as well as studying Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s role in introducing the phrase “separation of church and state” into our societal lexicon.

[12] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, 62.

[13] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State quoting Thomas Jefferson, 62.

[14] John Marshall, Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243 (1833).

[15] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract trans. Maurice Cranston (New York: Penguin Classics, 1983), 49.

[16] Rousseau, The Social Contract, 50.

[17] J.S. Mill, On Liberty ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1978), 12.

[18] David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 193.

[19] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 59.

[20] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 41.

3 thoughts on “With Your Vote, Are You Worshipping Religious Liberty or Are You Worshipping Jesus?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s