First published on Christian Controverser
Unless one lives under a rock, it would be hard to be unaware of the considerable disquiet and unrest within the evangelical community in the US over the Trump election loss, the extent of which appears to be almost unprecedented. Almost immediately at the time that mainstream media outlets were calling the election for Biden, prominent evangelicals called for four more years for Trump and quickly latched onto a series of wild accusations and conspiracy theories suggesting the voting outcome was in some way fraudulent. It’s now almost six weeks since the election and despite the failure of numerous legal challenges by Trump and his supporters, evangelicals are still claiming a Trump win and/or the ability for the election result to be overturned, using events such as the Jericho March. Partly as a result of respect of their professed conviction this blog has held back from publication of this and other articles questioning this line of direction. However, there are now grounds for increasing concern about the continuation of this campaign and its implications for the church not just in America but worldwide. Whilst Christians are universally passionate about their faith, American society appears to encourage a particular type of fervency in the US evangelical community that is relatively unmatched elsewhere and whilst commendable, risks a perception of elitist faith or excessive cultural conformity in view of the nature of the political system and the overall theological trends that tend to predominate in the evangelical church there.
The problem for conservative evangelicals is that there appears to be a well founded belief in American conservatism as a whole, that money buys political power, regardless of the democratic ideals of the Constitution. Veteran US journalist Ronald G Shafer, in an article syndicated in the Stuff website this week, wrote that in the 1960 presidential election, similar legal challenges were made as Trump’s campaign has carried out, pushing the limits of the numerous loopholes in US electoral law, those same ones which have been exposed in the court cases over past weeks. Every one of numerous steps required to complete the election process relies to a large extent on the willingness of state officials to act honourably and fairly in a highly politicised society, creating a system which is majorly vulnerable to political bias. This includes the core expectation that each state creates and oversees its own electoral system with minimal or no federal oversight, resulting in numerous allegations of voter suppression in Republican-led states disenfranchising Democrats and blacks, and of course the current claims by the GOP against Democrat-led cities and states.
A large, serious and basic flaw of the US electoral system is, compared to other countries, what appears to be an excessive level of checks and balances, implying a lack of faith or trust in the abilities of voters. The founders of the new nation of America believed this system was necessary to protect citizens from the tyrannical power of an unelected monarchy, which was the predominant form of governance in the European nations from which they emigrated in the 1700s. However, there was no conception at the time that political parties would form to represent particular ideological groupings, as exists today. Hence, power blocs have been created in the electoral system that rival the anathematic qualities of monarchical governance. In European and other western nations, the State has been reformed into a democratic institution in a way that many in those countries have seen as allowing the government to benevolently regulate the worst excesses of a democratic system in checking the untrammelled power of interest blocs in a way that is absent in the United States, leading to what is commonly cited as an unreasonably over-litigious and divided society. The issue with all of the checks and balances in the US electoral system is that each of these represents another opportunity for an undesirable outcome to be re-litigated by challenging the many different legislative provisions that must be made in order to complete each step of the electoral process. Moreover, each state creates their own implementation of an electoral system, in which it is innately possible for no two states to have exactly the same processes and procedures for voting, and in which arguably it is possible for a state to create a system that is politically biased against specific groups of voters, without oversight from the federal government.
The greatest level of concern is simply the belief that in both this election and the one 60 years ago, that groups of disaffected Republican supporters believed that they could exploit a loophole to try to overturn the election result. If at any point enough pressure was applied to officials in a number of different processes, they could bow to the demands and refuse to certify the electoral votes for a particular state, allowing the process to be taken over by the state government or by Congress, where party political interests would override democratic process. This problem is compounded by a timeline that is hardcoded in the Constitution and in law, which was a part of the outcome of the 2000 Bush vs Gore election. The desired recount in Florida was unable to be completed in the available time before the state had to certify its votes for the electoral college. This will be the long lasting negative legacy of the 2020 election, that Trump, whose presidency as a whole has been marked by highly divisive policies, has continued along this track throughout the election campaign and process. If America is to redress the profound damage done to the reputation of its democracy by the last four years, it must take a much harder look at where it is going as a nation. In few Western countries is there anything like the level of concern over the electoral system and outcomes as there has been in America in recent decades, and that is because in most of them, the process of conducting elections is standardised and centralised under national control. The whole electoral system in the USA must surely be citable as one of the key causes of the high degree of political divisiveness in society.
But where does this leave mainstream evangelicalism in America? Unfortunately it has been split as decisively and as damagingly as the rest of society. Ultimately the question is whether it has been wise for a section of the Church to have aligned itself so closely with political interests, and whether some of the key associated beliefs like Christian nationalism are capable of furthering the message of the Gospel in the North American continent or have simply diverted and wasted resources in unnecessarily legalistic disputes over inconsequential differences of theology. The evangelical church in the US is already arguably more divided than in most other countries due to the pervasive influence of dispensationalism and dominionism, which are key drivers of the political alliance with the Republican Party and the State of Israel. In fact, many of these evangelicals believe it is their role to bring about their supposed sequence of events leading up to the second coming of Christ from the beginning of the establishment of the modern Israeli state in 1948. The following accorded to dispensationalism is much lower outside the US, and key evangelical communities present in the US like the Vineyard Churches and Hillsong oppose it. The question will basically boil down to whether the church in America is focusing too much upon a privileged stature accorded to it by supporting the mainstream political establishment of its day, or whether the purported benefits of such an alliance is considered to hinder the advancement of the Gospel and cooperation with other churches. Americans are particularly strident at many levels of society about their personal and collective rights to a degree that is not seen as much outside their country and is often viewed in a negative light.