Earlier this year in the Brazilian Adventist theological journal, Kerygma, I published “A Moral History of the 2016 United States Presidential Election Campaigns” asking whether the elections that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency were “Judgments of God?” on the United States. In it, I compared and evaluated two sources with theologies of history in which human beings being able to identify divine judgments is integral: (1) Ellen G. White, centering her views on “philosophy of history” in Education; and (2) Stephen J. Keillor, especially his book, God’s Judgments, about the September 11 attacks. In both sources, the US Civil War is a recognized case of divine judgment on America that conforms to Old Testament patterns of God’s judgment on the nations.
According to the biblical patterns of judgment identified in White and Keillor, I reached the working conclusion that the 2016 elections and their outcome were not a catastrophic judgment of God on the US like the Civil War, but rather a sifting judgment event like the rising tensions before the Civil War that God used to sort the righteous from the unrighteous across America’s political factions. The surprising features of the 2016 presidential primaries and general election—peculiar in the post-war era—revealed hypocrisy in the left, center, and right of US politics and thus moral defects in the characters of those who identify too closely with those political tribes. The proper response to the sense of being under judgment, which many felt during that time, was to repent of attempting to govern ourselves as if God does not intervene in human history.
The question I will address in this article is how well that thesis has held up over time. In the course of bringing “Judgments of God?” to publication, I limited myself to only those sources available to me in early 2017, and I kept the same perspective I had at that time. I did so to allow future readers, including myself, to evaluate how well my view of divine judgment holds up in hindsight. With the next presidential election just around the corner, I especially invite my fellow American readers to see whether the shoe I’m offering fits, and, if so, how best to wear it.
Evaluation of the American Left
In “Judgments of God?” I argued that while the US left pursued its goal of justice for America’s lower class and minorities, they attempted to do this via an alliance with America’s upper classes. The upper class pursued that equalitarian project as a culture war with America’s white, Christian majority, whom they believed to be doomed to demographic irrelevance, all while accruing a greater share of the economic recovery to themselves. I argued that the election of Donald Trump represented a major failure of this approach that highlighted its injustice.
This line of thinking has developed since I picked up on it in my paper. In the intervening years, a political scientist, Eric Kaufmann, who quantitatively studies the intersection of identity and politics, has published about how the rise of minority interests in the US portended an “identity politics on all sides,” which resulted in the election of Donald Trump, and has theorized how that could be more justly accomplished. And the physicist-cum-bond trader-cum-photojournalist Chris Arnade has extensively chronicled how the priorities of left-wing elites fail to address the realities of what he calls “back-row America.”
Woke capital continues, especially with the rise of the black lives matter movement, to offer token demonstrations of solidarity with certain minorities without undertaking reforms that would alter the income distribution. While the racially inclusive redistribution movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign remains a force within the Democratic Party, it has failed to achieve electoral results commensurate with its exposure in the media. This unjust state of affairs continues to squander the moral authority that the left could otherwise claim in advancing the cause of the downtrodden.
Evaluation of the American Center
In distinction to the injustice of the left, I argued for an incompetence of the center. It is tricky to speak of the American center in moral terms because it has a pragmatic moral core, which has in late modernity extended little farther than a belief that technocratically managed democracy produces the best results. This includes an amoral view that questions of character can be reduced to competence and that policy matters more than personality, which was rejected in the electorate’s rejection of Hillary Clinton.
Pessimistic as I may have been in early 2017 about the public’s belief in democracy, I did not anticipate the earnestness with which, during the Trump presidency, intellectuals with followings on the right and left would recommend alternatives to liberal democracy that promise more than procedural morality, if less liberty. But I also did not anticipate that the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee would be a centrist whose character (while not perfect) recommends him more than his competence (which many commentators perceive as somewhat in decline). The pragmatism of black women voters looking for a candidate who could beat Trump aligned with the same goal in the party establishment and resulted in a nominee who represents basic moral norms. The pragmatic back door from amorality to morality could be interpreted as a positive response to divine judgment, even if not intended as such.
Evaluation of the American Right
That expectation of decency has continued to erode on the American right. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I argued that he had exposed immorality in the faction that upholds traditional morality through freedom of religion and economic discipline through free markets, because he was neither traditionally moral nor a free-market capitalist. I did not anticipate the number of Supreme Court picks he would get, and that he would toe the Federalist Society line in making them. I also underestimated his level of unwillingness or inability to implement his nationalist economic intuitions.
In fact, President Trump’s Supreme Court appointments have favored traditional morality and, until the pandemic, he has overseen strong economic growth. But the right-wing argument that these are reasons to support his presidency continues to be based on a trade-off against the existing moral baseline in certain respects (like the well-being of the children of detained migrants) to advance the moral baseline in other respects (like the well-being of unborn children). Along these lines, I did not anticipate the way that the president would continue to distort the truth as if still on the electoral campaign trail literally from the day he was sworn into office and at an unprecedented scale.
This immorality for the sake of morality had already weakened right-wing loyalty to the Republican party in early 2017, and the president’s crude, anti-minority rhetoric has continued to push away a segment of conservative voters. The conservative #NeverTrump movement has transformed into The Lincoln Project, an influence campaign that aims to purge the Republican party of Trumpism ballot box defeat at the hands of its former supporters. President Trump’s 2020 campaign strategy to double-down on motivating those already inclined to support him has not helped him reunite the right-wing ideological coalition, and by most accounts, he is poised to lose the upcoming election.
Did Sifting Lead to Catastrophic Judgment on America?
When I wrote in early 2017, I sketched out a scenario by which the US might experience a catastrophic judgment if it failed to respond appropriately to the sifting judgment and if God were not to extend America’s probation. That scenario centered on the rise of an illiberal, majoritarian faction that would precipitate a crisis over minority rights that would threaten to end America’s current constitutional order. As it turned out, American liberal democratic institutions largely contained those reactionary impulses.
But the United States did experience a crisis over minority rights when the pandemic shutdown focused the attention of the nation on the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and especially George Floyd—three African-Americans who died as a result of what was widely seen as unconscionable negligence by vigilantes and police officers, respectively. Support for the #blacklivesmatter protests surged from negative territory to around two-thirds of Americans, before falling back to just over half as the protests became increasingly destructive and the Black Lives Matter movement put forward unpopular proposals. The unexpected transformation of the global pandemic catastrophe into a racial crisis suggests that there may have been a sifting purpose in the way the pandemic fell on America: Majority had to sit at home and listen for the first time to what those in the minority had been saying for a long time about their treatment at the hands of law enforcement, while those on the side of the minority had to decide what to do with the moral authority they were suddenly handed.
I have made an initial case that while there were certain developments I did not pick up on, my assessments of the moral features of the left, center, and right of American politics in 2016 find support among current expert appraisals of events or in ongoing developments. So, I continue to maintain that the surprise outcome of the 2016 election provided cause for American Christians to examine whether we are following Jesus in the decisions we make at the ballot box. The upcoming election may not be so decisive in that sense, but I would still encourage Christians to leave open the option of not casting a vote for either of the major party candidates if, in their individual judgment, they both fall short of the baseline of American political morality.
Rather than national, electoral politics, it seems to me that this moment calls for a renewed focus on local governance. The shutdown has produced platoons of street warriors performing live for armies of social media warriors and together they are polarizing the left and right of American politics. But outbreaks of COVID-19 happen on the local, not regional or state level—which calls for balance with regard to transmission prevention and civil liberties that can only be effectively negotiated by cooperation between local and state government, civil society, and family/individual choice. The policing issues raised during the shutdown are directly addressed by state and local governance. Cooperative experiments between charities and police, and between state and municipality, have demonstrated promising results in that regard.
By all means be a good steward of your vote in this election, and let your voting or abstention be on the side of well-rounded Christian morality. But after you vote, consider spending less time speaking out on social media and more time speaking with your fellow service club members, city councilor, local advocacy groups, and the like about what you can do to improve life for your neighbors during this troublesome time.