Adventist independent media ministry founder Danny Shelton deleted a Facebook post last month defending the ministry’s decision to invite the only Adventist and black member of President Trump’s cabinet, Dr. Ben Carson, to speak at an event. My purpose in what follows is not to evaluate the suitability of the invitation or the legitimacy of the outcry from social justice Adventism. Rather, I will draw out seven lessons that the online controversy holds for how you and I can do better on social media when we choose to comment on topics that combine religion and politics.
- Do not say your comments are religious and not political when what you are commenting on has a political dimension. For example, when a Christian opines on how well American political parties are doing at following God’s law or Jesus’s politics, that’s not just religious; that’s political.
- Do not impute guilt by association. Despite the radical positions taken by many top candidates during their current primary process, not all Democrats support unrestricted abortion. And not all of Mr. Trump’s cabinet members are complicit in everything their president says and does. His attention is limited and there is a lot that falls through the cracks of his administration. We won’t know until the history books are written whether there is another James Mattis among them, or not. That said, identifying shortcomings in what someone has actually said or done is not guilt-by-association.
- Do not stretch biblical analogies. The Old Testament laws of the sojourner do not unequivocally apply to mass migration across the border of a modern nation state. Dr. Carson ought not be called a Daniel in virtue of his high position, unless it can also be shown that he has challenged the president’s arrogance and injustice (Daniel 4:27).
- Do not identify one party with the positive purposes of God and the other party as God’s opposition. The Lord has not made a covenant with the Republican or the Democratic Party. He does not care so much for the poor that he cares not at all for the unborn, or vice versa. Those who think politics will eventually usher in a religious or secular millennium want to get us to think that all of politics can be simplified to a single principle. That’s the only way to shrink the sin on the social level down to a size that can be managed by human governments. Adventists know that we can’t build our way up toward the final resolution of sin as it manifests politically. Because we view the second coming as a radical rupture with our current reality, we don’t need to reduce political questions down to one problem that can only be fixed by supporting one political party at the expense of all other concerns. That, I argue, would spell the end of religious liberty.
- Do not try to persuade others to think as you do by making politics about a single issue. God has shown us in Scripture what he expects of governments not in covenantal relationship with him. We must weigh these principles in light of our current choices, understanding that no sinful human government will ever completely fulfill them. There are American Adventists against abortion who vote for pro-choice Democrats and act on that conviction in ways other than their vote. Likewise, with respect to Adventist Republicans and a host of other issues. There are Adventists who write-in names not on the ballot or vote for third-party candidates. And there are Adventists who don’t vote at all yet contribute to public life in other ways. We may not always agree with whether or how others vote, but we can respect the difference between blind partisanship and weighing competing concerns to achieve temporary—not ultimate—goods through politics. Because our solutions to injustice are provisional at best, Adventists who live in democracies must decide how to contribute to common governance in the ways that we judge will do the most good without violating the current baseline of morality in our political contexts.
- Do not justify your support for one side by whom you side against. Whataboutism is not persuasive unless you are fighting Hitler. And don’t stretch Hitler analogies. Which is not to imply that we cannot appeal to Nazi analogies when they apply. We can never escape reliance on historical analogies (as explained here). But WWII is not the archetypical narrative through which to interpret political life “adventistly” (i.e. in a manner that is true to Adventist faith convictions). Rather, as I show, the sources of the Adventist grand narrative of history and politics go back to the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic scriptures teach us that the highest aim of political involvement is not defeating Hitler-figures at any cost; it is developing characters fit to reign with Christ eternally.
- Do not lose your Christian experience over differences of political persuasion. “Speak evil of no one,” “be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone.” (Titus 3:2, NRSV, CEB). Self-anointed social-media pseudo-prophets get likes by preaching to their private choir. Instead of pumping up your personal amen-corner, persuade those who disagree with you with winsome words. Before you speak out, speak into the lives of those who need to know you care about them before they can appreciate what you care about. Instead of venting your views on the latest outrage, take your political burdens to the Lord in prayer. In place of picking fights in the comments, seek first to understand. Carry convictions with humility. Say, “Sorry.”
That is all a rather tall order. Some may wonder whether, in light of the above, it is better not to use social media to comment on politics at all. And for some of us, that may be the case. Other Adventists point to the classic Ellen White statement about the example of Jesus, who “kept aloof from earthly governments” (Desire of Ages, 509). Fewer seem to be aware that she devoted a chapter in Ministry of Healing to prohibition advocacy, urging that “nation demand of its lawmakers that a stop be put to this infamous [liquor] traffic” (346). There are times when Christians of good will cannot stand on the sidelines of the democratic political process, including on social media. And by God’s grace, we can aim to do so without letting our political goals eclipse our Christian witness.