Political Homelessness and People of Faith: A Tale of Two Daughters
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” — Luke 9:58
Joshua D. Reichard, PhD, EdS, CCS
President and CEO, Omega Graduate School, American Centre for Religion/Society Studies (ACRSS)
Several faith leaders have made public statements regarding the impending 2020 election. The following essay is my attempt to do so as well. My statement is not an official position from Omega Graduate School. While I have clumsily struggled to provoke meaningful, nuanced, and civil conversations around these issues with fellow people of faith, I encourage you to read and consider my thoughts, experiences, and convictions with an open heart and mind.
The 2020 election is unlike any election people of faith have encountered in my lifetime. Although there have been politically charged elections (2016 notwithstanding), the electorate and the party platforms are more polarized than ever. I intend to share my faith journey and my political journey to help others understand my sense of “homelessness” in the political realm, why I cannot enthusiastically support either party or candidate, and what I believe the political role of thoughtful Christians must be in the future. I speak as a Christian academic, the president of a Christian graduate school of social research, and most importantly, as a father of two miracle daughters. Indeed, I will be engaging in more pathos than logos in my argument.
Although I was raised in the United Methodist Church (a Mainline Protestant denomination), my faith journey has been shaped more by Evangelicalism from youth to adulthood. I have sojourned in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements and have served in Evangelically-affiliated organizations and institutions for most of my career. I accepted Christ in a charismatic youth movement as a teenager and believe in the core Evangelical tenets of personal conversion, saving faith by grace alone, and in the authority of scripture. For all intents and purposes, I’m an evangelical insider.
Through lively discussions on social media and in casual conversation, many of my Christian friends have asked me why I do not share a strong political allegiance to Donald Trump. In this brief essay, I intend to articulate how I arrived at a place of political “homelessness” through my life journey and why I believe political allegiance to either party, and concession of our faith community to a “voting block”, is not only an exercise in futility, but idolatrous. My hope is to convince people of faith to tone down our rhetoric and approach politics with more humility, contrition, and a broken heart.
To give you an idea of why Sara and I are complicated people, I’d like to share a synopsis of our life experiences. We have served as missionaries in a majority world country and we’ve served as Christian school administrators in one of the highest poverty school districts in the country. We live on the east side of the city of Youngstown. Our neighbors are Black and Hispanic. I was raised in a working class rural Pennsylvania home; I grew up hunting, fishing, and playing in the woods. Sara was raised in California and Ohio; she lived in a car with her single mother for a period of time. In our extended families we have experienced ugly divorces and painful alcoholism and drug addiction. We have family members in same-sex and interracial marriages. Our children have always attended Christian school. I’ve started businesses, invested in real estate, and climbed the professional ladder. We have traveled the globe, studied at some of the world’s top universities, and earned advanced degrees. Sara is a registered nurse; I’m a certified clinical sociologist and state licensed school superintendent. We have a family full of proud veterans. We own guns. We have a hobby farm with a horse, a donkey, goats, and chickens, and yet we live just around the corner from the nearest low-income housing project. You’ll find me in work boots as much as you’ll find me in a suit and tie. We are not easily pigeonholed by all the typical demographic indicators used to classify party affiliation.
I offer a little biography to help set the stage for the rest of our journey. Inevitably, life experiences shape us, and to appreciate the rest of this essay, I think it’s important to understand who we are and how our lives have been shaped: politically and religiously. Below, I will craft our political tension through the lens of the births of our two daughters, who, more than any other life experiences, have rattled our political allegiances and forced us into a place of political “homelessness”. In so doing, I focus solely on the issue of “life” which motivates evangelicals more than any other. Let me explain.
Maria: A Picture of Protecting Life Inside the Womb
Our daughter Maria was born at just 27 weeks old. She weighed 1 lb 13 oz at birth. She was delivered by emergency C-section after attempts to keep her alive inside the womb for 48 hours or so. A baby weighting less than two pounds is incredibly small. She could fit in the palm of our hands. She spent the next two months of her life in an incubator struggling for every heartbeat and every breath. As we stood by that incubator day-by-day, we could not help thinking we were glimpsing into an unborn child’s life in the womb. Although we were already politically aligned with an anti-abortion position, seeing Maria struggle for life fortified our position all the more.
To destroy a child’s life, especially at this stage, was unconscionable. And while every situation may be unique, we simply couldn’t imagine how anyone would willfully choose to terminate a child in the womb while we were fighting to artificially simulate the womb to save our daughter’s life. At 26 weeks, Maria was most certainly a human life. We were staunchly anti-abortion.
Many of our Christian friends faithfully came to the hospital to pray for her daily, they stood with us and supported us through the struggle. The fight was long, difficult, and painful. Maria is now 15 years old. She is strong, healthy, beautiful and vibrant. She has some ongoing health concerns, including high-functioning autism. We’ve had our struggles through her growth and development, but she is growing every day in her faith, character, creativity, and responsibility.
For us, Maria demonstrates why it is morally essential to protect life inside the womb. I cannot imagine a world without her. Politically, the Republican party platform clearly has the moral high ground on this issue. Although late-term abortions comprise <1% of abortions in the US, abortions overall have been on a steady decline since Roe v. Wade, and I have a hard time believing anyone likes the idea of abortion or is consciously in favor of taking the life of a child, the platform of the Democrat party continues to move in a mind-bogglingly radical direction on this issue. I understand my friends who are “single issue” pro-life voters and I admire many of them who stand firmly on their convictions on this issue.
Olivia: A Picture of Protecting Life Outside the Womb
As if we had not already been through enough with Maria, in 2008, Olivia was born with a major congenital heart defect called “transposition of the great vessels”. She would have died shortly after birth, but a relatively new life-saving reconstructive surgery was possible. Our insurance company, United Healthcare, claimed her congenital heart defect was a “pre-existing condition” (she was two weeks old) and we had to fight to get her life-saving surgery covered. The insurance company actually suggested we “let her go”, presumably because of the actuarial expenses they would foresee for the rest of her life. I could not believe we were faced with such a choice, which was tantamount to post-natal abortion because she would be “too expensive” to keep alive.
Our congressman intervened with the Ohio Board of Insurance and after we had exhausted all of our appeals, Olivia’s claims were finally covered. But, Olivia had used half of her lifetime cap in her first month of life, would be placed into a high-risk, high premium pool, and she would likely be denied coverage later in life for having a pre-existing condition. We were just as terrified about the prospects of the rest of her life as we were at the time she was born.
During those years, we were paying at least $20,000/year for our family’s healthcare coverage. I worked extra jobs to pay for it. I did what I needed to do for my child and my family. To be clear, though, I was not a “deadbeat”, and was not asking for free or socialized healthcare.
Soon, political platforms started to become less black and white for us. The year after Olivia’s ordeal, I witnessed a defiant Republican party fight against the Affordable Care Act. I watched in horror as the “Pro-Life” party was actively fighting against the reform my child desperately needed. The ACA was far from perfect. In fact, in many respects, it was fundamentally flawed. But it saved our family and it protected Olivia. The Democrats, not the Republicans, were, for us, the party protecting life outside the womb. At least they did something and for us, something was better than nothing.
For the next 10 years, the Republican party would rail against “Obamacare” and make no mistake about their desire to repeal it. And all the while, no viable replacement legislation was put forward, even when Republicans controlled congress. The party has had more than a decade to come up with a just and viable alternative. And yet, nothing.
The party of pro-life has fought hard against the only law we have to protect Olivia’s life, and countless other lives like hers, and has done nothing to come up with a viable alternative. I would have entertained any viable alternative to the ACA from the Republican side of the isle. At present, the Republican party prefers to roll back protections to pre-ACA levels: that is exactly what the president’s executive order says. My fear is our political system is held captive by the insurance lobby. Why can’t Republicans take the lead on meaningful healthcare reform and demonstrate their commitment to being “pro-life” for children inside and outside the womb?
And here we are again, in 2020, with the appointment of Justice Coney-Barrett to the Supreme Court, prospects of the ACA being repealed or ruled unconstitutional with nothing ready to replace it. Thank God, Olivia is strong, vibrant, loving, joyful, and energetic. But she still sees her pediatric cardiologist annually. She may lose critical protections (not just coverage for her pre-existing conditions) that could very well save her life should she need further surgeries in the future. “Let her go”, they might suggest again. For an insurance company to deny a sick child life-saving coverage is morally equivalent to a very late-term abortion. To me, that’s a mind-bogglingly radical position.
For us, Olivia demonstrates why it is morally essential to protect life outside the womb. Again, I cannot imagine a world without her. Politically, the Democrat platform has the moral high ground and legislative action on this issue. I do not believe anyone wants to actively deny a sick child medical care, but on this issue, the platform of the Republican party is more concerned with protecting the profits of insurance companies than care for children like Olivia. Therefore, I understand my friends who are “single issue” voters around healthcare reform and I admire many of them who stand firmly on their convictions on this issue.
In this essay, I have only focused on the issue of “life”, but Sara and I care about many other important issues on both sides of the isle: religious freedom, racial and economic justice, healthcare reform, economic responsibility, criminal justice reform, ecological stewardship, school choice, sensible immigration reform, care for veterans, the opioid epidemic, and the list goes on. I’m sure many other Christians feel the same way and feel a sense of being torn between false choices.
A sense of political “homelessness” seems appropriate. Jesus said,
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” — Luke 9:58
While the Democrat platform is clearly in favor of expanded abortion and does not defend life inside the womb, the Republican platform opposes meaningful healthcare reform and does not sufficiently defend life outside the womb. Hence, I frame my sense of political “homelessness”. From my view, to vote Democrat is to reject the protection of tiny babies like Maria. To vote Republican is to deny the protection of children like Olivia. Political polarization has forced Christians like me into false choices between two extremes. My cynical side questions how much stock we should put in platform positions at all. Politics are fraught with half-truths, mistruths, and lies. Politics are filled with incendiary rhetoric, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity, and rage. Politics are corrupted by the money of powerful lobbies and special interests. My sense of political alienation has never been stronger.
Without sounding sanctimonious, I believe as Christians we should have a sense of unease and discomfort about politics in general. The Kingdoms of this World are not the Kingdom of God. What troubles me most is the political fervor and enthusiasm I see by people of faith for political candidates. From my reading of scripture, governments, parties, and powers are nothing to be enthusiastic about. Paul calls Satan the “prince of this world” (Ephesians 2:2), John refers to Satan as the “rule of this world” (John 16:11), and perhaps, most starkly, Jesus himself rejected the kingdoms of the world:
Then the devil led Him up to a high place and showed Him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. “I will give You authority over all these kingdoms and all their glory,” he said. “For it has been relinquished to me, and I can give it to anyone I wish. So if You worship me, it will all be Yours. – Luke 4:5-7
Jesus also admonished us,
My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight… But my kingdom is from another place. — John 18:36
If the Kingdom of God is not, in fact, of this world, then I struggle to see how we can pledge allegiance to any political platform, regardless of the party. Living in a modern democratic republic, we surely have a civic duty to participate in the political process. But such participation, in my view, should come with such a deep sense of alienation and “homelessness”: we should take no joy in it. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest any feelings of being “at home” in party or “excited” about a candidate’s prospects should cause us to pause and examine our hearts. Ultimately, we are strangers in a strange land: “resident aliens” as once denoted by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon.
I’m speaking to people of faith. What troubles me most is the political fervor and enthusiasm of Christians, evangelicals in particular, for the Trump campaign. Obviously, there is little evangelical support for the Democrat platform, but if there was, I would level the same criticism. Proudly sporting MAGA hats, refusing to wear masks to show allegiance, and attending emotionally-charged Trump rallies suggests a religious-like devotion to a candidate. Regardless of who the candidate is, such devotion is dangerous. If we saw similar adulation for Biden, I’d be equally troubled. We cannot serve both God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). When I see Christian friends boasting in the name of their candidate, I wish they would consider what that victory means to others, whose lives will be negatively impacted. Political enthusiasm is not like supporting your favorite football team; the results have real consequences on the lives of others. Political wins come at the expense of the political losers, especially in our current hyper-partisan climate.
Perhaps worst of all, using political criteria as a litmus test for Christian faith is not only egregious, but blasphemous. For example, Black Christians tend to vote contrary to White Evangelicals, but the idea of judging the veracity of their faith by the way they vote is thoroughly unacceptable. Evangelicals, in particular, believe the “born again” experience is essential for Christian conversion. Imposing political criteria on the faith of others is tantamount to rendering under Caesar what belongs to God alone.
As Christians, we affirm Jesus will one day have victory and will rule righteously. There is a peaceable Kingdom coming, where justice will be done and all will be made right. Our hope lies in the coming Kingdom:
Then He will judge between the nations and arbitrate for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer take up the sword against nation, nor train anymore for war. – Isaiah 2:4
Until then, I implore Christians, evangelicals especially, to tone down their political allegiances and approach the political process with a sense of humility and brokenness. Any ballot cast is a vote for a worldly system of government where blood will be shed, lives will be saved, evil will be done, and good will be advanced. I understand those who see one party or another as the lesser of two evils and I understand that conviction. But if that’s true, then we should approach politics with all the more contrition.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. – Psalm 15:17
Billy Graham once defined the “spirit of the world” as “selfish pleasure, material success and the pride of life… ambitious, self-centered”. If so, then the disposition of Christians in the political realm must demonstrate the opposite qualities: self-denial, generosity, humility… reluctant, others-focused.
Does this mean we should not seek to advance the causes of justice? Of course not. But we must do so with a spirit of self-giving, others-empowering (“agape”) love, peace, and as much humility as we can muster. Sometimes legislative victories do advance the cause of justice for all, but more often than not, there are most assuredly winners and losers. I am not suggesting political centrism. I am suggesting political realism, where we acknowledge the limits of political power and temper our participation in them. When we vote, we should do so with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
As the President of a Christian graduate school of social research, I believe we retain our ability to speak prophetically to the culture when we approach politics with such brokenness. Unlike other faith leaders, I will not publicly support a candidate. I can only encourage other Christian sociologists to embrace the role of being maverick outsiders who refuse to conform to monolithic political agendas. “Selling out” limits our ability to transcend party platforms. As Christian sociologists, we must retain our ability to speak critically to the world’s systems on both sides of the political isle. We are like the prophet Nathan who had the ability to speak truth to David’s power as an “outsider” to any political allegiances. I have personally paid the price for refusing to “toe the party line”. There is no joy in prophetic engagement.
For Sara and I, our sense of alienation and homelessness has intensified. The tale of our two daughters exemplifies the utterly broken polarization in both parties. The party which would support legislation to protect a child like Maria in the womb would oppose legislation to protect a child like Olivia outside the womb. The party which would support legislation to protect Olivia outside the womb would support legislation to allow a child like Maria to be aborted inside the womb. I refuse to be beholden to a false choice between these two precious lives (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Each of us must vote according to our conscience. But I implore you, please think about both Maria and Olivia when you cast your vote, hopefully embracing a sense of “homelessness”, as we all long for a Kingdom not of this world.
Joshua D. Reichard, PhD, EdS, CSS
President and CEO
Omega Graduate School
American Centre for Religion/Society Studies (ACRSS)
Certified Clinical Sociologist