Summer 2016

How Should Evangelicals Engage in the 2016 Presidential Election?

By Joy Qualls

With the 2016 U.S. presidential election well underway and political rhetoric heating up, perennial discussions about evangelicals and politics are ubiquitous in the media. What issues matter to them? Who is their preferred candidate? Are evangelicals as monolithic as the media portray them? And what might this election reveal about healthy and unhealthy intersections of faith and politics?

Joy Qualls, chair and associate professor of communication studies at Biola, thinks about these questions a lot. When it comes to politics, Qualls is an insider (having worked on political campaigns in Washington, D.C.), an academic observer (her research interests include evangelical political rhetoric) and a professed “political junkie.” Biola Magazine sat down with her during the presidential primary season to talk about the 2016 election cycle and her views on the pitfalls and potential of evangelical political engagement. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.        

During an election year the media talk a lot about evangelicals as a voting bloc, but what do they misunderstand about evangelicals in terms of who we are?

One of the challenges of media in general, when you only have so much space and time but you have to create a narrative, is that categories like “evangelical” tend to be portrayed as monolithic. There are misconceptions of what the evangelical community looks like, because it is actually quite dynamic in terms of theology as well as in different regions and cultures. The challenge for us in the [evangelical] community is to be willing to acknowledge the nuances and to not play into the narrative that we’re a monolithic community.

Do you sense a sort of crumbling consensus in society, as we become more fragmented and coalitions of any sort are hard to build? And has this become especially evident this election cycle for evangelicals? Not that we were ever a monolithic entity, but it does seem that evangelicals in this election have been all over the place in terms of which candidates they’ve favored and which issues matter most.

I’m not one who believes we’re more divided than ever. What I do believe is that we have access to information faster and in more forms, which makes it feel as if things are dramatically different. But if you study political action since the Revolution, and even pre-Revolution in the debates among the founders, there was never a consensus. There was always division. I like to harken back to guys like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who I call “the original political frenemies.” They knew they needed one another, but they were never, ever going to see eye to eye, and did things to undermine one another. So that said, I really don’t think that we’re living in a different time.

We in the evangelical community are as diverse as the greater American landscape. We’re Democrats, we’re Republicans, we’re Libertarians, we’re Green Party people. We’re tired of being lumped in. I think this election cycle is creating the opportunity for more diverse types of evangelicals to make their voices heard, and the dominant voices don’t know what to do with that, whether it’s the media or whether it’s those who have established themselves as voices for the community. So I think there is a tension because there’s a bit of an identity crisis, in that the way evangelicalism has been marketed doesn’t fit the brand any longer.

Many young evangelicals may not feel like they fit into the traditional description of an “evangelical voter.” For a Biola student who is pro-life on abortion but also cares about creation care, for example, they may not feel that any candidate really advocates for both of those things. What advice would you give them in terms of voting for a candidate in this election?

In some ways, it’s more challenging, and in other ways it’s more freeing. Because I find myself in that exact same category; there’s no one candidate where I think, “OK, you represent me.” The advice that I would give is to really look at those things where you believe you can participate in the process. Who better matches your ability to engage with them, not whether or not they are going to do exactly what you want them to do.

Because the other thing is, we cannot predict what happens four years or eight years out. I bet if you asked George W. Bush, “When you took the oath of office, could you have imagined a year from then that we would be facing the greatest attack on our soil, ever?” And I can guarantee you he would say, “Never, ever did that cross my mind.” I also don’t think anybody could have predicted the impact of the financial crisis at the end of his term. Leaders have to be able to respond in the moment, which means platforms and campaign slogans become meaningless. If we say, “This is what they promised they were going to do,” we will be disappointed every time. So I think we have to be willing to say, “With whom could I engage the best?”

Given the importance of major challenges like 9/11 that just come up, and the need for spontaneous yet wise leadership, is character an important factor to consider in a presidential candidate?

If you’re looking for somebody who is an ideal, they’re going to let you down every time. They’re going to make bad decisions. But I do think character and integrity should be hallmarks of a presidential candidate. How have candidates conducted their business? For those who are currently holding office, have they been only candidates for the next thing, or have they taken their present roles seriously? How do they work with people they disagree with? More than just saying that we should do this, do they do this? Because I think you could be a moral, upstanding citizen who has never broken a law, but if you are somebody who is hostile and degrading, who speaks of other people as if they are our enemies as opposed to our brothers and sisters, I think that’s as much of a character flaw as somebody who outright lies.

The other thing that I think you have to look at is how have people dealt with adversity? When trouble, either by your own hand or that of another, comes into your world, how did you handle it? Did you own your failures, or did you seek to eliminate your responsibility?

If the two-party system remains intact after this election, and evangelicals become more disenfranchised in terms of not really fitting into one or the other party, does that mean evangelicals will simply have to accept being a more muted political force going forward?

I think the church as a whole, not just here in the United States, but across the globe, is at a place where we have to make a decision about what our role in this world is. To American evangelicals, I would say this: I think our role is to stand in prophetic resistance to whatever system we’re faced with. I think every time we try to turn the church into a power broker, the destruction and change comes to the church and not to that which we are trying to influence. So I think our role is to stand in prophetic resistance. It’s not a standing against, because Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus didn’t say to topple the Roman government. Jesus didn’t say to start a revolution. In fact, he said, “Give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s,” and he submitted himself to those authorities, even when it was unjust, to his own detriment, and he suffered an execution that was in and of itself incredibly political.

I think Christians have had such a privileged place in American culture that we’ve lost sight of the fact that this is not our place. America is not the New Jerusalem, but we do have a role to play. And our role may put us outside of power but in a position where the greater message that we have is heard. Christians should vote. They should participate in the process. They should run for office and seek places of influence. But if the goal is power, it will dampen the greater message every single time.

How does a tone of kindness help or hurt Christian political influence? Can evangelicals adopt a more compassionate voice in politics but also remain relevant at a time when rage and yelling gets all the headlines?

I actually think there is no greater time to be a believer than the time we’re living in now, by virtue of exactly what you’ve said. We are living in an era of rage and outrage. We are living in an era of fear. The church of Jesus Christ has a message and a history and a leader who is counter to all of that. How many of us would wash the feet and sit at a table of somebody we know is about to betray us? Rather than looking at this time as a time of hostility, we should see it as an opportunity for the church. This is the greatest opportunity that we have ever had to be an influence — not a power broker, but an influence — in our culture, which means being willing to step outside of the emotion of fear and proclaim a message of hope. When everybody says that we are in crisis, well, we have the answer to crisis. The answer is not a bill or a law or a Supreme Court decision; the answer is a life of dedication to one who is greater and outside of all of this. I think the time for our message is now, and I think that we have an opportunity to really live out the message of Jesus in terms of loving our enemies.


Joy Qualls is chair and associate professor of communication studies at Biola University. She has a doctorate in communication studies with research emphases in religious and political rhetoric.

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  • Ron Stevens June 29, 2016 at 9:31 PM

    This interview has a lot of interesting and helpful points, but I do believe she misses the boat when she says we, as evangelicals are democrats, republicans, etc. We are that, but if we profess to base our lives and decisions on Scripture, and if we believe that God's principles and laws and commands and character are above all and should guide and direct our voter responsibilities, then we CANNOT be democrats any longer. We simply cannot vote for a platform that flaunts abortion, that flaunts the LBGTQ community and that glorifies homosexual marriage, we cannot vote for a party that welcomes Islam to our country, much as England has, and that elevates that religion above the Judeo-Christian foundation of all of this nation;s founding documents. Sure, our founders disagreed, but they disagreed on how to put together the best government, not on whether it was right to kill babies or to have men marry other men!!! We have fallen off the political spectrum, as those who used to be considered left, are now considered extreme right in my lifetime. Democrat John Kennedy would be placed as a right-wing conservative now, due to his moral views. Our education system especially has devastated the youth who came from church backgrounds, most importantly by attacking Christianity, the Bible, and elevating evolutionary thinking, which is atheistically based. It has worked. I tutor young people, and have for 30 years, and I see the definitive shift continually happening, especially in my university position right now. I have also been a scientist for 30 years after my theological and engineering/science master's work, and I see the shift caused by evolution education (with no opposing viewpoints allowed) in our K-grad school schools. Communication is important in presenting why we disagree with the powers to be in this nation, but we are losing, and we are also being ignored by those in power and by the media in reporting what we have to say. Our influence that she says is in a great position is simply being ignored where it counts, and we are not concentrating on those where our message can truly influence. And, in disagreement with the chair person, evangelicals are terribly divided theologically and morally, and therefore oppose one another in the public sphere, which does not go unnoticed. It dampens our influence and our opportunity to present our message of hope, because to the world we look like we are ignorant and that the Bible cannot be depended upon in this day and time. If our pulpits don't start speaking up, ignoring any threat of lost federal tax benefits, we will fail at this critical time to take our message of God's Truth to the masses, and to influence our society today (especially in California!!!).

  • Robert Parker June 30, 2016 at 11:23 AM

    Charles Colson wrote a very good book that, I think, puts into context the Christian/political issue. The title is "The Kingdom and the Power."

  • Robert Parker June 30, 2016 at 11:41 AM

    Correct name of the Colson book is "Kingdoms in Conflict".

  • Mike Yancy June 30, 2016 at 4:50 PM

    I thought Dr. Qualls' article was very helpful to me because I have followed politics since I was seven years old. Becoming politically conservative during the 1960s when I was in college is an integral part of my journey to faith in Christ. Yet as 50 years have passed, I find articles like Dr. Qualls' sensible and thought provoking as I cosidered what to do with this election. For me, I shall continue my feeble prayers for God's guidance and do the best I can based on Scripture and where my core values take me.

  • Nancy July 3, 2016 at 10:45 PM

    Joy, that was a good article. I have missed reading a lot of your comments and ideas through this election cycle.

  • Daryl Borgquist July 14, 2016 at 4:26 PM

    After reading Joy Qualls interview, I was reminded of the old joke about the old politician when asked his position on an issue responded: “Some of my friends are for this issue and some are against . . . and I am for my friends.” Professor Qualls did no better than the old politician.
    As one who has worked as a government communicator in Washington, D.C. for almost four decades I was extremely disappointed in the published interview. Biblical thinking is hardly equivocal.
    She might have responded that evangelicals might focus on and champion any number of issues that are expounded on in the Bible: protection of individuals – ensuring the opportunity for worship, protection of workers, fair commercial trading standards, protection of strangers (migrants and immigrants), justice in the courts, exercising dominion of the earth (agriculture, environment, and natural resources), security, and so on.
    She implied that involvement of Christians in political parties or supporting different candidates is relatively equal. But they are certainly not similar from a biblical point of view. Each party and candidate has a platform of issues which citizens and voters should thoroughly read.
    Equally important, Christians should not just vote, but be involved in the process of selecting candidates through the party nomination processes in order to field candidates with the best positions on issues from a biblical perspective.
    But the most serious issue I took with Professor Qualls interview was her equation of uncivil language with lying and sin. Lying is a clear biblical sin. It is one of the Ten Commandments. Uncivil language or conduct reflects poorly on a Christian’s testimony, but it is not a sin. Many candidates are not Christians and cannot be held to the standards we hold for ourselves. While some candidates may use course language or be difficult people and hard to listen to, this does not mean that they will not listen or do the right thing. And often they surprised me by being very responsive to principle-based arguments, if one had done his homework and was prepared to argue it. Published media images and highly edited comments about candidates are often misleading and are not indicative of how they might perform.
    Professor Qualls was very quick I thought to chuck an older vision of America. The Founding Father sought to set the new nation apart by its respect for inalienable rights in the hope of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for its citizens. That vision of America as a shining example of civilization was one based principles they found in the Bible. Today's Christian must be adept at translating biblical principles into language for those with no context to understand them. Christians have a lot to bring to the public square and should be fully engaged in operating the mechanisms of our civilization.
    Perhaps the full interview did not contain so many shortcomings, in which case I apologize profusely.

  • test August 5, 2016 at 5:35 PM

    test

  • Kuen August 5, 2016 at 5:38 PM

    With the 2016 U.S. presidential election well underway and political rhetoric heating up, the evangelicals should take a swift decision and support the right candidate before it gets too late..

  • David Johnson September 2, 2016 at 11:15 PM

    Based on Ron Stevens post, we should just vote republican and put a racist in the White House.

  • Mark November 9, 2016 at 9:13 AM

    Ron Stevens post says it all---wake up Christians!

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