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.