SON: The theology of political protest

On Dec. 19, the Electoral College will convene to vote, a formality since most electors are pledged to vote their state’s choice. Mr. Trump is president-elect though the college votes have not been cast yet. But Art Sisneros, a Texas Republican elector, will not follow protocol. He will not cast a vote for Trump. He reasons on his blog, The Blessed Path, “If Trump is not qualified and my role, both morally and historically, as an elected official is to vote my conscience, then I can not and will not vote for Donald Trump for President. I believe voting for Trump would bring dishonor to God.” His conscience is beholden to the signed affidavit; he cannot cast a contrary vote. But his conscience is also beholden to his God, so he cannot vote for Trump. In form of protest against his own party, he resigned from his position.Sisneros embodies the second essential character of robust public theology: protest. In previous columns I have argued that public theology is relevant and that public theology begins with compassion, understanding the good in every position, even that of the apparent opponents. Such compassion is grounded on a theological anthropology, that humans are not demons; there is no room for demonizing. Protest, actually, is grounded on that same anthropology: humans are not demons but they are not gods either. No one is to be demonized and no one is to be deified.This temptation to deification is strong, especially when power is involved, and politics is at heart a chess game of power. Of course, nowadays, deification doesn’t happen crudely, like Nero legislating new divine titles for himself through spineless senators. But whatever allegiance trumps our other allegiances becomes what H. Richard Niebuhr, a public intellectual of the mid-1900s, calls our “functional god.” In “The Idea of Radical Monotheism and Western Culture,” he writes “To deny the reality of a supernatural being called God is one thing; to live without confidence in some center of value and without loyalty to a cause is another.”Atheist or fundamentalist, we all have our gods because we all have a center of unwavering value and loyalty. Judeo-Christian monotheism, Niebuhr argued in his book, challenges all apotheosis, any temporary powers claiming absolute loyalty.Christian theology doesn’t negate loyalties, but relativizes them, pulls them down from their gilded pedestals so they can fall into their proper places. Protest tries to fix what St. Augustine, who wrote an extensive work on the whole relationship between theology and politics in “The City of God,” calls “inordinate loves,” which is simply put, loving out of place: loving my dog more than my child, loving my party more than my nation, loving my nation more than my God.Radical monotheism offers a horizon to see such “inordinate loves,” in our society, and boldness to protest against it. Such protest rising from radical monotheism is one of the most lasting gifts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We witness it in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Prophets were not prognosticators but protesters, and no king was safe from protesters. Even David, the noblest king of the golden age of Israel, didn’t have immunity. Prophet Nathan protested against David’s adultery and greed.This tradition of protest under-girded the independence of America — an act of protest — and its Constitution and culture of government. Even George Washington didn’t get a free pass, though he is the only one to win the electoral college unanimously — twice! Papers wrangled against his monarchical ambition, though he had none. It was Washington’s discipline not to shut down the protests of the press, even more than stepping down after his second term, that kept America’s democracy maturing when the democratic experiences in Europe, such as France, were suffering miscarriage.Sisneros is indeed, as he writes, tapping into an American tradition of protest, but that is only because America was founded on a theology that allegiance to God is above all other allegiance, over King George, and so even over one’s own party and party’s nominee.Samuel Son is a teaching pastor in Raleigh.