Not without cause does the Good Book enjoin readers to avoid putting their trust in "princes," a word we translate in the 21st century to mean "politicians." The argument over how Christians should practice politics has rarely been more scrambled, thanks in part to Roy Moore and Donald Trump but more basically to the impossibly vexed question of what we duly render to Caesar and what remaining portion belongs to the Lord.
Behold the fruits of Eden, and its bedraggled garden. I'll get to that in a minute.
First, the current wrangle: The editor of the prominent evangelical journal Christianity Today is trying to work out the perplexities attendant on voting for or against a decidedly evangelical senatorial candidate plausibly accused of romancing very young girls. Editor Mark Galli takes issue with those who see no evil ever in champions of conservative political causes. These, so to speak, embrace worldly ways for the Kingdom's sake.
He acknowledges the perplexity: "Many conservatives feel marginalized by the culture." They see their choices as "simple and stark: devilry or godliness." Wherefore "Christianity's integrity is severely tarnished."
For Alabama evangelicals, declared the magazine in a website piece, Moore was "a bridge too far." "Enough of the Heart of Dixie's pro-life contingent voted instead for (Democrat Doug Jones) -- 1 in 4 (26 percent Jones vs. 72 percent Moore) -- to help hand the pro-choice politician the surprising victory by a narrow 1.5 percentage points."
Politico magazine, meanwhile, joined the fray, with a take-out on "death threats" that the evangelical celebrity Jen Hatmaker says she has received due to her leftward sashay since the Trump nomination and election. "The Christian Machine," she argues, has broken down. Christians are in the midst of a civil war. As for Trump: "He humiliates us every single day."
All this on the verge of the great Christian feast day! O come all ye... what? Brawlers? Backstabbers? Distorters of God's sovereign plan for humanity -- whatever damage that plan has suffered at the hands of politicians?
The details are unclear concerning the knockdown drag-out going on, seemingly, between Christian advocates of one style of political engagement (conservative) and the advocates of another style (liberal). But the outline is considerably easier to recognize, being more ancient and more solemn.
Politics speaks to the need to shape; classic Christianity speaks to the need to be shaped: the former for the sake, often as not, of power over others; the latter for the sake of loving submission to the purposes of God. In whom, it appears, fewer now believe -- or in whose distractions (e.g., worship) fewer care to involve themselves.
The United States has always been God-conscious. ("A nation with the soul of a church," G. K. Chesterton called it.) Hence disruptions in the national rhythms of observance -- including those so comparatively slight as "Happy holidays," spoken at checkout counters -- tend to spook believers, making them feel as though the rest of society wanted to send God off into a corner, there to sit and pout. Roy Moore got some votes based on that presumption. As did Donald Trump, it goes without saying.
In the great scale of human concerns, a vote for or against one candidate or another is no large deal. The practitioners of politics come and go, as do their schemes and designs. The foes and supporters of Roy Moore both are right, if in different ways, it strikes me.
Politics matters, up to a point. The transformational aspects of the Christian gospel -- lions lying down with lambs, and such like, and the quest for "righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness," as commended by St. Paul -- appear to deserve more recognition than congressional majorities and the alignment of voter blocs.
Of course, when you say as much, you're talking to human beings; and we know what's wrong with human beings, don't we? Namely, the loneliness and the fear and the self-delusion at the heart of politics and every other post-Edenic human endeavor: the very afflictions that political people of every sort seem unlikely to shake.
Which brings us quietly, unexpectedly, to the perimeter of a legendary stable: neither Democratic nor Republican.