In August, Art Sisneros, a Christian member of the Electoral College, announced that he was struggling to decide whether or not to vote for Donald Trump in December, when members of the United States’ bizarre system of electoral elite cast the final ballot for the nation’s highest office. Three months later, the angst of the Republican Elector from Texas—where electors face no penalties for voting against the popular vote in their state — took on renewed significance for liberals in the wake of Trump’s victory, with many hoping he would either cast a ballot for Clinton or anyone but Trump.
But on Monday, Politico revealed that while Sisneros had indeed decided to refrain from voting for Trump — who he says is not “biblically” qualified for the presidency — he was also planning on stepping aside to let another Elector vote for Trump in his place.
His reason: self-centered, right-wing theology that abandons centuries of work on Christian ethics.
Sisneros explained his puzzling decision in an extensive blog post published this past weekend. Noting that the Texas GOP required him to sign a “sinful” pledge to support whoever became the party’s nominee, his argument surrounded two concerns: (a) whether his role as an Electoral is to represent his own judgement or that the people or (he thinks it’s the former), and (b) whether he can in good conscience cast a vote for Trump, which he said would “bring dishonor to God.”
The core of Sisneros’ position is below:
Aren’t Electors elected to represent the people? Yes, they absolutely are. That only begs the question, what does it mean to represent the people? This is where our understanding or lack thereof of a representative form of government comes into play. As an elected representative head, I am to speak on behalf of and in the interest of the [my congressional district]. It is my conviction that the greatest danger to my district is not a Hillary or Trump Presidency, but it is the judgement of God. If we continue to disobey His clear commands, we can expect to receive His judgement. If being a “Faithless Elector” means standing alone on principle in the hopes that God would continue to grant patience on our district, then it is worth any political future, threats to my safety, and whatever else may come my way.
This passage appears to make a good argument for staying in the Electoral College and voting against Trump, but Sisneros goes on to detail another ethical conundrum: does his faith require him to honor the people who elected him and cast a ballot for Trump, or dishonor the “sinful” pledge and vote for someone else?
“The reality is Trump will be our President, no matter what my decision is,” he writes, embracing fatalism. “I also believe that a pledge is a man’s word that he will follow through on something he committed to. God’s Word is clear we should all ‘let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’s’ ‘no.’”
He then outlines a third option by turning his theology inward, saying that the need to maintain the purity of his own actions requires him to step down as an Elector have someone else take his place.
“…The best option I see at this time is to resign my position as an Elector,” he concludes. “I will sleep well at night knowing I neither gave in to their demands nor caved to my convictions. I will also mourn the loss of our republic.”
Sisneros’ logic seems unthinkable to many progressives, especially religious ones who see his conclusion as inherently anti-biblical.
Sisneros’ logic—that it is better to step down without breaking a promise than it is to violate an agreement and vote against Trump—seems unthinkable to many progressives, especially religious ones who see his conclusion as inherently anti-biblical.
At no point does the biblical Christ call on followers to hide in the shadows to avoid controversy, for instance, ordering them bask in self-righteousness while mourning quietly for a sinful world. Rather, Christ repeatedly calls on followers to enact goodness in the world, especially for those in need — or, as Christ himself puts it in Matthew 25, “whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me.” From the Beatitudes to the parable of the Good Samaritan to Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross, Jesus works overtime in the Bible to make his overriding ethic abundantly clear: those who follow Christ are expected to sacrifice for others, especially when things are hard.
As such, one might assume that a more “Biblical” response to Sisneros’ situation would be to stand up for the ever-growing number of victims of Trump’s rhetoric and cast a vote for someone else, even if it requires breaking an immoral pledge.
But herein lies one of the foundational differences between liberal/mainstream theology and a very specific school of thought preached to many Christian conservatives. Sisneros’ personal theological affiliations are unclear, but they are no doubt influenced by right-wing faith leaders, some of whom teach that the most important aspect of Christ’s teachings isn’t necessarily one’s responsibility to others, but rather one’s responsibility to their own personal piety. Various flavors of evangelicalism have long been criticized by progressive Christians for being “me focused,” accentuating the need to better oneself first before bettering others (i.e., if we all better ourselves, then the world will be a better place). “Me focused” thought is most prominently expressed these days in the sermons of so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “health and wealth” preachers, but is rooted in much older evangelical theologies that go back a century or more.
Thus, for some right-wing churchgoers, Sisneros’ theology arguably makes sense: if his goal is to avoid any perception of sinful wrongdoing, then it is likely better to remove himself from the situation entirely, the rest of the world be damned — literally.
Unfortunately for Sisneros, a veritable mountain of Christian theologians throughout history would argue that his moral conflict is predicated on a false choice.
Unfortunately for Sisneros, a veritable mountain of Christian theologians throughout history would argue that his moral conflict is predicated on a false choice. One of the loudest is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was famously imprisoned and executed by the Nazis at a German concentration camp for conspiring against Hitler. Beloved by Christian progressives and conservatives alike for his willingness to embrace Christ-like sacrifice, Bonhoeffer is also known for his numerous theological works, sermons, and letters on various topics—especially on matters of Christian ethics.
Bonhoeffer directly addresses a version of Sisneros’ dilemma in a letter he penned to his fellow conspirators in Christmas of 1942 entitled “After Ten Years.” In it, he speaks in veiled language about the need to resist Hitler, arguing that Christ demands acting on behalf of others in troubled times.
“Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior,” the letter reads. “Christians are called to compassion and action, not in the first place by their own sufferings, but by the sufferings of their brothers and sisters, for whose sake Christ suffered.”
He then goes on to lift up the need for optimism in dark periods, and offers a stern warning against “pious escapism” that would push people to recuse themselves from the fight.
“There are people who regard [optimism] as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future,” he wrote. “They think that the meaning of present events [World War II] is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgement will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall glad stop working for a better future. But not before.”
To paraphrase: Christianity does not offer the option to sit by and let the rest of the world suffer. On the contrary, Christian ethics are most needed in moments when our desire is to do just that—especially when we think the world is going down in flames anyway.
Thus, for Bonhoeffer and many other Christians, Sisneros’ theology is not founded on Christ-like love and self-sacrifice. Instead, it is arguably the selfish theology of cowards — and Christ was neither selfish nor cowardly.