Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial began yesterday as prosecutors showed video of Trump supporters attacking the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called the accusation against Trump “the gravest charges ever brought against a president of the United States in American history.”
Republicans countered with the claim that only a sitting president can face an impeachment trial. A divided Senate voted fifty-six to forty-four against their position, ruling that the trial is constitutional. Today, the prosecution and the defense will turn to the merits of the charge.
As I noted yesterday, President Trump’s strongest supporters during his administration are now the strongest opponents of his conviction, while his strongest critics are now the strongest supporters of his conviction.
When Mr. Trump was first impeached last year, each senator heard the same evidence and arguments, but ninety-nine of the one hundred voted on party lines. When President Clinton was impeached by the House in 1999 and tried by the Senate, ninety-five senators voted on party lines: all forty-five Democrats voted “not guilty,” while all but five Republicans voted “guilty.”
None of this is surprising to you, I’m sure. And that’s my point today.
Nonpartisan “mismatches” and party lines
One of the great challenges in a democracy is the tension between doing what it takes to get elected and doing what’s right once you’re in office. You have to be in power to use your power for good. If you can’t stay in office, you cannot use your office on behalf of those who elected you.
This political fact relates directly to the partisan divide regarding the current impeachment trial.
In 1980, Democrats won Senate seats in twelve of thirty-one states that were carried by Republican Ronald Reagan. Such nonpartisan “mismatches” were common in those days. By contrast, in the most recent election, thirty-four of the thirty-five Senate races were won by candidates of the same party that carried the state in the presidential contest. The lone exception was Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who won in Maine while Joe Biden won the statewide vote.
The message is clear: the senators need to vote on party lines to stay in office.
One could argue that this is a good thing. We vote for the candidates who best reflect our values, needs, and wishes. We then expect them to reflect those values, needs, and wishes in office.
At the same time, we can assume that our elected leaders know more about the issues we face than most of us. For example, you and I are not privy to what the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is told in confidence by the CIA, the NSA, and other clandestine organizations. We want our elected representatives to act in our best interest, even if they must sometimes act in ways that contradict what we thought was best for us.
“We must obey God rather than men”
Politicians are not the only leaders who must balance principles with pragmatics. Corporate CEOs know the saying, “No margin, no mission.” If they do not add value for shareholders or meet other financial metrics, they cannot fulfill the other purposes of their organization. Pastors know that if their church is not growing numerically, it can struggle to minister effectively.
This balance is just one place where the biblical worldview is vitally significant for our secular culture.
On the one hand, we are urged to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), whatever the consequences. Old Testament prophets and New Testament disciples alike paid for the courage of their convictions, often with their lives. When Peter told the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), he was clearly acting principally rather than pragmatically.
On the other hand, Jesus called us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). When his disciples were rejected, they were to “shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town” (v. 14). When the Jerusalem church faced controversy regarding the care of Greek-speaking widows, the people were invited to “pick out from among you seven men” to carry on this ministry (Acts 6:3); notably, all seven had Greek names (v. 5). Some scholars believe Paul’s missionary journeys followed the trade routes of his day so he could support himself while preaching the gospel.
Balancing two biblical priorities
When principles and pragmatics seem to be in conflict, what do we do?
One: Submit your wishes to the Spirit of God.
God’s word is clear: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6). To “lean on” our understanding is to depend on it. The text does not instruct us to ignore our own understanding—in fact, we are to love God “with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We are to seek God’s wisdom through prayer, biblical study, and the wise counsel of others, knowing that God will “make straight your paths.”
Two: Pay any price to do what is best.
Such convictional courage can change our culture in ways we may never know.
Four chaplains who marked the world
On February 3, 1943, the SS Dorchester was attacked and began to sink in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Four chaplains aboard the ship opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. One survivor said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
The chaplains linked arms and went down with the ship.
In 1948, they were honored with a commemorative stamp; the Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in 1951; other chapels have been dedicated to the four chaplains around the country and overseas. In 1998, February 3 was designated “Four Chaplains Day” by Congress; recognitions of their sacrifice continue each year on that day.
When we act with convictional courage, our world can never be the same.
How is this fact relevant to you today?