Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump And The Christians





It's time for Christians to get off the Trump Train.   It is certainly time now, and it was time a long while ago. 


I get why some still want to stay on, even as it hurtles towards a scene that will eclipse the big final moments of either The Cassandra Crossing or Breakheart Pass (something about Trump seems to invite metaphors based on 1970s disaster films - or is that just me?).

Their argument is that even though Trump has said (and apparently done, according to his growing legion of accusers) the sorts of things as an old man that would have had a youth pastor fired in a heartbeat, he is nevertheless the last best hope for Christian America, because after Hilary comes the Deluge, apparently.

Here is an example of how this argument works.   Ralph Reed and Jerry Fallwell Jr., lay out a case for Trump as the candidate most likely to advance a pro-Christian agenda by appointing suitable judges to the Supreme Court and to further curtail access to abortion, which Reed has called the “defining moral issue of our time.”

This argument appeals to an overarching theological claim of American Exceptionalism, meaning that God has created America as a second Israel, and has entered into a covenantal relationship with American Christians by which he gives special blessings and rewards in return for America's faithfulness.   This theology was central to Ted Cruz's Republican nomination bid this year and now Reed and others are willing to give this standard to Trump, who must win lest America suffer ''a moral and spiritual and a cultural death from within that starts at the heart and soul of a country.”

According to Reed and Falwell, Trump must win to champion the causes that “matter most to the Christian community'', even though the events of this past week have confirmed that Trump is a morally deficient standard bearer.  One senses that for Reed, the stakes are too high to wait for a more suitable champion.  As Reed said on 10 October to Liberty University's convocation gathering,  “I think retreating to the stained-glass ghetto from whence we came and refusing to muddy our boots with the mud and mire of politics is simply not an option for a follower of Christ
Leaving aside for a moment the idea that the Christian faith is worth dragging into ''the mud and mire' of politics'' in order to, supposedly, save it, is the idea of Christian America theologically and historically defensible?

While it is tempting to think of modern America's founding in New England by devout Puritan exiles as the basis of a national identity based on Protestant Christian values (Chesterton's quip of a nation with the soul of a church), the reality is far too complicated and pluralistic for that idea to hold water.  The founding fathers were primarily 18th century Deists, whose view of a distant, uninvolved God was far removed from contemporary evangelicals.  The Christianity of slaves become African-Americans, Hispanics, and Irish immigrants from the Old World was far removed from, and almost unintelligible to, white Protestants through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries

Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Americans forged new alliances in the mid 20th century (see Kevin M. Schultz's excellent book Tri-Faith America).  Then came immigration from Asia and the globalization of religion and now Jews and Christians are finding that mosques and temples are now also part of the religious landscape.   Sikh soldiers in the US Army want their distinctive beards and turbans to be authorized as part of their service dress.   Buddhism, once an exotic counter-cultural option in the 1960s, is increasingly familiar.  A Mormon won the Republican presidential nomination.  'Spiritual but not religious' and 'nones' are now recognized categories in religious polling as the proportion of Americans who do not identify with Christianity increases year by year. 

American religion and society is pluralistic.  This seems to me to be a fact on the ground that is as much historical as it is contemporary and demographic.   The author of the excellent religious blog Bensonian made this point when he wrote, back in February, that he could not accept Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate because Cruz was running to be the Christian president of Christian America.  In his post, Bensonian quotes the scholar Paul D. Miller on why the idea of Christian America so dear to Cruz, Reed and Falwell, Jr. is so problematic. 

America is exceptional, but not because of any special access she enjoys to God. The United States had a highly unique origin in the acts of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, and its national identity is uniquely rooted in ideas of equality and liberty, rather than race, class, or language, as had been the case for most European countries at the time.

But America is not the special vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. Some conservatives love to quote Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” The nation whose God is the Lord is the Christian Church, not the United States. The church, not the United States, is the vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. To believe otherwise is to confuse the nation with the church, the spiritual with the temporal. That sort of confusion can justify all sorts of dangerous messianic political movements.

As a Christian, I believe that I am called to follow a moral and ethical code based on the law of God and the imitation of Christ.  I hope that in so doing, however imperfectly, that I am a good influence (salt and light to use biblical terms) on those around me.  However, I can't ignore the fact that I live n a pluralistic democracy where Christian faith is widely perceived as a lifestyle choice.   For me to believe that I have a right to impose Christian-based laws and governance on those who do not subscribe to them would be at best hubristic, and at worst theocratic.  In any case, how could I do when Christians can't agree amongst themselves on key issues like pacifism, abortion, and sexuality? To impose a Christian view on those who don't share it could only be a coercive act, and coercion, as I read the gospel, is antithetical to the nature and invitation of Christ to follow him willingly.


The history of Christianity in the west has long been composed of some groups buttressing the power of the day in throne and altar alliances (e.g. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans), and dissenters (e.g. Mennonites) retreating into self-isolating communities.   Starting in the late 20th century, once dominant religious groups were slowly disenfranchised by secularization and political change.  American evangelism, like British Anglicanism and French/Quebecois Catholicism before it), now seems to find itself on the way into exile which is why the stakes in this US election seem so high.  Lose the Supreme Court to Clinton and the last chance of legislating a Christian agenda for at least the next few generations vanishes. 


I think, though I can't prove, that this is why the authoritarian aspects of Trump's character have attracted American evangelicals even when his morality has been exposed as a sordid mess.   If it takes a tribune to make America Great again, in Trump's phrase, as 'one people, under one God, saluting one flag', and if the popular vote threatens to elect Clinton, then democracy be damned. 


Second to their betrayal of Christ's gospel of love, the betrayal of a republic that so many non-Christians have fought and died for, and that so many across the world still see as our best hope, is the great treason of the religious right in America.   Their desire to impose a Christian agenda on America, even if well-meaning, has blinded them to the terrible danger that Trump poses to democracy.   The political scholar Jill Lepore laid out this danger eloquently in a recent post for The New Yorker.

Donald J. Trump ... leads the Republican Party the way the head of a rebel army holds a capital city. This isn’t an ambush or an act of treason or a kidnapping. This is a siege. He plans to build walls; he promises to put his opponents in prison. He enjoys harems. He admires tyrants. He erects monuments to himself in major cities. He holds entertainments in America’s stadiums, where he toys with his political enemies, delighting his band of followers while terrorizing other citizens. Over the weekend, he insisted that he will neither retreat nor surrender.

Meanwhile, he invokes the people: they, he says, have chosen him, and will elect him; the people love him. Do they? Joe McGinniss once observed that the American voter “defends passionately the illusion that the men he chooses to lead him are of a finer nature than he” and that “it has been traditional that the successful politician honor this illusion.” That tradition has ended. No one in the Republican Party can possibly believe that Trump is a better person, a man of finer nature, than the ordinary American voter. The problem for the Party is that no one, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, can even pretend to believe that anymore. No one can believe that in daylight, or in the darkest hour of night, while Trump, restless, tweets about the conspiracies that he believes are being hatched by his enemies—men and, especially, women—to fell him.

In the last few weeks, theologians like Miroslav Volf and Russell Moore have also made the case for disavowing Trump.   Yesterday it was heartening to see students at Liberty University follow suit, despite the urgings of their elders.  For those Christian leaders like Falwell Jr. who want to stay on the Trump Train, well, see my comments on The Cassandra Crossing.  It will not end well for you and it will bring shame and disrepute on the gospel you profess to preach.

For other Christian Americans, assuming (as is likely) that Hillary Clinton is the next president, the question is, can you go forward without proclaiming her as the AntiChrist, delegitimizing the election and government, and so like Samson bringing down the temple on your heads?   Robert Franklin, who teaches at Emory University, offers some suggestions for how a post-Trump civics could be achieved.   It will involve dialogue and listening on both sides, and a letting go of words like 'deplorables' and 'irredeemable', because no one and nothing is irredeemable.    Christians and non-Christians will have to find a way to live together, because the alternative is too grim and too terrible to contemplate.



5 comments:

Grenzer John said...

Exceptionally thoughtful and excellent entry, Padre! All I can really say is "God bless and keep us all!"

Thanks!

tradgardmastare said...

Thoughtful indeed,thanks for posting this.
Alan

Michael Peterson said...

Another word on the subject from Timothy Egan in today's New York Times:

He’s destroyed whatever moral standing leading Christian conservatives had — starting with Mike Pence. Their selective piety is not teachable. Take solace in one of the small acts of courage breaking out in recent days: a group of students at Liberty University telling their Trump-supporting president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to practice what the school preaches.

Trump is “actively promoting the very things that we Christians ought to oppose,” the students wrote. These young people, at least, are smart enough to see what Trump is doing to their world.
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/opinion/burning-down-the-house.html?emc=edit_th_20161014&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=55545204&_r=0

Michael Peterson said...

And another comment, this time by Steve Scmidt, a Republican "consultant who worked on George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 and ran John McCain’s campaign in 2008".

The last implication for it behaviorally is it exposes at such a massive scale and at such magnitude the hypocrisy of the Tony Perkinses and the Jerry Falwell Jrs. and the Pat Robertsons. These people are literally the modern-day Pharisees, they are the money changers in the temple, and they will forever be destroyed from a credibility perspective.

There are millions of decent, faithful, committed evangelicals in this country who have every right to participate in the political process. But this country doesn’t ever need to hear a lecture from any one of these people [Perkins, Falwell, etc.] again on a values issue, or their denigration of good and decent gay people in this country.

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/14/13272322/republicans-after-trump-alt-right

Pat G said...

Well said.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

Followers

Blog Archive

Labels