A Drought of Purpose, a Surplus of Hubris
David French wrote this morning that there is no remaining Christian case for Trump. Let me take that thought a bit further: there never was a Christian case for Trump.
American Christianity is addicted to political power, and is now going through withdrawals. Have you ever seen a person who was prescribed a drug like fentanyl get stepped down off of it? I have and it’s not a pleasant experience, for the patient, and especially for those close by. Paranoia, aggressiveness, and the lack of a filter for unkindness are some of the symptoms. I have also seen what people sinking into addiction to drugs like meth become, which is much worse.
For over 200 years, Christianity of various stripes has enjoyed a moral fraternal relationship with the American government. Even during the Civil War, battles were interspersed with surges of religious fervor. Of course, much of this may have been due to the shared experience of bloody war that affected both the Union and Confederate armies.
After the war, the North, which had not been as affected by the destruction wrought, turned to a more intellectual approach to faith. The Christian History Institute framed it thus: “The very success the Union enjoyed encouraged northerners to new labors: converting immigrants entering their cities, alleviating oppressive social conditions through a Social Gospel, and bringing the gospel to “benighted heathen” overseas.”
In the South, which was economically and psychologically devastated, faith became a more fundamental mindset. “Temporal prosperity made men and women arrogant and seduced them into believing they did not need God. The South’s hardship, on the other hand, taught forbearance and Christian humility.” I’ll take that thought a bit further: believing one is doing “God’s work” fighting for a principle brings with it hubris. Once taken up, the cudgel is very difficult to put down.
As the South—and many rural communities—which were forced to rely on self-help and grit—gravitated to a more experience-based faith, the industrialized North kept its (classical) liberal roots as the primary focus. These divisions persisted and now manifest as the Blue/Red gulf between urban and rural counties, and how each perceives the other.
And as the cities moved more toward valuing intellectual pursuits, they pursued philosophical fads and progressive solutions, even flirting with undesirable practices like actual fascism (Wilson) and eugenics. As our society advanced on issues like racial civil rights, many of the attitudes we sought to eliminate remained, though suppressed. You need look no further than the busing riot in September 1974—in Boston, as described by History.com.
School buses carrying African American children were pelted with eggs, bricks, and bottles, and police in combat gear fought to control angry white protesters besieging the schools.
As America became more divided, one part believed in the power of the human spirit to tackle and solve any problem, which is, in philosophy circles, generally called humanism. The other part called upon the redeeming power of God, and genuinely believed they were doing His will in political and social battle. Until the last few decades, these wings were able to bridge the gap by a shared belief in “Judeo-Christian values.” The culture war found its expression in narrow lanes, which further concentrated to just a few issues like abortion, gay marriage, and public prayer.
Both the “right” and the “left” have had their share of corruption and scandal. I don’t need to rehash all of that. In 2016, the division came to a head as both extremes put forth the avatar of the right’s grievances in Donald Trump. The right saw Trump as one who fought using the left’s amoral weapons to stem the cultural blitzkrieg taking Christianity off its privileged pedestal. The left saw Trump as a straw man who would be easy to defeat because of his obvious deficiencies and moral failures.
The right chose the deficiencies and moral failures over its own bedrock principles. The left saw itself defeated in its effort to burn the straw man. The grievance-mongers ruled the battlefield and won the day. The liberals resorted to a scorched earth policy and plaintive wails at the sky. The right became the frog that took the scorpion up on its bargain.
David French wrote this morning that there is no remaining Christian case for Trump. Let me take that thought a bit further: there never was a Christian case for Trump. The only case for him was that perhaps by fighting for Christian values, and allowing himself to be surrounded by genuine prayer, Trump would allow himself to open his heart and mind to the Gospel. The other case is that, well, “he fights” and the battles that defined the Christian-pagan culture war in America would be won through him, like the Persian King Cyrus who returned the Jews from exile to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Well, yes, Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices. He built the Court that overturned Roe v. Wade. He signed executive orders, and working with Congress, sent thousands of pages of federal regulations to the shredder. Looking strictly at the federal branch and the legal lay of the land, Trump’s presidency wasn’t that much different than a conventional Republican, though he did fight a GOP-controlled Congress on his border wall. But looking further, into the very reason Trump was elected, Trump fully lived up to, and beyond, the corruption present in the right and the Christians who propelled him to power—he was/is the archetype of paranoia and aggressive meanness associated with withdrawal from an addiction.
David French said that the church became disciples of Trump, not the other way around. I think it’s deeper than that. The biases and deep-seated animosities that even good-hearted people kept in check were inflamed by Trump and the left’s fanatical opposition to him. Many people felt they were compelled to choose a side, and the sides left no room for middle-ground. So otherwise rational, kind, and faithful Christians became defenders of depravity in the fight to “win” the culture war.
Now, the issues of gay marriage and Roe have been decided. Society has gay marriage, and I don’t see the country has become Sodom and Gomorra because of it. I don’t like the fact that it’s become faddish for same-sex couples to dominate media and entertainment as if it’s to throw mud pies at Christians; and I don’t like the fact that the supporters of gay marriage chose to preserve the religious aspects of marriage (versus offering civil unions) while forcing Christians to support what the Bible teaches is a sinful lifestyle against conscience. But the political issue has largely been resolved and is unlikely to change.
The end of Roe is the beginning of a state-by-state battle on abortion, which is likely to be ugly, but also removes the unifying national crutch among Christians in a national culture war. With the removal of the culture war narrow battlegrounds, both sides now have to find new purpose. The paid activists always have a purpose to sell you, but real purpose is not bought and paid for.
Those outside the Church have struggled with various systems of purpose, a few of which have been abject human disasters like Bolshevism and Naziism. These days, a confusing mix of identity politics and intersectional causes changes like the weather in north Georgia—by the hour. In China, the government has battled to raise the cost of the “lay flat” movement, where young people literally do nothing, to an unacceptable level.
In America, overly-political and hyper-online people are wound up and released like marching soldiers, and some commit their purpose to harming the targets of their angst. Nicholas John Roske is a 26-year-old who was arrested and indicted for plotting to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Roske was not a spittle-flecked nutcase; he just “flew under the radar” as a random Millennial caught up in a drought of purpose, looking for anything to slake his thirst.
Work no longer holds the key to purpose, in offering a better life by settling down, “adulting” and raising a family. Tim Kreider recently penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam.” He rightly observed:
To young people, America seems less like a country than an inescapable web of scams, and “hard work” less like a virtue than a propaganda slogan, inane as “Just say no.”
He went further, highlighting the ennui and hopelessness of the current generation with our media-soaked and politically divided country.
More young people are opting not to have kids not only because they can’t afford them but also because they assume they’ll have only a scorched or sodden wasteland to grow up in. An increasingly popular retirement plan is figuring civilization will collapse before you have to worry about it. I’m not sure anyone’s composed a more eloquent epitaph for the planet than the stand-up comedian Kath Barbadoro, who tweeted: “It’s pretty funny that the world is ending and we all just have to keep going to our little jobs lol.”
Kreider ends with a call to purpose, not to “busywork” (read: a job). There are much more important things he says need to be done: “a republic to salvage, a civilization to reimagine and its infrastructure to reinvent, innumerable species to save, a world to restore and millions who are impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate, sick or starving.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty Christian to me. It could have been preached at any number of pulpits on any given Sunday, and nobody would be the wiser, except Kreider implies that a job stands in the way of these things.
American Christians are suffering, and have suffered for decades, from a lack of purpose. The Bible says in Proverbs 29:18 (KJV version): “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The New Living translation has it this way: “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful.”
What is divine guidance for our lives? The minor prophet Micah boils it down pretty clearly.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Reading the whole chapter Micah 6, the context is perfect. God’s people were in an argumentative mood against the Lord, who answered. “My people, what have I done to you?” God’s answer leads us through Moses, Balaam, and the Ark of the Covenant. Then burnt offerings, sacrificial animals, and the riches of tithes are scorned. “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No. God’s simple commandment is to remain humble and love what God loves.
This morning’s sermon at my church was on point. Philippians 2 recounts the Lord Jesus’ passion and humility.
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
If Christ’s own nature was to be humble, when He has the power of God at his own beckoning, what is our excuse to rise to our own defense? Any Christian effort that is based in pride or hubris, or founded on our own efforts and abilities, “must be burned to the ground” said the preacher. Amen!
This means the effort to regain political power through the elevation of a Godless man who celebrates his sin, regardless of what “battles” we have “won,” is based on faulty foundations. The entire Trump phenomenon is not because Trump has ensorcelled the American Church—at least the white Evangelical arm of it—it is because Trump, an expert at reading a mark, surfed the church’s existing biases and withdrawal symptoms, made himself the avatar, the living god of those feelings, and rode the wave to power.
Trump’s desire for power is not based in any righteous purpose. Its purpose is for the exclusive benefit of Trump and those he wants to reward (and those he wants to punish). The actions of the man speak for themselves. Read the Axios report on what Trump and his acolytes are planning if Trump or a Trumpist gets a hold of the White House in 2024. These are not the actions of a humble group of people with serious vision and purpose.
These are the actions of a lawless posse who reject all sources of authority, including the divine. Proverbs 28:19 warns us about them. Without purpose, the people perish.
American Christianity must assume its divine purpose, which does not include political power. This requires the humility to reject vengeance, unrighteousness, and false leaders who promise empty victories at the expense of Jesus’ commands at the end of Matthew 28.
18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Trump didn’t make disciples of American Christians. He exposed our lack of purpose, and the excess of our hubris.
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