Trump and the church
Why do Christians still support The Former Guy?
After the Iowa caucuses, I was perusing entrance polls of Republican voters and one thing that struck me was that 55 percent of Christian caucus-goers supported Donald Trump. It made me wonder why so many Christ followers are still so solidly behind a man who is the antithesis of Christian teaching.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. And I mean that literally. As a kid, my family was in the pews (or fellowship hall) of our little country church at least three times each week. In Sunday School, VBS, and RAs, I was taught morality and ethics and right and wrong.
Over the past few years, I watched the majority of people that I worshipped with at that church and many others line up to support Donald Trump. For many, it was reluctant support at first, but it became more enthusiastic in 2020. To be fair, many said that they would never support him again after January 6. It remains to be seen how many will stand by those words.
The ironic thing is that if I or my friends had behaved like Donald Trump, we would have been spanked or grounded, depending on our age. Yet many of the same people who offered me religious instruction were enthusiastically cheering as Trump lied and insulted his way through his presidency.
A big part of Trump’s success with Christians was due to abortion. Many Christians won’t vote for a pro-choice candidate - any pro-choice candidate. Likewise, anyone who claims to be pro-life is better than any pro-choicer. I used to feel the same way. I’m still pro-life, but voting for pro-life candidates took a back seat to voting for pro-Constitution candidates in recent years.
But abortion has lost its relevance for two reasons. First, the Dobbs decision moved the abortion battle back to the states. I do give Trump credit for appointing the justices that overturned Roe with the caveat that he didn’t actually pick the judges.
But Trump is no longer a pro-lifer. Perhaps more accurately, he now seems to acknowledge that he has never really been pro-life, calling Florida’s heartbeat bill “a terrible mistake.” He is also noncommittal about whether he would champion pro-life legislation in a second term and if so, what form it would take.
Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative Christian activist in Iowa, told The Dispatch, “I think he’s very pro-‘Let’s make a deal. ‘Hey, listen, do you back me? I’ll support you once I’m in office’—like a transactional leader would.”
But pro-life conservatives still stand by Trump and ignore candidates with lifelong records of supporting the pro-life cause. No other candidate could get away with such flip flops so what’s going on?
First, let’s look at the Bible’s guidelines for behavior. One of the first passages that comes to my mind is the 10 Commandments. This list includes religious commandments for honoring God as well as moral commandments. These moral commandments include prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, giving false testimony, and coveting the belongings of others. Already, we can see that Trump is in trouble, although to my knowledge, he has never murdered anyone. Then again, the Bible teaches that hate is the moral equivalent of murder.
In the New Testament, Paul gave additional guidelines for behavior and character. Some of these passages give positive examples telling us what we should do, while others give negative examples of behaviors to avoid.
In Biblical times, there were no representative democracies or elections. That may be why Paul doesn’t spend much time addressing government leaders. He does, however, talk about qualifications for church leaders. In the same way that some Old Testament law can be seen as a moral guide for Christians who are not under that law, these guidelines are also beneficial for political leaders.
In1 Timothy 3:2-3, Paul wrote:
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
While not strictly addressed to presidential candidates, it would be hard to argue that these guidelines shouldn’t apply to political leaders. For that matter, they would be beneficial for anyone, especially for Christians who aspire to follow Christ’s example.
It is also apparent that not many of these guidelines describe Donald Trump.
There are a great many other passages that describe the character traits that Christians should cultivate and encourage. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul said:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [restraint], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Again, these aren’t terms that most of us would apply to Donald Trump.
Going further, Paul continues in Ephesians 5:
But sexual immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness or foolish talk, or vulgar joking, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
Ever listen to a Trump speech, not to mention the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording?
What would the Apostle Paul say about the American church’s acceptance of “locker room talk” such as bragging about grabbing women by their - well, you know? He might say that we have left our first love and do not know that we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. As a popular meme said, if Paul was still alive we’d definitely be getting a letter… and not just about Trump.
Okay, you may say, but that’s Paul talking about character. What about Jesus?
In the same chapter, we find the Beatitudes that many of us learned in Sunday School. As a reminder, here are the character traits that Jesus espoused in this series of blessings:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Again, how many of these describe Donald Trump? Do any?
Christianity isn’t just a list of rules, it’s also about forgiveness. Donald Trump has sinned and fallen short, just as we all have. Yet Trump said in 2015 that he had never asked for forgiveness and there’s no indication that he has done so since. He seems to have no interest in repentance or change.
As recently as last October, when Trump was asked about his “faith journey” at a Fox News town hall, The Former Guy gave a rambling nonanswer that barely addressed God or spirituality at all. Trump did say that he was raised as a Presbyterian but now identifies as a "non-denominational Christian." Christianity Today noted that he was the first president to change faiths while in office since Eisenhower.
Keep reading in Matthew 5 and you’ll be reminded of one of Jesus’s most important commandments, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This is half of Jesus’s core message, which can be found in full in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to realize that love is what it’s all about. As a great shirt and bumper sticker say, “Love God and love people.”
But how much love do we see coming from the actions and words of Donald Trump? For that matter, how much love do we see coming from Christians and the church?
As one of my pastors used to say, “Amen or oh me?”
I truly believe that God does not want Christian Nationalists to fight for him. I think God wants his people to love for him.
We recently had a men’s conference at my church (some sessions are on video here) and the theme was “relentless.” I like that word.
I think God wants us to have relentless love both for him and for our fellow man. That is how we follow Christ’s example and that is something that we all fall short of, whether because we are indifferent and apathetic or angry and hate-filled. I pray that God gives me and the rest of the church and country relentless love for one another.
But do we see love from Donald Trump? When I see and hear Trump, I think of another verse, one that talks about a clanging gong that is devoid of love.
Trump reportedly mocked his religious supporters, including Mike Pence. Yet Republicans see Trump as more religious than either President Biden or Pence. After he left office, Pence suggested that Trump wasn’t very interested in either the Bible or Christianity.
I don’t know what is in Trump’s heart, but Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20), and Trump’s fruit seems pretty rotten by biblical standards.
Trump’s followers often seem to consider him a megaChristian, despite his moral failings and apparent lack of religious conviction. And they go even further. There is no shortage of messianic claims surrounding Donald Trump, such as an online Trump ad made by a group that is independent from but close to the Trump campaign. The video says, “God made Trump” and calls him “a shepherd to mankind who will never leave or forsake them.” That’s messianic talk.
There are also a plethora of paraphernalia explicitly linking Trump to Jesus, such as shirts, stickers, flags, and books, including one titled, “President Donald J. Trump, the Son of Man, the Christ.” For those who don’t know, “Son of Man” was Jesus’s preferred term for himself and is an another messianic term.
MAGA has long been deemed a personality cult, but it seems that some quarters of the movement may be becoming a literal Cult of Trump.
Trump does not discourage or disavow the messianic claims and sometimes amplifies them. In 2019, Trump tweeted a quote by Wayne Allen Root, who said that “Jewish people in Israel love him [Trump] like he’s the king of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.” More recently, he shared the “God made Trump” video to his Truth Social account.
Trump has corrupted much of the American church. Under Trump, the focus of far too many churches has shifted to political power and away from the Gospel. Under Trump, we’ve seen a church choir sing a MAGA hymn and Christians chant “F-ck Joe Biden” or its euphemistic cousin, “Let’s go Brandon,” cleaned up for Sunday morning. Refer back to Ephesians 5:4.
Some prominent evangelical theologians have voiced concern about Trump’s influence on the church. The late Tim Keller wrote, “People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions. The disgust has come to include people within the movement itself.”
Russell Moore, a former leader in my old denomination, the Southern Baptists, and a longtime Trump critic, expressed concern that the political influence in churches is corrupting the Gospel to the point where traditional teachings of Jesus such as turning the other cheek are considered “weak” and “liberal talking points.”
“What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak,’” Moore said. “When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”
Trump is not solely to blame for this phenomenon. Tying the Republican Party to religion was probably always a bad bargain for the church, but the process has definitely accelerated in the Trump era.
Trump-leaning Christians should be asking themselves how their acceptance of Trump’s behavior affects their witness to the lost. Trump-leaning Christians should be asking themselves if their own behavior is a stumbling block (Romans 14:13) to spreading the Gospel.
I can answer that. I’ve talked to many nonbelievers who are not interested in Christianity because of the hypocrisy that they see in Christian support of Donald Trump. I’ve even questioned my own beliefs because so many Christian leaders, judging from their actions, apparently either don’t believe the truth of what they are preaching or don’t feel that it should be taken seriously.
Ultimately, I decided that the combination of historical evidence and my personal experience indicated that Jesus Christ is who he says he is and the Bible is true and trustworthy. The fundamental truth of Christianity remains even if some of its leaders are hypocrites (and Jesus had strong words for the hypocrites of his day).
“We seem to be warned of many anti-Christs that would come—in other words, people that stand opposed to the principles of Christ, yet somehow gain the ear and the support of believers because they’re deceived by people like that,” Barron Geiger, an Iowa pastor told The Dispatch. “I would absolutely put him in that category.”
Geiger seems to be referring to 1 John 2:18, which warns, “You have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.”
This passage does not allude to the Beast from the sea of Revelation, which is commonly what we think of as The Antichrist. Instead, the small “a,” plural antichrists that John writes about are likely humans who undermine the Gospel. Donald Trump falls into this category.
If the American church was healthy, we’d be concerned about Donald Trump’s soul and souls of people that the church is driving away from Jesus rather than who will be nominated to the Supreme Court.
This isn’t to say that any politician is perfect. I don’t believe that either party is “the Christian party.” Christians of good conscience can and do belong to both parties, but both parties pick and choose parts of the Bible and Christianity.
But the insidious problem of Trump goes much further. Donald Trump has deceived a large portion of the American church (Matthew 24:24) and distracted it from its true mission, a mission that does not involve politics. The left sometimes attacks Christianity externally, but trumpism attacks it from within.
That hasn’t been good for America and it’s worse for the church.
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