(This is part 2 of 3 posts dedicated to the question of Donald Trump. You can read the first post here.)
Before making an evangelical’s case for Donald Trump, I first need to talk about Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky is a third-year quarterback for the Chicago Bears out of the University of North Carolina. To say that he has been mediocre as a professional is an understatement. He has had some moments which offer the faint glimmers of hope that he might someday be a competent quarterback, but these moments only highlight just how generally underwhelming he is. To make matters worse for Trubisky, he was drafted second overall in a draft where the Bears traded up to pick him and ahead of two other quarterbacks with evidently more talent: Deshaun Watson and league MVP Patrick Mahomes. Why do I mention him? Because my relationship with Trubisky reminds me of Trump. I have always been a massive Bears fan. This fact causes me to see the Bears, and Trubisky in particular, in a certain slanted way. Because of the near constant bad press that he has received nationally, I become a Trubisky apologist. I don’t want to admit his failings. I don’t want to admit the Bears made a huge mistake. I want to see the good games and explain away the bad ones. I want to identify reasons why a bad game isn’t ultimately his fault. I may even accuse the media of being biased against him because of their love for Mahomes. In other words, my defensiveness has made me unreasonable in my assessment.
This is the same mistake that I see many of my fellow evangelicals making in regards to Trump. They have become his unapologetic fans. Everything about him must be defended. That which appears to be bad must be defended as good. “You don’t understand. He’s actually a brilliant negotiator playing three-dimensional chess.” “When he talks like that, that’s just how New York businessmen handle themselves. That’s actually what our country needs right now.” That which appears to be an argument against his competency must be recast as the byproduct of media bias or deep state conspiracies. The attacks of the national media only make us more recalcitrant in our support because the alternative is agreeing with CNN and the Washington Post. We must not admit that the person we drafted might have some glaring deficiencies because if we did, the entire edifice might come tumbling down. Having a celebrity as a President encourages a sort of fandom in our politics. After all, we vote for politicians, but we often devote ourselves to celebrities. This leads not to levelheaded assessments but to stubborn and often unreasonable fan service.
(I can hear the complaints from some of you reading this. “But the other side does it too!” Yes, but it is Donald Trump who is the President at this moment, and “they did it first” is not a very mature argument.)
I have heard two different arguments from evangelicals in support of Donald Trump. The first argument is related to the fan service that I’ve been talking about. For lack of a better term, I call it the “devotional argument.” I don’t think this argument works at all.
I’ve seen evangelicals use various scriptures in support of Donald Trump. Some have identified him with Cyrus from the Old Testament. Christianity Today has a helpful article on the comparison. Romans 13 has also been quoted by the likes of Robert Jeffress and Jeff Sessions to support everything from nuking North Korea to separating families at our southern border. The appropriation of verses like these invites all kinds of questions and comments.
- If we assume that Romans 13 and Cyrus apply to someone like Trump, we should probably also assume that Trump is not a righteous implement of God. Cyrus was a pagan emperor and Romans 13 was written when NERO was the emperor of Rome – hardly an evangelical. There is a massive difference between saying that God uses kings and those in power for his purposes and saying that the king or those in power are committed to the righteous purposes of God. In other words, don’t mistake Trump as a model for following Jesus even if you believe God may be using him.
- We probably shouldn’t change our political theology depending on which political party happens to be in power. If we apply Romans 13 in a certain way to Trump, did it not apply in the same way to Obama? And if you voted against Obama’s reelection, did you go against the will of God? Actually, this theology would render every vote a farce, wouldn’t it?
- There is a way of misusing these passages that can lead to the blanket justification of whatever a king, a politician, or a state does. If your political theology can be used to justify great acts of evil, or if it changes depending on who is in power, you need to reevaluate your political theology.
- These passages, even if applied to President Trump, do not place him above critique or rebuke from the Church and ultimately from God himself. Do the people who use these passages to justify Trump’s actions apply that same kind of fatalistic theology throughout their lives? I have my doubts. After all, if I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit (!) do I not also continue to sin? Although I have been born again, do I not also make profound mistakes of judgment where I put my own needs and appetites before all else? If that is true of me, why can it not be true of a person in government?
- An argument could be made that if you view politicians as ultimately in service of the true King, then they should be subject to MORE critique, not less. The fan who stubbornly says “My team, no matter what!!” will ultimately get the team he deserves. The same is true about our political parties. Withholding critique because of insecurity or hatred to the other team only cements regression and under-performance. Greatness and progress are only on the other end of relentless critique. I believe God has given us that freedom in this country. Christians are abandoning this gift from God when we refuse to critique those we vote for and who ultimately should serve the greater good.
I believe that the evangelical church in America needs to hear afresh the words of the Barmen Declaration. I am certainly not adopting the tedious and lazy rhetoric that Donald Trump and those who support him are fascists. However, in 1934, a group of German Christians bravely articulated a political theology that every church in every age and in every political climate needs to hear. These are the three articles we may need to particularly hear:
Article 2 – We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords.
Article 3 – We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to…the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.
Article 5 – We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life.
The devotional argument for Donald Trump doesn’t work, but I don’t want to construct a straw man. I believe that the large majority of evangelicals who voted for Trump did so for transactional reasons. In my opinion, this is an argument that may work. The transactional reason doesn’t need the candidate to be perfect or even to share the same faith. It is more pragmatic. This argument says that I will vote for you because you are more likely to service my agenda and work towards those things that are important to me than the other person. On this, evangelical may have a valid point when it comes to Trump.
Take, for instance, the issue of life. If you believe, as most evangelicals do, that abortion is a civilizational evil, you will be much more likely to vote for a candidate who shares that sentiment enough to put justices on the Supreme Court who will work against the practice. I know a lot of more liberal Christians scoff at this notion. “Abortion is the law of the land and unlikely to be overturned any time soon. There are other issues that you should care more about.” I understand that critique, but I think this casual dismissal is a massive blind spot for the more liberal Christian. If you put two candidates in front of me. They are both imperfect in some obvious and some not-so-obvious ways. One of them, however, voices general agreement with you about the sanctity of unborn life. The other mocks and ridicules those who would threaten even the smallest restriction on abortion. Their party is associated with cheering laws legalizing abortion to the point of birth and boycotting states that don’t agree. Which candidate do you suppose that Christian is going to vote for? And your mockery of him and the issue he cares about is only going to solidify in his mind that he made the right choice.
Or what about the issue of religious freedom? I watched a series of Democrat Town Halls on CNN recently that was hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC is famous for publishing shame lists of institutions who believe in traditional forms of marriage. They have called for the removal of tax-exempt status and Title IV funds from Christian institutions of higher education. And here are the Democrat candidates in lockstep with them. At least one of the candidates going so far as to say that if he were President he would remove tax-exempt status from ANY institution including churches who believe in traditional marriage. Again, imagine a Christian is faced with a choice between two candidates. Both are imperfect and maybe not even Christian, but one talks about religious liberty with scare quotes. Which person do you suppose that Christian will vote for? You can scoff about how religious liberty really isn’t under attack in this country. (I’ll agree to disagree.) You can scoff about Trump’s own religious background. But you can’t blame the individual Christian for not voting against her own religious interests.
What about the size of government? It is debatable whether scripture has an opinion on the size of government, although Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland has made a case here. Most evangelicals would agree, however, that the State was never intended to dominate our lives and give us meaning. That role is left for mediating institutions like the family and the church. Historically, evangelicals have just been unimpressed with and suspicious of the progressive ideal of creating a government that fixes every societal problem. I have some real fears that conservatives generally and evangelicals specifically have abandoned this ideal since 2016, but at least in principle, this explains why so many evangelicals vote for less government and not more.
There are other issues of course that inform how evangelicals vote. Some of them are distinctly religious. Some other issues are more informed by the local culture in which many evangelicals live. For instance, gun rights isn’t a distinctly religious issue, but since evangelicals are more likely to live in rural areas where guns are a part of the culture than urban areas, evangelicals are also more likely to vote for candidates who don’t promise to take their guns.
If you’re still reading, let me just summarize the best case for Donald Trump from this evangelical’s perspective. Every vote boils down to a choice. Which candidate, no matter how imperfect, is more likely to enact an agenda that matches my own needs and values? A great many evangelicals decided that Trump best fits that profile. I’ll add two things here at the end. The transactional reason is not without its flaws, and I will get into some of those flaws in my next post. Secondly, I might add my own frustration that the Democrat Party continues to make this such an easy decision for so many evangelicals. Their open contempt toward many conservative values and their headlong rush to the ideological Left has left many moderates like myself feeling that they literally have no choice.