On occasion, I spend an inordinate amount of time on something political. This is because I feel passionately that Christians should be a model of God’s love in all aspects of life, and there a seasons when the political landscape appears to have serious spiritual ramifications. This impeachment season of President Trump has been one of those seasons that feels this way to me. In doing this blog post, I join a grand Christian tradition of critiquing religious and political authority: from the Old Testament prophets, to the person of Jesus, the Early Church Fathers, the Bohemian Reformers, Martin Luther, many of the other great revivalists and Christian leaders through the ages, and even into the the 20th century with Christian leaders like Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King Jr.
I consider Donald Trump’s run for office and the eventual presidency to be a defining moment in the Evangelical Church in America, but I hope and pray that my feelings about this are wrong.
During the few days preceding and during the final vote in the Senate concerning the impeachment of Donald Trump, I have held a number of Facebook discussions on the topics surrounding the issues. They were hot topics, but I drew up some simple rules about communicating with one another. Surprisingly, people pretty much kept to the guidelines of peaceful communication, and the dialogues were deep and meaningful covering a variety of disagreements. It was a rather remarkable moment, because many people know no other way of talking about topics they hold dearly than to vent and call their political and theological opponents names, but on the whole people on these posts agreed to disagree agreeably. This is a rare experience in such a difficult season.
My comments below are not meant to be directed to any individual I know personally. They will be hard comments, and I will name individuals, but if I do so, they will be national leaders who have made their positions strong and public, and thereby they are open to disagreement and or correction by the public.
It is obvious to anyone who has read my previous political commentary that I am no Trump supporter. I believe that his election represents a low point in American politics, more so, a low point in the Republican Party, but perhaps, even more so, a low point in the American Evangelical church. In this blog post, which is a limited medium through which to communicate complex issues, I hope to to outline my reasons for feeling this way.
As I outline this, I anticipate that there will be people who read my words as hate filled words, but that is one of the problems with navigating the landscape of hot topics. People have devoted themselves to ideas so deeply that they cannot separate a critique of the things they believe from a personal attack. Consequently, they read hatred where it may not exist. This in turn, of course, begs the question: If we read hatred into words where hatred does not exist, could it be that we are reading through a lens of hatred? I tend to think so, and I also tend to think that this problem highlights one of the critical diseases of this current political and religious season in America. People are filled with anger, frustration, and sometimes raw hate.
During the 2016 Presidential election, I outlined reasons that I believed the Evangelical Church’s marriage to the election of Donald Trump was a bad moment. In a three part series entitled Our Vote Betrays Us, I outlined how the unbridled support of Trump was misguided and had the appearance of hypocrisy to the world around us.
Our Vote Betrays Us –> Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
As I discuss my thoughts on this issue, I want to make it clear that if you voted for Trump, that does not mean that I am attaching these aruments against you personally. I believe it is possible for a Christian to vote for Trump and in doing so, to honestly follow their conscience and thereby do the right thing. Yet, I also believe that his Presidency is deeply problematic and voting for him demands doing so with internal struggle, It is not unlikely that too many people have buried this struggle within a thoughtless or even self-justifying cognitive dissonance. So my argument is primarily directed to leaders and those most interested in state of the Evangelical Church in America.
The Problem of Morality
One of the most common arguments for the problem of Trump’s Presidency is his morality. This has been a primary concern for me. The Evangelical Church in America has yoked itself to the leadership of a man of loose morals, and is looking to him as a deliverer. The terminology of deliverance has been voiced by leaders like Paula White, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Fallwell Jr. Graham tells us that opposition to Trump is demonically influenced. I am not sure when opposition to an immoral leader became synonymous with opposition to God, but Graham’s opinion borders on being a cannonization of immorality.
In the last election, I held to the words of C.S. Lewis , “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” So my vote went to a third party. Until the last election, I had been a registered Republican, and now I feel as though the party abandoned me, and so I stepped away from what seemed like a charade. The whole-hearted support of a man with such a checkered history and cruel leadership style was not something I could sign on to. His treatment of those who disagree with him; his use of the office for personal gain for himself and his family; his inability to keep other leaders around him, because he will not listen to them; his history of abuse of women; and his shady business dealings like the Trump University and misdirection of funds from his non-profit for other purposes have only given further evidence of this concern. I believe we had enough evidence of his behavior, that it should have made him an unthinkable vote for any Evangelical leader for the highest office in the land.
Problematically, Evangelicals made their choice and defied their own beliefs in 2016. In previous years, he would have been considered unelectable. In 2011, public opinion polling data placed Evangelicals at the top of the list of those most concerned with the morality of their elected leaders. 72% believed good morals were critical to national leadership. In the 2016 election cycle this same data question dropped down to 30%. Evangelicals were some of the least concerned, among those polled, with the morality of their leaders. That is a 42% swing in 5 years. (link) Something happened in the heart of the Evangelical leadership and its followers. We were no longer concerned that our President was a good man. Other things became more important to us, and quite frankly, that’s how the world around us sees it. In my circles of missionary work, this has turned out to be a problem for the witness of the Evanglical Church. I fear American Evangelicalism may be permanently disabled in its witness by this allegiance to an immoral individual.
The Problem of Obscenity
It was atheist, Marxist thinker Slavoj Žižek who remarked that Trump reintroduced obscenity into the public sphere of politics. Suddenly, mocking the poor, the weak, the handicapped, or the unattractive was an acceptable medium of debate and diplomacy. His rudeness was cheered as he called people names or threatened them from the bully pulpit of his Twitter feed, and his campaign trail.
I am horrified by the similar treatment I have received from so-called good Christians who have imitated his abusive techniques in online discussions about political issues. Donald Trump’s nasty taglines for people are the talking points of political Evangelical right. The day of discussion on serious topics has been lost to the noise of obscenity and offensiveness, and I have had to work extremely hard to create decent dialogues on hot button issues. Most of my friends who want to talk about real issues with people across the aisle, now consider it a lost cause, but this is something I have done for decades, and consider a major part of my ministry. It has only become more difficult in the season of Donald Trump. Yes, there are problems on both sides of the aisle in this regard, but the President we now have is the worst example, in the political arena, of treating people whose opinions differ from his own with decency. He has lowered the bar in modeling how one should lead people, and much of the Evangelical Church is following his lead.
Poor treatment of people we disagree with, and those who are radically different than ourselves has become recognized as a trait of Evangelicals in America – at least, in the eyes of many people I meet across the US, the UK and Czechia. We, who are supposed to be masters of the art of reconciliation, and peacemakers in the world are now seen as an angry hateful mob by our political opponents. Of course, it is not true of every Christian Trump supporter, but it is true of enough of them that it now makes the whole pot stink. Problematically, people are being emboldened by a leader who models the worst in human interaction, and they are becoming “twice the sons of hell” as their leader, as Jesus described the process of hypocrites creating proselytes. (Matthew 23:15)
Of course, it can be pointed out that there is equally offensive and demeanaing behavior coming from those who oppose Trump’s Presidency. But, if you are using that to justify behaving badly, or to justify supporting a leader who behaves badly, you are not following in the footsteps of Christ. Hard Stop.
The rise of obscenity in the public sphere of politics is largely due to the current President who has been celebrated for ramping it up, and the Evangelical Church is cheering it on louder than anyone else. And to think that it took a atheist Marxist thinker to point this out to the church and condemn it. Makes one wonder if Žižek has a point (at least for this historical moment) when he poignantly declares that only an atheist can be a real Christian.
It was just yesterday morning that the President’s disrespect for both God and humanity may have reached is zenith. Speaking at the national prayer breakfast, he stood a few seats away from both Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney who both voted for his removal in the impeachment trial and said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong. Nor do I like people who say I pray for you when they know that’s not so. So many people have been hurt, and we can’t let that go on. I will be discussing that a little bit later at the White House.” Even in a moment designed to be about God, and prayer for our nation, the President makes it about vendettas and self-acknowledgements. Even the holy places have been invaded by obscene selfishness, and somehow this is okay with Evangelicals. Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks encouraged those attending to be like Jesus, to avoid behaving contemptuously toward others, and to “love your enemies.” Trump stood to speak and said to Brooks, “I don’t know if I agree with you.” This is the new model of moral leadership in our nation. It is obscene, and we have praised it.
Distrust of Facts and the Press
There is no question that journalism has had it’s struggles through history. New York Times journalists have been busted for creating news stories out of thin air. Apple was accused by a journalist of horrendous practices of abuse by the companies making their parts in asian factories, and it turned out the guy made the story up wholesale, and then toured the US with his fantasy journalistic bombshell. People still mention this Apple story over a decade later. When the truth came out about his deceit, people justified it by saying that although the stories were a lie, they were true because they highlighted a problem of worker abuse in China. (Burning Religion, pg. 162) So, a lie was justified as truth because it might bring about positive change. I have heard this same justification about Trump’s lies. There are Christians who know that he lies, but it simply doesn’t matter, because supposedly, “all politicians lie”. The same Christians saying this, wanted see Bill Clinton removed from office for lying to a grand jury. But Trump is doing good, so his lies are inconsequential.
In the early 60’s, the Soviet Union created a false narrative about Pope Pius XII saying that he was in league with Hitler. Despite the fact that Hitler had a plan to assasinate the Pope, this false history was believed, because it was spread by the popluar medium of a Broadway play. The Vatican releases records from their vaults 75 years after events, and it turned out that although there were nazi sympathizing Catholic priests, Pius XII personally took Jews into his own home, and was instrumental in releasing a Irish Catholic priest to create a network of convents to work as a kind of underground railroad for persecuted Jews. (See The Pope’s Jews)
Like the situation with Pius XII, the lies we believe become our new truths when enough of us believe it. So today, we are supposed to believe that one man at the top who tells us that everyone who disagrees with him or catches him doing something wrong, is lying or spreading “Fake News”. Of course we believe him, because he tells us that he will support our causes, and be the greatest defender Christianity. Therefore he must be a truth-teller. It simply can’t be accurate when the Toronto Star and the Washington Post monitor his speeches and Twitter feed (link), and estimate almost 16,000 lies ranging from partial truths to “pants on fire” – an unprecedented number, momumentally exceeding any recent sitting President.
The First Amendment grants us freedom of speech and religion. And so we have it. Or do we? When the highest office in the land tells us the press is lying – well, except those who say good things about him – then what shall we do? If we have donated our money, our time, even staked our reputations on the man in the office, we sure might look stupid if he is lying to us. So, he must be telling the truth. He must be under some kind of personal attack because people hate him and what he stands for. Our minds become innoculated against anything that opposes our dear leader. It is our minds that need to be liberated into seeking the truth – no matter what source it may come from. People will regulary accuse me of only listening to the liberal media because I oppose Trump reelection. Yet, my regular news sources are a combination of the heavily right wing Drudge Report and the UK centric BBC. But, because I challenge the President’s “truths”, it is assumed I am a fool for believing anything the press might write about Trump.
I have regularly been asked why it is that Donald Trump is being attacked more than any other president before him. He must be doing something right, and Washington insiders don’t like him breaking up their little party, I am told. Of course, that’s the answer for why there are so many attacks! Now, I do think he is being attacked more than previous presidents. I think some of those attacks are wrong. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to assume that he is being attacked simply because he is actually doing unethical things. What if he is being attacked more than any other president, because he is doing more wrong than any other president? Where there is smoke there is usually fire, and if it’s not a fire, there may be mirrors and a illusionist standing in the smoke. Could it be that the Evangelical Church is being deluded by an illusion of lies masked as truths? I think so. I believe we have fallen for smoke and mirrors tricks.
Techno-sociologist Zaynep Tufekci has highlighted the problem of ever-deepening algorithms in Facebook, Youtube, and Google feeds. They have become unmanageable even for the creators of these algorithms who still aren’t sure how the algorithms will behave, Turns out the algorithms nearly have a life of their own. As we follow our interests we are taken deeper by the next bunny trail of suggested videos, sponsored ads, or similar posts, and soon we find ourselves deep into a subject of our own interest and are drawn into the most extreme and radicalized examples of our own positions. Are we being radicalized toward exaggerations and outright lies by our own interests?
Obama’s first campaign utilized the internet unlike any politician before him, but of course, it was still to a great degree a developing technology compared just a handful of years later. Trump has spent an unprecedented amount of money on utilizing social media to spread his brand of information and misinformation, and if we are following him with interest, we may find that his so-called truths become our new truths. (link to Altantic Magazine Article) Who else can we trust? Where else can we go? Peter asked that question of Jesus. Have we traded our Christ for our little Donald? Do we trust him to give us the gospel truth now? Have we said the same words to Donald Trump that were meant for Christ, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life“? (John 6:68)
I do believe that we should defend the church, but the question we must ask ourselves is this: What should we defend the church against? Sometimes the answer is itself. Just as any individual’s worst enemy is themselves, in regards to their struggles with sin, the church’s worst enemy is often itself. I believe that church as described by Paul is, “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15) If we lose the truth, are we still being the church, or are we simply becoming a political club?
Inability to Distinguish Truth
The groundbreaking book When Prophecy Fails, was a sociological and psychological study that framed our understanding of what Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”. It was studied in the context of religious experience. Festinger’s sociology class was embedded into a small religious group that had openly declared that judgment was coming to the earth and that Spacemen were coming to take the faithful away from the impending doom. The group set a date, and Festinger and team were able to work undercover in the group to monitor their responses when the prophecy failed. On December 21, 1954, the Spacemen did not come for them, but apparently Dorothy Martin, the leader, heard from the Spacemen once again. Mercy had been granted to the world, and it was delayed three days, but on Christmas Eve, 1954 the Spacemen did not arrive again. This time newspapers and a crowd of onlookers watched as the group stood on Dorothy’s lawn in a Chicago suburb.
Festinger’s theory can basically be summed up like this: The more committed an individual was to the cause, the more likely they were to keep believing even after their beliefs were disproven publicy. He predicted that those who gave up jobs, left family and sold their goods to support the group would stay committed and even become more evangelistic after the disconfirmation of the event. That is indeed what happened. The most committed became even more evangelistic after the prophecy failed, and one can still find followers of Dorothy Martin’s prophecies today.
Before the election of Donald Trump, I wrote about the problem of cognitive dissonance in the Christian church in America. In Burning Religion (2015) I asked the question, “Could it be that we are living in season of cognitive dissonance similar to that of the UFO believers and followers of Dorothy Martin?” Christianity has been experiencing the ongoing disconfirmation of its prophecies and declarations for decades. Evangelicalism has announced the second coming of Christ, and called judgment down upon the nation. Today, we have turned our apocalypticism into a new hope, but we are declaring an immoral leader as our deliverer.
There is a biblical correlation to cognitive dissonance theory. Paul speaks of those who refuse to believe the truth and how it leads embracing lies, “because they did not receive the love for the truth that they might be saved. Therefore God will send them a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie.” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12) Those who have seen through the dishonesty of Donald Trump are often stunned by how Christian leaders continue to support, even praise the man, and make declarations that it is his critics who are lying. Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the biblical warning against those who do not “love the truth” make sense of this weird season of church life. But one would expect more from leaders embracing the name of Jesus. One expects true discernment, not the acceptance of lies.
Money as the Bottom Line of a Good Life
The problem of a voting for politicians who make us feel as though they will help us get what we want is not new. Americans are often selfish voters. It is becoming rarer to find the individual who thinks of living as described by JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
The turn bottom line as a primary interest of the voter had a strong momentum surge following the 1980s, which has been dubbed the Decade of Greed (rightfully or wrongfully). Bill Clinton famously placed a note in his campaign office: The Economy Stupid! “It’s the economy stupid” became a tagline of the Clinton campaign. Now, in the season of Trump, many Christians have placed the economy at the top of their reason for supporting the President. Prosperity has become their primary concern, but of course, it had been a major talking point from the pulpits of their churches, and we have to ask ourselves if placing the economy at the top of our concerns equates to serving Mammon.
Donald Trump may well represent the victory of greedy capitalism over American Democracy. He told us he could make the “best deals” in trade. His so-called self-made image was his calling card, and having a tough, in fact, sometimes cruel business presence was his modus operandi. But, the economy is good, so it doesn’t matter how he accomplishes it. He is doing what really counts. Of course, we can not even be certain that he is not riding on the coattails of an already rising economy, which began at the end of the Obama years, but that doesn’t matter. The economy is great and nothing else matters quite as much.
The church has fallen in line with this money focused interest, and our leaders are teaching us to think this way. Much of the Evangelical church has equally fallen for the greediest component of American capitalism. It is a question for every season of the church, but even more so now: Are our prophets the prophets of profit, or the prophets of the sacrificial way of Christ? Has the church fallen for the trick of measuring a man’s success by his wallet? And a leader’s skills by how he benefits our own wallets? If so, then Peter’s words ring true for this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, “By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words….” (2 Peter 2:3)
The Worst of the Church as Its New Leadership
My friend Jim Atchley, whose interview will be appearing in one of my Wild Theology podcasts soon, described his concern with the Christian leadership surrounding Donald Trump. Paula White was one of his primary examples. As a leader in the Word of Faith movement, she represents a part of the church which is focused upon wealth and health as a central piece of God’s will for his people. To many of us, whose concern is that people have a loving relationship with God, this theological position represents a deviation from biblical truth.
Jim is concerned that the President is listening to some of the worst of what Christianity has to offer. But then, should we be surprised that a leader whose life has been built around the pursuit of riches and fame, now surrounds himself with those who praise him, tickle his ears, and justify success built off deception and common meanness?
Is this the kind of Christian leadership which has been given access to the highest office in the land? It appears so. Is this the kind of Christianity we want to see elevated to a top spot in the public sphere? It doesn’t matter whether we want it, it is happening in front of our eyes.
The Reputation of the Church in Age of Trump
One of the primary worries of the Evangelical church has been losing it’s American Christian Heritage. Topics such as abortion, and gay marriage are on the forefront of many conservative Christian minds. Problematically, the church has to ask itself whether it has made a Faustian deal. Have we compromised our ethics to get some of the things we find most important?
Our President recently had almost no serious concern for any of these issues he says he now supports. Could it be that he is using Evangelical hot button issues for the sake of acquiring and maintaining power? Until fairly recently, he was a Democrat and declared himself to be pro-choice. But now, in a moment of political expediency, he is suddenly pro-life. Is his change of heart legitimate, or a long slow deliberation toward power? We may never know, but it is a legitiamte concern.
In the end we are forced to consider that it may well be a deal with devil. At the very least we’ve already lost a good deal of our reputation – not for the sake of the truth, but because of our attachment to a hypocritical faith.
It may not only be the reputation of the church, but the soul of Evangelicalism may also be a stake. Is the dog wagging the Evangelical tail to get what he wants from us, or are some of the leaders of the Evangelical Right acting as the tail wagging the dog to get what they want from a man greedy for power? These are not just possibilities, they are likely scenarios, and the church may be selling its soul. Either way, it looks like a Faustian deal.