Recently, I ran a series of Facebook posts asking people to respond to a statement by Donald Trump that, “most religious leaders loved” his visit to Saint John’s Episcopal Church near the White House with it’s Bible propped photo op. The moment was shrouded in controversy, if not a bit of tear gas, as the President walked from the White House to the location of Saint John’s with his posse of politicians and security, after having the streets cleared of protesters. At the time of Trump’s now infamous walk, the protesters were peaceful, but the means of clearing the way appeared to be heavy-handed and forceful. It included pushing the protesters back using the shields of the Park Police, National Guards, and unmarked police forces; and shooting tear gas (or pepper spray balls) and rubber bullets. (Note: there has been some debate about the actual resources used for this event.)
My first post was directed to Christians, and more specifically to Christian leaders. The second post was directed to my non-Christian friends, and was reposted by Christian Day, a Witch from Salem, MA now living in New Orleans.
My Facebook friends had an overwhelmingly negative opinion of Trump’s church photo op, and viewed it as a bad example of Christian behavior. There was a minority of about 20% of the Christians who did not voice opposition to it, and they were evenly split between those who fully approved of Trump’s actions and those who held a somewhat reticent or ambivalent position on it. This overall strong negative opinion was to be expected, because I am not a Trump supporter, but the actual disapproval of his action is not the point of this post. What I want to address is what the disapproval of Trump’s actions says about the reputation of Christianity among our non-Christian friends, and strangely I found great hope through the interactions on this Facebook post.
Something remarkable occurred in the ensuing discussion, and I realized I have taken this for granted over the last 25 years of working with and living among the Witch and Neo-Pagan community in Salem, MA, across the US, and even in the UK. It took my astute friend Stephen Simmonds to alert me to the obvious.
Stephen, a Christian with similar leanings to myself (we both fall into a quirky/nerdy/dangerously adventurous category), commented that the post directed to non-Christians was far more interesting than the one directed to Christian leaders. He noticed that the non-Christians (predominantly Witches and Neo-Pagans, some agnostics/atheists, and some seeking post-Evangelicals) appeared to feel sorry for the Christians who do not support Trump. They voiced concern that his actions were not an expression of true Christianity. The act of marching to the church following the violent clearing of the street was seen as a travesty, and antithetical to the example Jesus presents us. Stephen addressed his observation to me personally:
“Normally when a politician gets up and brandishes a Bible in front of a church the non-religious opposition is based on anger at the mixing of church and state, and at mainstream Christians for influencing politics. I’ve never before seen a majority react with what can only be described as pity for the church…comments to the effect of “I’m disgusted to see a symbol that means so much to so many being disrespected like this”.”
What Stephen saw in the comments to my question about Trump’s visit to Saint John’s was a mixture of dismay and disgust, because Trump was seen as crossing a line that should not have been approached. That line was the line where the sacred/divine was utilized as a tool for personal ambition.
Josh Turiel is a Salem City councilor and a good friend of mine. Josh is Jewish and identifies along the agnostic/atheist spectrum. His comment highlighted something that was perhaps the most common thread among non-Christians, “I may not be Christian (or religious), but I have far too much respect for religion to go for a display like that. Regardless of party. Pandering to a religious group for your own purposes is not religion.”
Here, Josh equates “pandering” with something irreligious. Although religion has clearly been used throughout history as a means for less noble individuals to gain both money and power by appealing to sacred symbols and their related meanings for justification and manipulation, true religion does not follow that pattern, in Josh’s opinion.
In a community response by atheists, agnostics, Witches, Pagans, and assorted religious and non-religious others there was a widely agreed observation that one can only equate as an appeal to the “No True Scotsman” argument. Scottish philosopher Anthony Flew is the originator of this philosophical term. It first appears in An Introduction to Western Philosophy in 1971. It basically works like this: A man reads a story in the newspaper about an Englishman who commits a heinous sexual crime, and remarks, “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day another story is pointed out to him about a Scotsman who commits an even more heinous criminal sexual act, and the man replies, “Aye, but no TRUE Scotsman would do such a thing.”
The “No True Scotsman” argument is typically categorized under fallacies, but within religious categories, it sometimes has valid use. This is particularly true in descriptions among specific sects of religion. Christianity has a sociological face that describes nearly a quarter of the population of the earth. This definition of Christianity is foreign to many devout Christians, because Jesus described our faith as one in which an individual is “born of God” rather than having the religion passed on through family traditions and bloodlines. (John 1:12-13) Thus, it is not uncommon to hear a Christian say that another is “not a true Christian.” Strangely, in the comments to this post, it was not the Christians, but people from other religious traditions who used the “No True Scotsman” argument most frequently.
No True Christian
As a group, the non-Christians were nearly unanimous in joining in with the comment that was alluded to by Josh. Whereas Josh said that Trump’s action was not the action of religion, or to be more specific – true religion, others were far more specific, and declared that Trump was no Christian.
Christian Day, a dear friend, a Witch, and the owner of a number occult shops and festivals declared, “The idea that this man is a Christian, even a “baby Christian” as I’ve seen so many Evangelicals insist, is farcical in the extreme.”
Christian re-posted my question on his own Facebook profile, and drew even more responses. Sandra Mariah Wright another Witch friend from Salem took it to another level by suggesting that allowing Trump to call himself a Christian was not something Christians should put up with, “He cannot name a single verse of the Bible that influences him when asked. Why should he? He’s not religious…If I were a Christian I would be shouting from the rooftops that there is no way he is one.”
My friend and a former Salem neighbor, Sue creatively simplified these feelings by playing with Trump’s repeated references to fake news, “You know how I feel Phil – fake Christian. Fake Human. Fake President.”
Overwhelmingly, people did not identify Trump’s behavior with the kind of action Christians should take. For Trump supporters, these responses are difficult to read, but whether or not Trump is a Christian, and whether his actions were noble or selfish is not the particular point I want to address here. The comments in this online interaction give us insight into how those looking at Christianity from the outside view our religion in the light of this public display of religious self-identification. The reputation of Christianity stands and falls in the public understanding of such portrayals, and in observing this online interaction with my friends, it gives me some small degree of hope for the reputation of my faith.
In almost 30 years of interaction with the witchcraft and Neo-Pagan community, I have seen considerable respect toward the teachings of Christ, and the foundational bases for Christianity. Neo-Pagan respect for Christianity far outstrips Christian feelings toward their community of faith. I have discovered similar responses from many who identify as atheist or agnostic. Even while many of them have shown respect for my faith, Christians have often treated these outsiders as some radical and dangerous “other”. They are to be feared, rebuked, or at the very least – simply avoided.
These examples of non-Christian responses to Donald Trump’s clumsy attempts to identify with Christianity show that many outsiders to the Christian faith have a far more positive view of Christianity as a religion than they do of the President’s behavior. I cannot help but believe that they hold more hope in the core values of our faith remaining strong than many Christians currently do.
In the comments to my question, many described identifying marks of what they believe a true Christian is. Of course, non-violence was at the top of the list, and this was in response to the way the peaceful protesters were driven out by force for the photo op. Yet, at a deeper level, people understood that Christianity was a self-sacrificing religion as opposed to a self-serving religion, and the large majority of the responders saw Trump’s behavior as self-serving.
A Christ of Carnal Convenience?
” All this is too horrible to contemplate, and I hope that the proponents of this modern accommodating Christ do not see the implications that lie in their shoddy doctrine. But perhaps they do see, and are willing nevertheless to offer this utilitarian Christ as the Saviour of mankind. If so, then they no longer believe in the deity nor the lordship of Christ in any proper definition of those words. Theirs is a Christ of carnal convenience, not too far removed from the gods of paganism.”
– A.W. Tozer, Root of the Righteous pg. 13
The firebrand Chicago preacher, A.W. Tozer described a Jesus who answers our every prayer, no matter how selfish it is. This Jesus will help a boxer beat another to a pulp in the ring. He will answer your prayers for your favorite football team, and he will help you take advantage of another person in a business deal. He is a “utilitarian Christ” who answers our whims and fancies. Tozer rightly identified this false image of a Jesus who panders to our every lust and greed as a false Christ. But, Tozer may have been wrong on one point, this “carnal Christ of convenience” apparently WAS “far removed from the gods of paganism”, because my Pagan friends appear to understand that asking Jesus to fill your lust bucket is highly unethical. We can give Tozer the benefit of the doubt on his misunderstanding of Neo-Paganism, because he wrote this in the 1940’s when the modern Western Neo-Pagan movement was still in it’s embryonic stages – if existent at all.
It is quite clear by the statements from my non-Christian friends that there is a line of action that determines the validity of one’s faith, and self-serving actions cross the line toward faithlessness.
Dawn Gill didn’t see Trump’s faith as anything except as a means to service his personal interests, “I don’t believe he has faith. Even the most right wing religions show caring for their people. Trump has false faith when it serves his higher interests.”
Nora Brown Kulisz echoed Dawn’s response, and added the dimension of worship to the President’s self-serving behavior, “The only gods he worships are money and power. He, like so many others, has found a way to pervert religion, specifically Christianity, into a profitable commodity and a means to an end, nothing more.”
Ceit, who identifies as Pagan, took it to another level by equating Trump’s actions to something that is perhaps as close to satanic as any Pagan worldview will ever get, “Oh I do think he has faith, in money, greed, and engorged and feasting on pain of others. I don’t believe in [an] all evil deity, but I do believe evil is a human manifestation of ego, and Trump is an example of that evil in action.”
Perhaps the most succinct and cutting observation came from Angela, when she commented, “Trump’s only God is himself.”
The above comments illustrate an understanding about some of the major characteristics of Christian holiness: service, humility, and repentance. Christianity’s vitality within the social sphere is discovered in one of the great themes of the crucifixion – self-negation as the path to self-realization, and God-realization. Scriptures quickly come to mind in this context of what I am describing here as “self-negation” as a means to fulfillment: “The last shall be first, and the first last.” “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Christianity is not a convenience, personal gain, or me-first based religion. It is an others-first religion. The actions in front of Saint John’s church appeared to be a clear inversion of this others-before-myself motif, and that inversion occurred within the motivation for personal gain. The result is that it was viewed as obscene.
The Obscenity of a Self-Serving Religion
People responded to the event with descriptions of strong emotion. They viewed the act, as they do many of Trump’s other actions with disgust.
Elizabeth Flatcher Barnes saw the act as mocking hypocrisy, “I find his actions to be very hypocritical and more of a mockery or political move to rally his supporters within the Christian faith.”
Jamie Crystal Martin expanded her feelings beyond Christianity and saw the moment in front of Saint John’s Church as something that any religious person should be offended by, “I found that action to be offensive to anyone with a religion.”
My traveler friend Hollis couldn’t find enough words with the dis- prefix to describe her feelings, “It was disgraceful, disrespectful and disgusting.”
This disgust was based in the self-serving aspect the commenters believed they saw in Trump’s behavior. It was seen as a moment providing some kind of sick gratification for his followers who saw him brandishing the Bible, and in this sense, it was obscene.
“I found it to be a disgusting use of religion to try to pander to the evangelical base.” Colleen Callahan utilized the word “pander” just as Josh Turiel did, and they were not alone. The word was used multiple times about the President’s actions in playing to his white Evangelical supporters.
We find the character of Pandarus in Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde. This story was later made into a play by Shakespeare. The character acts as a go between for sexual liaisons. Although Pandarus first makes his appearance in the Iliad, it is the elderly lecherous Pandarus of Chaucer and Shakespeare that popularizes the term “to pander” as a reference to procuring for, or selling sexual favors to another – i.e. to pimp. In common usage today it has come to mean to gratify or indulge someone’s immoral desires.
The use of the word “pander” to describe Donald Trump’s behavior toward his white Evangelical supporters was an appropriate usage when we consider how the non-Christian respondents viewed playing the Christian card to draw political support. The disgust with which they viewed his actions is tantamount to seeing it as pornographically obscene. They saw the President pimping Christianity to an orgiastic following that found no wrong in his actions. They bought what he was selling, and according to my friends, he was selling religion like a pimp sells the underage girl on the corner.
Now, you may or may not agree with their assessment of Donald Trump, but we should be encouraged by the fact that Christianity still carries enough positive value, even among those who are not Christians, that they feel compelled to defend it in the face of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, this positive assessment of our religion as a whole does not necessarily carry over to American Evangelicalism. Many non-Christians have a positive view of Jesus, and of Christianity, but they feel that Evangelicalism has lost its way. They believe it has become a religion of hypocritical right-wing politics and power.
Jesse Matthews spoke about this from a been-there-done-that perspective, “I found it absolutely disgraceful. Somewhat ironically, I also found it perfectly representative of so much of what is hypocritical and wrong with American Evangelicalism.”
Lainie Williams put it in far more direct terms, “Christianity is a farce in America. People who call themselves Christians are filled with hate, judgment, and are so hypocritical it is laughable to think that they call themselves Christians. The word Christian means to be christ-like, right? I don’t see that reflected in most people who use that moniker.”
Defending the Faith
And in all this commenting by atheist, agnostic, Pagan, Witch, and assorted non-Christian and post-Christian friends and acquaintances describing their disgust of Donald Trump’s behavior, this one thing stood out: They were willing to defend my faith in spite of the President’s actions.
Melanie Marquis, a Pagan author of books on magic, ended her comment with these words, “The churches must stand up for what they truly believe. You can quote me on this!”
In this peculiar moment of political and religious history, my non-Christian friends offered a solid defense of my faith on my behalf, and they provided empathy during this tragicomic moment. I can only hope that the American Christian community will be able to “stand up” and do the same thing someday soon. I’m not as hopeful about that.