The years proceeding the 2016 primary season have been fraught with contentious, and often troublesome, developments regarding the moral and religious direction of our country. In all honesty, I was prepared for a persecuted church. What I was not prepared for was the advent of the persecuting church.
The rise of Donald Trump as the frontrunner for the GOP is not, in retrospect, a very surprising event. As a people Americans love to be entertained, especially when we mix entertainment and politics. As a people we worship the material things of life, and are all-too-eager to point to accumulated wealth as a marker of good character. Add to this the political inefficiency and decay of the last seven years, the leadership vacuum it has created, and high levels of dissatisfaction found across our nation and the stage was set.
When people are hurting, when people are fearful, when people feel impotent and unheard, they are primed for the rise of a demagogue. And a demagogue who is a former reality TV star, who also happens to be “very, very, rich” by his own boasting, seems tailor-made for such a time as this.
What is both shocking and saddening in recent months is the widespread acceptance and promotion of Donald Trump’s candidacy among evangelical voters. We all witnessed the embarrassing endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr. – son of the founder of the Moral Majority – who praised the Christ-like qualities of this vain and unrepentant owner of strip clubs and casinos. I sat disappointed, yet not surprised, when Pat Robertson – the former leader of the Christian Coalition – all but kissed Donald Trump’s golden feet while hosting him at Regent University. We now watch day after day as sundry Evangelical pastors and leaders throughout the country declare their support for Donald Trump’s supposed leadership strength.
I say “supposed” strength lest anyone forget that we serve a God whose ultimate act of strength was to become man and die a painful and disgraceful death on a cross. That is the type of strength we ought to admire, one of humility and sacrifice, not the image of Nietzsche’s strong man who disparages, tramples and mocks anyone who stands in his way.
Donald Trump’s Christian supporters like to claim that we don’t vote for a pastor-in-chief, rather we vote for a commander-in-chief. Leave aside the fact that many of these people are the same ones who four years ago were suspicious of Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon. Or that in 2008 and every day since a large number of these church-goers have berated Barak Obama regarding his lack of Christian orthodoxy, his ties to Jeremiah Wright, or even suspicions that he is actually a Muslim. Leave aside the immense hypocrisy of a people who claim to care about moral issues in politics such as abortion or the sanctity of marriage but who willingly disassociate themselves from any vision of political leadership that asks our president to lead us with wisdom in justice and truth.
What person of integrity, what person of faith, can honestly say that the qualities they look for in a commander-in-chief are any of the myriad of despicable character traits that Donald Trump exhibits every day in this campaign?
I think the true answer lies in one of Donald Trump’s biggest, most repeated claims: that he is a “winner.” Evangelical Christians have been anything but winners of late, most especially those who associate with the remnants of the political movement created by the religious right of the 80’s and 90’s. We’ve been losers in popular culture, losers in the legislature, losers in the economy, and losers in the Supreme Court. So why not join with the one man who is telling you that you will be a winner?
He will win for our economy and solve your financial troubles. He will win in foreign policy and crush the enemies you fear. He will win so that all people will declare Merry Christmas come December irrespective of what they are actually celebrating. He will win on the border and with immigration so big that you won’t have to learn Spanish or worry about people taking jobs that you don’t really want to do in the first place. He will win for Christianity and make sure all those martyrs beheaded in the Middle East and those martyrs in Chickfila drive thrus across the nation are avenged and put back where they belong – on top. It’s time for Christians to win again!
Never mind the cost of all this winning. Never mind that Jesus taught us that his followers would not win in this world. In fact, we ought to expect to be loathed by this world. Never mind who gets trampled upon as long as we win so huge we can’t even believe it. Illegal immigrants and their legal children, all Muslims regardless of character, women who don’t want to be objectified, liberals, homosexuals, journalists, critics: none of these people matter as real people upon whom we ought to show compassion and treat with respect so long as we can win.
In supporting Donald Trump, American Christians say to the world that they mostly just care to win; it does not matter who gets hurt or damaged along the way. In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will use their privilege and their voice to threaten, intimidate, and bully anyone who is different, anyone who disagrees. In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will persecute those who persecute them.
Jesus said we ought to bless those who persecute us. Donald Trump says we ought to condemn, sue, disparage, and beat down those who persecute us. Here is a cold, hard truth: in the ethic of Donald Trump, Jesus Christ was a dope and loser who was so stupid and lacking in support that he ended up penniless and dead in a cave instead of being a winner like The Donald.
The danger of evangelicals who support all the nonsense that comes pouring forth from this man’s mouth transcends typical political discussion. This is not a question of Republican vs. Democrat on issues of policy or ideology. This is a question of basic human dignity.
You can’t dissociate yourself from the vile filth that fills Trump’s Twitter feed in a constant stream of insults and ignorance in order to justify support of him. A vote for Donald Trump IS a vote for his tarnished character, a vote for the inculcation of untruths, and a vote for his methods of appealing to the most despicable parts of our nature.
Some Trump supporters like to point out that no one is perfect, no not one. But do you honestly think that means we should go out there and find someone who actively promotes all the worst that our base humanity has to offer and vote for that guy?
Are all politicians flawed? Yes. Are some politicians very flawed, if not corrupt and criminal? Most definitely. Yet the logic does not follow that we ought to support for president a fiend who would prey on the fears and disappointments of our hearts to win our vote, just as his casinos prey on the lusts of our bodies to win our money.
In staring down the potential future of the persecuted American church I have moments of fear but am mostly filled with peace. The testimony of millions of saints who have gone before us and faced the worst horrors the world could devise yet still stood for Christ with grace and dignity warms my heart and gives me hope that we could do the same should our time come.
It is this new future we taste of today, a future of a church so obsessed with success, so desiring to win at any cost, and so willing to trample others in the process, that I now fear. I am ready to face persecution for the cause of Christ. But I will not stand idly by as our brothers and sisters choose a path that leads us to persecute our enemies, both real and imagined, in the name of Christ.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that it does not ultimately lie in the hands of con artists, liars, and despots.
This is not the first time, nor sadly is it likely to be the last, that Christians will fall victim to the whims of those in power who wish to exploit our weaknesses for their personal gain. But this season is deeply convicting for those who, like me, see the dangers without more clearly than the dangers within.
It reveals to us in the most humbling of ways that God uses a multiplicity of means to refine his church. Most importantly, these political developments act as a clarion call for our ever-present need to do exactly what was spoken over millions of Christians earlier this month on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”