A plurality of American evangelicals, tired of all-talk-no-action politicians controlled by donors or the Washington elite, are supporting Donald Trump. He may not be a strong Christian, they say, but we’re electing a President, not a pastor.
Meanwhile, a growing number of outspoken Christians are voicing their revulsion at Trump’s rise, and are deeply disturbed by the support he receives among fellow believers. I count myself in this latter group, but admit that my pleading and ranting seems ineffective at changing anyone’s mind.
I’m not alone in this futility.
To use terminology borrowed from the world of “inner healing”, the Trump manifestation we see in our country (particularly the church) today is a pernicious fruit, but it is not the root. In many cases, Trump’s popularity among evangelicals is only the natural consequence of the ungodly beliefs we’ve nurtured for years. Here’s where trepidation sets in: I can oppose Trump the fruit, but that doesn’t mean I have no share in the root.
Let’s ignore the relatively surface-level stuff about Trump’s vulgarity. Let’s also grant that one doesn’t need to be a devout Christian to be an effective leader. The core of Trump’s message is that America needs to come first, and that we need a no-nonsense leader who can bring us back to our lost greatness. And in his zero sum world, America wins by beating the others: taking economic gains back from other countries, getting rid of job-stealing illegals, responding tit-for-tat to terrorists, etc.
The problem he sees is that our leaders have been too weak, too constrained by convention, not willing to use force.
Many Christians are excited by the prospect of a strong leader to advance our national interests and destroy our enemies. In the days of Samuel, Israel called for a king. Today we say “our country needs a CEO,” (or at least, in the words of other candidates, someone with the guts to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” or “destroy them before they destroy us.
The problem is that Jesus never said that our national or even our personal interests come first.
Jesus himself, explicitly eschewed nationalism when he welcomed Gentiles and Samaritans, declared that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), and created “one new humanity” (Eph 2:15) out of nations that were formerly locked in hostility.
The most powerful thing he ever did was allow himself to be killed, making a public spectacle of the rulers and authorities of this world, in triumph through the cross (Col 2:15). And this showed us the method by which his Kingdom wins – sacrificial love – not so we could admire it, but so we could follow suit (Phil 2:1-11).
When Jesus said that you cannot serve two masters, the principle was not limited to “money” (Matt 6:24), as if that’s the only way one’s loyalty can be divided. Money is generally a good thing, but can become a source of security or identity that competes with Christ for mastery of your heart. The same is true of tribal loyalty, but to American Christian ears, how blasphemous does it sound to say “you cannot serve both God and country”?
Yet, this easily follows from Jesus’ teaching.
Our ancestors in the faith went to their deaths for refusing to declare that Caesar was Lord, but we readily serve the idol of national power, giving to Caesar what is God’s: our energy, passion and unquestioning loyalty.
This loyalty to national and tribal interests allows us to overlook injustices – from drone strikes killing civilians to the prospect of mass deportations – as long as they are not done to our people. At the root of our obsession with America’s greatness, and the Trump manifestation in the American church, is this ungodly belief: Jesus is not enough. His love-your-enemy ways are not sufficient to overcome the evil in this world. I need something more to protect my religion from assault, and to keep me and my family safe. If we don’t confront these lies, we’ll always be vulnerable to the allure of the worldly strength, power and influence.
When our Founders said that “all men are created equal,” Martin Luther King Jr. saw a “promissory note” that needed to be honored. I pray that another (albeit apocryphal) rallying cry of our Revolutionary forefathers will come into its true meaning for a generation of believers without divided loyalties:
“No King but Jesus!”