Trump: King Saul For A New Generation
No good case can be made that Donald Trump possesses the three basic leadership qualities prized by Christians throughout our history as an Abrahamic faith. These qualities are selflessness, humility and wisdom. However, one can make a very good case that Trump possesses qualities akin to Saul, the first of many disastrous kings in Israel’s monarchy (not to mention the Herodian Dynasty of Jesus’ day). Trump is observably self-serving, haughty and rash, among other things.
So why are Christians supporting Trump? I believe it’s due to one or more of the following reasons:
- Nationalism — they are suspending the value of fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith because they cannot separate their national identity from that faith.
- Marginal Faith — they don’t know the aforementioned characteristics and are Christians in name only, as more of a socio-religious identification than identification with Christ’s ways.
- Materialism. They love money. It informs their Christianity and not the reverse.
Yes, I Am Judging.
As the Church, we have sound, Biblical reason to judge others who claim to be united to us by our faith in Christ, but functionally deny him. In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul writes, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.” To be sure, Christianity knows nothing of judging those who do not believe as we do. That’s left to God. But we are taught to judge those inside the church who are clearly out of sync with the ethics of Jesus, for the sake of our mutual health. Paul’s words are strong, specifically referring to immorality of a sexual nature. But the principle remains the same to govern the way we represent Christ to a watching world — with our bodies or with our smallish roles in politics. Judging our corporate interior is humbling business and should be done with great care for people and sensitivity to God’s Spirit. But it must be done for our health.
What follows is further explanation of the three reasons I mentioned:
Nationalism & Christian Identity
This group could best be understood as “Christian Americans,” as opposed to American Christians — the order of the noun and modifier matter. It’s no secret the “God and country” mentality is alive and well today. America’s national identity and trajectory have been closely associated with the Kingdom of God since the Revolution. Her democratic prosperity has been the sign of greatness, at least for the particular groups who’ve benefitted most from American prosperity. Though these supporters would not likely want the Donald as their own boss, they are politically committed in their dissent from liberals, while invested in the promise of a return to American greatness that lacks any specific strategy beyond beating China on trade, killing Islamic terrorists’ families and building a wall on our southern border.
No doubt America has been an instrument in the world for many great things and she has had many Christian leaders who’ve leveraged the blessings of a vast country with massive resources and a commitment to individual liberty, albeit tragically selective. But many other countries have been great. Just because America has done it bigger, doesn’t mean America is better. God has never been impressed with nor has he required “big” to work out his gracious will. In most cases, he has done quite the opposite to make a point about how the Kingdom of God works. Abraham was an old man with no kids, became wildly wealthy, but lived in a tent all his life. David was just a shepherd boy when he killed Goliath. Jesus was a Galilean peasant whose humility before God and others was his strength, transforming the hearts of other Galilean nobodies (and the world) with penetrating truth and relentless, sacrificial love. In short, America’s greatness is not a badge of God’s approval to be recovered — and certainly not by means of a self-serving leader who thinks divine forgiveness, for which Jesus came, is reserved for lesser beings than himself.
Marginals Are Pretty Mainstream
There are untold thousands of people in America who will say they are Christians, but their practice of faith more closely resembles what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call moralistic therapeutic deism. That is, they are oriented to be good, to expect God to make them happy and to believe he is mostly distant — think: “the Man upstairs.” This orientation is not remotely representative of historic Christian belief and practice, but it is very common in America among both young and old. It’s popular, but historically marginal.
Marginals know very little about the Jesus of history or of the Church’s historical teachings. This is because many espouse a Christianity that sprung up with revivalism in America, when becoming a Christian amounted to choosing Jesus and thus securing yourself to heaven when you die. Or, their Christianity was handed down by family in the form of a spiritually-insipid, church-going moralism. This describes a huge swath of what is called “evangelicalism” but also describes many progressives, for whom Christian belief and practice are as fluid as culture, mostly sentimental and ritualistic.
Because multitudes of Christian Americans have long been cut off from 2000 years of normative global Christianity by distinctly American innovations, they can readily hail Trump (and others) without concern for how incongruous his leadership is to Christianity. Moreover, Trump embodies the American exceptionalism and religious innovation that has given rise to the redefinition of the Church, much of it in the name of cultural relevance. But this relevance is really a thin veil for expedience in pursuit of numerical growth — the legacy of revivalism that hollowed out so much of Christianity’s rich tradition and creedal identity. It’s no surprise this brand of Christianity supports him, and that another marginal expression supports the heterodox version of Methodism that the Clintons espouse. This is the legacy of Christianity in America.
Having Is Next to Holiness
This final reason relates to the other two. America has been so wildly prosperous that we’ve even adapted our own theological system to support the notion that Americans should, by nature, be rich and powerful. Not everyone attends church in an auditorium with grinning pastors in expensive suits, but many Christian Americans believe God exists to make them happy. The thread of the prosperity gospel is woven into the tapestry of the American religious landscape. They believe having is next to holiness. And for many, their desire to put a filthy rich “winner” in office is just a veiled scarcity mentality that grows from the belief that money can allay our fears, make us happy and, thereby, save us. Among this crowd, God is a supplement to the Gospel of the American Dream. To boot, pitting us against other comers, as Trump does, squares with this scarcity mentality and suggests I can only have so long as others (Mexicans, Muslims, China, the Democrats) don’t threaten to take.
Doesn’t Christ tell us God is the One who provides for his children who ask for bread — even for the birds, who don’t ask? Doesn’t he tell us not to fear for such things, nor to clamor for them? He said, “One’s life does not exist in the abundance of his possessions.” Read his whole point in Luke 12. But to hear some Christian Americans talk, you’d think he said the exact opposite. How can we square our faith with such undue focus on material possessions?
Invoking Christ While Opposing Him
Does nationalism at the expense of humility square with Christian ethics? Does self-service at the expense of prudence sound like Christ’s authentic legacy? Does materialism have any place in the life of those who are called to lay up treasures in heaven and set their affections on things above? If not, then we have to call it out for what it is: wrong — and with the potential for injustice and evil. It’s not unloving to point this out. Quite the opposite. Otherwise the world might associate Christianity with values that actually oppose our Christ.
A vote for Donald Trump is consent to his culture of leadership and his view of people as belonging to two categories — winners or losers. It’s capitulation to his toxic way of relating to others who are unlike him, and collusion with his boorish lack of humility and his unbridled narcissism. A vote for Trump means embracing his Saul-ish values. It’s quite easy, Biblically, to say he has little or nothing of what Christians value in leadership, regardless of what suspending these values might seem to yield in the “secular world,” which is a figment of the very dualistic imagination Christianity opposes. You can’t have a purely secular leader, as the implications of governing in God’s world are sacred. All of creation is sacred. Nations are sacred. People are sacred.
The attributes that make God a great king, reflected in good human leadership, are what can preserve the good, beautiful and true, despite the ever-presence of sin, ugliness and false ideology. Israel fell into a trap when they demanded to have a human king over them so they could “be like all the other nations.” So long as their impressive king panned out, they expected to be greater than all the other nations. They suspended their values as a people set apart for God so they could embrace the same self-serving, power hungry ideology that precariously propped up other nations, thus rejecting God as king.
Christians must vote, and that often entails choosing the lesser of two evils in an arguably corrupt two-party system. However, Trump is not the lesser evil among this present field. And America will not be great again if “American (adj.) Christians (n.)” mistake the (adj.) for the (n.) and elect a King Saul for our time.