The relentless ugliness surrounding the Trump campaign continues to keep deeper and darker by the day — especially today. The serious implications of the most sophomoric, intellectually unserious candidacy in the history of contemporary politics become increasingly pronounced. And yet, I have been reluctant to write a piece about it, simply because a) there are already a legion of think pieces about Donald Trump, b) I am tired of thinking about Donald Trump and c) I don’t think anyone who knows me is uncertain about how I feel about such things. I can’t even muster the patience to list the grievances, which are at this point so self-evident to any thoughtful person as to be tedious to recount.
But this is actually not a piece about Trump at all, but about God, judgment and the much larger phenomenon that underwrites the campaign. My peculiar claim is actually not a judgment about Trump at all, but a much more unsettling one: I believe the Donald Trump phenomenon is the judgment of God on America. Note I did not say that God is judging Donald Trump — but that the Trump phenomenon itself is God’s judgment of us. Any of my judgments about Trump are far less interesting, and far less necessary, than God’s judgments on us. This is not an attempt to commandeer the kind of hype, bombast, overstatement and oversimplification that has been so characteristic of this electoral season. It is sober, earnest — and oddly hopeful.
It is hopeful because I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed. Like the book that hits Ruby Turpin upside the head from the angry Mary Grace in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form. I am certain I’d have little in common with the preachers who have endorsed Trump’s candidacy, but I do share their conviction that God can use anyone, and is in fact using Trump — but for very different reasons.
The Trump phenomenon is the hard grace of God bringing our thinly-veiled fear and hatred to the surface. It is painful grace exposing the demonic nature of our villainization of the immigrant, the outsider and the handicapped; the degradation and exploitation of our own daughters, and the empire’s sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies. The way God’s Spirit continues to hold the mirror up to us day after day in the news cycle feels merciless, to be sure. But I am increasingly convinced it is an act of peculiar mercy.
Calling Jesus Lord is not an apolitical claim
Calling Jesus Lord is not an apolitical claim — it has real implications for our real lives in the world, real implications for how we live within our communities. This has nothing to do with party politics, though that is the inevitable accusation whenever a public Christian offers a critique of any political phenomena. The truth is, American party politics cannot fully embody the liberation of the gospel.
Thus, Christians often have deep disagreements about how their faith should be played out in the world. There is an infinite amount of room for this around the big table of the Lord. There are Christians who are deeply convinced that the best way to bear faithful witness to Jesus is to work to leverage systemic change in social structures. There are Christians who are themselves invested deeply in loving the poor and affecting change in their own communities, who do not believe it the job of the government but the Church to enact such change in the same way. All over the continuum and in between, there is space for Christians to be held together by the Eucharist, and by the creed, while conflicting sharply on American politics. This is as it should be. The politics of the kingdom of God ultimately are a radical alternative to the politics of the world, or are no longer the politics of God.
For this reason, I am always nervous when the Church is co-opted by a particular political party — inevitably, the Church loses something of its radical otherness. On the left, this often entails an attempt to bring about good ends without any particular grounding in the teachings of Jesus, the power of the cross, or the empowerment of the Spirit. We attempt to duplicate the civil rights movement (one of the greatest moves of God in the history of America), without the explicit gospel frame of Martin Luther King. But with no reference point to Moses, the exodus, Pentecost, or the Sermon on the Mount, King’s vision of the beloved community cannot survive without its overtly theological center. Concisely put, social change is simply impossible without profound spiritual transformation. When the Church collapses to neatly in with the political left, she too often finds herself with “a form of godliness, denying the power thereof.” For Christians, it is only “in Christ” that world is possible where there is “neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”
On the other hand, when the kingdom is co-opted by the political right, it degenerates into shallow moralism. She becomes legalistic, imitates the self-preserving instincts of the priests without the ground floor human truth of the prophets. If the problem on the left is the attempt to cultivate justice and mercy without the power of the Spirit that makes such gracious space possible, the right embodies the attempt to wrangle down power without grace, tenderness, and empathy — an equally Spirit-less, and perhaps even more depressing, scenario.
syncretistic, homebrewed religion
Yet that is the kind of syncretistic, homebrewed American folk religion of which the Trump phenomenon is the inevitable conclusion. It is “new” not in that it started with this particular electoral season (it has been decades in the making), but new insofar that it is ahistorical, unorthodox, and completely untethered to any historic expression of Christian faith. It is a brash religion full of bluster, swagger, and bravado, in all the ways that America is. America is, after all, the best place for new starter religions — Joseph Smith said God gave him a holy book, and people believed it was so. We didn’t farm out the prosperity gospel to Mexico or China for someone else to make it; it was made in the USA! America is the best country in the world to make up new religions, and then export them.
The one we’ve been making though, is a new religion that borrows the language of an ancient one — alleged Jesus religion, but with a sword instead of a cross. It’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous self-made Bible in reverse: we cut out all the teachings of Jesus, but kept all the miracles. We made the obscure mysterious images of Revelation sound plain, and obscured the plain command to love our enemies into something vague and inexplicable. It’s Showtime, Technicolor religion, a religion that grows bank accounts and penises. It has no theological center. It has no communion table, just a drive-through window. It has no creed — it has something better: pithy slogans! Bumper stickers. It has no ideas that cannot be explained in 140 characters or less, which is a way of saying it has no mystery.
It is a religion of pragmatism, a cult for practical people who see through the naïve idealism of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a religion for people who have the common sense to understand that loving your enemies is an impractical strategy in the real world — smart enough to know you can’t really turn the other cheek. It is pragmatic enough to know you can’t take seriously Jesus’ constant prattling about losing your life to find it — because American religion is all about winning! It is a religion that professes belief in the resurrection while denying the reality of the cross. Jesus is not Lord in this religion — at best only a kind of mascot.
What else could explain the phenomenon of Christians supporting a candidate who openly advocates for torture and even killing the families of one’s enemies? I am myself the product of the unique witness of the peace church (though most Pentecostals today do not recognize the peace church origins of their movement) — but I would acknowledge that just war theory is a legitimate part of historic Christian tradition. Discerning the most faithful way to deal with the reality of evil in the world is complex, and entails a centuries-old conversation in the Church. Torture and killing the family members of a combatant, however, is not just war theory. To bring the name of Jesus into such rhetoric is not just disturbing, it is blasphemous.
This is why, for the record, I deal more directly with the Trump “side” of the current political conversation here — not as an implicit nor explicit endorsement of the Clinton campaign, with which I have deep problems (though different problems than many of my pastoral colleagues seem to have: for example, the Clinton administration enacted arguably the single worst piece of legislation for America’s poor in modern history with the welfare reform they championed. I am much more bothered by this than Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.) It is because the American right continues to directly co-opt the language of my faith — continuing to invoke the name of the Lord of the Church — that I feel especially compelled to speak.
And yet, this is not Jesus religion that we have been constructing for decades. While it has no theological center, it does in fact have God’s name, in spades, uttered often and easy. Though you don’t have to believe anything about Jesus in particular to be part of it — if you’re on the right side against the left, if we share a common enemy, “you’re my brother! You’re my sister!” This religion has no creed, only a mantra: “Lions and Muslims and gays, oh my! Lions and Muslims and gays, oh my!”
What else could explain the son of one of America’s most famous preachers, Jerry Fallwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, publicly endorsing Donald Trump? Or charging Christian college students to arm themselves en masse against potential attackers? Christians in America have plenty of disagreement over the second amendment. I know many Christians who own guns, but don’t know any who would support something as brazenly absurd as telling the angst-ridden college-aged children of fundamentalists to take up arms (who could imagine that going wrong?). What else could explain the open endorsement of a candidate who flagrantly objectifies women, shows contempt for refugees, attacks the parents of a fallen soldier, makes fun of disabled and overweight persons?
This move started when self-professed evangelicals began to adapt political shibboleths as tests of faith as a replacement for the apostles’ creed. Thus when Mitt Romney was running for president (a decent man and candidate I dearly miss right now, mind you), the son of another famous evangelist scrubbed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website of any negative references to Mormonism and implied Romney was a Christian, while publicly questioning Barack Obama’s faith. Because it no longer mattered what you believed about Jesus, and certainly what you believe happens at that silly communion table — it’s all about what you believe about American politics, if you will be part of our us versus their them. The same year, Donald Trump spoke at Liberty University for the first time. The Muppet baby versions of their fathers continued to talk about Jesus, but were acting more like Joseph Smith — a new American made folk religion, was falling from the sky! GLORY! Innovative, new-fangled religion, fresh and bold and brash — like America.
And yet, I do not believe God’s judgment is only against that — the more unsettling reality is that I believe it to be God’s judgment against me. While it is good and right for Christians to denounce much of the Trump agenda, this is the danger — that he becomes yet another scapegoat, that keeps us from having to look at the hard truth about ourselves. Deep down, I know I am complicit in the division that the Trump phenomenon illumines. I am complicit in the culture of materialism, the empire-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies, the exploitation and commercialization of female bodies. And yet my life is comfortable enough to where I am rarely forced to confront these realities; when I am, I can still conscientiously choose to ignore them when I want to (the very definition of “privilege.”)
The meltdown of the Trump campaign is not an occasion for an “I told you so” to evangelicals whose politics I abhor. It is a warning I must take seriously and personally of what could yet come, a sign and a marker of what is, and ultimately my own violent call to severe repentance. It shows me the logical end I meet when I collude in a love-denying, God-crucifying world. But perhaps it also manifests God’s radical grace — that in the midst of rampant misogyny, xenophobia, violence and terror; despite the ways we have ignored the cry of the poor, the outcast, the fatherless and the widow…the God on the cross still says, “Father forgive them, for they know not want they do.” There may yet be space and time to repent, and this is no small grace.
Because I too get caught up in the toxic blame so characteristic of the “spirit of the age” in the Apostle Paul’s phrase, it is easy for me to scapegoat my own blame entirely on the politics of Donald Trump. But earlier this year when I was praying about all of this, I had a much more disturbing revelation settle over me: I can’t hate Donald Trump…because I AM Donald Trump! I am like King David, when the prophet Nathan confronted him in the form of a parable, of a rich man who stole a poor man’s one beloved little lamb. David becomes enraged when he hears the story, and says he will kill this man. The prophet replies, “You are the man!” (Note: I have seen folks today attempt to justify Trump’s comments about by women as if such predatory speech is “normal” for “all us sinners,” by using examples of figures like David. That is not the spirit of what I’m saying here — rather that we cannot afford to be scandalized by the culture of violent speech and action toward women without acknowledging our own complicity in its creation — and our own complicity in creating TRUMP)
The thing I most despise in the world is a direct reflection of the sin in me, of which I am being called to repent. It is too easy for me to behold the sin of a candidate as a distraction from the sin in me, to become another Pharisee who prays, “well at least I am not like…him.” I am not only like him, I am him — and thus the best way I can make the world better, is to first repent. That is the way given for the Church to change the world: not first to call out it’s sins, but to call out our own; not first to tell the world to repent, but to demonstrate to the world what repentance and humility look like in our own lives. There is no more genuine act of prophetic critique, than our own repentance. In light of the most recent revelations about Trump, I can’t help but think God is revealing things in us that must be confessed and repented of. We must speak prophetically to these issues and to these men, to be sure. But it is our own repentance that will give us the humble authority to do so.
make the Church strange again
I know that it may get worse before it gets better, and that the politics of blame and accusation are getting louder on all sides. But this is not all bad news, either. Finally, the difference is becoming clear between the politics of Jesus and the politics of the world. I don’t want Christianity to be rescued from the brink of extinction by the politics of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Authentic Christianity in America may well be pushed to the brink of extinction by it, instead. Let it be pushed to the margins. Let Christianity look foolish again, the way the cross ought to look. Let it be small and weak, so it can be powerful again. Let it die, so it may yet come back to life.
Through the wind, I hear the faint distant crackle and smell the charred air — the sound and smell of Rome, burning. Let it burn. Because when it does, the hearts of the faithful will burn with the flame of the Spirit, even and perhaps especially in the pain and disorientation. Then the saccharine sounds of the top 40 can be replaced with the primal, tribal rhythms of exile songs…and we can make soul music, like the Israelites did. The campaign to “make America great again” might mean that the Church can be made strange again. Thanks be to God.
I do not mean to minimize the reality, that it is a scary time to be an American — or to be a woman, or to be black, or to be Muslim, or to be Mexican, or to be Syrian. It is a scary time to live in this world. But it’s a damn exciting time to be a Christian. So to this end, I raise a glass to you, Mr. Trump. Best-case scenario, you may help kill the church in America — and it’s the best possible thing you could do to help save us from ourselves.