Is Donald Trump a Christian?
Whoo boy. I’ve seen a plethora of opinions about this matter, from “Of course he isn’t,” to “He is the last great hope of the Christian way in America!” Obviously, me being me, I have opinions about this matter. So, it seems, does everyone else. Even my secular and atheist and agnostic friends seem to want to have a say in this matter about whether or not Trump is a Christian. This raises some interesting questions for me.
Firstly, who gets to decide whether someone is a Christian or not? Especially in Protestantism, where there is no central authority like the Pope, from where and whom do we get our judgmental authority? Are we even allowed to make these kinds of judgments about whether or not an individual person has had an “authentic” conversion? These theological questions should be asked, and I am definitely interested in them. However, from a religious studies perspective, I’m of the J.Z. Smith school of thought that we ought to take people at face value about what religious identities they claim. If they claim to be a Buddhist, they’re a Buddhist. Therefore, Donald Trump must be taken seriously as a Christian, simply due to the fact that he claims that identity.
This perspective raises its own unique set of questions and trails for wandering down intellectually. What does it mean for Trump to be taken seriously as a Christian? What does that say about the state of Christianity in America? What does it say about others who also claim that identity?
In reality, ours is not the first generation to deal with these questions. Christians (and people of all faith traditions, really) have grappled with what to do when their particular brand of religion becomes the dominant form of a society and is tied together with institutional and governmental authority. There have been others who have already made intellectual connections between Trump and the legacy of Emperor Constantine on ancient Christianity, and I’d like to build on that thought process.
Since Western Christianity has been the dominant religious identity in the West since the time of Constantine, this is not a one to one comparison with Trump’s rise. However, a correlation that can be made is a look at the TYPE of Christianity that has been reinforced and gained ground in this election and what it means for global Christianity.
It’s no secret that evangelical Christians have felt like they’ve been losing traction and that their rights and freedoms have been threatened in the past number of decades. While they have continued to enjoy extreme freedom and influence, the fear of experiencing decline has led to a digging in of heels. This has expressed itself in a doubling down on the culture wars and in the election of Donald Trump, a man that evangelicals wouldn’t have given a platform 20 years ago, but in these “desperate” times, it has been justified as a move that had to be made.
When Constantine came to power in the 4th century, the small Christian community had been experiencing extreme, legitimate persecution, but had continued to grow since the time of Christ. When Constantine converted to Christianity (the motivations of which can be debated elsewhere), it had serious public implications. Christianity was given a platform of power after a couple of centuries of repression. While this led to a growth and expansion of Christian thought that would have been unimaginable otherwise, it also led to Christians almost immediately reversing roles and moving into the space of the oppressors. In a couple of cases that historian Joseph Lynch reports, “Unauthorized illegal violence also broke out…Christian mobs, often reinforced by monks, smashed the idols and demolished the temples of the gods, and in extreme cases killed prominent pagans. In 415, a Christian mob at Alexandria killed the influential female pagan philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer named ‘Hypatia.’”
Of course, at this time there were Christians who were not creating mobs and killing pagans, but these are some of the first expressions of Christians, who had just gained institutional power, moving into the role of oppressor. It is important to recognize that for some modern Christians, Trump’s election has incited just this kind of violence, as their frustration, anger, and feelings of repression now have been validated and justified.
As a Christian myself, I recognize that my identity is tied up in Trump’s Christianity. I am complicit for it, responsible for it, and must grapple with what his Christianity means for mine. It is also a reminder that there are now, and always have been, multiple forms of Christianity and no single unified version of the faith. So, while my Christianity is tied up with Trump’s, there is also space for differentiation and challenge, and it seems that at times like these in the world, those point of divergence are more poignant and necessary.
 Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 138.