One year ago, I turn on my office computer in the mid-afternoon to see why I had so many messages only to see the news of the attack on the Capitol Building. It is not my purpose to assign blame for that event, it was a grim day in American history and should not be repeated, but I am not qualified to speak about who bears what blame for causing it. Those who participated in the attack certainly need to have their methods for handling political disagreements called into question. I also need to admit that I care precisely because there were a number of Christian signs and symbols leading the charge into the Capitol and as much as I might want to call those men and women brother and sister, it is difficult when they acted in a way so at odds with the Christian ideal. But the perpetrators of this event are not the only ones who need to rethink their political methodologies. The events of the past six years have made me think long and hard about what it means for a Christian to engage in politics. This is the first in a small series of posts that I am titling America The Christian Nation and in this series I want to look at what it would mean for this country and the government to act Christ-like (Christian means Christ-like).
The event that provided the spark for this series was Donald Trump Jr speaking at the Turning Point USA rally on December 19; I thought his comment to the crowd was unusually insightful. He said,
“If we get together, they cannot cancel us all. Okay? They won’t. And this will be contrary to a lot of our beliefs because — I’d love not to have to participate in cancel culture. I’d love that it didn’t exist. But as long as it does, folks, we better be playing the same game. Okay? We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference — I understand the mentality — but it’s gotten us nothing. Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
Donald Jr. is exactly right, there is no way the movement he represents will ever reclaim power by holding to the concept of turning the other cheek; I do not see any conceivable way that the Trumps regain political power and hold to the morality of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). Living up to Jesus’ call would mean these individuals would need to humble themselves and listen to the criticism leveled against them. Truly listening to the criticism of the last four years would imply those leaders must stay silent and admit some level of fault for things that did not go well. This strategy will never fly, especially with those who have spend the last year hyping the idea that they lost power because of fraud. It would be political suicide to turn the other cheek, admit there was no fraud in the election and that Mr. Trump made mistakes in office- but that is precisely the method Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount.
Ironically, on the same day Donald Jr. made this comment, Donald Sr. was being praised by Robert Jeffress in a worship(?) service, where he delivered his Christmas message. During this Christmas message Mr. Trump Sr. made reference to this country needing a savior and that savior being Christ. Many I know will praise Mr. Trump for this statement of faith and like Mr. Jeffress cling on to that line to show that they are backing the truly moral side in the culture wars referenced by both Trumps December 19. Such a token allusion to Jesus will be perceived as a genuine statement of faith though it appears to be little more than a gloss of civil religion. These token allusions are simply illusions masking the truth of Mr. Trump’s beliefs. At about the 9:40 mark of the video Mr. Trump equates belief with “…believing in our country…” (notice he does not say belief in God) and even though he gives lip service to Jesus being our strength, he finds the ultimate source of America’s prestige is in our military strength that provides respect around the world (10:35). In these and other such statements it is easy to recognize that Mr. Trump believes only in his vision of an economically and militarily strong America. [Note I am not inherently passing judgment on this vision, I am simply saying his vision is not of an America focused on Christian virtues.] There is no way to make Mr. Trump’s message of military strength compatible with “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44). Donald Sr. sent mixed [perhaps veiled is a better word] messages to a church crowd but his comments aligned with Donald Jr.’s straightforward remark to a group of students. Both believe that aggressive strength is necessary for political power in the United States and within world politics. Sadly, though the Trumps might be the most outspoken about the need for strength and retaliation within American politics, they are not alone. In fact, a good case can probably be made that many (if not most) American politicians, on both sides of the aisle, agree with Donald Jr. that the Sermon on the Mount needs to be relegated to the backseat in the name of expediency.
I am not so naive as to think that the immediately answer to this issue is to put a bunch of Christian pastors [or even a pluralistic group of religious leaders] into the halls of power. This nation would disintegrate over night if we suddenly made the Sermon on the Mount the norm for politics. Rather, Christians engaging politics must engage in meditating on these ideas.
How much immorality am I willing to tolerate in the leaders I support? We know no one is perfect yet each one of us must wrestle with this question and each person might have a different answer. What is the line at which an elected official or candidate looses your support? [If the line is the (d) or (r) you have a poor line.
Am I holding leaders to an equal bar? This is the test that so many seem to fail. As Christianity Today so thoughtfully reminded us in 2019 Bill Clinton & Donald Trump both were unfaithful husbands and lied repeatedly to the American people about their lives. If I support one of these individuals politically I must judge fairly, either morality matters in the White House or it does not. It is valid like, Peter Leithart did, to say morality takes a backseat to issues, but if one takes that position one must then blatantly acknowledge the moral shortcomings of one’s own choice.
Consider how my support for this person impacts my own witness of the Gospel? We need to recognize that when people identified as Christians support a public official the Gospel will be impacted. This is what went so wrong one year ago, Christians supported an attempted coup and the Gospel was tarnished. We must remember that our foremost duty – even before one to country- is to protecting the name Christian. We might live in a country where it is impossible for civil authorities to live our Jesus’ Sermons the way we would like, we might have to support these candidates to have any meaningful voice in the political process, but we cannot sacrifice our witness to further our political ends or else we have given away the game.
In a world where politicians like Donald Trump Sr. court the church vote, we cannot get caught up in the token illusions of his speech- the lip service he pays to Jesus. Rather, we must compare his words with the hard reality of his son’s to see that often these politicians are eager to dismiss Jesus’ words in favor of the politically expedient road to power. In the end, listen to Donald Trump Jr., he is right when he says to win political power in America means sacrificing the Sermon on the Mount to some degree, and use that message to consider how you participate in politics.