July 14, 2016

On Christianity and Donald Trump

It's been a long time since I've written anything about politics, religion, or the intersection of the two that was not directly connected to my philosophical work, but I feel the need to say something about the present US election. Perhaps I should have overcome my reluctance to say this during the primary season, but I didn't, so here it is now.

Years ago, when I was a student leader of a campus Christian group back at Penn, I was constantly fighting against the idea, held by a certain vocal group of my peers, that being a Christian meant supporting a particular candidate or party. On the night of the 2004 election, a housemate told me I was not a Christian because I was not sufficiently excited about Bush's victory. (Note that we're talking about Bush's second term here: credible allegations of torture were already in the air.) The more of this sort of thing I see, the more suspicious and cynical I get of any candidate's attempt to use Christianity as a tool for electoral success. (Similar remarks apply to businesses branding themselves 'Christian' in an attempt to increase profits.)

Nevertheless, I cannot conclude (and never concluded) that Christianity is entirely irrelevant to politics. There are indeed certain values integral to Christianity that should make a difference to how we think about political problems. For instance, the Christian must care deeply for the plight of the poor, but there is plenty of room for Christians to disagree on the appropriate role of government in addressing these sorts of problems, and on what particular sorts of (governmental or non-governmental) initiatives are appropriate here. So the room for disagreement among Christians is very broad, but not unlimited.

In the present election US voters are faced with a far more stark choice. In these extreme circumstances, I feel compelled to come to a more extreme conclusion, regarding Christianity and politics, than I have in any previous election in my lifetime. That conclusion is this: being an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump -- thinking that Donald Trump has the characteristics of a good leader -- is inconsistent with following Jesus.

Before I defend this conclusion, let me explain more carefully what I am and am not saying. First, I'm not saying that Christians are obligated to vote Clinton. In an instance where the major parties both nominate bad candidates, whether to vote for the 'lesser evil,' vote for a minor party, or not vote at all, is certainly something on which Christians can disagree. (I can't see any reason why Christians shouldn't also be able to disagree on whether Clinton is a bad candidate. To my mind, she's the same kind of bad candidate that major parties have been nominating throughout my entire lifetime, whereas Trump is a whole new kind of bad candidate.) If you're a lesser evil voter and you think Trump is the lesser evil in this election, I think you're making a bad mistake, but it's not a mistake that goes to the heart of the Christian message. Second, I'm not saying that Trump supporters are going to hell. These days I'm rather inclined toward universalism anyway. But regardless of that, it's clearly possible to do some things that are inconsistent with following Jesus and still be a Christian. Christians can make mistakes in their thinking about what Jesus requires of them, and they can also make mistakes in their actions even when they know what's the right thing to do.

What I am saying is that a proper understanding of what Jesus is all about leads directly and immediately to the conclusion that Donald Trump is not a great leader. Indeed, the teachings of Jesus and the story of Jesus can be read as direct critiques of the Trump picture of leadership, strength, and success.

I have two main reasons for believing this. The first is simple and obvious; the second requires a bit more digging.

The simple point is this: Jesus is about love -- perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Trump is about hate and fear.

I really do believe it's that simple. Christians can have a variety of different views about the best way to deal with immigration, borders, and security, but anyone who wants to follow Jesus has an obligation to remember that immigrants are human beings loved by God, to empathize with their plight and the horrid circumstances that, in most cases, have made them flee their homes, and to approach the situation from the perspective of a love that is free from fear. This is absolutely not the attitude exhibited or encouraged by Trump's rhetoric on this and related subjects. Similar remarks apply to our relationships with those who are different from us within our own country.

The second point, which requires a bit more unpacking, is that the story of Jesus is understood by the New Testament writers as a critique of worldly images of greatness -- exactly the sort of images of greatness Trump and his followers have in mind when they talk about 'making America great again'. Following Jesus requires a rejection of this notion of greatness.

This can be seen perhaps most clearly in John's gospel. This gospel begins with the most exalted picture of Christ found in any of the gospels - Christ is the Word (logos) the Father spoke to bring the world into being. He is the Order of nature, the Meaning of it all. ('Order' and 'meaning' are alternative possible translations of logos.) Yet, John says, this Word became flesh (1:14). The word 'flesh' is carefully chosen here. It's not a dignified word for a beautiful human body. The word means 'meat'.

This shocking image of the glorious Order of the Universe becoming meat sets the tone for the whole gospel, which aims to undermine our image of glory -- a word that means fame, reputation, greatness. Throughout the gospel, both the narrator and Jesus himself repeatedly speak of Jesus being 'glorified' or 'lifted up', and they speak of this with reference to his crucifixion. Through this narrative about Jesus, the author means for us to recognize that a truly great human life, one that deserves to be famous, to be held up as an example to emulate, is not a life that 'comes out on top,' it's not one of comfort and luxury, it's not one of gold-plated toilets, private jets, and penthouse apartments. The kind of life that should be glorified and admired is a life of suffering service to others, a life that includes what the world is inclined to call 'humiliation'. It's the life of a person Donald Trump would call a 'loser'.

This message can be seen in Paul as well as John. Paul strongly emphasizes Christ's act of self-emptying, of humiliation (as the world would call it) and says that it is for this reason that "God also has highly exalted Him" (Philippians 2:5-11). Both Paul and John emphasize that this is an example for us to emulate. Furthermore, in one of the most shocking phrases in all of Paul's letters, he tells us that Jesus, "Having disarmed principalities and powers ... made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [i.e., the cross]" (Colossians 2:14-15). Now, you may be wondering why I say that this is one of the most shocking phrases in Paul's letters. The key words that lead me to this conclusion are 'cross' and 'triumph'. Crucifixion was the most extreme form of public humiliation. Christians are familiar with the story of Christ's being made to carry his own cross, marched publicly through the street, driven by whips, nude and bloody, to the place of execution. But this event is described by Paul as Christ making a public spectacle of the powers that be -- Christ triumphing over them. To Paul's readers, this would have seemed precisely backward. A triumph was a parade held by a military victor in which the leader of the conquered nation was marched through the street in chains along with all the loot taken from his palaces and temples. Paul describes Christ's march to his own execution as his triumph, over the rulers who executed him. It is not Christ, but the ruling powers, who are humiliated by this event.

Accepting this point required Paul's original readers to turn their notions of honor, shame, and greatness completely upside down. It is not shameful to be too weak to stop others from treating you unjustly. It is shameful use one's power to do injustice to others. It's shameful to use deception and violence to gain military, political, or economic power over others. It's shameful to cheat students at your fake university and investors in your construction projects. It is not shameful to be a 'loser'.

This is a direct critique of Trump's 'I like winners' philosophy. The Christian is forbidden to admire 'winners' who succeed in making lives of luxury for themselves. The Christian must instead admire those who follow the example of Christ by making themselves into what the world calls 'losers' for the benefit of those around them. For the Christian, Trump Tower is not a symbol of success in living of the sort we should aspire to. The paradoxical message of Christianity is that the cross -- a humiliating death by torture, a symbol of Roman oppression, a symbol of defeat -- is in fact a symbol of the success, the greatness, we should all aspire to.

When Donald Trump talks about greatness, he is not talking about anything that can be recognized in that tortured, 'defeated' figure on the cross. He's talking about getting ahead. About making sure it's 'us' instead of 'them' who have the power and prestige and strength and wealth and comfort. A Christian who is pursuing this image of greatness has lost sight of the cross.

Posted by Kenny at July 14, 2016 9:33 AM
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Comments

I agree, Kenny. I am glad you posted this. I posted about Hillary and the death of Berta Caceres this morning, quoting The Nation, a source I usually would not put up. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are the true candidates the people need to see. I pray we do and that they get into widely received debates. Cheers from Mexico, though I will be in Oregon for a funeral at the end of the month.

Posted by: Mary Saunders at July 14, 2016 8:04 AM

Great post. I think that this is where the concept of adiaphora really comes in handy and needs to be brought (back) into the discussion. There are some things we are commanded to do (e.g. care for the poor) and some things on which the Gospel is silent (e.g. voting Clinton or Trump). We have the Christian freedom to choose between Clinton or Trump, but we can still appeal to the Gospel to determine for whom we *ought* to vote, and reject Trump on those grounds.

There is a danger, I think, in not separating those two claims. I'm not sure it is right to claim that a Christian can't vote for Trump and still be a Christian, or that it is somehow sinful to do so. Scripture is silent on this election. I'm not accusing you of this; it just goes with the hyper-bipartisanism and the co-opting of many Christians by the Republican party. Or so it seems to a Canadian. :P

Posted by: Kyle B. at July 14, 2016 9:57 AM

Thanks Kenny. Excellent post. One thing to think about. Christ did not go to the Cross in order to become a 'loser'. Similarly, the point of the Christian life is not humiliation, per se. The point of the Christian life is the love of God, as efficient, formal, and final cause. But the love of God can lead persons to do truly great things. I have in mind John Paul II and the fall of Communism and Mother Teresa and her work among the poor. I don't know what Trump would say about them, but it would be very hard to call them losers in anyone's book. So, for the sake of balance, we might say that there is no shame in enduring the appearance of being a loser so long as we pursue the greatness that can be found only in the love of God. But, as St. Paul says, we are still to run the race, and to run so as to win. I just want to avoid the idea that God *calls* us to be losers, as our end. In fact, we are called to an other-worldly greatness, one that, I'm sure, has no place in Trump's philosophy. Hope you are well. Congrats on the book.

Posted by: Donnie Bungum at July 14, 2016 12:31 PM

Thank you for speaking out so eloquently against the current crow of hatred. I wish you well in your new endeavors. See you in town some day, I hope!

Posted by: Stephen Pearce at July 18, 2016 9:35 AM

I couldn't agree more, Kenny. Trump is pretty much the opposite of Jesus. Some have even compared him to the AntiChrist! https://613test.com/2016/09/17/god-hates-trump/

Posted by: Pat Hale at September 24, 2016 10:08 AM

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