I am not a politician, but a minister who teaches theology. As a citizen of this great republic, I have convictions about domestic and foreign policy, but none of that qualifies me to join the fray of political experts and pundits. I am qualified, however, to engage the topic of significant support among self-identified “evangelical voters” for Donald Trump and what this means, not for the country but what it suggests about significant segments of the US church.
While a theological analysis of other candidates would suggest many equally troubling assumptions of their evangelical followers, no candidate is more identified with the word evangelical as is Trump. The loyalty of his self-identified evangelical followers is especially startling to many.
Let me suggest that the slender thread connecting Trump to the church is his occasional holiday appearances at Marble Collegiate Church, made famous by its pastor for 52 years, Norman Vincent Peale. Blending pop-psychology and spirituality, Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) remained on The New York Times bestsellers list for 186 weeks. Nicknamed “God’s Salesman,” Peale was criticized for trivializing Christianity. Reinhold Niebuhr said that he “corrupts the gospel,” and that he helps people “feel good, while they are evading the real issues of life.”
In the 1952 election, Peale declared presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson unfit because he was divorced. For his part, Stevenson quipped, “Speaking as a Christian, I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” During the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, which began his long relationship with the Nixon White House, Peale declared, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.”
Trump’s parents attended Peale’s sermons each week with the family in tow, and Donald often recalls the impact on his life. He and his sisters were married by Peale.
A more recent exponent of a feel-good gospel, Joel Osteen, has called Donald Trump “a friend of our ministry” and “a good man.” Trump has previously tweeted, “Being associated with Joel is my great honor—he’s a fantastic man!”
So when in recent months, it has appeared that Trump appeals to a sizable group of evangelicals, it may be less surprising than all the hoopla suggests. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. hailed him as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” and a wonderful Christian brother “who reminds me of my dad.” The redoubtable Pat Robertson gushed in an interview with the empire-builder, “You inspire us all.” Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who has introduced Trump at rallies, says, “We need a strong leader and a problem-solver, hence many Christians are open to a more secular candidate.”
Vague on doctrine, infiltrated by consumerism and a sentimental moralism intent on helping us all “become a better you,” and sort of interested in “family values” as long as they don’t interfere with our own family breakdowns, many cultural evangelicals are tired of losing the culture wars. They want a winner—“a strong leader.” I’m hardly the first to point out that it’s the stuff of which demagogues are made.
It is not that Trump has caused this transformation in portions of the so-called “evangelical electorate.” Rather, his candidacy has revealed the inner secularization of significant portions of the movement, which surveys have documented for some time now. Four theological words highlight the problem.
1. Creation. Trump reveals that many evangelicals have come to embrace a new doctrine of creation, according to which the state accords basic rights instead of recognizing their dignity as fellow image-bearers of God. Hence, the support of the torture of human beings (and perhaps their relatives) as legitimate state policy; this is entirely justified to some by the circumstances of an unlimited war on terror. Never mind the Christian just-war tradition that has undergirded centuries of Western reflection. And given the apparent failure of even his most recent ambiguous statements about the KKK to diminish support among his base, Trump reveals that America’s unfinished task of wrestling honestly with racism is just as clearly mirrored in some parts of evangelicalism.
2. Sin. Trump reveals that many evangelicals have come to embrace a different idea of sin than evangelicals have in the past. First, sin is now seen less a condition that renders us all “miserable offenders” before a holy God than mistakes good people make that fail to contribute to “our best life now.” Card-carrying evangelicals should have gotten it when Trump announced that he has never asked God for forgiveness because he doesn’t really do anything that would require it. This is problematic from a Christian perspective on several levels.
First, even if we were to reduce sin (a condition) to sins, the latter no longer include multiple divorces, significant past support of the abortion industry, lack of any church membership, and unabashed dedication to a “Me First” ethic. Widespread evangelical support suggests that we’re fine with these practices now—they’re normal.
Second, and even more troubling, “sinners” are now apparently the “others” whose very presence makes us feel afraid and disenfranchised. Deflecting sin from ourselves to others, we have helped to provide a foundation for whatever demagogue can rally people “like us” to self-righteous anger against outsiders.
3. Christ. Jesus has become a brand and cultural-political mascot. The term “evangelical” used to mean that the global community of those “from every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 5:9) were united by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) through faith in Christ alone as the all-sufficient Savior from the condemnation and death that our sins deserve. Our ultimate demographic is “in Christ.” This trumps (no pun intended) our identity as Americans, or as Democrats and Republicans. But Trump reminds us that many who call themselves evangelicals today find their ultimate loyalty in preserving or regaining a lost socio-political and cultural, perhaps even racial, hegemony in an increasingly diverse society. By his gospel, Christ speaks to our deepest need to be united to him and to each other in his body.
4. Leadership. Trump reveals that “godly leadership” is apparently for some evangelicals the celebration of narcissism, greed, and deceitfulness in the pursuit of power. They like Trump’s “strong leadership” and ability to “get things done.” They seem to value pragmatism over anything else.
By contrast, in the Gospel of John (chapter 13), Jesus enacts a “performance parable” about power as will be demonstrated in his coming death and resurrection. Taking off his outer garment, he wraps a towel around his waist and begins to wash his disciples’ feet in preparation for the Passover meal. Repeatedly, Peter had taken the spotlight off of Jesus and put it on himself. He had rebuked Jesus several times for bringing up his impending crucifixion. And now the boisterous Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” The verbs for “taking off” and “taking up” his garments in the passage are the same Jesus used in John 10: “No one takes my life from me. I have authority to lay it down and to take it up again.”
From all eternity, the Son had prepared for this act of self-sacrifice. It’s a kingdom founded in blood, to be sure, but the king’s blood rather than that of his subjects. And by this act he makes God’s enemies reconciled co-heirs with him of the everlasting kingdom. This is the gospel! And in response, we are called to sacrificial love and leadership, in contrast with “the Gentile rulers who lord it over others” (Luke 22:25).
Of course, Gentile kingdoms like America are not realms of such saving grace. They are common kingdoms where swords of steel keep order and safety and defend God-given rights. But when Christian leaders are drawn to breath-taking expressions of ungodly power, it raises the question about which kingdom and which sort of king they find most appealing.
Trump reveals, in short, that for many evangelicals, the word evangelicalmeans something that many increasingly do not recognize as properly Christian, much less evangelical. Then again, if the working theology of American spirituality is a combination of “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (Christian Smith) and pragmatism (William James), then perhaps Donald Trump is after all exactly the right candidate for the moment.
Michael Horton is J. G. Machen Professor of Theology at Westminster Seminary California, host of the White Horse Inn, and the author of Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story.