Is Understanding Trump's Appeal My Pastoral Calling?

How a trip to the polls revealed my spiritual blind spot.
Is Understanding Trump's Appeal My Pastoral Calling?
Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

As I walked to my local polling place in March to vote in my state presidential primary, I considered the candidates one last time. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, I thought, except one: Trump. The Donald didn’t have strengths and weaknesses; instead, he managed to somehow conflate the two into one vociferous blur. He tried to show the world how very, very strong he was, yet every time he flexed his muscles, he demonstrated the limitations of his ego, personality, and abilities. Moment by moment, he conquered some voters while alienating others forever.

As a pastor, I’d struggled with what to do about Trump. He never appealed to me—neither what he said nor how he said it squared with my understanding of biblical leadership. I was baffled by his growing appeal amongst Christians, including many I knew. For weeks, I’d asked myself the same question: how would I even begin to pastor a Trump supporter?

At my polling place—a tiny Methodist church governed by a corps of elderly ladies—I sighed as I read the candidates’ names on my ballot, and (as some put it) “threw my vote away.”

There was one person ahead of me at the ballot box, though—an older man who reminded me of my grandfather. Grandad was one of the “Greatest Generation,” and he carried the scars of the Depression, the War, and the life that followed. Growing up, I’d learned to respect him and his peers. But as the man ahead of me held his ballot openly while walking to the box, I couldn’t help but see whom he’d voted for: Trump. I felt shocked. How could a blustery draft dodger possibly appeal to someone from a generation known for its wisdom and courage?

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I could understand. If I had been demoralized by the political, economic, technological, and cultural changes this man had witnessed, maybe I’d see Trump’s appeal. Perhaps this man’s hope for the future—his own, his children’s, his country’s—had withered under the watch of the Two Parties and their usual candidates. I started to see why my poll-mate might vote for someone who, to me, seemed so repugnant.

By the time I reached home, I’d realized: my ability to pastor Trump supporters was limited by my inability to empathize.

Christianity’s great pastors and theologians have long insisted that a pastor care about the experiences of his people. Bonhoeffer, for instance, encouraged his fellow ministers to “regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Nouwen, too, reflected on empathy’s impact, arguing that those who mean the most to us are “those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” Or, as my Grandad often put it: “before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”

As a pastor, I want to embody this kind of sympathy. In the months ahead, I want to listen better—not for the sake of rebuttal, but to offer patient, faithful attention, to truly hear. I want to ask more questions: what have you lost? What do you fear? What do you want?

That day, I remembered that what people need most from me is gospel, not politics (God forbid I should become a pundit). They need to be heard—and, alongside the actions and promises of candidates, they need to hear what God has done and promised to do. Because if they don’t hear that, then they may miss the best news election season, or any season, has to offer.

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December
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