How Trump’s Inauguration Will Catalyze Christian Witness
Today, on the steps of the United States Capitol, Donald John Trump will place his left hand on a Bible and swear to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States for the next four years.” Most incoming presidents in US history have done the same, although each has chosen his own passage to swear by. 1 Corinthians 13 was the choice of Franklin D. Roosevelt at all four of his inaugural ceremonies. Jimmy Carter chose to swear on the exhortations of Micah 6:8. At his second inauguration, Abraham Lincoln, keenly aware of the disgrace of brothers and neighbors turning their weapons on each other, chose not one but three passages concerning the judgments of God.
That the Bible appears at such a momentous national ceremony testifies to the United States’ broad Judeo-Christian heritage. It also serves to remind those with eyes to see that no ruler rises or falls except by the hand of God, who judges the nations and will continue to judge ours over the next four years. Watching the televised ceremony with its pomp and circumstance, we might begin to believe that political leaders hold the keys to the future and to our fate, as Americans and as Christians. But the ceremony belies the reality that all power of earthly rulers is fleeting. They and their campaigns can be laid to waste by a mere word from the Lord (Isa. 40:23; Isa. 34:12; Ps. 107:40; Luke 1:52).
Inauguration Day comes for many Americans with hope that our political leaders will redirect the country in the right direction. For many other Americans, the day seems a harbinger of violent ideologies that will pose a real threat to their livelihood in the next four years. But for Christians of all political stripes, the day is simply a new day to practice the radical ordinariness of following Christ.
Trump campaigned on the promise that he and his cabinet would “make America great again,” a promise that resonated with many Americans who believe that the country is no longer great, that our nation has lost economic strength and/or military might. A promise to grant power is effective only if a large swath of the population feels disempowered.
I suspect that many white evangelicals voted for Trump because they too feel disempowered, culturally if not economically. They feared, legitimately, that a presidency under Trump’s opponent would hamper the liberties of faith-based institutions and would further ensure access to legalized abortion nationwide, despite successful pro-life efforts on the state level. Despite concerns about Trump’s character and speech, about 4 in 5 white voting evangelicals supported Trump, and more than half said they did so to prevent further loss of influence on such matters under Hillary Clinton. Time—and, I predict, not much time—will tell whether President Trump has the political will or influence to effect the changes they want to see.
Meanwhile, those who opposed Trump’s campaign rightly wonder if the greatness Trump has promised will come at the expense of disempowering others, especially racial minorities and vulnerable people seeking security in our land (despite Trump’s protestations to the contrary). In such a polarized moment in our nation’s history, political power presents itself as a zero-sum game. For one group to win, others have to lose. Trump in particular, with his seeming obsession with “winners” and “losers,” seems especially inclined to practice zero-sum politics.
While political power has its place in government, the next four years will give Christians a chance to demonstrate anew a kind of power radically different from the power promised by worldly politics. It’s a kind of power that can’t be grasped at through force but can only be given and received. It’s the power that raised Jesus from the dead and that lives in all believers through the Holy Spirit. And it’s a power that plays by a total-sum game: reaching an ever-increasing circle of people to know love, wholeness, holiness, and delight. No matter how powerless Christians might feel on Inauguration Day, or in the days to come, we are recipients of a kind of power that no ruler or state or nation, no matter how anti-gospel, can take away.
Christians who denounced Trump might feel especially powerless this season, realizing that their warnings didn’t sway enough voters at the polls. But Trump’s win has inspired many to redouble their commitment to hospitality, compassion, solidarity with the poor, generous giving, and emboldened verbal proclamation of the gospel. This particular election tested the limits of political democracy, as more than half of all US voters didn’t vote and as the electoral college trounced the populist vote. And yet there’s a beautiful and effective “democracy” to Christianity: The power belongs to every one of us, in our own spheres of daily living and relationships, to live out the gospel in all its radical and countercultural claims.
This is true, of course, for the Christians who voted for Trump while holding their noses or only to stop his opponent. Most evangelical Christians agree that Trump’s language about minorities and women, his bragging about wealth, and his plain lack of spiritual grounding make him an unfit moral leader, even while he might do some needed things over the next four years. Yet there’s a silver lining to having a president who is so clearly not a Christian leader: It keeps us from thinking that we can outsource the work of the gospel to politicians.
It seems that the church can flourish even when it is out of sync with the reigning powers of the day. Out of sync can mean living in a state that is brutal (as in Nazi Germany) or simply indifferent (as in much of contemporary Europe). But the example of such flourishing started with Christians living under harsh Roman rule in the second and third centuries, who provided care for the sick and dying in the midst of earth-shattering plagues and epidemics. Frustrated by the church’s growing numbers, Roman Emperor Julian complained, “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity. ... These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape.” These Christians, the “hated Galileans,” were willing to die in service of caring for their unbelieving neighbors.
The same was true for Christians of Le Chambon, a Protestant community in the predominantly Catholic south of France. Between 1940 and 1944, at the height of Nazi power, the entire village provided shelter from more than 5,000 Jews, many of them children, fleeing persecution.
And of course, many Africans living under state-sanctioned slavery and overt white supremacy in the 18th and 19th centuries survived and oftentimes flourished, meeting secretly to pray and worship and tap into a spiritual power that could crush that of slavemasters. Despite some white Christians’ twisting of Scripture to justify slavery, these believers found liberation and promise of freedom in the biblical assurance that Christ had come to set the captives free.
And in our own day, individual Christians, churches, and organizations will go on sheltering refugees, adopting abandoned children, advocating for the dignity of women, standing with the poor and oppressed, and inviting more and more into the “life that is truly life” found in the Son of God. To a dying world, such practices seem small and naively weak, especially compared with political leaders like Trump who boast in their own economic and military strength. But to those with eyes to see, the small practices of the gospel are enough to turn the world upside-down. “Christianity is never as strong as it appears; but nor is it ever as weak as it appears,” said 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. I anticipate that the next four years will bring us new opportunities to show how weak, and how strong, we really are.
Katelyn Beaty is an editor at large at Christianity Today, where she formerly served as print managing editor. She is the author of A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Simon & Schuster).