The Evangelical Theology of Donald Trump…or…Lack Thereof.
I’ve written several times about the concerning reality that any self-identified “evangelicals” are supporting Donald Trump for president. This curious truth says less about Trump and more about the people supporting him; especially the theology of those people.
Michael Horton is a brilliant scholar of biblical theology. He is a professor and author whose books are often used as text books in many college classes. Horton has penned an article analyzing the connection between Trump and his Christian following. In particular Horton highlights the theological implications behind the strong support for Trump from America’s believers.
After sharing a brief history of the shallow extent of Trumps religious upbringing in a controversial church setting, Horton recounts the support from well-known evangelical sources:
“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.’”
Oh, and of course there’s Joel Osteen. Osteen says Trump is “a friend of our ministry” and “a good man.”
Considering the group assembled here, I think Jerry Falwell Jr. needs to rethink the people he hangs out with. That particular cast of characters is not one I would want my name grouped together with. The theological errors represented by names on that list are significant. Not the kind of theological differences that make for a good conversation where we can “agree to disagree.” We’re talking about being on a short list of names with Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson. One quick Google search will reveal enough heresy from those two to pen a 12-week sermon series.
Perhaps most troubling is the last statement, made by Robert Jeffress that “many Christians are open to a more secular candidate.” The statement is troubling not for its truth, because anyone with a Sunday School theological upbringing knows that Trump is no more a Christian than I am a sports car. The trouble here is that many self-identified Christians are supporting Trump precisely because he says he IS a Christian.
All at once we have a well-known Texas pastor declaring that Trump is a “secular candidate” while Christians across the nation hail him as a Christian candidate they can support. There is an obvious disconnect here that needs addressed. That disconnect, as Horton has pointed out, is nothing new. Instead, the disconnect is only now becoming visibly clear to anyone paying attention. The disconnect is between how people identify (as evangelical Christians) and what it means to truly be an evangelical Christian.
Horton identifies four words that have significant theological meaning for Christians: creation, sin, Christ, leadership. Now doubt if asked, many professing Christians would say these words are significant and have importance within the faith. But it is these words that reveal the lack of biblical literacy in Trump, and in many of his supporters.
Horton comments on each of these words:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clearly there is a disconnect between what people believe it means to be a Christian and what it actually means to be a follower of Christ. That is the most plausible reason for the rise of Donald Trump as a “Christian candidate” in a country where Christian literature and resources are as abundant as water.
If you want to support Trump for president, be my guest. But don’t support him as a Christian candidate or because of his “religious convictions.” Trump doesn’t have the first clue of what it means to be a Christian. But, if you support Trump I would suggest being prepared to be disappointed. Once in office Trump will reveal his liberal side and continue to chase money. Don’t say you weren’t warned.