'How can Christians support Donald Trump?' is the wrong question
Like old gum on the bottom of your shoe, it’s a number that will cling to everything American evangelicalism does till the end of its days.
On November 8, 2016, eighty-one percent of white evangelical Americans who cast their ballot for President of the United States voted for Donald Trump, an unrepentent, thrice-divorced, self-professed sexual predator and gambling mogul with a penchant for pathological lying who ran a campaign of unbridled hate, fear mongering, bigotry, racism…and more lying.
One question that immediately rose in the aftermath of one of the most shocking election upsets in American political history was: how could so many Christians support someone like Donald Trump?
How could people who confess a poor, enemy-loving, radically inclusive, former refugee as Lord and Savior embrace someone so radically anti-Christ in nearly every way as their chosen leader?
Admittedly, it’s a question that boggles the mind.
But it’s the wrong question.
This is partly due to the fact that the question is actually fairly easy to answer: human beings are complicated, inconsistent, and sometimes brazenly hypocritical creatures. Ascribe it to the fall, simple human nature, or whatever you want. As human beings, we are constantly and consistently doing things that are simply inconsistent, that don’t make sense, and which are clearly opposed both to our best interests and to the values we profess to hold dear.
That doesn’t justify Christians supporting someone like Donald Trump, but it is what makes the question “how can Christians support Donald Trump” ultimately the wrong question because such a question only addresses the symptom of an underlying, far more important issue.
A better question to ask is “How could so many Christians support someone so radically anti-Christ in every way — and not think see any problem in doing so?
This sort of question gets closer to the root of the real problem facing Christianity in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and his continued support from so many self-professed followers of Jesus.
Some may argue (and indeed many have) that white evangelical support for Donald Trump stems at least in part from the never-ending culture wars. With his promises of everything from anti-abortion Supreme Court justices to forcing Target to say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, Trump stands as a conquering hero, if not a new Messiah, in the eyes of some who believe Christianity is under attack in the United States. Electing him President, they believe, will restore Christianity and its accompanying values to its rightful place at the center of American life.
There is more than a grain truth in this explanation. Abortion in particular has become such a wedge issue in recent decades that it has compelled countless Christians — including those who did not vote for Trump — to vote for numerous candidates of dubious moral standing regardless of where they stand on other issues, so long as they oppose abortion and promise to do all they can to appoint Supreme Court justices who will somehow, someway overturn Roe v. Wade. There can be little doubt that many Christian Trump supporters cast their ballot for the former gambling mogul because they saw a good bet to be made on the future nomination of a conservative Supreme Court justice. As recent months have proven, it’s a bet they won — at least in regards to the appointment of Neil Gorsuch.
But the roots of the evangelical-Trump conundrum go down even deeper than that, down to the very foundation of Protestant evangelicalism itself, down to a doctrine that too often today serves as a trump card in the balance between ideology and practice. I’m talking about the cry of the Reformation: “sola fide” or “salvation by faith alone.” It may seem like an unlikely suspect on which to cast blame for Donald Trump’s election. Though the doctrine’s progenitor, Martin Luther, certainly emphasized a particular way of life alongside his declaration that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, the concept of sole fide has been reduced in recent generations to a crude notion that simply agreeing to the right list of ideas or believing in the right God or saying the right prayer will alone secure one’s place in heaven. As a result, the hard work of actually living like Christ hasn’t simply been reduced to a secondary matter; it has become an irrelevant matter as all that ultimately matters is belief.
Christianity in many corners of our country (and no doubt throughout many parts of the rest of the world) has become a zero sum equation. Say the Sinner’s prayer, confess your faith in Jesus, and you’ll go to heaven when you die. How you live in the mean time is all but irrelevant — not simply because God will forgive you anyway, but because “works” have become so taboo (and misunderstood) in our understanding of the Christian life in general and the process of salvation in particular.
Where this leads us is a reality in which living the sort of radical life of self-denial, inclusivity, and enemy-love that Jesus embodied isn’t just unnecessary, it’s almost an affront to the very idea that faith in Christ alone saves us, as if the work of loving our enemies and caring for the poor somehow undermines the notion that faith alone saves us. And maybe it does. Maybe those living an authentically Christ-like life expose an emptiness behind our own confessions of faith we’d rather not see light of day.
That’s not to say that living like Christ isn’t still a point of emphasis in American Christianity. It is; but if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, it’s an emphasis that often dies the moment it passes our lips. Take living like Christ “too far” or too literally and people become uncomfortable, outraged even. They become offended at the implication that their faith — that is to say their verbal confession, intellectual assent, and weekly visits to church — are somehow lacking. It’s then that the name-calling and denial begins. Names like “social justice warriors” and “snowflakes” are heaped on those who have the audacity to take Christ’s command to “go and do likewise” seriously. It's as if saying “no” to injustice, “yes” to inclusivity,” and caring for the least of these no matter what is somehow part of an insidious leftwing socialist agenda and not the very heart of the gospel Jesus lived and preached every day of his life.
When Christianity gets flipped upside down in the cauldron of political partisanship, when saying we believe in Jesus exhausts the extent of our faith and actually living like Jesus is a bridge too far, then the time Paul warned us about has arrived — a time when people will have stopped putting up with sound doctrine, but have itching ears, have accumulated for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and have turned away from listening to the truth in favor of “alternative facts.”
When this happens, when we become a people who hold to an outward form of godliness but deny its power, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise to see American Christianity absolve itself of even the most glaring hypocrisy in supporting someone like Donald Trump. After all, Trump professed to be a Christian and that’s all that matters in a world of salvation by intellectual assent alone.
When this becomes the world in which we live and move and have our being, when faith — not faithfulness — alone is all that matters, when saying we agree with the “right” list of things and are a member of the “right” team exhausts the meaning of being a Christian, then not only is faithful practice ultimately rendered irrelevant, so, conveniently, is the possibility of hypocrisy. Because when Christianity is defined by intellectual assent and verbal confession, a Christian’s otherwise un-Christlike actions can’t be hypocritical since actually living like Christ wasn’t ever a part of the Christian faith to begin with. This is how Christians, without being guilty of hypocrisy, can support Donald Trump no matter how antithetical his words and actions are to the life of Christ.
And therein lies the real question Christian support of Donald Trump should compel the American Church to wrestle with: What does it actually mean to be a Christian?
Is Christianity simply a belief system to be defended at all costs? A set of magic words to be prayed at an altar in order to avoid hell? Is all that matters our agreement to the right list of doctrines while condemning everyone who disagrees?
Or is there more to being a Christian than that?
Have we perhaps misunderstood what Paul meant by “works”? Have we conflated his criticism of pharisaical legalism and religious ritual with a call to radical discipleship? In our righteous zeal to throw open the doors of salvation to all, have we perhaps forgotten that grace is costly? Not that we have to pay a price to receive it, but rather it is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ, which means living like Christ — and living like Christ is anything but cheap and easy.
All of this begs the question: in crying out “Sole fide!” for the past 500 hundreds years, have we somehow forgotten the equally important call to “Go and do likewise?”
Is a particular way of life essential to Christianity — and perhaps even to salvation itself — as Jesus seems to imply in Matthew 25? Or are the things we say we believe all that really matter both in the here and now and at the end of all things?
How we answer this question, how we understand the nature of Christianity and the demands Christ’s life does or does not place on our own, will determine not just the Church’s relationship to American politics, but the future of the Christianity itself for generations to come.