(I was supposed to post this a couple of days ago, but I’ve been enjoying the flu. Most of you know Joel. You may not know that he recently returned to the pastorate!)
Two days ago, the “Super Tuesday” elections seemed to solidify the already large lead of the current front-runner for the Republican nomination for President. Donald Trump has surprised nearly everyone, and if the trend continues, we are headed toward a Republican convention that will nominate him to face off with the Democratic nominee–presumably Hillary Clinton–in the November general election.
It is truly sad that Donald Trump seems to be the best we can do. It is sadder still that Trumps candidacy is enabled by prominent Christian leaders who seem to have forgotten the importance of character. But it is tragic that Trump’s road to the White House has been aided and abetted by such a large swath of voters who identify as followers of Jesus Christ.
In recent weeks, a number of folks have lamented this reality, including my friend Russ Moore. The response from the “pro-Trump” evangelical community toward people like him, and people like me, has been less-than-friendly. In some ways, I get it. Your vote is a very personal thing, and sometimes its tough to get over the offense given when someone confronts you with the fact that you might not be making the wisest decision.
But the greatest frustration comes when this already dysfunctional conversation is further impeded by re-direction. Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress have done it, and their re-direction tactics have been replicated multiple times by the evangelical electorate who are apparently offended in the reminder that character matters in a national leader.
What follows are the most common examples of re-direction I have experienced in this conversation, along with my responses. Those responses are meant to communicate that in the end, this conversation really isn’t about Donald Trump at all. Its about something much, much bigger.
We Aren’t Electing a Pastor. Another way of expressing this is; “There is no religious test for the office of President.” Both Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. have made this statement in a fashion dismissive of those who have challenged them regarding their support for Trump. Both statements are usually followed by accusations that we expect the next President to be able to pass an ordination council examination in one of our churches. Just today, Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX, said those who refuse to support Trump if he is the nominee are “fools.”
I know we aren’t electing a pastor. Actually, I’d prefer we NOT elect a pastor, which is why I didn’t vote for Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson in 2008. (Its also why I throw up a little in my own mouth every time I see Robert Jeffress on a political stage of any kind, but I digress) But pastors aren’t the only people whose continued leadership should depend on their character. I don’t expect Donald Trump to be Christian. But those who do follow Christ should think twice before putting their support behind anyone whose moral character isn’t befitting that of a national leader. You don’t have to be a Christian to lead well. But you must possess high character.
I don’t expect the next President to install a baptismal pool in the White House. But neither do I want a stripper pole in the Oval Office. Character matters. And when it comes to character, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If Donald Trump’s past behavior–his VERY RECENT past behavior–is any indication, we have no reason to trust him with the most powerful office in the world. I’m not asking evangelicals for an ordination council prior to inauguration day. But I am asking for a little consistency, which means that we hold the same posture toward character that we seemed to hold 20 years ago when the subject being discussed was an Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton.
Why Are You Attacking Him? Simply stating the facts of someone’s life isn’t an attack. Its true that Trump is thrice married. Its true that adulterous affairs have been the catalyst that ended his previous marriages. Its true that he has bragged about those affairs. Its true that his presence on the debate stage has turned an already-deficient venue into the political equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show. Its true that he supports Planned Parenthood.
Such statements aren’t attacks. They are warnings to the evangelical portion of our electorate that its time to sober up.
We are All Sinners. Who are You to Judge? Someone recently asked me if Donald Trump would be welcome at our church. Apparently, this individual thought my pointing out Trump’s character deficiency meant I wouldn’t welcome misogynists, adulterers, and bombastic, rude bullies into our church. “After all, we are all sinners.”
Yes, we are all sinners. And yes, all sinners are welcome at the church I serve as pastor. But welcoming them and enabling them are two different things. If a convicted pedophile wants to join us in worship, he is most welcome. If he tries to go within 10 meters of our kids area, he will be shown the door–VERY quickly. The Shepherd’s job is to protect his sheep.
Likewise, were Donald Trump–or any other candidate for President–to show up one Sunday, they would be welcomed, and invited into the presence of God with the rest of us. But when we are talking about the Presidency, we aren’t talking about who is welcome at church are we? We are talking about putting someone with a history of misogyny, crudeness, immorality, and the inability to control his temper into the most powerful office in the entire world.
Its not judgmental to suggest that this is a really, really bad idea!
Its disgraceful to suggest he may not be a Christian! Actually, its just being accurate. A Christian, by definition, is a person who has turned from his or her previous life, confessed their sins, asked God’s forgiveness, and accepted His pardon via the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Trump, by his own admission, hasn’t done this.
So contesting the bona fides of his conversion isn’t an attempt to attack or disgrace him. Its an attempt to guard the most wonderful, powerful, and eternally consequential message in all of human history from compromise. As B.B. Warfield once said, “If everything that is called Christianity these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing.”
Moreover, no one who truly cares for Mr. Trump would be so ambiguous as to play the “its dangerous to judge someone else’s faith” card. The Scriptures are replete with commands–and examples–of the church making judgements about what is and isn’t genuine faith, precisely because we care about eternal souls too much to watch them go to hell while whispering to ourselves “well, its not for me to judge.”
Why aren’t you attacking Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton)? Nothing frustrates a preacher more than when he is addressing issues in a congregation, and instead of dealing with their issues, they redirect by complaining that you don’t preach enough to the choir. This particular objection is Exhibit A of what it means to employ re-direction as a tool to avoid the issue.
For one, Barack Obama isn’t currently seeking re-election to the Presidency, and a soon-to-be past leader is hardly the concern of those who should rightly be focused on the future.
Second, the imperfections and even disqualifications of one candidate never justify looking past the disqualifying behaviors of another. Personally, I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton. But Clinton’s liabilities don’t excuse followers of Jesus from electing a buffoon to face her in the general election.
Third, no one aspiring to the 2016 Democratic nomination is in any way dependent on the “evangelical vote” to get them there. Conversely, no one running for the GOP nomination will get that nomination without the support of evangelicals.
Simply put, if Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee, American evangelicals will be largely responsible. There is simply no excuse for this.
Why do you hate him? I don’t. I’m not “against Trump.” I’m against those who claim to follow Jesus voting while wearing beer goggles. Currently, the “Super Tuesday trend” could be reversed. There are good men still in the race who could still be the party nominee.
In short, this whole conversation actually has very little to do with Donald Trump, and everything to do with the integrity of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in America in 2016.
It has to do with whether we value power more than we value truth.
It has to do with whether we are willing to justify ungodly behavior and link it to our faith.
It has to do with whether we are truly consistent when we say that people of high character matter.
It has to do with whether as worshippers of a resurrected, eternal Christ, we want to cling to a dying, temporary Caesar.
It has to do with whether we value nationalism so much that we are willing to betray the principles of God’s eternal Kingom in order to make a temporary one “great again.”
Trump caused neither the lack of discernment or the prioritizing of power over truth we are witnessing now among American Christians. He is simply the result of it.
Its not him. Its us.