The New York Times ran a piece this week taking a close look at a few conservative, evangelical families in rural Iowa, which tries to gain an understanding of the link between these people’s deeply held religious beliefs, and their support for Donald Trump as president. I found the article fascinating, and as someone who is also deeply committed to Christian values, very depressing and sad. I encourage you to read the piece in full, but I want to make a few comments on parts that really stuck out to me.
What first caught my eye was the title of the piece, a quote from President Trump’s 2016 campaign stop in Sioux Center, Iowa: “Christians Will Have Power.” This stuck out to me as a theologian, because Christian approaches to the seizure and wielding of political power are my primary area of academic interest. I have a robustly formed view of Christianity and political power, and this line jumped out at me because it is the antithesis of how I understand Christians to be called to approach worldly power, and those who promise it.
Here is the passage from the article detailing Trump’s statement:
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
The first thing that comes to my mind upon reading this is the Temptation of Christ, from the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 4. Verses 8 and 9 read:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
I don’t know how it could be more explicit than this. I just can’t comprehend reading the words of the Gospel, and then listening to someone like Trump speak in this way, and not feel inherent opposition in these two worldviews. Its not like they are to different views which can peacefully coexist; these are two fundamentally opposite and competing views of how to approach worldly power.
Christianity is not an ideology of power. Christianity is founded upon the belief in and emulation of a Lord of laid down all power, despite all the power at his disposal, who was wiling to die rather than dominate. In the words of St. Paul, Christ emptied himself of all power. So are we called.
Granting the idea that Christians are increasingly encountering a Western culture hostile to their exercise of the faith (a theme hammered again and again by the subjects of the article), Christians are nevertheless not called to turn and attempt to wrest power away and dominate others, or to place their trust in strongmen or boastful leaders. Our Way is the way of the meek, of the humble. The example of Christ is not made lovely and desirable through the conquering of our foes, but through our willingness to love our enemies, to stand strong in our convictions in the face of the world, even if it means the loss of power and prestige and influence.
This connects to another passage from the piece that stood out to me:
“You are always only one generation away from losing Christianity,” said Micah Schouten, who was born and raised in Sioux Center, recalling something a former pastor used to say. “If you don’t teach it to your children it ends. It stops right there.”
I agree with Mr. Schouten completely. Our faith is not one based on culture or race or ethnicity. Christianity is inherited on the basis on a retelling of the story over and over, as we each live into that story, and then pass it to our children. And it continues on through the choice of our children to pick up that burden and carry it forward. That only happens through our showing the power and importance of this message we carry.
However, evangelicals in America like the ones featured in this piece seem to think and act like the continuation of the Christian faith, far from being the small work of telling the story of Christ and living it in our lives everyday in a thousand small ways, is instead the work of the federal government, and of conservative politicians. Without them, without Donald Trump, they seem to say, Christianity is doomed.
But hear me: if Christianity depends on Donald Trump and the Republican Party in order for it to live on, then the faith is already dead and gone.
I have more faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the example of Christ’s life than this. Our faith is not dependent on cultural hegemony, on politicians and leaders in Washington D.C. and state capitals shepherding it along. No, instead I think the insurance of the faith to these worldly leaders is in fact more damaging and dangerous to the future of the Christian witness. Our faith would be well served if it vacated the halls of power around the globe. No, we would not get to enact Christian policies and enforce our values and beliefs on others. But go read the Gospel. That was never our job anyways. When Christ entrusted us with the Great Commission, it wasn’t a command to seize power and force the conversion of millions. No, the Commission is to make disciples, which means, to make friends and be in community with them and let your life speak to the power of the witness of Christ. Christianity grew and thrived for three hundred years before it was seized and bastardized by Constantine and power the Roman Imperial machine. We do not need, nor should we desire, the imprimatur of official power.
Because when we let the faith become identified with the powers and principalities of the world, when we co-opt it to the needs of worldly political power, the message of Christ gets corrupted and twisted and becomes unrecognizable. This connects to the last part I want to highlight:
Mr. Schouten’s wife, Caryn, had walked over with the other wives. After the election of President Barack Obama, the country seemed to undergo a cultural shift, she said. “It was dangerous to voice your Christianity,” she said. “Because we were viewed as bigots, as racists — we were labeled as the haters and the ones who are causing all the derision and all of the problems in America. Blame it on the white believers.”
Christianity in America has become so wrapped up in capitalism and white supremacy and patriotism and power that even committed, church-going Christians like Caryn Schouten can no longer tell her faith apart from those things. You can see it here because she, like many conservative Christians I know, immediately get defensive and angry when people call out and fight against racism or injustice or capitalism. The faith has become so intertwined in those things that it is hard to disconnect it any longer. As I said above, it becomes unrecognizable. When someone denounces racism, and you feel like your faith is under attack, perhaps that means its time to examine your faith. Christ and the Christianity are not for white people only. And, as a movement that criticizes all exercises of power, this means Christianity must critique the power of white supremacy. If your faith intersects with your cultural and racial beliefs to a point where they can no longer be separated without those beliefs collapsing, then you need to let that collapse happen, and rebuild your faith on the Christ who is voice and friends of the weak, of the oppressed, of the hurting, of the powerless, of the people crying out for justice.
This piece from the New York Times made me very sad. It made me sad because I don’t think people like the Schoutens are bad people. I think they are committed to their faith, and passionate about it. But it made me sad to see how the Christian story has become almost unrecognizable in large swathes of white America today. I don’t know how we address that. I don’t know if we can. When I wrote my thesis last year on white Christians in the midwest, I encountered this time and time again. And despite my best attempts in that work to provide some form of theological answer to these problems, in the end, I wasn’t convinced there was an answer. I’m still not. I think the only hope the Christian faith has is for small, committed communities of faith, disconncted from the power politics of the world and living as alternative examples of how to be in the world, to do their best, and to let these other, perverted and deformed takes on the faith to wither and die, like they are on their way to doing. Maybe, after all that, the faith can grow again, not in power, but in faithfulness.
That sounds very defeatist and depressed. But that’s how the majority of public Christians make me, as someone who has studied the faith and committed myself to it, feel about those who I share the moniker “Christian” with. Maybe I’m being too hard on them. Maybe I’m being overly judgmental or failing to practice understanding. But I am trying to understand. And it leads me to judgement and anger and resignation to watching something that is very important to people die away. Thank God my hope is not founded in them.