The Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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“Whoring After Other Gods”

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights
Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on September 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Rev. William Barber took to NBC News earlier this week to lend his powerful moral voice to the condemnation of Donald Trump’s news making infidelities. The infidelity Barber wrote of, however, was not Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniel:

The infidelity that we must concern ourselves with is called “whoring after other gods” in the Bible (see Hosea 9:1 or Amos 7:17). Whenever a nation chooses to hurt the poor, oppress the stranger, mistreat the weak and corrupt the courts in the Bible, prophets accuse political leaders of public infidelity. Unlike in a marriage, such adultery is not a private matter; it must be challenged and called out in the public square.

Today, too many preachers are willing to overlook personal moral failings in exchange for access to power. Jerry Falwell, Jr., responding to critics, claimed Jesus’ teachings are about private morality, not public policy: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he wrote on Twitter.

Though this is a common distinction among white evangelicals in the U.S., it is not a distinction the Bible makes. Jesus himself says that, at the final judgment, “all the nations” will be gathered before him to give an account for how they treated the most vulnerable among us. The prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes often, condemns “those who legislate evil” and exhorts the faithful to “loose the bands of injustice”— a political act in any society. It’s hard to imagine someone who proclaimed the “kingdom of God” in the first century not having a vision for the transformation of society.

Taking care of the poor and the vulnerable is not a left wing political agenda, or a specifically SJW concern. It is the very work of Christ himself, and by our identification with Him, it is our work to. If we want to claim to be the Christian nation that people like Falwell and Perkins claim we are, we must do better. Trump’s policies towards the vulnerable of the world are as anti-Christian as one can imagine. The court evangelicals and the millions of American Christians who continue to support him need to wake up and realize this, and hold him to a Christian standard.

The Cheap Grace of Donald Trump

 

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Trump and his court evangelicals

One of the Christian right’s favorite ways to excuse Donald Trump’s moral failings as a human being is to say that “God uses imperfect people.” You can read examples here, and here, and here. 

And I get it! God does use broken and imperfect people! I truly believe this; as a process thinker, I think God, in conjunction with each and every one of us, uses every moment of our lives – good, bad and in between – to create new possibilities and realities all the time.

But here’s the thing. I also believe that we are imbued with a sense of right and wrong. We have notions of human dignity and worth, and love for others, embedded within us, as part of the Imago Dei we all carry.

Because of these carried notions, and because humans are amazing, dynamic beings, we have the ability to react to situations, to learn, and the change. In fact, we have a divine mandate to do so. We must learn from our mistakes and shortcomings; it’s bred into our make-up. Human beings would have died out long ago if we didn’t learn and adapt.

In the Christian realm, the leeway we give ourselves and one another to learn and grow and have second chances is called grace. What sets Christianity apart is that grace is unearned, that we get it just because we are.

But, as St. Paul explained, just because grace is unearned doesn’t mean it is free of responsibility. Richard Beck writes, “Grace has been given to us...Therefore. And what follows Paul’s Therefore is a list of obligations and expectations. Like his contemporaries, Paul assumes that grace implies a return. Grace obligates us. Gifts–even God’s gifts–have strings attached.”

Grace without an imperative to change is Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

God may use broken people, but when God does, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge the grace that that is, and do better next time to not keep perpetuating our own brokenness. The excusing of Donald Trumps’s moral failings without requiring him to show any progress is cheap grace. It is an affront to the God who has shown us grace, but who also expects us to react to that grace, not just keep on what we were doing. The brand of American Christianity that keeps excusing Trump is a brand of Christianity built on a foundation of cheap grace; this foundation is like Jesus’ house built on sand.

I’m not saying Donald Trump can never make mistakes. Obviously, we all do and will. But if he keeps refusing to acknowledge those mistakes or make any changes, then it is the Christian duty of his court evangelicals to call him on it. And if they won’t do it, they are abdicating their Christian responsibility, and choosing power over Christ.