In 1934, at the age of 28, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to a friend about an upcoming conference that would involve members of churches from several countries and denominations. In this letter, he wrote, “We must make it clear—fearful as it is—that the time is very near when we shall have to decide between National Socialism and Christianity. It may be fearfully hard and difficult for us all, but we must get right to the root of things, with open Christian speaking and no diplomacy. And in prayer together we will find the way.” This was before the Holocaust began, before WWII began. But Bonhoeffer saw that one could not embrace the Christian faith and embrace the political tide of his nation that was so enamored with the Nazi party. The two simply were not compatible. On April 9th, 1945, he was executed for his part in the German resistance to the Nazi regime.
The necessity of such a distinction—between the values of our faith and the values embodied in large segments of the wider culture—is once again becoming apparent. It is alarming to see so many people in the United States embracing Donald Trump in his bid to become President of the United States. No, Trump is not Hitler, but he nevertheless embodies values that should cause serious concern among Christians.
I myself identify as an evangelical, though this may not tell you much. The term “evangelical” has become rather diffuse over the last couple of decades. It can describe Christians as different as Franklin Graham and Jim Wallis. According to the National Association of Evangelicals, there are four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:
Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
These four characteristics fit me quite well, but I will never support Donald Trump. In fact, I will never support Donald Trump because I’m an evangelical Christian. He mocks everything Christians should embody. He scapegoats the culturally vulnerable. He shows deep contempt for those whom he sees as different (e.g., Muslims and Mexicans). He has openly and unashamedly derided both women and ethnic minorities. He has even said that a man should treat women “like shit.” He has posed on the cover of Playboy. He consistently insults and demeans those with whom he disagrees. He has belittled Holy Communion, referring to it as drinking his “little wine” and eating his “little cracker.” Consistent with this last offense, he is flippantly dismissive of the idea that he needs to engage in any type of personal repentance.
Nevertheless, a substantial number of evangelicals are backing Trump. Why would they do this? According to the New York Times,
“Social conservatives are taking a look at Trump and saying he’s not with me on all these issues, but the overall larger imperative for us is to tear down this system that has not served us for a very long time,” said Gregg Keller, a former executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which was founded by the Christian conservative Ralph Reed.
Presumably, once we “tear down this system,” we will replace it with one friendlier to our own priorities. My fellow evangelicals, let me state this clearly: the “system” will never serve us, because the “system” is not of Christ. The “system” is a political machine beholden to special interests, lobbying groups, large corporations, financial contributors, and other entities, many of which are not the least bit concerned with anything remotely resembling Christian values. The idea that you can tear down the “system” and reshape it to serve you is, and always has been, a lie. It has been a lie since the time of Constantine. The “system” is about power, but Christ’s power is the power of the cross, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians must always stand outside the “system,” even when it is ostensibly Christian. As Christ taught us, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Christians willing to compromise core tenets of the faith in order to bend the political process to their will may win in the short term, but it will be a pyrrhic victory. In the end, they will lose far more than they gain. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36). It’s not worth it, Christians–not even close.
Many Christian leaders have been critical of Trump. Pope Francis stated, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Max Lucado has written that Trump does not pass the decency test. Evangelical attorney and activist John Stemberger has written a scathing critique of Trump for CNN. Trump seems unfazed by these remarks. He criticized the Pope’s remarks, saying that it is “disgraceful” to question another person’s faith. Consider, for a moment, the great irony of Trump–who has made public remarks belittling Hillary Clinton’s sex life, who called Arianna Huffington a “dog,” and who belittled John McCain’s service to his country in a Vietnamese prison camp–calling another person’s remarks “disgraceful.” Consider the additional irony of the fact that the person whose comments Trump criticized is Pope Francis, a man who has championed the cause of the poor and the politically disenfranchised. Trump has made his faith a matter of public record. It would be irresponsible for Christian leaders not to scrutinize the extent to which his actions are consistent with the faith he claims to hold.
I have a robust doctrine of sin, and therefore I don’t hold very high expectations of politicians. I’m not singling Trump out because of his unchristian behavior. I’m writing about him now because his behavior and proposed politics resemble nothing like Christianity and he is enjoying a substantial portion of the evangelical vote. I don’t expect Trump to act like a Christian, but I also don’t expect other Christians to support a candidate whose values are so antithetical to those of Christians across a broad theological spectrum.
Cultural Christianity has collapsed, and Christians do not enjoy the place of privilege we once did in the United States. It was only a matter of time before this happened, but now we have to make a choice. The time has come. We are going to have to choose between a false sense of national and cultural security and the values of Jesus. The xenophobic, privileged, narcissistic ethos that Trump embodies is antithetical to the values of Christ, who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).”
I am not suggesting that Trump would usher in an era as tragic as the one Bonhoeffer foresaw. Nevertheless, America is not so exceptional that we are incapable of grievous sin as a nation. We have done it before, and we are capable of doing it again. There is much to love about the United States, and there is much for which we should repent. The curious phenomenon of Donald Trump’s candidacy makes it clear that Christians are now at a point where we are going to have to make a choice. Who will we follow? Will we follow Christ and rightly understand ourselves as a countercultural family of faith, or will we baptize an idol of crass materialism, place a crown on its head, and call it Jesus?