Anyone who has observed the colossal fall of Harvey Weinstein and the outrage expressed over his sexual exploitation of women, might wonder how it is that Donald Trump could engage in the same behavior and even be publicly recorded bragging about sexually molesting women, and still be elected president. I suppose a lot of text and time could be invested theorizing why that is so. As a Baptist minister I come at it from a slightly different angle.
It is a sad fact that over 80 percent of self-proclaimed evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, after having heard his sexual molestation claims on tape and knowing full well that 11 women courageously came forward to confirm that his boasts were true. I have no statistics for this, but from what I can tell there were also a good number of Christians who do not identify with evangelicals who also voted for Trump. So the question I raise is this: What does this say about the current state of American Christianity?
Two things stand out. One, American Christianity is no different than any other religion in this way: There are healthy, potentially life enriching versions of religious faith, and there are unhealthy, potentially life diminishing versions as well. All we need do to see this quite clearly is honestly read and interpret our sacred texts without arbitrarily imposing upon them some theory of biblical inerrancy or infallibility. Our biblical tradition reflects what is true of all religious traditions: namely, there are life transforming versions and life debilitating versions. For example, consider the following biblical text that offers divine justification for genocide:
“The Lord said to me, ‘See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to take possession of his land.’ So when Sihon came out against us, he and all his people for battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people. At that time we captured all his towns, and in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor” (Deut. 2:31-34).
The text even says that God “hardened” King Sihon’s spirit and “made his heart defiant” so that he would not otherwise seek some peaceful resolution (2:30). According to the biblical text, in city after city God intervenes to harden the hearts of the Canaanites who inhabit the land so Israel will carry out God’s policy of total eradication of the Canaanite people. In the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, the Canaanites are depicted much like the way the Nazis depicted Jews or the European invaders characterized native Americans as inhuman, subversive, uncivilized, godless and under divine condemnation.
Such explanations for divinely ordered genocide stand in stark contrast to Jesus’ description of “Abba” who loves all people unconditionally, even those opposed and hostile to God and God’s ways (see Matt. 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36). Jesus instructs his disciples to love their enemies because this is what God does. Jesus even changes the classic, “Be holy, because God is holy” to “Be compassionate, because God is compassionate.” Jesus defined holiness as a holiness of compassion and love, even toward the enemy.
Clearly these texts reflect two different versions of religious faith. One calls for the complete extermination of one’s enemies, while the other charges us to pray for and do good to those bent on hurting us. Christians who ignore or deny such contradictions, and biblical inerrantists who try to explain away or harmonize what is clearly two completely different expressions of faith, have caused a growing number of people to simply walk away from the church and the Christian faith. What these Christians call “good news” is obviously “bad news” to many seriously minded and spiritually sensitive persons.
Spiritual writer Richard Rohr likes to say that most of us do not see things as they are, but rather we see things as we are. A person who is petty and punitive will read, interpret and apply sacred texts in petty and punitive ways. A person who is enlightened and loving can read those same texts and interpret and apply them in enlightening and loving ways. Jesus captures it well with his teaching: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil” (Luke 6:45a).
That there are unhealthy, life diminishing, as well as healthy, life transforming versions of Christian faith, as is true of all religious traditions, should have been obvious to us from our sacred texts. We should not then be surprised when morally debilitating versions of Christian faith dominate the American Christian landscape.
A second thing that can be said is actually an elaboration of the first. A good number of American Christians who adhere to individualistic, next-world, exclusivistic versions of the faith, emphasizing beliefs about Jesus over the teachings of Jesus, are easily manipulated by partisan politics that appeal to deeply embedded prejudices and fears, reductionist morality, and misguided patriotism.
Trump has been able to garner the support of many American Christians by catering to their deeply ingrained prejudices, fears, and insecurities manifested in their readiness to scapegoat undocumented persons, LGBTQ persons and women who have had abortions, as well as all politicians and civic leaders who advocate for women’s rights. Trump won the loyalty of these Christians by promising and promoting an anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-abortion agenda. Many Christians who put the emphasis on believing the right things (like the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, etc.) are able to feel like they are good Christians simply because they are convinced that their correct beliefs make them God’s children and secures for them a place in heaven. They can then reduce Christian morality to one, two, or three issues.
The irony of it all is that the two major moral positions they adopt (anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ) are things Jesus never mentioned. It doesn’t seem to dawn upon them that simply being anti-abortion doesn’t make one pro-life. In fact, some of the most anti-life, anti-compassion, anti-liberating, anti-justice agendas are heralded by anti-abortionists. Nor do they even consider that being anti-LGBTQ actually sets them against the Jesus of the Gospels whose inclusion of so called “sinners” and boundary breaking actions led to direct clashes with the religious establishment of his day. Jesus welcomed all people to the table of fellowship. I have no doubt that the Jesus of our Gospels who was constantly breaking down walls of separation would welcome and affirm our LGBTQ sisters and brothers just as he welcomed and affirmed tax collectors (traitors), prostitutes, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, rich and poor, sick and well, and all “sinners.”
Many of these Christians associate loyalty to country with loyalty to God. Their faith is wrapped up in the American flag. They want to sing in their worship services songs like “My country ‘tis of thee” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They want the flag to fly in the sanctuary right next to a list of the Ten Commandments and a banner that says, “God bless America.” They want nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount or the prophet who says that God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations.
But all is not lost. There are disciples of Jesus in this country who sincerely, honestly and humbly aspire to be practitioners of the teachings of Jesus and to emulate his life. They are committed to doing their best to love all people as themselves. They are quick to acknowledge their many failures and faults. In confessing their faith they say, “This is what I believe, but I could be wrong.” They see the spiritual life as a journey and know they are in a constant state of development and evolution. They are dedicated to doing works of mercy and pursuing restorative social justice, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. They are willing to do so even though it involves risk and personal sacrifice. They pray for and seek the common good. They care for and stand with the marginalized and the disenfranchised. They believe their faith only has merit to the extent that they display these fruits of the kingdom of God.
And in today’s American culture of Christian civil religion and national/Christian exceptionalism, we might just be doing them an injustice by calling them Christians.