Re-Seeing Evangelical Support for Donald J. Trump
Not long ago, Wayne Grudem, a prominent evangelical theologian, voiced support for Donald Trump. His main reason was because the next president would appoint the succeeding Supreme Court Justices.
After I read his statement, I tweeted this:
As more and more evangelicals have rallied around Donald Trump, I have found myself perplexed that an apparent yearning for political power has caused many Evangelicals to overlook the non-Christian values that the candidate has long represented. But then I realized that the reason that Christian values are being overlooked is because they are being trumped by conservative evangelical theologies that would be unfamiliar to many self-identified Christians. Some of this comes from the application of a type of End Time Theology, or the belief in America as a “Christian nation” and the Exceptionalism of America. Others are just the outworking of the theology of divine punishment and the separation of good from evil that many Evangelicals read as central to God’s creation and restoration of the universe.
One area of Evangelical theology that drives the support for the Republican candidate is the theological lens through which we engage with others. This was clear to me as someone who grew up in conservative circles, where I was trained to do the work of evangelism.
As an evangelist, I would evaluate every person I met in order to identify their belief system. What do they believe about God, the Bible, sin, Jesus, the Trinity? When it became apparent that someone was “lost” in terms of adhering to standard evangelical doctrine, it was my task to convince them of their need for God and elicit a decision to accept Christ. As a result, every person became a project, through which I would bring them closer to my set of beliefs. Every person was damned without God, a sinner in need of salvation and repentance. And all those who stood in vocal disagreement—Atheists, Muslims, Mormons, etc.—were considered the enemy of the gospel. My goal was to win as many people to Christ as I could.
Recently, I revisited one of the passages that had long been used to sustain my evangelical, mission-minded perspective. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’
Here we find the lens by which Jesus viewed humanity. He had compassion on them because they were being harassed and as a result, were helpless. Jesus doesn’t begin with them being sinners, or unrighteous, or immoral, or theologically incorrect. It wasn’t so much about what they were doing wrong but rather what was being done unto them. The sociologist Richard Beck wrote about this passage saying, “All this changes the framing of how we might think about the ‘workers for the harvest.’ People are lost. But they aren’t damned. They are, rather, harassed and helpless. Directionless and aimless. Looking for care. Searching for good news.”
So what he’s saying is that the way Jesus looks at the “unsaved” is not primarily as lost, immoral sinners, but as being lost in the sense that they are being victimized through harassment by the forces of evil. Are people sinners? Of course we are. But is this the primary lens that Jesus sees the multitudes?
This perspective matters because how we are primed to see others changes the way we engage with them—either as projects to be fixed or as victims to be cared for.
If we begin to view others not as sinners, but as victims of systems that perpetuate injustice, then we will begin to imitate the work of Jesus in the harvest in a very different way. We will see that the harvest is indeed plentiful because the mass of humanity suffers from the effects of systemic injustice—sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, income inequality, and so on. What posture change occurs when we see people less as having a faulty theology to fix and more as people who are being harassed by powers that are largely out of their control?
The problem with Evangelical evangelism, then, is the starting point. If we begin at a place of theological disagreement, love is diminished. If we initiate relationships in the place of peoples’ needs, by seeing the root is “harassment,” then love begins the relationship. We operate from a place of compassion, not judgment.
When we see that the main issue is not just about individual poor decisions, but that there are systems in place that perpetuate human suffering, then we will likely be motivated to hold government, law enforcement, corporations, and the socially irresponsible wealthy more accountable rather than giving them a pass.
We will see that Syrian refugees or undocumented immigrants are people who are being harassed, and demonized, and sent away, rather than as criminals. We will see that the drug problem in the Philippines has more to do with corporate greed and governmental corruption that results in widespread poverty and drug use than it has to do about individual irresponsible behavior. We will see that drug users aren’t people to be executed but rather shepherded to health and wholeness.
If, indeed, the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, then the most immoral thing our nation can do is to not love our neighbor. Unfortunately, we don’t see our great sin because we continue to see people primarily as crooks, terrorist, druggies, and sinners.
So our starting point in how we view people changes our understanding of the Gospel and our approach in bringing about the Kingdom of God. If we look at the mass of humanity as perpetrators rather than victims, as damned rather than helpless, our mission will be totally different. How we think about theology really matters, then. The implications of our theological worldview are profound.
If we look back just fifty years ago, the greatest minds of conservative evangelical Christianity failed to apply the scriptures accurately and compassionately in the great test of the Civil Rights movement. The non-black religious leaders who marched in the movement were largely from Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Mainline Protestant faiths. Many leaders in the white Evangelical church were invisible, silent and distant. And worse, many more stood in opposition to Civil Rights and therefore the oppression of black lives.
And even before the Civil Rights era, between the period of 1880-1940 when approximately 5000 black men and women were lynched, white male evangelical theologians and pastors failed to address this monstrous atrocity. The sermons and theology books written at this time ignored the lynchings. Our theology that allowed this has not changed. And because of this, the perpetuation of violence against black lives, people of color, refugees and women have continued to exist.
Even though many Evangelical churches have now adopted Civil Rights reforms, the core of evangelical theology that allowed this failure has not changed. Will we fail again in our generation?
This maps all the way to Wayne Grudem’s political pronouncements today. A theology that affirms the rise of a Donald Trump and the continual lynching of black lives is a failed theology that must be dismantled and reformed so that it no longer causes harm. Because to not cause harm, as Paul reminded us, is the end of the commandments: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The only way we begin to fulfill this commandment, it seems to me, is not by arguing over theologies, or tallying up wayward sinners, but by learning more and more to see others—radical others—through the eyes of divine, Christlike love. That, in the end, will be the only thing that trumps hate.
Editor’s Note, 10/12/2016: Since the publication of this blog post, Wayne Grudem has disavowed his support for Donald Trump.