Five Reasons Why Christians Should Feel Uncomfortable Voting for Trump in 2020

Last Sunday (July 19th), the far-right Christian Post published an article by John Wesley Reid entitled “5 Reasons why Christians should feel comfortable voting for Trump in 2020.”  Two days later, the same publication reported an international survey implicitly lamenting the fact that “most Americans don’t believe they need God to be good.”

In this time of Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings across the country and across the world, the two articles take on particular importance. Together, they not only highlight stark differences between right and left-wing understandings of Christianity. They also point up differences between the faiths of white evangelicals and their black counterparts in the street.

Additionally, both articles’ identification of Christianity exclusively with far right Caucasian politics goes a long way towards explaining the disconnect between morality and belief in a God. The explanation is found in the Christian right’s severely limited understanding of God, of goodness, and of the connection between morality and politics in this polarizing era of Donald Trump.

In tandem, the two articles also invite readers to be more thoughtful about their faith (or lack of same) and the ballot they’ll cast come November 3rd.   

God & Goodness

Begin with the survey. According to Pew Researchers, 54% of Americans hold that you don’t need God to be good.  Meanwhile 44% (a large majority of them on the ideological right) hold the opposite opinion. Only 24% on the ideological left believe God and morality are necessarily connected. (Left respondents in the survey typically had more years of formal education.)  

The Reid article shed light both on the identity of the sidelined God and on survey respondents’ likely understanding of “goodness” closely connected with that supposed deity. As will become clear below, Reid’s God is primarily concerned with specifically Christian welfare and with unborn life. Goodness is overwhelmingly connected with what the author referenced as “non-carnality.” Consequently, Christian political concern focuses on matters of specifically Christian liberty, on sexuality and reproduction – especially on abortion (which btw is not even mentioned in the Bible as a moral concern).  

Such limited understanding reflects the huge gap between white evangelicals and their black counterparts – for instance, the ones demonstrating against police brutality in our city streets. Their actions, of course, cannot be adequately explained without reference to the religiously based history of the Civil Rights Movement.  

In the light of that history, BLM demonstrators have inherited an understanding of God biblically founded on God’s very first revelation, viz. in the liberation of slaves from captivity in Egypt. It is linked besides to concern for widows, orphans and resident immigrants and refugees frequently reiterated in both the Jewish and Christian Testaments. In other words, goodness for black evangelicals is inseparably connected with social justice. Meanwhile, Reid’s article suggests ignorance of, and even hostility towards such linkage.

Morality & Voting for Trump

Setting all of that aside, Reid admits that he had doubts about Trump in 2016. But now, he says, those reservations have completely disappeared. Instead, he recommends that all Christians should confidently vote for 45’s reelection in November. He advances 5 reasons for doing so:

  1. You’re not voting for Donald Trump; you’re voting for the Trump Administration.
  2. You’re not voting simply for a person; you’re voting for an agenda.
  3. Policy outweighs character because policy outlasts character.
  4. If for no other reason than abortion, vote for Donald Trump.
  5. Voting for Trump is a tangible way of keeping Biden out.

Closely read, those reasons indicate that the author is still holding his nose. They all end up distancing themselves from a morally challenged candidate while cozying up to supposed paragons of Christian virtue such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to Trump’s agenda favoring “religious liberty,” “life of the unborn,” and resistance to volatile attacks on America (standard dog whistle for African Americans).

More specifically, Reid’s 5 reasons claim that:

  1. Trump may be carnally questionable, but people like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo are “committed non-carnal Christ-followers.”
  2. Doubts about the president’s moral character should be “trumped” by his agenda which the author finds favoring “religious liberty,” “life of the unborn,” and resistance to those explosive attacks on America.
  3. Sure, Trump’s character is highly debatable. However, appointments of “constitutional originalists” to the judiciary are more important. So are “our children’s futures,” religious liberty, the lives of the unborn, and the economic advancement of low-income communities.
  4. Christians can conscientiously identify as single-issue voters, because the abortion issue is powerful enough to overwhelm all other policy considerations.
  5. Joe Biden is no Donald Trump.

Voting against Trump

But what if being Christian is far more complicated and challenging than Reid lets on? What if black evangelicals and others are correct in holding it’s more than avoiding “carnality” even in the sense of Trump’s legendarily deviant sexuality (now involving expressed support for his friend, accused child rapist and sex trafficker, Ghislaine Maxwell)? Such complexity might lead Christians to decline voting for Mr. Trump for at least the following 5 specific reasons roughly mirroring Reid’s own:

  1. The type of Christianity advocated by Mr. Reid is just that – a type of Christianity, viz. the white evangelical sort. However, there are other types of Christians – those black evangelicals, for instance. And then there are Catholics who embrace the official teaching of their Church, viz. the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis. Their pro-life positions go far beyond the single issue of abortion to include radical environmentalism, war resistance, rejection of capital punishment, advocacy of living wages, fair housing, and healthcare as a human right. All of these, they profess, are pro-life matters.
  2. Religious liberty as understood in the Constitution is not limited to Christians of any stripe. It extends to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists and others whose pro-life concerns prioritize the already born – e.g. at the border, in Trump’s baby jails, under incessant U.S.-supported bombing in places like Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, on death row, and elsewhere.
  3. Donald Trump and virtually every member of the Republican Party are joined at the hip. There is absolutely no separation between policies advocated and implemented by Donald Trump and the rest of his administration – none. As for the morality of Mike Pompeo, he has specifically joked and bragged about endorsing policies of lying, cheating and stealing –all (unlike abortion) specifically prohibited not only in the Bible, but in all religious traditions. In other words, Trump’s inner circle is no more virtuous than he.   
  4. Above all, “our children’s futures” which are of such apparent concern to Mr. Reid, are intimately connected with and existentially threatened by climate change which the entire Republican Party proudly denies.
  5. Joe Biden is no Donald Trump.

Conclusion

There are good reasons for Americans and better educated people around the world to consider belief in God as inessential to morality. The God of The Post’s John Reid and his fellow believers, for instance, is so small in moral stature and very limited in his concern compared with the God of the Bible. Reid’s God is not only unbiblical, he is also basically white, ethnocentric and specifically American. That strains the credulity of even moderately educated people whose general knowledge recognizes the goodness found in non-Christians and in so many atheists. No wonder such thinkers reject a god as tiny as Reid’s.

Meanwhile, the biblical God, at least as embodied in Jesus’ prophetic tradition, literally identifies with human beings like those specifically despised by the candidate Reid would have his type of Christians embrace. Remember, Jesus himself was born out of wedlock to a teenage mother; he was an immigrant in Egypt in his early years; he was working class, poor, and a member of a people imperialized by the first century equivalent of the United States.

Besides that, Jesus’ “Good News” was specifically addressed to the poor (LK 4:18). He ended up being a victim of torture and capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire. All of that is foreign to Reid’s unbiblical notion of God.

And finally, it seems that the Jewish Jesus of the Christian Testament could well sympathize with those who feel alienated from their religious communities of origin. After all, he was expelled from his hometown synagogue (Luke 4: 14-30) and thought to be possessed by the devil himself (John 10:20).   

That Jesus, it seems safe to say, would be appalled by Donald Trump.

Kerygma: Step Three in the Development of Early Christian Belief

(This is the ninth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

As we’ve seen in previous postings in this series, there were five basic steps in the development of early Christian belief. First there was the life of the historical Jesus. Second came the “resurrection experience” which fundamentally changed his followers’ perception of his identity.  Third was the earliest Christian proclamation of belief – called “kerygma,” the Greek word for proclamation. That third step is the focus of today’s study.

How was Jesus originally presented to unbelievers by his followers? Scholars have isolated specific texts that answer that question. That is, such texts represent the earliest faith-forms of the primitive church. This means that the fragments antedated the letters of St. Paul, whose earliest entries in the Christian Testament date from about the year 50 just fifteen years or so after Jesus’ death. As already indicated, Paul’s letters are themselves the earliest of the New Testament texts – coming well before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. By way of contrast, the kerygmatic texts date perhaps from the same year as Jesus’ death – or very close to it. They are therefore especially revealing and insightful in terms of what the earliest Christians believed. Let’s consider two of those texts today.

According to scholarly perception, one of the first kerygmatic texts is found in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verses 22-24, 32-33, and 38. There Peter fresh from an extraordinary Pentecost experience in the Upper Room, addresses Jerusalem pilgrims gathered in the Holy City for the Jewish feast fifty days after Passover. The essence of Peter’s proclamation about Jesus runs as follows:

Men of Israel, hear me: I am speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, singled out by God and made known to you through miracles, portents, and signs, which God worked among you through him, as you well know. By the deliberate will and plan of God he was given into your power, and you killed him using heathen men to crucify him. But God raised him to life again, seeing him free from the pangs of death, because it could not be that death should keep him in its grip . . . Now Jesus has been raised by God, and we are all witnesses. Exalted at God’s right hand he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and all that you now see and hear flows from him.  . . . Repent . . . and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah; then your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Here we find the proclamation of a human miracle worker who had been given his miraculous powers by God who seems to be Jesus’ superior rather than Jesus being his equal. Jesus was the agent through whom God worked miracles and signs. He carried out God’s plans which included assassination by the Jews in collaboration with the Romans. As God’s anointed, Jesus was raised to life by God. God exalted him, and gave the Holy Spirit to him – after his death and resurrection. Now restored to life Jesus has communicated to his followers the Holy Spirit he himself has just received.  Those who believe should change their ways and be baptized, joining the community of believers.

Later on that community is described as faith-filled, highly egalitarian and holding all things in common. Note the specifics in the following two texts also from Acts. They are relevant to the question of the earliest perceptions of Jesus by his followers:

All the believers agreed to hold everything in common: they began to sell their property and possessions and distribute to everyone according to his need. One and all they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in their homes, they shared their meals with unaffected joy, and they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added new converts to their number. (Acts 2:44-47)

Now the whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and all were held in high esteem. There was never a needy person among them, because those who had property in land or houses would sell it, bring the proceeds of the sale, and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to any who were in need. (Acts 4: 32-35)

In other words, a type of primitive communism or communalism was the practical response of earliest Christians to their experience of the risen Lord and the gift of his Holy Spirit. Put otherwise, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that early Christians saw Jesus and his teachings as communistic. Certainly their response is miles from the spirit of capitalism, private ownership, and competition.

Another version of Christian Kerygma is found in the letter of Paul to the Christian community in Philippi. More specifically, in Philippians 2: 6-11 scholars find what they identify as a hymn fragment evidently sung by Christians in that community. It goes like this:

He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God,

But made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave.

Bearing the human likeness sharing the human lot

He humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross.

Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – in heaven, on earth, and in the depths –

And every tongue acclaim, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn fragment insists on the humanity of Jesus and on the identification of God in Jesus with the dregs of human nature – with slaves and victims of state execution.  Ironically, the hymn says, such identification led to the highest exaltation and to the establishment of Jesus as Lord in a cultural situation where lordship was claimed by the Roman emperor. In that sense, the earliest Christians proclamation was simply “Jesus is Lord.” The implication here is that the emperor is not Lord.

Where does all of this leave us in terms of understanding “the dogma of Christ?” It helps us see that Jesus was understood to be a man who became divine following his death and resurrection, whatever might have been the historical content of “resurrection.” He identified with the least of all humans (slaves) and was obedient to God. Following his resurrection, Jesus was given God’s Holy Spirit and was “exalted” by God. In other words, Jesus was fully human before his death, and was worshipped as divine only afterwards.

This is the way the earliest Christians perceived Jesus.

Next Week: Step four: a long oral tradition.

Mini-Class on the Historical Jesus: Early Development of the Christian Tradition

(This is the fifth in a series of Monday postings on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The modern scripture scholarship we’re exploring here has discovered that there were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. Understanding these stages is important for grasping the difference between the Jesus of history this series is attempting to explain and the Jesus of faith who has come to dominate our understandings of the prophet from Nazareth.

The five stages I’m referring to include (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) his disciples post-crucifixion “resurrection experience,” (3) the first proclamation of the disciples’ post-resurrection faith (called “kerygma,” a Greek word for proclamation), (4) a long period of oral tradition, and (5) the production of written reflections on the believing community’s experience of Jesus including his response to problems he did not himself encounter during his life. At each of these stages the Jesus of history recedes further from the Jesus of faith.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll devote a column a week to briefly exploring each one of the stages just referenced. This week I’ll  begin with some observations about what we’re able to say about the life of Jesus by applying the criteria for discernment I tried to explain last week. You’ll recall that those criteria were:  (1) Multiple attestation from independent sources, (2)  Dissimilarity from the apparent immediate interests of biblical authors , (3) Semitisms, (4)Content reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus, (5)Vividness of descriptionand (5) Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus. Additionally, relevant scholarly insights are derived from the modern disciplines of linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, comparative religion, history, psychology, economics, physics, biology, medicine, etc.

Application of these criteria uncovers a Jesus who is:

(1) A teacher of unconventional wisdom: Jesus’ teachings largely deviated from those of the rabbis of his time. In contrast to them, we would say he was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish tradition and especially of its laws. Law was not a priority for Jesus. In fact we might say he understood himself as fulfilling the Law by breaking laws and teaching others to do so. His priority was a Higher Law which put positive response to human need ahead of legal requirements. Jesus method of teaching such values was parable and story.

(2) A faith healer. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. As scholars point out, miracle workers in the first century of the Common Era were “a dime a dozen.” All “great men” – including emperors and kings – were expected to work miracles and were remembered as doing so. It would have been remarkable had Jesus not been identified as a miracle worker. Instead, Jesus was a faith healer of extraordinary power. His presence and words were able to evoke the healing powers present within all human beings.

(3) A prophetic critic. Jesus was not a priest or a king. He was a prophet. Prophets were social critics. So Jesus addressed the problems of his day including Roman imperialism and the collaboration with that system of exploitation on the part of the religious “leadership” of his day – its priests and kings.

(4) A Jewish mystic. Mystics are spiritual practitioners and teachers who believe that: (a) a spark of the divine resides within each human being; (b) humans can know that divinity and live from that place within them; (c) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (d) once that purpose is realized, the enlightened human perceives the spark of the divine in all of creation and lives accordingly.

(5) A movement founder. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His purpose was to reform Judaism. His specific interest was to proclaim a Jubilee Year which included debt forgiveness and land reform on behalf of the poor.  Following his death, Jesus’ Jewish reform movement evolved into a “church” overwhelmingly composed on non-Jews.

Next Week: Step One in the Development of the Christian Tradition: A portrait of the Jesus of History.