07 July 2016

Trump and the Christianists

In late June Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a Christian pressure group, announced that Donald Trump was now "a baby Christian," having recently entered into "a relationship with Christ" through an intermediary Dobson has not identified. Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist, was skeptical. Thomas has been opposed to Trump's presidential campaign and was one of the authors in the anti-Trump issue of National Review. He finally spoke with the presumptive Republican nominee on June 6. 

"Who do you say Jesus is?" Thomas asked.

"Jesus to me is somebody I an think about for security and confidence," Trump replied, "Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

For Thomas, this was an incorrect or at best incomplete answer. "This is not the language most evangelicals would consider as evidence of a religious conversion," he claimed. Like a prosecutor demanding a yes or no answer from his witness, Thomas expects Trump to, well, witness. The question, "Who do you say Jesus is?" has one correct answer, at least for Thomas. That answer is, "The son of God." To say anything else means you don't get it. Thomas sees things the way C. S. Lewis did, demanding that you accept all of Jesus's claims or none. He has no patience for those who talk of Jesus as a great moral teacher or philosopher. For Thomas, as for Lewis, all the morals or philosophy that Jesus taught followed from the premise that he was the son of God. "You must take your choice," Lewis wrote, "Either this was, or is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse....let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us."

Does Thomas suspect that Trump thinks Jesus is a madman? I'd guess not, but I would guess that he considers Trump, as yet, doctrinally unsound, or enough of a naif or neophyte not to realize the stakes involved in who you say Jesus is. It's more obvious that Thomas is disappointed with those evangelicals who are willing to make excuses for Trump because they see him as a strongman who will protect Christians from all their enemies at home and abroad. "It is a strange thing when evangelicals divide their loyalty, hoping for an earthly 'deliverer,' as if any politician, or businessman, could save the country from its collective sins," the columnist scoffs. Thomas once was deeply involved in the Moral Majority movement but walked away convinced that politics could not achieve the national spiritual salvation that really matters to him. To him, Trump seems to further prove his point. It must seem ironic to him that so many evangelicals who want to reimpose traditional Christian values -- those I call "Christianists" -- seem eager to rally around a worldly figure like Trump simply because he projects toughness and longs for an idealized American past that isn't necessarily the same past Thomas or the other Christianists idealize. "They project their faith on many who do not share it," Thomas notes, "and approve of that faith only in Republicans, never in Democrats, some of whom demonstrate more knowledge of Scripture and practice its teachings better than some Republicans."

Rest assured that Thomas isn't voting for Hillary Clinton this year, and he probably won't vote for Trump, either. Like many Americans, he finds himself isolated now by the terrible choice facing us in November, and his dismay reveals some contradictions in his character. On one hand, it's absolutely admirable for him to close by writing, "If you are about to have surgery, wouldn't you want the most competent doctor you can find regardless of his faith? That should also be the standard for electing a president." On the other, there's something ominous in his inquisitorial tone toward Trump and his readiness to judge any part of the man by his answer to one dumb question. You can imagine Christianists someday asking the same question and demanding the same answer of all of us if they get riled up enough by the world evolving out of their control in a way that feels like persecution to them. I don't think it's a good thing or a bad thing that Trump didn't give the right answer, but it will be interesting to see, now that he's been told the right answer, how he answers the question the next time someone asks it.

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