Baker Academic

Monday, January 25, 2016

Christianity's Power Problem: Trump and Lack of Self-awareness

"Make America Great Again" is a good campaign slogan if you're running for president. I would tend to think that it works best in America. I would imagine that if you had aspirations to become the President of the French Republic you might want to use a different slogan. But the voting peoples of America tend to like the idea that they are great and that America is great or that it was once great and could be great again. This, then, makes sense of the rumors that Trump's next major endorser will be Tony the Tiger.

As long as we keep it vague, the promise that American could be great again sounds great. If nothing else, Trump has proven to be media savvy in a way that few candidates are (i.e. he's great). He is usually smart enough not to specify that Americans will suddenly be great at algebra, or free throw shooting, or Papier-mâché if he is elected. So we are left to assume the specifics more often than not.

Recently, however, Trump has gotten specific. Trump's latest promise is that Christians will wield greater political power if he is elected president. This provides better clarification to his statement in November, "If I become president we’re all going to be saying 'Merry Christmas' again. That I can tell you." In a speech to Dordt College yesterday, Trump explained,
Christianity is under tremendous siege . . . . The power of our group of people together, I mean, if you add it up, it could be 240, 250 million. And yet we don't exert the power that we should have. . . .  We have to strengthen. . . . if I'm there, you're going to have plenty of power. You don't need anybody else. You're going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.
This, in a nutshell, has been Christianity's historic problem. I don't use the word sin often and I do so here reluctantly. I wouldn't want the generalization and abstraction of this truth to detract from what I think is a crucially important point: the Christian pursuit of power might be Christianity's original sin. Too many Christians have concluded that more political power will translate to a more Christian culture. As western history has told us over and over again, the opposite is true. The more Christianity acquires power, the less healthy we become and worse off our neighbors tend to be. I will avoid the temptation here to point out a hundred passages from the New Testament that preach humility, meekness, self-emptying, the way of the Cross, etc. Rather, I will simply quote another American, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, "How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep holidays than commandments."

One can hardly blame Trump for capitalizing on the American lust for power. He is a demagogue who worships at the church of Donald Trump. Would you expect anything different from him? This is a man who consciously neglects to ask for forgiveness. By any measure of Christian theology, Trump is not preaching, supporting, or enacting Christianity.

The real and more disturbing problem is the fact that Trump's calculated religious pandering is working. Yet again Christians (far too many if polling numbers tell us anything) have believed the lie that greater political power will make them great. This lack of self-awareness has a long history and few of these narratives end well.


  1. Totally insightful, Anthony. A perfect analysis of Christianity and power Can't remember the last time I read anything that so completely spoke the truth.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.
    (United Seminary Grad 1968)

  2. I agree that your article is very insightful, Anthony....but then it raises, for me, at least, the question of whether followers of Jesus should be voting at all. Isn't voting just an attempt to exercise power?

    1. I suppose that this depends on where, how and for whom you vote.

      Being human comes with innate power of varying shapes and sizes, forms and functions. Even self-emptying is an act of power if you look at it in a particular way. Loving one's enemy can carry a kind of subversive power, e.g. For me, a guiding question is this: as I exercise power, whom do I disempower in the process?


    2. An example: our Texas neighbor may feel he has the right to shoot his 45 pistol into the sky, on his own property. But what happens when the bullet comes down in someone else's house, next door.

      Often the free exercise of one's own apparent rights, infringes significantly on the rights of others.

      Likewise, the establishment of Christianity as the defacto state religion of America, would give Christians lots more freedom, or power. But that would deny freedom of religion to say, agnostics and Buddhists.

      In this matter we allow the broader, more widespread phenomenon, religion or lack thereof, a certain freedom. Though for that matter, that too can be restricted somewhat. If your religion day, demands human sacrifices for instance, then even religion can be restricted.

      So we have a a series of checks and balances on competing powers. Somewhat favoring the majority. But somewhat protecting minorities, at least to a degree.

      In this scenario, few rights are as simple and absolute as the punch drunk Trump likes to think. Trump is appealing to the Republican lower middle class. Which hasn't thought it all through yet.

    3. Anthony, I'll use myself as an example. I support Bernie Sanders and hope he becomes our next President, largely because I think he comes closest, in personal character and in policies, to what Jesus would want us to be like and want us to value in a government.

      So, in a sense, I am exercising my vote as an attempt to enforce Christian values. And I find myself doubting whether such a course of action is right.

    4. "Trump is appealing to the Republican lower middle class. Which hasn't thought it all through yet."
      Wow, get off your high horse, son.

    5. I agree Sanders would probably seek to follow Christlike values better than perhaps any other candidate. But he wouldn't be pushing all of any religion per se. Just taking a few of the best religious views. While using also regular, secular justifications.

      So I think he (and you) are a significant step back from violating the Establishment of religion clause in the Constitution etc..

  3. There is in fact a legal, constitutional restraint on a majority absolutely mandating its ideas for everyone. That restriction on the "tyranny of the majority" is called the Bill of Rights. The amendments. Which tell us that even minorities have certain inalienable rights. That cannot be taken away. Even by a majority vote.

  4. Well said Anthony. Thank you! I'm thinking of Rodney Stark's work on the social background to the rise of Christianity before Constantine ...

  5. At the same time, even minority ethnicities say, are partially constrained. If they violate some more universal rights.

  6. Nonsense. Christians don't want to be made "great".
    We just want to stop the constant insults and attacks, including, unfortunately, from some NT scholars.

    Whether you like it or not, America was built by a majority of Christians. They had an influence everywhere, from the building of schools and hospitals, to leading scientists being followers of Jesus. America has turned about pretty well thanks in large part because of that.
    We are not asking for a theocracy. We are asking for recognition of the good millions of Christians have done. You certainly bleat on about the bad enough times. And we are asking for the right to be involved in politics and vote based on our beliefs.

    And as a non-Christian, who seems to have an axe to grind sometimes, who are you tell us what we should believe and do?
    Oh that's right, you're smarter than us because we are not lettered.
    Come down from that tree, Prof. Zacchaeus.

    1. Anonymous, I disagree with almost everything you write here. But I'll just correct you on one matter: I am a Christian and have been quite open about this here and in several of my publications.

      I do quite like the image of Zacchaeus here. So are you inviting me down because you're playing the part of Jesus? Are you going to come to my house? Are you asking me to redistribute government funds?