What does it mean to be church in the era of President Trump? What does this mean for Mainline/Progressive Christians?
In the days following the Inauguration, I was less worried about the new President. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned: but he was chosen in an election and should be allowed govern. It might be the same as giving him a chance, I don’t know. But I didn’t want to fly from the reality that Donald Trump won the election.
But I was always waiting if he would cross a line that would be unacceptable. Would he do something that seered my own conscience? When would he do it?
The line I was worried he would cross was how we deal with refugees. I think it is a good thing for America to welcome those fleeing from horror. I believe we have a stringent vetting system that could help make us secure and allow those who need shelter to find it here in the US.
Well, I now see that Trump did cross that line. He has issued an executive order that would suspend entry of immigrants from seven countries, stops the US from accepting refugees for 4 months, and permanantly keeps Syrians refugees out.
The protests have been swift and the actions of the EO have been devastating. Church leaders accross the spectrum are condemning this order. Demonstrations have taken place at airports around the nation. Immigrants on their way to the US or just arriving have been blocked from entering.
Meanwhile my Facebook feed is filled with people who seem to freak out about everything the new president has done, some of which isn’t that unusual from what other presidents have done. Some progressives are going after Trump voters and it’s not to give them a hug. It’s to call them out, to shame them for voting for a man that has said so many racist, sexist, and every other -ist in the world. It’s to state that one can’t follow Jesus and support Donald Trump.
It’s suffice to say that Trump is keeping us all on our toes. But how does the church respond in this new era?
I think the first thing is to realize what we are dealing with. Progressive Christians like to talk about the concept of Empire and it has at times left me rolling my eyes. But the role of “empire” in theology does have a place in our discussions about church and state: if we are willing to apply to all of our government and not just when the government doesn’t agree with us or is not from the same political party. The question we don’t ask, at least not when Democratic Presidents are in power is how the church should relate to Empire? Presbyterian Michael Kruse wrote back in 2010, about the totalizing agenda of an empire and it is the same no matter who is in charge:
The defining feature of Empire is its totalitizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how and empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.
Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?
Not long before being elected senator, Obama talked of a Second Bill of Rights … channeling FDR. It is a common mindset shared by the left. The original Bill of Rights lists “negative” rights, telling what the government will not do. The Second Bill of Rights would be “positive” rights guaranteeing everyone a home, health care, education, recreation, and so on. In other words, government moves from being a referee for free and virtuous people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities to government being the direct or indirect provider of every aspect of our basic existence. Every sphere of life … business, education, medicine, compassionate care … becomes an extension of government management used toward government’s guarantee of positive rights. All institutions and traditions in our various spheres of life are made to serve the Empire.
Yes, President Trump is lifting up the agenda of Empire, but so did President Obama. Sure it might have been for Obamacare instead of immigration restrictions, but both work to being all spheres of life under the Empire.
None of this means we exit society and stop voting. It does mean that we need to be aware that both an executive order banning certain people and a health care bill providing universal access can be tools used by the Empire to pledge total allegiance. We always need to be aware in our dealings that our first allegiance is always to Christ and that sometimes the two things don’t always sync up, especially when we agree with today’s “Ceasar.”
But screaming “empire” has a way of legitimizing your political agenda, while demonizing the other side. It also has a way of airbrushing inconvenient truths about our favorite Ceasars. Have you ever noticed that progressives will talk about the internment of Japanese Americans, but never talk about the fact that Franklin Roosevelt signed the order that made this happen? Roosevelt is a hero of the left and is airbrushed out of the history of this sad chapter in American life.
To be church in this era means being willing to challenge all Caesars not just those we don’t like.
The second thing we need to do is to find ways to seek and dialogue with those who voted for Trump. Unless your congregations are made up of just one political party, they are probably in your congregation or they are your friends and family.
But for some progressive Christians, that might be easier said than done. There is a lot of anger out there for people who voted for Trump. Every article that I’ve read in this vein, tends to list Trump’s sins probably in an attempt to say that it was so obvious that this was a bad man. I’ve shared what John Pavolvitz said shortly after the election. Zack Hunt also brings up the list to hold up to Trump voters, especially evangelicals:
He said his personal motto is “eye for an eye.”
He unrepentantly declared he doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
He said he wants to bomb half of the Middle East until there’s “nothing left.”
He proposed a tracking system to monitor immigrants.
He exploited the poor to build his empire.
He said it was fine to consider his daughter “a piece of ass.”
And bragged about his ability to sexually assault women.
None of that is reconcilable with the Christian faith.
And that was just the campaign.
Yet, none of these deeply anti-Christian things stopped 81% of evangelical Christians voters from casting their ballot for Donald Trump.
In trying to defend their spiritual adultery, they told us – shamed us would probably be more accurate – to give him a chance as if we were just supposed to ignore literally everything he had said and done before the election, as if a vain, temperamental, 70-year old demagogue would magically and radically change who he is, how he behaves, and what he believes the moment he was sworn into office.
We did not owe him a chance, but even if we did, he’s proven after less than a week in office that he didn’t deserve it.
The problem with this kind of article is that it doesn’t even bother to get to know why some people voted for Trump. They tend to act as if they know these people and view them with contempt, seeing them as wild-eyed nationalists bent on making this world worse off.
But there are a lot of reasons people voted for Trump, such as economic issues. Read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to understand what life is like for the white working class, the group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
But there is another issue that makes sense and is important during the era of Trump: the church needs to be united.
I am not saying the church must have one mind, but it must be a united in that we are grounded in Jesus Christ. In some of the books like John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel and Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, the church is the “model home” of the Kingdom of God, a place where the world can see God’s kingdom in action. If it is a taste of God’s kingdom, it should be a place where people from different backgrounds and viewpoints will come together, maybe to show a way in this divisive time how all of us can come together in Christ. Maybe if the church was a place where people from various racial and ideological backgrounds joined through the observance of communion, it might be an example in our current context how people can come together in spite of our differences.
Finally, how the church should live in the Trump era calls on the regular practice of church life. Writing in the magazine First Things, Reformed Scholar Carl Trueman writes about the importance of maintaining the regular acts of church life even in the midst of a changing world:
As I drove back from visiting the elderly congregant, I thought about how all of the recent changes in wider American society will affect my ministry. Yes, they might make it financially harder and they are already making it socially less acceptable – but they will not really change it at any deep level. Regardless of SCOTUS or the 2016 election, as long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants. The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are. In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.
None of these things will change, even if they do become financially and perhaps legally harder. The world around may legitimate whatever sleaze, self-indulgence and self-deception it may choose. It may decide that black is white, that up is down, and that north is south, for all I care. The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides. The tomb is still empty. And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my of spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer.
This might seem pointless in a time when we have a president that seems to cause chaos with every step. But things like communion are there to prepare us, to stregthen us as we enter the world and join the fight. Disciples pastor Doug Skinner wrote recently:
But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”
And so when the question is – What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table
to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.
The Trump era is going to test the world in ways it has never been tested. It will bring disruption. It could bring terror attacks. It could get the US involved in a war.
But in all times and places, the church is called to be the church. We are not to be wedded to the power structures of the world, we are to be agents of reconciliation and we will continue to do the work of the church day in and day out, so that our people will have the grace needed to work for justice in this uncertain time.