President Donald Trump has been a contentious and divisive figure right through his presidency. This has reach new heights now that he has not won re-election.
Christians have been deeply polarised by him. I want to explore this polarisation and where it is leading the evangelical church in the US, and to some extent elsewhere.
I am not an American, but I believe there are some important lessons for us all to learn.
If you are a white evangelical who supported Donald Trump, some of what I say here may not be agreeable to you. Please only keep reading if you feel OK about that.
Christians support Trump
White christians have been strongly supportive of Donald Trump. It seems they see him as a champion sent by God to protect America from its enemies, especially secularism.
The US is a christian nation, they believe, but their faith and religious freedoms are increasingly under threat. And so Trump supporters welcome the political power that will preserve the way of life that they believe is God-given. They want to “Make America Godly Again”.
This religious view spills over into some very political matters.
- They are fearful that immigrants will take away American jobs (this appears to be a bigger concern than stopping abortion).
- They fear that globalisation and socialism will take away freedoms and more American jobs. Some go even further and see a global UN-based conspiracy imposing on them and taking away their freedoms.
- They often see christianity as teaching free market capitalism and opposition to government regulation and welfare.
- National security and preventing terrorism are important.
- Many fear that crime is rising and black Americans are dangerous.
The outcomes, not the man?
Surveys show that white christians generally have a positive opinion of Donald Trump’s character. Some see him as a fellow christian, many see him as honest, ethical, patriotic and unselfish. (Non-whites generally see him in a much less favourable light.)
Other white christians recognise his character flaws but see him as God’s chosen vessel to achieve their goals despite his weaknesses. It is the outcomes that matter.
Pastors & prophets
For all these reasons, white evangelical leaders and pastors have been especially enthusiastic in their support for Trump. They pray for him with great fervour, in their churches, and gathered around him in his office.
Looking for Biblical support, some see him as a modern day Cyrus, the pagan king in the Old Testament who nevertheless served God’s purposes. Some have said that they don’t want a President who follows Jesus’ values of non-violence and love for enemies.
Perhaps most enthusiastic have been prophets. Prophecy has been a divisive and difficult issue since the time of the Old Testament prophets, when kings had to choose between the genuine and the false. The unruly use of spiritual gifts, including prophecy, was an issue that Paul had to address in three chapters in 1 Corinthians.
Many christians believe today that the gift of prophecy is no longer given by the Holy Spirit. But some churches and groups place great store in the gift. And so various prophets have been prophesying God’s positive plans for Trump, including that he would win this recent election.
When it became apparent that the results were against Trump, at least one prophet apologised for being wrong (though he has since taken his apology down until the legal appeals are resolved).
But the majority came out even more strongly. Trump was God’s man, the corruption of the election would be exposed and Trump would assuredly win in the end. As I write this, many faithful evangelical christians are praying for the truth to be revealed and Trump to be vindicated.
Obviously the actual outcome will be a real test for these prophets. We can only wait and see if the election result is successfully challenged, and if it stands, how the prophets respond.
Other christians oppose him
A smaller number of white christians, and a larger number of non-white, opposed Trump right from the beginning. And at the recent election, many previously conservative christians voted Democratic for the first time in their lives. Their objections run deep.
They see him as a narcissistic conman who habitually lies and deceives to achieve his own ends. They see him as subverting democracy to get his own way, and corrupting the Republican party in the process.
These christians believe Trump is careless of the people Jesus told us to care for – the poor, the sick and the stranger. They cite remarks they see as racist, sexist, misogynistic, violent and insulting. They say these comments are lowering the tone of American society. They want their children to grow up in a world with respect for everyone, especially women, blacks and minorities.
Harming the church?
This concern led some christians to fund billboards contrasting Trump’s values with those of Jesus.
Explaining the differences
This polarisation of christian views cries out for an explanation. How can people following the same Jesus come to such opposite views on such an important matter?
The criticisms are strong and well-based on the teachings of Jesus. How then can conservatives support Trump?
Some justified concerns
Donald Trump’s core support seems to come from lower socio-economic whites. They have some legitimate concerns, perhaps over-stated.
- Secularisation. America is becoming less christian. But trying to hold on via legislation is not a wise or effective way to halt the tide (see 2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Perhaps they should examine the state of the church, especially some of the excesses, the financial and sexual scandals. Perhaps reform should start in the church?
- Loss of privilege. With the emancipation of women, and the weakening of racial barriers to blacks and other minorities, white males have lost some of their position in society’s pecking order. But equality is good for society, and it is hard to see how christians can argue otherwise.
- Loss of jobs. Globalisation has taken jobs offshore. But this happens (1) because of relatively high wages in the US and (2) the nature of capitalism which benefits the rich more than the poor. But voting for a conservative free market political party may not actually help.
- Insecurity. All of this, plus the over-stated threat of terrorism, has left many people feeling less secure than they once did. They look for someone to recognise their insecurity and fight on their behalf.
But other conservative concerns do not appear to have been so well-founded.
- Conspiracy theories about climate change, Covid and mask wearing, the United Nations and the deep state seem to shape christian opinion more than they should.
- Fears of a socialist takeover misunderstand what socialism is and misrepresent what progressive christians believe. If taken seriously, they would make Jesus a socialist.
- It seems there is still covert racism and sexism in many christian churches.
Psychologists have found that we all tend to react intuitively and quickly to ideas and situations. Reasoning is a slower process, and can end up being a rationalisation of what we have already decided intuitively.
When we are confronted with new ideas which threaten our established viewpoint, we tend to push the threatening ideas away and hold onto the beliefs we have found positive. Our pre-existing beliefs determine what we will think more than the new facts, no matter how much evidence there is.
This rationalisation of our “safe” beliefs is called motivated reasoning. It is particularly strong in people who want to defend the status quo, which of course is often political conservatives.
Motivated reasoning tends to affect who we listen to and believe, and what facts we are willing to consider. So we end up with biased information.
We all tend to think this way, for it isn’t always sensible to spend energy reviewing beliefs that have served us well. But if we allow it to take over our reasoning, then we will miss many helpful and even life-changing insights.
It seems that some parts of the christian church may have allowed fear, faith and dogma to displace reason and evidence. As a result, some christians may be cut off from truth or reality in some areas of their thinking (e.g. climate change). This seems more common with conservative christians, but is possible with progressive christians also.
What would Jesus think?
Micael Grenholm has examined the attitudes of American christians to political and social issues, as revealed in a September 2020 survey. The picture isn’t a pretty one. He compares the contrasting values of black and white evangelicals, and finds:
- 70-80% of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, but only 20% of black evangelicals.
- In giving reasons for their support of either candidate, white evangelicals were much more likely than blacks to care about controlling immigration and having conservatives in the Supreme Court, and much less likely to vote for someone who supported universal healthcare and care for the disadvantaged.
- White evangelicals were much more likely than blacks to overlook Trump’s “moral failings” and lack of truthfulness.
Micael comments: “I find these stats to be devastating. This isn’t merely about what party to pick on election day – this is about our discipleship. ….. Many [white evangelicals] don’t value the lives of the poor and vulnerable as much as black Christians do.”
It is interesting the Reformed evangelical leader John Piper seems to have some similar issues with white evangelical support for Trump.
A personal assessment
Jesus cautioned us that we can too easily get caught up in wrong thinking. Not all who identify as his followers are actually known by him (Matthew 7:21-22).
He also warned of the dangers of wealth. He told a parable (Luke 12:13-21) of a “rich fool” who amassed wealth but died before he could enjoy it. He urged us to instead be rich towards God. (Look up “rich” in a concordance and see how often Jesus spoke about it.)
These warnings are especially relevant to those of us who live in the first world. We are already living in a highly materialistic culture, so it is easy to think this is normal.
So I am left wondering if the 21st century western church, of which I am part, and especially the US evangelical church, has lost sight of Jesus and become enmeshed in a religion of patriotism (“christian nationalism“) and self. Francis Shaeffer long ago described these values as “personal peace and affluence”.
This seems to have led to motivated reasoning that justifies unchristian values to protect what is held dear, and to believe supportive ideas without evidence. Christians who take an extreme attitude to faith (assuming it means believing things contrary to evidence, when it should be understood as trusting God for what we have good evidence for) are probably more able to divorce themselves from facts and evidence.
Thus they are able to believe that someone who has been found out telling thousands of untruths is nevertheless telling them the truth, and so never check to see if the facts are different to what they have been told.
There is evidence that conservative politicians deliberately emphasise and exaggerate negative ideas to play on the electorate’s fears. Conservative politicians and business leaders have even deliberately targeted christians because they know they can be influenced in this way, both now and in the past.
And the prophets?
The prophets are a worry. These prophets, and others before them, seem too often to predict what they want to be true. Sometimes perhaps that is what God also wants, other times it may not be. We will soon see if their predictions about Trump are true.
But it seems modern day prophets, taking a lead from Ezekiel, think that weird behaviour is part of the role. This video disturbed me.
Should they be believed? That isn’t up to me, but to their churches and spiritual communities. But it may be a time for christians to reconsider who they believe among their pastors, their prophets and their news media.
Many christians, both conservative and progressive, believe this is a time of shaking and change. They have different reasons for thinking that, and a different result in mind.
The conservatives seem to want to go back to a golden age when society was christian and everyone felt secure in that – well the affluent whites did, anyway. The progressives want to move forward to a new church where the poor, the marginalised and the minorities are welcomed and Jesus’ teachings are followed.
I for one am praying that christians will know where the Spirit of God is calling them.
Truth before tribalism
It is easy for us to be caught up in tribalism – following our group and its way of thinking in a way that closes us off to truth from outside our tribe.
Jesus promised the Spirit would lead his followers into truth (John 16:13), and that truth would set us free (John 8:32). Truth is important, and Jesus is the truth (John 14:6).
We don’t need to be afraid of new information. We can be open to new truths. Our christian tribe isn’t always right.
There’s a whole bright world of God’s kingdom “out there” (as well as within us).
Apology & thanks
If you disagree with what I have written here, but have nevertheless read through to this point, thank you. I’m sorry for anything that may have distressed you. But perhaps you may read the final section with an open heart and consider. Thanks again.
If all this is at least partly true, how can we be part of change? It isn’t straightforward.
To improve the likelihood of people being willing to hear new information, it must be presented “in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction”.
If we start with the facts, motivated reasoning will likely kick in. But if we start with shared values, and make a connection on that level, there is more hope that the person will be able to accept the information when it comes.
This post has certainly not done that, for most people who read this blog are likely to be progressives, and I write for them. But conservative and progressive christians surely share some common values (although it can be hard to find them sometimes), and we need to look for them.
If this isn’t done, I fear the present polarisation and division will continue towards schism, which cannot help the kingdom of God.
- Don’t blame Jesus for the wrongs of the church! Is there a God? website.
- Evangelical Vote Once Again Split on Ethnic Lines. Christianity Today, September 2020.
- Why Black Evangelicals Rejected Trump – While White Evangelicals Love Him. Micael Grenholm, Charismactivism.
- Some Christians say Trump has pushed young people away from their churches — and his impact on Christianity could last well beyond his presidency. Kelsey Vlamis, Business Insider Australia.
- The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris Mooney, Mother Jones.
- Donald Trump is hardly the ‘Republican Jesus’ and Trump still enjoys huge support among evangelical voters — and it’s not only because of abortion. The Conversation, October 2020.
- How a data-backed Christian nationalist machine helped Trump to power. The Guardian, March 2020.
- Policies, Persons, and Paths to Ruin. John Piper, Desiring God.
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump. Wikipedia.