What Trump’s Rise Means to American Christianity

I’ve said before that I love national politics, but only as spectator sport. One thing that urban living has taught me is that local politics is much more influential and has a greater impact on daily life than anything that happens on a national stage.

I have to admit though: this presidential campaign has me glued to the edge of my seat.

If you’re reading this, you came for Trump, but give me just a second to dabble with the Democrats.

As they did in 2008, young people picked their inspirational outsider presidential candidate and are prepared to use all the social media resources at their disposal to see him elected. The establishment pushback against Bernie Sanders has less to do with him being a (democratic?) socialist but with DNC leadership trying to maintain their base of power. A few weeks ago, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post presented the clearest case as to why Hilary is the candidate of choice for the party, and it has little to do about winning the White House: Barack Obama’s election showed that it is no longer necessary to rely on the establishment. If Bernie were to win, it would cement the irrelevancy of the Democrat’s national leadership; they’d lose everything. It’s an era where grassroots has actual meaning, and the power players are running scared. After Super Tuesday, it appears Hillary has the path to the nomination, although Bernie has a lot of campaign money left to spend.

In some ways, the rise of Donald Trump emerged from the same movement. Like Sanders, Trump is the anti-establishment candidate, making him popular among Republicans who visualize him as someone giving them a voice. The political death of Jeb Bush has signified that it’s a new day for the Republicans, but it’s the coalescing behind Trump that is truly baffling. Not since the early 19th century has a political candidate been able to speak so offensively (and, mind you, that was the era before the abolition of slavery) without having to face the consequences of his remarks. The Don will lie or insult someone, then laugh about it and offer a quick apology, expecting everyone to move on immediately. Despite the media doing everything in their power to discredit him, he continues to maintain his lead in national polling.

After Trump’s win in South Carolina, a steady stream of Evangelical Christian leaders and pastors spoke up against him. Quite a few people asked why they waited until now to confront him, and I think the answer is obvious: no one in their right mind could see this coming; why decry the madman who walks alone? There are too many ills in this world to waste your voice on insanity.

And yet tonight, after Trump’s dominance on Super Tuesday, what was once unthinkable appears to be inevitable. 

For pure spectacle, a possible Trump presidency has me chomping at the bit. And for those of you who think that this will hasten the end of the world, President Trump would not be able to get away with anywhere near the amount of ridiculousness that Candidate Trump has, thanks to the framers of our constitution. The balance of power within our national government is a type of accountability that Trump hasn’t had since his youth (assuming he had some there).

So don’t get sidetracked on what I think is the most important issue surrounding Trump’s ascendency. The greater issue surrounding this movement transcends politics and impacts the future of the church in America.

Trump has said some egregious things over the past year (and if we go back to his life before a presidential candidate, there’s a veritable goldmine of other material), and his offensive statements have absolutely no Christian defense. Despite this, he is still the preference of a third of Republican voting Evangelicals. I know that optimists will note that two-thirds voted against him, but those numbers are still noteworthy. 

Since the advent of Jerry Falwell’s moral majority of the 1980’s, Evangelical Christians have voted with the G.O.P. After all those decades, still dismayed that the party has not made significant gains with their issues, they’ve decided to align with someone they thing can get it done, even if he lacks the moral fiber they claim they admire. Earlier this year, Falwell’s son (current president of the nation’s most influential Evangelical College) endorsed Trump, and I believe it was one of the most significant moves in this election season; the spawn of Jerry made it permissible for Evangelicals to swallow their religious reservations to get them to the promised land.They’ve fully embraced the trade-off: even though Trump is an abrasive bully with a questionable past and controversial thoughts, at least he’s honest about things and [they believe] will represent their interests. 

To be clear, this is a perfectly permissible choice when voting for a political candidate; as an American, you can vote for whomever you choose, whether it’s because you support their ideology or simply that they have a cool name (admit it: you’ve done it when voting for local judges). But when Christian leaders publicly advocate for a candidate that counters their core beliefs, it puts their faith in the cross hairs. This is why no one predicted Trump’s success: no one believed that Christians would actually make that choice. Apparently, we were all wrong.

The Republican Party can no longer serve as the default political party of Evangelical Christianity.

In case you’re uncomfortable with that statement, know that the Democratic Party can’t either.

Friends, political Christianity has finally jumped the shark.

And regardless of what happens in this election season, the future will be dramatically different.

Politics will no longer unite American Christianity, and determining what Evangelicalism even looks like will become virtually impossible. It’s something that I’ve heralded for awhile but Trump’s success has clinched it. The chasm created between the factions of American believers will likely never be repaired.

My job puts me in the midst of the next generation of Christian leaders and they’re watching all of this very closely. At the evangelical Christian college where I work (featuring students from urban, rural, and suburban areas), there’s a general fatigue about political dialogue. These students identify more with the Democratic platform than that of Republicans. This allegiance has virtually nothing to do with economic or international policies but with social issues. They believe the Democrats are the more empathetic party. The party's response to the race issues of the past couple of years—specifically in response to the incidents of violence with Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice—is a stance Millenials admire. One of the reasons Bernie Sanders is so popular among young people is that he stood for civil rights during his youth, when he virtually nothing to gain; juxtaposed with Trump’s lack of compassion toward Muslims and immigrants, and this generation find Republican ideals unappealing.

And to be clear, this perception has less to do with changing theology than you might think. Even Evangelical Milennials who hold biblically orthodox positions (for example, with issues of abortion or homosexuality), will consistently choose the path of tolerance. They’d rather take a grace-based approach to people they disagree with than be the purveyors of justice.

So what will all this mean to American Christianity?

Looking to the past, we see that these shifts have changed the country before. In the late 19th century, American Protestants began to battle over theological liberalism. The long held acceptance of the inspiration of the Bible was challenged, and battle lines were drawn (the university for which I work was started over one such battle). This conflict took several decades and, on the other side, American culture began to stake positions outside of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. The progressiveness of the 1960’s/1970’s motivated many conservative Christian leaders to invest in politics, believing they could halt the culture change through legislation. The Moral Majority was designed to be the end game of this culture war. 

But the general public discovered something that we truly know too well: Christian leaders (like all of us Christians) are hypocritical.* In reality, political Christianity hastened the end of Evangelicalism and solidified our fully post-Christian trajectory.

To my Christian friends, I say don’t be afraid. 

When you read the New Testament, especially the growth of the church in the book of Acts, the gospel flourishes most brilliantly in cultures that conflict our beliefs. The culture wars were sold to us as being essential to our faith, but the early church made minimal impact among the broader Roman culture. Yet as a result of the faithfulness of those earliest believers, the world was changed because they stuck with their calling. So if we are, as I believe, fully heading to a post-Christian society, at least we can open up the Bible and see how others handled it.

Yeah, I’m not getting into that. Yet this year (more than any other) should reinforce the fact that Christian leaders ought not bless these candidates. It's the complexity of the modern era. We’ve passed those more simple days, and should now accept national politics for what it truly is:

Compelling reality TV.

*Again, to my Christian friends, it might have offended some of you that I readily admitted that Christians are hypocritical. Personally, I don’t believe it to be offensive and, in reality, it’s an essential aspect of our faith. The gospel is that Jesus’ sacrifice redeems me despite my imperfections. And though the point of my journey with him is to aim for perfection, I’m constantly falling short of that goal. So if you’re offended when the world calls us Christians hypocrites, my advice is to move the other way and embrace it. Our ideal (Christ) was perfect, so we’ll never achieve that in this world, no matter how hard we try. Our ability to admit this is something that can free us.