The Pastoral Challenge (and Opportunity) of Donald Trump

I’ve already written one post criticizing the president of Liberty University for making imprudent comments at that school’s convocation. So I’ll leave it to others to say what’s on my mind about Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s introduction to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday:

There’s been plenty written by political and theological conservatives explaining why evangelical Christians ought to keep their distance from Trump. (And from Ted Cruz, for that matter.) While I’m completely sympathetic to that argument, I want to take this post in a different direction and offer some unsolicited advice to pastors and others in the Church who are looked to for pastoral counsel.

Donald Trump speaking in May 2015
Trump in May 2015 – Creative Commons (Michael Vadon)

It’s both easy and exasperating to express outrage at the pandering of a demagogue. Speaking for myself, there’s a high degree of personal satisfaction that comes with feeling righteous indignation — and even more so, sharing that indignation with the world. (If nothing else, it serves to distract from my own failings.) But that satisfaction is inevitably accompanied by an equally high level of frustration that a certain share of the electorate — including people I know and love — feels the opposite and is utterly unpersuaded by my moralizing.

(And here I’m struck, like many other commentators, by the apparent divide growing between evangelical leaders — who are less and less hesitant to condemn Trump — and the rank and file.)

Rather than scoff or sneer in response, I want to understand what leads people to support Trump. And I haven’t found a more convincing explanation than the one developed by sociologist John Hawthorne:

…I don’t want to dismiss those Trump supporters as a bunch of racists, rubes, and xenophobes. They are reacting to something real. And that’s what troubles me.

Things are changing in American society. And “Make America Great Again” offers little more than a fuzzy nostalgia which doesn’t hold up to evidence.

But the change is real. Demographics are shifting. Millennials are at odds with their Boomer predecessors. Religious Pluralism is here.

…Unless we can address the material realities of this segment of the population and help them find their story in a changing America, part of electorate will continue to believe that something was taken from them.

Jones, The End of White Christian America
Among other authors, John draws on the work of Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute

While Trump is drawing from a number of groups, John notes that he does especially well with working class Republicans (perhaps once-upon-a-time “Reagan Democrats”) who don’t have a college degree:

…a large segment of the American population that believes they were sold a bill of goods. They worked hard at jobs that were dirty, kept their churches afloat, and showed up a Rotary every week. And what to show for it?

Lost pensions, declining unions, broken rural economy, challenges to their faith, closed factories.

(Presciently, given yesterday’s endorsement, John also observed that this same group turned out for Sarah Palin in 2008.)

Years of economic, demographic, and cultural change have “[undermined] the narrative identity of many Americans resulting in feelings of betrayal, anger, and frustration.”

But maybe deeper than those feelings, fear. (Hence the power of Trump’s promise on Monday at Liberty: “I’m going to protect Christians.”) Which presents Christian pastors with a great opportunity and challenge:

Among many other things, Christianity offers a response to fear. But not an uncomplicated response. “Do not fear” is spoken (several times) by a Messiah who feels forsaken — and promises that those who follow him will also have to bear a cross: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

So I suspect that Trump is savvier than we might think in appealing to advocates of the Prosperity Gospel. “Health and Wealth” — like “Make America Great Again” — is a hope fueled by fear. And what Good News is easier to hear than one that promises power to the betrayed, happiness to the angry, and fulfillment to the frustrated?

Bowler, BlessedBut those promises are kept — if at all — for only a short time, and at potentially enormous cost. As historian Kate Bowler points out:

…though we might not always like its prophets, millions of believers [in the prosperity gospel] choose this message every Sunday because it uses a Christian framework to remind them that God cares about the details of their lives. But that comfort is limited. When they read God into their biographies as proof that their faith is working (or not), this theology stokes their fears that every misfortune is of their own making. Often, the prosperity gospel heaps spiritual condemnation on tragedy.

So my challenge to pastors is much like my earlier challenge to leaders of all types:

“The first responsibility of a leader,” goes an already-tired maxim, “is to define reality.”

If so, then the job of every leader at this point in the 21st century is to find a way to communicate the following:

The world is complicated.

There is no easy solution.

And yet we need to make decisions consistent with our values.

Hear the betrayal, anger, and frustration of your parishioners; listen to their fears. (And this no doubt goes for Christian college professors annoyed by some of their students’ political affinities!) But beware the twin temptations to offer simple solutions and to equivocate indefinitely.

Indeed, I’m not sure how to resolve this post without giving in to my own temptation to mouth platitudes. (And John is no doubt right that part of the response goes beyond the purview of pastors and professors; our society needs to “address the material realities” of those who feel betrayed and fearful.) Perhaps the best I can do is encourage you to do what you know to do already: preach Christ crucified and resurrected and let that story — one that leaves every pattern disrupted, every expectation defied — shape us all to live — and vote — as people of hope.

But do that in the knowledge that you’re thereby calling people to do the work of political theology, and must therefore be ready to help them think through the implications of following a Christ who is Lord and King. If not in worship, perhaps in small groups or adult Sunday School hours, Christians ought to be talking with each other about what it means for followers of Jesus to live as citizens of two kingdoms, to seek the common good in a pluralistic society, to enact prudent public policy that expresses love of neighbor.

Pastors have a significant role to play in encouraging and guiding this kind of theological labor within their congregations. At the same time, these are complicated issues. So finally, let me encourage you to call in help from Christian scholars at a neighboring college or seminary — or via FaceTime or Skype, if distance is an issue. And not just theologians and biblical scholars; on such issues, you’d find much wisdom from political scientists, economists, sociologists, and historians who are accustomed to thinking about such questions in light of their own faith

10 thoughts on “The Pastoral Challenge (and Opportunity) of Donald Trump

  1. You ask how we (clergy) might address these issues: We as a church are leaning towards doing a fall series called “The Politics of Jesus” to look at concepts and teaching of Jesus that promote concepts like ultimate allegiance to Jesus over political/national ideals, what to do when we encounter those who have different values/beliefs an a host of other issues you address with this post.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Great thoughts! It’s obvious there are too many being side-tracked from “preaching the word”. But I’m a bit concerned regarding going to academia for help.

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