As a result of Trump’s election conservative Christians (a larger group than evangelicals, but including most of them) will see fewer trespasses on institutional religious liberty from the executive branch. They will be able to support judges more amenable to their rights. They will be welcomed at the White House and have access to the president. And they are in grave spiritual danger.
With my own emphasis on the last sentence, that paragraph comes from Michael Gerson, a Wheaton grad and former speechwriter for George W. Bush who has been a leading conservative critic of candidate and now president Trump. Not only does he take as a lesson of history that “when religion identifies with a political order, it is generally not the political order that suffers most,” but he cautions that serving as something like a “corporate sponsor of Trumpism” risks identifying evangelical Christianity with a particularly dehumanizing brand of nativism that runs counter to Christian anthropology and with a hypocritical stance on religious freedom that damages our witness to religious others. (And he wrote this days before the executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.)
I agree entirely with Gerson here; there is undoubtedly “grave spiritual danger” for evangelicals. It’s one thing to vote for “the lesser of two evils,” but quite another to continue to support unflinchingly an administration that increasingly warrants comparisons to fascist regimes.
But those of us (evangelical or not) who object to the new regime — or find that the current situation defies easy explanation or decision — face our own complicated mix of spiritual dangers.
There’s the risk that our love of neighbor will be increasingly contingent on politics, shrinking communities that were already collapsing before the election. I have about half a dozen posts that I want to write after reading Peter Fritzsche’s remarkable history of Europe under Hitler, but more than anything, An Iron Wind left me sensitive to the possibility that “whole horizons of empathy” can be erased, “as people crouched within their own little worlds of tenuous security.”
At the same time, there’s the risk that laudable impulses to empathy and unity will restrain us from speaking prophetically, from making our faith active in love of those who are most harmed and threatened by this administration.
But Gerson admits that there are “temptations of pride in this prophetic role as well. (Obviously, some of my regular readers might sigh.) It is easy, through an excess of outrage, to become the parody of a prophet.” I’ve found myself thinking often of a caution I gave last year, in suggesting how the church ought to respond to then-candidate Trump. Those of us who would speak out must not hesitate to confess our own shortcomings. For failing to do so is
as dangerous as failing to speak prophetically. For “[i]f we say that we have no sin” — or, perhaps, if we leave unsaid that we sin — “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8, 10). I think that danger is particularly acute when responding to Trump. Precisely because so much of what he says is so abhorrent, he becomes a mirror in which we start to see ourselves as righteous.
In my own case, the potential for pride comes hand in hand with potential for despair. Let me confess again what I write in the manuscript for a forthcoming book whose subtitle promises hope for the renewal of Christianity:
For all that I want us to say in this book about the virtue of hope, it’s shocking to realize how often I act as if the only future open is the one that I can bring about by my efforts in accordance with my vision. And how easily I fall into sleepless fretting when that future doesn’t materialize quickly enough.
Already inclined to anxious worrying, I need to be conscious that the current administration has little to offer apart from fear. Even as I criticize it, I participate in that emotion. And when every day brings new reason for foreboding, we Christians are going to be tempted to protect ourselves with the language of God being in control or this world not being our home — neither of which, in isolation, is the same thing as the biblical virtue of hope.
Finally, there’s the spiritual danger of confusing our divine calling. As Frederick Buechner famously observed, vocation starts with listening, with learning “to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life.” It’s never easy to hear that voice, but I fear that there’s so much noise these days that we need to cultivate disciplines that tune our ears to a new level of attentiveness. As Buechner warns, “we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously….”
This is actually the danger that’s foremost in my mind, as I return to the classroom tomorrow for the first time since before my sabbatical and as I settle back into family rhythms after spending three weeks apart from my wife and children. It just feels very hard to know what’s the right thing to do, day by day and hour by hour. Prayers would be appreciated — and certainly reciprocated, if you’re wrestling with the same concerns. Grace and peace to you all.