A few months ago a friend who was reading this blog asked me to address the glaring question: Why do so many American [evangelical] Christians vote for Trump ?
I didn’t rush to respond; partly because I don’t know the answer, and mainly because I don’t know enough about the States. [My direct experience of American churches amounts to one Sunday morning at Redeemer Upper West Side, New York, some five years ago. Tim Keller was preaching, and he was excellent. And one Sunday morning, a week later, at First Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. Which was rather less rewarding.] So, I don’t really feel equipped to tackle a question that puzzles many Europeans. But I did read something recently that throws some light on the question.
I was reading the new book by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion. The central theme of the book is the disappearance from western church worship of the biblical [Hebrew] tradition of lament, and the rediscovery of this tradition by churches emerging in, for example, the global South.. It’s an excellent and challenging book, and I hope to write more about it in a week or so. If we accept David’s main thesis, it helps to explain why in the very healthy, non-denominational church my daughter and her family attend, it is always Easter morning. There are lots of people, and lots of young people; there is a good praise band, and even better coffee. And the church does valuable work in the local community through links with people like CAP [Christians against Poverty]. But the emphasis is constantly on praise and the victory of the empty cross.
David’s book notes that after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the centre of gravity of the nascent Christian world moves from Jerusalem to Rome. From the Jewish world to the Gentile world. And by extension Christianity develops within Greek thought and culture rather than in Hebrew thinking. In consequence some of the Hebrew tradition about the relationship between God and his creation, God’s dealings with men and women, is lost; and God is described by Aristotle as “the unmoved Mover”. Greek thinking acknowledges God as the supreme being, a God of power and might. But God is now seen as remote and impassible. For Tertullian, writing in the 3rd century, since God the Father was without passions he could “not suffer with the Son”; while even “the Son is unable to suffer in virtue of his divinity”. As David notes, the idea of an omnipotent deity who is unable to feel the misery of others [in, for example, the death camps and repeated civil wars and genocide of our world] is quite simply a betrayal of the God of Israel who was profoundly engaged with the struggles and suffering of his people.
As he awaited execution in his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote that “God had allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross”. Bonhoeffer encouraged us to see that the gospel directs us, not to expect the dramatic intervention of an all-powerful deity but, to reflect on the powerlessness of God as demonstrated in the suffering of Christ. This theme is developed by Jürgen Moltmann whose writings have been concerned to place the cross of Christ at the very centre of Christian thinking and belief.
What has this got to do with President Trump ? Press reports suggest that his reading skills [and his attention span] are limited, so he is unlikely to study German theologians. In fact I suspect that his Bible knowledge is equally limited. [His closest biblical model may be the golden calf of Exodus 32. Or possibly King Nebuchadnezzar who, in Daniel 3, orders all subjects to prostrate themselves before the golden statue.] Trump is by all accounts a greedy, boastful narcissist with a limited understanding of the world and a greatly inflated idea of his own abilities. But he presents himself as a Christian, more recently as a Presbyterian, and as a Pro-Life candidate, which plays well with his supporters; and he has spoken very positively about some Christian leaders. His Christian faith makes him anti-Muslim. He seems to think that his recent experience of COVID was a gift from God, although he made it clear that he himself had taken the initiative by nudging God in this direction. A few months ago, faced with street protests in Washington running out of control, he cleared the streets with tear gas and stage-managed a press conference in front of St John’s Episcopal Cathedral, with a bible [unread] in his hand, to demonstrate that he was God’s man and God was on his side.
What sort of God could that be ? It may well be that Trump’s understanding of God was significantly shaped by Norman Vincent Peale, whose church he attended as a young man, Peale is a controversial figure, who exercised a fifty-two-year ministry at Marble Collegiate church in New York City. He is best known for his advocacy of the Power of Positive Thinking,[the book which was published in 1952 reputedly sold 5 million copies]; he was a 33º Scottish Rifle Freemason, a personal friend of Richard Nixon and his family, and was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for his life-long services to theology ! His writing and his preaching seem to blend a defective theology with a defective psychology:
“One of the most powerful concepts, one which is a sure cure for lack of confidence, is the thought that God is with you and helping you. This is one of the simplest teachings in religion, namely, that Almighty God will be your companion, will stand by you, help you, and see you through. No other idea is so powerful in developing self-confidence as this simple belief when practiced. To practice it simply affirm “God is with me; God is helping me; God is guiding me.” Spend several minutes each day visualizing his presence. Then practice believing that affirmation.”
In other words, God is an all powerful deity ‘out there’, and he will help those who help themselves. This is not so different from the prosperity gospel; give your lives to the Lord and he will bless you richly, in this world. It is a seductive message, but one which has nothing to say to those living with sorrow or a sense of failure. I am reminded that when Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, in what became known as The Sermon on the Mound, she insisted that Christianity was about [personal] spiritual redemption, and not about social reform; and she seemed to quote approvingly from St Paul, ”If a man will not work, he shall not eat”.
We always appreciated newly-arriving Americans in the church in Lyon; they were generous with their time and money and energies. Many shared an individualistic, self-starter, can-do, get stuck-in philosophy. So I suppose that many such Christians may vote for Trump as a strong man; someone who will defend them against leftist revolutionaries and Islamic terrorists. They believe that St Paul taught us that God ordained leaders to preserve civil order, and they approve of Trump’s stance on abortion, and school vouchers, and religious liberty. And no doubt on gun control. Or rather the lack of it.
The downside is that there is no indication that Trump’s beliefs allow for a suffering Christ or an in-dwelling Holy Spirit. I suspect that he thinks the crucified Christ is ‘just a loser’. Like people that pay their taxes. Or lose their jobs because of corporate restructuring. Or the 200,000 Americans who have died so far of COVID 19. I very much hope that he loses the forthcoming presidential election. I don’t have a lot of faith in Joe Biden, who sounds a bit sleepy and a bit slow. But I think that [almost] anyone would be better than Trump.
If any American reads this and thinks that I am wrong, please feel free to say so.