First published on Christian Converser
Between 2016 and 2020, the US presidency of Donald Trump divided the Church like no president ever before. Trump proved to be more willing to step over an unconscionable line than any of his wiser Republican predecessors, all of whom (as well as all Democrats) professed at least a nominal level of adherence to the Christian faith. Where virtually all of preceding US presidents were in agreement was of the necessity of the separation of Church and State, and therefore the need to maintain the American government as a secular institution. Trump, by deliberately blurring or outright erasing that line, partook in a corrosive and destructive grab for political power by leading evangelicals in the US. This issue has not died due to Trump’s ongoing effort since the election to overturn his loss in the polls and/or regain power for a second term in 2024, and neither has the willingness of the Trumpist branch of the Church to prostrate itself on the altar of compromise and convenience.
If we look at the contrast between the church in the United States and every similar country else in the world, then nowhere else has there been such a naked and concerted grab for political power by the Christian community as there has in America, since the early days of Catholicism in Europe where it became the state religion for centuries. The roots of this are somewhat complex and challenging to discern, but are largely based upon the American cultural societal notion of being “born to rule the world”, reflected in their superpower status in international affairs. Although it is somewhat ironic that the US was founded by people escaping the tyranny of church state rule in Europe, it can be readily understood that the early years of the new nation were fundamentally broad-church in nature, apart from a few sects, and in nature therefore most unlike the predominance of narrowism that has become dominant theologically and politically in America. One obvious reason for this is that the narrowists have become successful in their quest for political power, and therefore have become dominant. The US Civil War pitted broadists vs narrowists and delivered a broadist victory, but did not stamp out narrowism, which continued in a stunted form particularly in the Southern states, and lived to rise again as it does today.
Given that Jesus very clearly came from humble origins along with most of his disciples, the present day embracing of the US cultural quest for fame and dominance by a significant chunk of the Church in America, especially white evangelicals, has created a major division in the unity of the Church as a whole in that part of the world, and calls into question the theological basis of such beliefs and the intended outcomes. Returning to the title of this article, the evangelical quest for power and influence has entailed an unfortunate degree of compromise, a marriage of convenience between political candidates and church leaders, which has brought with it a considerable volume of political and moral baggage. It is also disproportionately beneficial to church leaders as opposed to their rank and file pew-sitting membership. One key reason for this is that it has been long known that an increase in the power and influence enjoyed by churches is inversely proportional to the growth of their spiritual life. Focusing on power at all costs is a highly divisive cause, which for example has riven the Southern Baptist Convention numerous times in the past 50 years. In addition, churches in privileged or influential positions tend to see an increase in nominalism among their membership, whilst the greatest growth happens when persecution is rampant. Clearly, whilst in most countries churches are not in a privileged positions, actual persecution is limited in First World countries and only involves at most minor inconvenience. Church leaders who are actively currying political influence and power are mainly achieving increased personal benefits but are sowing dissension and division into their congregations and the wider church as a whole, which is contrary to the cause of Christ.
The US cultural “born to rule” mentality, the pervasive quest for celebrity and wealth, power and fortune, are things that the Church must strive to separate itself from. They are worldly goals and objectives, not spiritual ones. They do nothing to advance the Gospel message in purely spiritual terms. And a part of the cause of those who have curried favour with Trump and his entourage is the perception that they are among a theological elite in the US Church. A significant component of US teachings and beliefs which is itself an American cultural phenomenon is the particular strand of theological thought known as dispensationalism – examined here on numerous past occasions. Its key proponents have articulated their beliefs that they will help to usher in the end times by bringing about events purportedly described in the Bible that have been contrived as part of dispensationalist teachings. As this belief system essentially consists of a small part of pseudo-theological teaching (obtained by highly questionable interpretative practices) based on a handful of scripture verses and a large part of essentially worldly concepts based on conspiracy theories, the actual Biblical basis or significance for many of the events described is dubious. It is therefore very important to draw a firm line between the small part of dispensationalism that could have some theological relevance and the large part that does not. This in turn serves to inform us as to the actual importance of the cause of Church leaders who have become focused on bringing the end times about. For this to occur they have to incite people like the US President to cause various events to happen. These are supposedly of much greater importance than the heart of the Gospel message.
In truthfulness, there is nothing that is more important in the Bible for Christians than the Gospel message and related New Testament teachings. But over time, this message has become highly politicised and distorted, and nowhere has this occurred more than in the United States of America. The range of political controversies entangling the US Church is wide-ranging and it is noted that white evangelicals have considerable long-standing form in racism, starting with the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention as a split from other Baptists on the basis of slave ownership, and continuing through a Supreme Court ruling of the 1970s when many Christian schools and colleges were denied IRS tax exemption because they barred enrollment to black students – Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian Academy among them. This has evolved into the present day evisceration of Black Lives Matters and critical race theory. Another example is the lengthy set of political entanglements entered into by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Graham, who curried political favour of a number of US presidents, particularly backed Richard Nixon in the 1970s, maintaining a blind loyalty even as it became apparent Nixon had been involved in serious misdemeanours. His son Franklin Graham who now heads BGEA is a strong backer of Trump. In numerous instances, the Trump faction’s entanglement in worldly causes has brought controversy to the church’s work in America. There is controversy for Christian churches everywhere, but outside America, not on a like scale.
What is courage? It’s when churches stick to an unwavering interpretation of the Gospel that does not bend to accommodate worldly concerns or to curry favour with secular authorities. Naturally, there must be some level of engagement with the world to achieve the Gospel cause. The most fundamental level of worldly engagement is obviously with the people who live in the community and have a great need of Jesus to bring about change in their everyday lives. In this context, the church must make every effort to avoid alienating such people over issues such as politics and the best way to achieve this is to refrain from political entanglements or affiliations itself. This requires the church to eschew the obvious temptations of worldly power and success.