How did we get here? No, not just how did Americans manage to elect to the presidency someone so astonishingly arrogant, persistently dishonest, brashly ignorant, fundamentally disrespectful, proudly profligate, clearly hateful, and altogether incompetent? Rather, how did American Christians – particularly white Christians – come to the point where they could support such a person?
Without the Christian vote, Trump would never have made it into the Oval Office. I suspect worship has a lot to do with it.
The patterns of worship in American churches helped pave the way for Christians to offer him their vote. Clearly, there is not just one reason Trump took more than 80% of the white evangelical vote and the majority of the white Catholic and mainline Protestant vote. But it comes down to this: many American Christians worship the same god as Trump.
No, I’m not talking about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about the God of the Christian story who is rightly praised and re-presented in songs, symbols, and rituals like baptism and communion. Instead, I’m talking about the god who wants the American flag displayed alongside the cross, the god who is praised as churches sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful, “or “God Bless the U.S.A.” as they celebrate America.
And when I say Trump and many American Christians worship the same god, I’m not talking about the Creator of all things who loved the world and sent Jesus for the sake of every race and nation. Instead, I’m talking about the god who is addressed in prayers that ask for protection for American soldiers but never mention non-American victims of war. I’m talking about the god that has a special covenant with America as a light to the world. I’m talking about the god of American exceptionalism.
A 2016 LifeWay Research poll revealed that two-thirds of U.S. churches occasionally have services with music that give special honor to America. Nearly that many churches also incorporate into worship a time of recognition for families with a member serving in the military and veterans of military service. A third of the churches include other ceremonies to honor America. Disturbingly, the poll found that the majority of pastors believe their congregation’s love for America sometimes seems greater than its love for God.
Many members of those congregations likely have a difficult time clearly distinguishing God and America. And the pastors should partly blame themselves for this state of affairs, given that 74% of them believe the American flag should be displayed in worship throughout the year. This helps Americanize God so that loving America and loving God seem very similar.
The symbols we use in worship matter. They make an important statement about our faith and the God we worship. They generate affections within us. The same can be said of the hymns we sing and the gestures we enact during worship. They help deepen our love and loyalty. Worship shapes our vision, not only of God, but of ourselves and the world as well.
We rehearse the story of God’s work through Israel and ultimately in Jesus as we sing about this peculiar story. We hear words that remind us of the acts of healing, compassion, inclusion, and truthfulness that culminate in Christ. We share in the bread and cup of communion remembering the radical, all-encompassing love shown in Jesus Christ for all the world. We come to the table knowing others are equally welcome no matter their nationality, race, or class, and we are bound to them as brother and sisters.
In genuine Christian worship, we are shaped into a certain kind of people: disciples of Jesus. But when the Christian story is blended with the American story, the distinctiveness of discipleship is compromised.
When words, symbols, and gestures of Christian faith are merged with those that extol America, another kind of character is shaped, other affections are reinforced, and other loyalties deepened. And the result is a direct contradiction to the declaration of Jesus, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
Consequently, many Christians are untroubled by Trump’s insistence, “America first!” Some find wearing a t-shirt that proclaims, “JESUS DIES FOR YOU/ TRUMP LIVES FOR YOU” perfectly compatible with their faith.
An online Christian magazine can even declare, “It’s time to go to war—spiritual war, that is—for the president of the United States.” All of this shows a complete lack of spiritual discernment. Indeed, it smacks of idolatry.
Christian churches in America need to clean up their worship and rid it of all nationalism. Symbols, songs, and gestures in worship that elevate the nation don’t foster the spiritual formation needed for whole-hearted disciples of Jesus. Instead, it will incline them to offer loyalty where it should never be offered and practice exclusion that should not be practiced.
The God revealed in Christ must be celebrated without being mingled with Americanism and militarism so God will truly be honored. If we fail to do this, it is unlikely we will be shaped into the kind of people who love others as our Lord has loved us (John 13:34; 15:13). Instead, when we love, it will be in an America-centric way with the harsh and narrow exclusiveness of someone like Trump.
One thing is certain, Christians worshiped their way to Trump. Only single-minded devotion to the Jesus of the gospels would have kept Trump out of the White House.