I know that the name “Jesus” is often heard in many of the churches whose members overwhelmingly support President Trump. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that the Jesus of the Gospels is largely absent. The Jesus that taught, healed, confronted the authorities, and was killed as religious and political leaders worked together to put an end to him, that Jesus seems to be missing. In his place is an Americanized Jesus of a certain sort.
Only an Americanized Jesus could lead people in churches to give their support to Donald Trump as president. Only an Americanized Jesus could lead them to ignore or excuse his flamboyant materialistic self-indulgence, his sexual libertinism, his crude verbal abuse of all manner of people, and his complete disregard for truth. Only an Americanized Jesus could lead them to believe that wealth is a sign of being a “winner” and poverty is a sign of being a “loser,” as Trump clearly does.
And only an Americanized Jesus could lead people in churches to support heartless policies that endanger the environment for profit, reduce accessibility to healthcare for those who are less affluent, and separate children from their parents who come to the borders of the U.S. seeking refuge from threats. Only an Americanized Jesus could lead people who call themselves Christians to believe that “America First” is a motto that is compatible with faith in the God who “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus.
In a recent troubling Washington Post article entitled “Judgment Days,” journalist Stephanie McCrummen provides an up close glimpse of a Trump-supporting congregation in Alabama, allowing members to speak for themselves. Though the church she visited was Southern Baptist, the views expressed could easily be found among other white evangelical groups, as well as in some more “mainline” white churches. Some of the people were uncomfortable with aspects of the president’s personality and behavior. Regardless, they give him their support.
Perhaps the author herself didn’t realize where the foundation for the support of Trump was laid. She mentions it late in the article and makes no particular comment about it. The Sunday before Memorial Day, the minister had everybody stand up, pledge allegiance to the American flag, as well as to the Christian flag and the Bible. The infusion of nationalism into worship, blending America and God, helped prepare people for Trump’s “Christian” nationalism. And it helped usher the Jesus of the Gospels out.
People in the church McCrummen talked to were convinced by the propaganda that promoted the baseless idea that President Obama was Muslim and acted in a way that benefitted Muslim nations at the expense of America. Despite the fact that Obama referred to himself as a Christian, was a member of a church for years, and quoted from the Bible on many occasions, they discounted it all.
Likewise, the hatred of Hillary Clinton which has been promoted by rightwing sources for years was evident in the church. She was referred to as “sinister” and “evil” and “of Satan.” Again, the fact that she is a lifelong Christian and active in the Methodist Church was ignored and replaced with the idea that she hates Christians.
These misguided notions helped feed an alarmism that was in clear evidence in the conversations.
“We are in mortal danger.”
“We are in a religious war.”
One even said, “We’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”
And this fear helped open up the possibility of voting for Trump in hopes that he would save them from almost certain doom. Despite the fact that he had shown not the slightest interest in spiritual matters and displayed plenty of evidence of corruption, they had been convinced that “supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.”
They decided what was important was not the character of the president but his positions. And one issue mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said one member, whose eyes teared up. All of Trump’s failings and shortcomings were regarded as secondary to the fact that he claimed to be pro-life. Symbolic of the over-riding importance of this issue was seen in the fact that the minister of this church wore on his lapel a pin of baby’s feet at the size they would be at 10 weeks.
It is worth noting that this issue is not one ever named by Jesus. But it is also worth noting that while opposition to abortion is a commendable position to take, Trump doesn’t support policies shown to most consistently reduce abortion rates: easy access to contraceptives, sex education, and a strong social safety net. Banning abortion is not an effective strategy for reducing abortion rates. Three of the five nations with the lowest abortion rates have legal abortion.
The Jesuslessness of these Trump-supporting Christians was most apparent in their attitude toward immigrants and refugees. Nationalism led to the distortion of the words of Jesus.
“Unpapered people,” said one woman, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”
Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”
Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”
“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’” one woman said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”
I could not help but be reminded of how nationalism twisted Christianity in Nazi Germany. Ludwig Müller, a leader in the German Christian Movement and a “Reich Bishop,” rendered “Blessed are the peacemakers” in this way: “Happy are those who are at peace with their fellow Germans [Volksgenosse]; they do God’s will.” Nationalism and devotion to Jesus cannot dwell in the same heart. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
Trump Christianity leads to the abandonment of Jesus. The Americanized Jesus that is honored in Trump-supporting churches is not the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels embodied grace and truth, nonviolent love, and border-breaching compassion. If we take him seriously, we will seek to do the same — and leave Trump behind.