By William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Receiving the nomination of his party with the longest acceptance speech on record, Donald Trump paused in a gesture of pious humility to thank the evangelical community for its support:
“I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community because I’ll tell you what, the support they’ve given me—and I’m not sure I totally deserve it—has been so awesome and has had such a big reason for me being here tonight.”
Hours before, James Dobson had joined evangelicals as diverse as best-selling author and radio personality Eric Metaxas and televangelist Mark Burns to baptize not only Trump, whom Dobson dubbed a “baby Christian, ” but also the Trump campaign. “I believe it’s a good choice, ” Dobson said, affirming the decision of other evangelical spokespersons. “America needs strong and competent leadership, ” he said.
As evangelicals who are deeply concerned about the violence and fear driving Trump’s campaign, we want to pause and ask whether the newly baptized Trump spoke more truth than he knew when he confessed that he did not deserve the endorsement of fellow Christians. Though we are not privy to the particulars of Trump’s preparation for baptism, basic catechism teaches every “baby Christian” that sin not only separates from God but also from one another in a broken world. To find new life in Christ is, by definition, to renounce the powers that divide humanity and receive the gift of unity that God offers in Christ’s “new humanity.”
Whether a person submits to baptism out of sincere repentance, political calculation, or some combination of the two, it is a sacrament that has power to turn him toward the truth. Trump’s public confession that his campaign may not deserve Christian support should lead us to ask what Trump–or any politician, for that matter–does deserve from the church.
As evangelicals who preach the gospel of Jesus, we believe the Trump campaign deserves to hear the challenge of our Lord’s truth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, ” Jesus said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “for he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Any politician who asks for Christians’ support deserves to hear that these are our priorities because they are our Lord’s priorities. What’s more, anyone who is trying to follow Jesus should know that he does not bless but rather curses those who abandon these priorities. “Woe unto you… you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes clear that we cannot be faithful to him and neglect the poor because “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Trump deserves to know that rejecting the poor and the alien amounts to rejecting Jesus.
It is a dangerous case of theological malpractice when clergy agree to consecrate greed, cover over racism, and suggest that the only real moral issues are abortion rights, homosexuality, prayer in school, guns and tax cuts. What cost are our colleagues paying when they agree to “advise” Trump and his campaign on such terms? When it is clear that the term “white evangelicals” is more of a euphemism for “white” than Christian, we must join with the prophets and renounce this abuse of religion.
Trump also deserves to hear what Jesus says about how we bring about change in this world. As a “baby Christian, ” Trump’s basic instincts have been shaped by his formation in a competitive, winner-take-all economy. But Christian discipleship invites us to crucify the divisive habits of this world so God might resurrect us to a new way of being. When Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress says that, in response to the threats of Iran and ISIS, he wants “the toughest, meanest, son-of-a-gun I can find!” he is expressing a worldly desire that contradicts his pastoral responsibility. Though Christians have and do live the way of Jesus imperfectly, Jesus himself makes clear what his way looks like, saying, “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
At a moment in our nation’s history when many are concerned about the dangers presented by their real or imagined enemies, Trump is playing to our basest fears. Though the media has focused on Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama, we are much more concerned about the way candidate Trump borrows liberally from the coded racial language of “law and order.” The loudest cheers in his very long acceptance speech came when Trump echoed the sentiments of George Wallace, who said in 1968: “I’m going to give the total support of the presidency to policemen and firemen in this country… My election as president is going to put some backbone in the backs of some mayor and governors I know through the length and breadth of this country.” Experience is teaching Trump that this kind of appeal to our worst fears “works.” He deserves to hear from the church that, however effective it may be, this is a way of being we reject when we renounce the devil at baptism.
The spectacle of religious leaders who are, like the biblical Esau, willing to sell their birthright for a mess of potage, is disheartening. The media cites voices like Dobson and Jeffress as if their political opinions are more determinative for evangelical Christianity than the plain teachings of Christian Scripture. We choose to speak out in the public square because we know there are millions of evangelicals whom these men do not represent.
What’s more, we know from our experience that change is possible. When we met nearly 20 years ago, we were the most unlikely of partners. Rev. Barber, an African-American pastor with deep roots in the civil rights community, was serving as chair of the Human Relations Commission for a Democratic Governor in North Carolina. Jonathan, a Southern Baptist from Stokes County, had just finished an internship with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, one-time Dixiecrat candidate for president. Ideology and established enemy lines all but guaranteed we’d never work together. But we got to know each other’s love for people and for this state. We learned that we shared a common faith and, with it, a concern for the common good. The good news we had been baptized into was stronger than the political lines that divided us.
In cities across America, people of faith and conscience have been crossing lines of race, creed, and class to listen to the voices of people who are hurting and hear the good news that unites us at Moral Revivals. Together with 1, 200 other clergy in this country, we have signed the Higher Ground Moral Declaration, which challenges all candidates for public office to rise above partisan wrangling and affirm the deepest commitments of our faith and constitution: the economic liberation of all people; ensuring every child receives access to quality education; healthcare access for all; criminal justice reform; and ensuring historically marginalized communities have equal protection under the law.
Trump is right: a candidate who is not willing to endorse these basic commitments doesn’t deserve our support. But Trump does at least deserve the truth from a church that has welcomed him as we are called to welcome all. Nothing short of a moral revolution of values in this country is going to save us from the mess we are in. May it begin with a church that is willing to tell its members the truth.
Rev. William J. Barber II is President of the NC NAACP and founder of Repairers of the Breach. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author and preacher who directs the School for Conversion. Their book The Third Reconstruction (Beacon Press) was published earlier this year.