I’m quite certain that no name has been mentioned more frequently around American dinner tables in the last six months than that of Donald Trump. In fact, according to Google, searches for Donald Trump went up almost ten times in volume, to around 6.3 million, beginning in June of this year. The reason? Donald Trump has thrown his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination to be the next President of the United States, and it goes without saying that he’s been something of an…interesting candidate.
From Muslims to women to veterans to reporters to immigrants, Donald Trump has insulted and demeaned more people thus far in his presidential campaign than any other candidate in history. He has suggested that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that Muslims ought to be uniformly banned from entering the U.S., that mosques ought to be put under surveillance, and that our country ought to establish a database of the Muslims in this country.
While many people (myself included) lament Trump’s rhetoric as hate speech that has no place in 21st Century America, many more actually support Trump’s policies. In fact, 55% of Americans support the ban on Muslims entering the United States, and Trump has continued to garner an increasing amount of support from the Republican party, climbing from 18% back in July to around 34% today, with some polls reporting that Trump enjoys favorability as high as 39%.
But Trump’s support is not just isolated to the Republican base. If the election were held today with Donald Trump as the Republican candidate and Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate, Trump would still garner between 38 and 44 percent of the vote. (The numbers get better for Donald Trump if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic candidate.)
In light of Donald Trump’s hateful and bigoted rhetoric, I think many of us are right to be alarmed by his popularity, especially given the similarity of his charisma, popularity, and suggested policies to those of Adolf Hitler. Some may attempt to mitigate this alarm by pointing out that even if the election were held today, Trump wouldn’t win (which is true), but I think that for us to mitigate the alarm by ignoring the cultural issues that Trump has so fervently aggravated is to continue to sweep under the rug the lingering problems in the heart of America.
How We Got Here
In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, our culture began to do something rather peculiar. Beginning with several decisions from the United States Supreme Court, our nation began a widespread attempt to privatize religion. It wasn’t long before editorial publications followed, and now it’s unheard of for anyone except the most conservative politicians to suggest that any religious morality and ideals ought to be embodied in our laws.
I understand the sentiment behind this attempt. Hateful rhetoric has perhaps found more support in religion than anywhere else, so the natural response to bigotry in our country was to simply separate (or, at least, attempt to separate) religion from public discourse and policy. And for the most part, things seem to get better. We removed from our political and economic institutions much of the racism that once defined this country, and have made some impressive strides toward eliminating sexism and other forms of discrimination.
But at no point along the way did we actually meet the people where they’re at, in the midst of their deepest convictions, and reason with them from there that racism and sexism are wrong. Indeed, by isolating people’s deepest convictions from broader public discourse, we’ve allowed certain ideologies to fester, and while many of us (especially my generation) have thought that we were winning the fight against bigotry in this country, Donald Trump has shown us that we were wrong. Far from being won, or even close to won, the fight against hatred and bigotry in America is hotter than ever. Sure, African-Americans are no longer at the butt of the fight; now it’s Arabs, but the heart issue remains the same.
I am thankful for Donald Trump because he has shown us that we cannot legislate racism and sexism out of our culture. We cannot simply remove God and religion from the public discourse and hope that the bigotry that so often cites God for its support just magically disappears. All we’ve done in the last fifty years is sweep racism and sexism under the rug, and although they’ve laid dormant, all it takes is a Donald Trump to come along and like an angry beast awakened after decades of captivity, racism and sexism rear their ugly heads like never before.
In order to change our culture and experience real progress in our society, we cannot simply ignore people’s basic convictions, especially the theological kind. Instead of excising Christianity from our public discourse and policy, we must find ways to embrace the deepest convictions of so many in America and from there pull our society in a redemptive direction.
Some Possible Objections
Now, there are several problems that people have with such a suggestion. First, people assume that I’m suggesting a Christian theocracy. I’m not. I’m simply saying that we cannot assume that progress means leaving Christianity behind. To really progress as a society, we must invite people to change from the inside out by addressing their deepest convictions and reasoning with them from there. For example, if Jesus died to forgive the sins of the whole world, including Muslims (see 1 John 2:2), then hasn’t Jesus put everyone, even the Muslim, on equal footing with God? And if Jesus has put everyone on equal footing with God, then how are we justified in suggesting that people of a certain faith or race are less entitled to rights and protections—to love—than others? Better yet, are we not offending the Cross on which Jesus died when we deny equality to anyone?
Second, people assume that by inviting Christianity into our public discourse, we are inviting that hatred and bigotry to rear its ugly head. I have no doubt that this is true, but if Donald Trump has taught us anything, is it not that it’s actually worse for us to ignore this hatred and bigotry and hope it goes away?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
—The Apostle Paul (Galatians 3:28)
Third, my fellow Christians might read this post and assume that I am suggesting we use Christianity as a means to an end, rather than an end itself. But this assumes that the end of Christianity is not one in the same with where our culture wants to go. I would suggest to you that the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 suggest that the redemption into which Christianity is pulling us is, at a minimum, a world of socioeconomic, sexual, and racial equality, at least insofar as such equality does not conflict with the larger biblical story (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22). More on this another time.
Fourth, and I think this will perhaps be the greatest struggle for most people to accept, by embracing Christianity as a source of (rather than a hindrance to) our progress as a society, certain things that we currently deem to be progressive won’t be. This might include same-sex marriage (might), or female reproductive rights (as they are currently understood in our culture). The problem with this objection, though, is that we have to ask where we’re getting our idea of what constitutes progress. Progress implies that the line representing our culture is currently crooked, but in order to know whether a line is crooked, we must have some idea of a straight line, and the question we must ask is where we’re getting that idea of what a straight line looks like. Until we can all agree what a straight line looks like, true progress is not possible. I think Christianity offers us by far the most inclusive idea of a straight line, for within its walls lies ample precedent for respecting (and even serving) those who disagree with you, including those of different faiths, as well as caring for the sick, the poor, and the most vulnerable in society, and paying your fair share of taxes.
What Donald Trump Has Taught Us
I am thankful for Donald Trump because he has shown us that our culture’s attempt to effect real progress apart from religious conviction has failed, and it is my honest and sincere hope that whatever happens in this election season, we can invite theological discourse back into the public and popular spheres, as both a definition for what progress looks like, and a means to straighten out crooked lines wherever we find them.
If this is of interest to you, I’d invite you to check out my debut novel, The Tale of the Elm Trees. It’s a love story about a young man named Charlie Shaw, and far from a doctored version of romance like what you’d find on The Bachelorette, in which people never talk about the beliefs that matter most to them, Charlie and a girl named Katie have some pretty powerful conversations that lead Charlie into his deepest hurts (many of them at the hands of religion) and into a new sense of wonder on the other side. The book is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, and through Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore.