Christian Leadership and the ‘Trump Effect’

Today I see a widening chasm between our vision of Christian leadership and the reality of those whom we support. What we expect from our local leaders is increasingly different from what we expect of persons in the highest government offices, even the presidency. The 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump and who continue to support him are proof of this.

What shocked me is not that he is president, but that ethical behavior, holy character, love, and service to the least of these didn’t matter so much to 8 out of 10 of us.[1] These are the hallmarks of any evangelical believer and should be especially descriptive of our servant leaders who have a mandate to lead like Christ.[2]

The Machiavelli Effect

The focus here is not on the president, but on a collective and apparently majority compulsion by many evangelicals to elevate religious and personal interests no matter what the ethical cost. ‘To Make American Great Again’ can come at any price; the inspiration of character does not matter as much as the political gain. In leadership theory, this is Machiavellian in its perfect form.

Machiavelli was a 16th century Italian diplomat and political theorist, who wrote The Prince, famous at the time for going against the church’s teaching that those in leadership should act ethically in every way. Machiavelli purported that if glory and survival were threatened, then the ends justifies the means. In order to protect one’s power, a leader should act prudently and not ethically.

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires. The Prince

This is a secular view of leadership, not our view. Jesus led not just by words, but also by example. He challenged the ethical, social and economic structures of his day when religious leaders would rather stone a broken woman to prove a point than to care about her desperate situation.
To them she was expendable.

They would rather kick a blind man out of the temple whom Jesus had healed in order to prove that they were the religious authority.
To them he was irrelevant.

I fear we, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, have compromised our leadership vision. Parker Palmer writes,

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.[3]

We are the light of the world, a city of people set on a hill for all to see. We want others to see in us the wonder of Christ, our Savior. However, what is seen is more a striving for ‘rightness’ rather than righteousness, which has had unintended results. We often strive for rightness more than righteousness. Click To Tweet

The Trump Effect

Sociologists have documented the recent rise in hate groups and hate speech, and an increase in bullying. Today two-thirds of Americans believe hate has increased. Sociologists refer to this as the ‘Trump Effect.’

“According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual census of “extremist” groups, ‘The number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016 as the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump.’ The number of explicitly anti-Muslim groups has nearly tripled since 2015 alone, to over 100 nationwide. There has also been a spike in reported incidents of “hate” violence, including harassment and physical assault, alongside rising anti-Muslim hostile behavior and bullying in schools. The SDLC reports that of nearly 1,100 ‘bias incidents, 37 percent of them directly referenced either President-elect Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault.’[4]

Three recent incidents which occurred in my liberal city of Portland, Oregon, and the last two I know personally, illustrate this research:

  • On a commuter train, a man went on an anti-Muslim rant against two young women, one with a hijab, and then slashed and murdered two men and injured another man when the three men intervened on behalf of the women.[5]
  • During a Sunday worship service, the pastor of a southeast Portland church was having a prayer service for immigrants and refugees when five men came in and started yelling hateful epithets to disrupt the prayers.
  • A white widow was buying an item in a grocery store and when opening her wallet, the cashier saw a photo of a black man, her late husband. The cashier commented, “I see you’re a n***er lover. I can say that now because the new president gave me the right.”

Christian Leadership

As evangelicals, we are committed to the Good News and the highest level of ethical Christian leadership. Otherwise, we are not any different than the first century religious leaders who compromised their own laws to kill Jesus, an innocent man. We might have “won” the highest political office, but we have tarnished our witness here and in the rest of the world.

Recently, I found myself sitting next to David Cay Johnstone, a Pulitzer-prize winner for his investigative reporting, and the author of The Making of Donald Trump. He has followed Trump for decades and has interviewed him several times. I asked why he thought so many good people voted for Trump. Johnstone said, “Because they are serving their own selfish interests.” He is an atheist, and this is the conclusion he draws about our witness.[6]

Jesus died a horrible, suffering death to demonstrate that the only power over sin is not a human person, but the Son of God. Jesus rose from the dead to show that there is only one Kingdom worth living for, and it is not a human political kingdom. Servant leaders are kingdom-seeking leaders, not empire builders. They have a ‘passion to lead for Jesus, like Jesus, and to Jesus’ and through his Spirit to be a part of God’s transforming presence in their communities.[7] Servant leaders are kingdom-seeking leaders, not empire builders. Click To Tweet

Outside of the Christian faith, leadership is primarily a relationship process for which individuals accept someone as their leader in order to achieve common goals.[8] There is no inherent ethical component. But Christian leadership—servant leadership like Jesus—always involves elevating the character of individuals and creating positive system change. If we want a country based on Christian values, then promoting someone with the world’s values will never get us there.

Christian leadership at its best inspires hope and goodness, and casts light over the powers of darkness. Today our moral influence as evangelicals is flickering like a lit candle dying for lack of wick. Can we return to a Light Effect, rather than a Trump Effect?

[1] I find this particularly confusing because there were other Republican presidential candidates who were highly respected for their moral character and their clear government experience and service, but they lost out along the way to Trump. Why is that?

[2] If Trump hadn’t purported to be born again and to curry the favor of evangelical leaders, then I couldn’t expect him to act as an evangelical. But he did. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/trump-born-again/489269/

[3] http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/leading-from-within/

[4] https://www.thenation.com/article/donald-trumps-rise-has-coincided-with-an-explosion-of-hate-groups/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/27/us/portland-train-attack-muslim-rant.html?_r=0   

[6] David Cay Johnstone has a web site and a twitter feed. His site is https://www.dcreport.org/

[7] Definition crafted by Leighton Ford  https://www.leightonfordministries.org/

[8] A current discussion of leadership definitions: Alberto Silva, “What is leadership,” Journal of Business Studies Quarterly 8, no. 1 (2016): 3.

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