On Tuesday, June 21, the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, met with with 900+ evangelical and conservative Christian leaders in a closed-door, 75-minute, meeting in New York.
He was asked a number of questions, including questions about religious liberty to which he answered “You really don’t have religious freedom.” He talked about getting rid of the IRS-restriction on church leaders endorsing political candidates, even though he did not explain how he would remove this restriction. He repeated an earlier promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and he dodged questions about rights for LGBT people. He also bemoaned the “political correctness” of department stores no longer saying “Merry Christmas” during Christmas time. He talked about Israel, his political rival, and other topics.
A Mixed Reception
His reception was mixed. One participant described Trump as “coachable” with “instincts that are reverent and patriotic…a man still searching for spiritual answers.” In a press conference after the event, eight of the organizers expressed hopefulness in ongoing conversations with the Republican nominee, but none of them said they were ready to endorse him.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this mixed response. Trump is a polarizing figure for evangelicals. His attempt to reach out to the evangelical community reveals his willingness to pander to a conflicted group of potential voters who are completely justified in questioning both his competence and character to serve as the next President of the United States. He told the group gathered on Tuesday what some wanted to hear without a clear cut explanation as to how such initiatives would be implemented.
Trump speaks of Christianity and the Bible as one who has little experience with either. Evangelicals who have merged their faith with conservatism and the Republican Party are left in an uncomfortable position. Their syncretism has thrown them in bed with a presumptive nominee who bears few marks of the “family values” once treasured by evangelicals with a politicized faith. Trump speaks of Christianity and the Bible as one who has little experience with either. Click To Tweet
Coachable and Reverent?
Despite the reaction of one participant, many evangelicals do not see him as “coachable” and “reverent.” In fact, Trump has demonstrated just the opposite. His comments have ranged from racist to misogynistic, from ignorant to insulting, from outrageous to downright dangerous. Conservative evangelicals who have waved the banner of values and character are now ready to endorse a man who appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine. (Yeah Jerry Fallwell Jr. Here’s looking at you.) Some evangelicals consider their support of Trump-over-Clinton a “no brainer.” They dismiss his irreverence and character flaws by arguing God can work through broken vessels.
We are all sinners after all. (I wonder if they would be comfortable with Christians using this same line of thinking to endorse Clinton?) Their endorsement of Trump is viewed as the lesser of “two evils,” but is this our only way out?
Trump’s campaign has also organized an “evangelical” advisory board which includes pastors, denominational leaders, televangelists, and other familiar faces from the Religious Right including James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Ralph Reed. In a recent article, Geoff Holsclaw asks whether or not it is appropriate to call this advisory board “evangelical,” and does the formation of the board mark the end of evangelicalism? I agree with Holsclaw’s conclusions that the current “evangelical” embrace of Trump is the end of the Religious Right and serves as an opportunity for us to reimagine evangelicalism going forward. In our reimagining, we need a robust kingdom-centric theology to enliven evangelical life and mission beyond an attachment to conservative or progressive political ideologies.
Seeing the Kingdom
We can all agree that the current climate in American politics during this election season is as ugly and hostile and toxic as ever in recent memory. I understand. Every four years Americans get frantic and at times angry. Political debates, campaign speeches, and political rallies during an election year stir-up rhetoric and finger pointing, some of the ugliness of American culture. The temptation for the church to come under the sway of this ugliness and acrimony is ever present, but Jesus has given us a way to escape it.
We don’t need to retreat into some kind of quietism where we lose a voice in the public square or shrink back into holy clubs separating ourselves from the world God loves so much. The way to escape the tension and hostility in modern American partisan politics is by seeing the kingdom.
The way to escape the tension & hostility in American politics is by seeing the kingdom. Click To Tweet
Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
One can use the phrase “born again” to describe the spiritual experience of conversion whereby a person’s sins are forgiven and the assurance of heaven is granted. In many ways “new birth” is an appropriate way to describe conversion; it just isn’t what Jesus is talking about when talking to Nicodemus that night. Jesus did describe a new birth by water and spirit, but nowhere in this nighttime conversation did Jesus ever talk about the forgiveness of sins or spiritual conversion. Jesus uses kingdom-language when he speaks of the new birth. The result of being born again is the ability to see and enter the kingdom and seeing the kingdom of God changes everything. Being born again and seeing the kingdom of God changes everything. Click To Tweet
Imagining the Kingdom
The very concept of God’s kingdom is hard to imagine for us moderns, because we do not live in an age of kings and queens. When we we think “kingdom,” we think castles with tall towers and moats or large thrones upon which a crowned-ruler sits.
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God he was talking about God’s present rule and reign on the earth. This kind of kingdom is what the first century Jewish world was waiting for. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were not asking” “How can our national and personal sins be forgiven so we can go to heaven upon our death?” They were asking, “When is God coming back to rule and reign as the King of the nations?”
Through his ministry, Jesus was announcing and demonstrating the kingdom of God. At his crucifixion Jesus was enthroned as King but his throne was a Roman cross and his crown made of thorns. He was vindicated through his resurrection. At his ascension, Jesus took his place as King and Lord over the world.
The kingdom of God is hard to imagine, but the kingdom is the present rule of God in Christ on the earth through the church. Jesus is ruling now through his church, but it requires born again eyes to see it. Sometimes the best way to see the kingdom is by eyes wide shut, obscuring our vision from the broken world as it is, and praying:
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come…your present rule come. O God give me born again eyes to see your kingdom come.”
We are freed from the anxiety of modern American partisan politics when we see the kingdom, because in seeing the rule of King Jesus, we trust that his administration will not fail and it will ever end. The kingdom is the present rule of God in Christ on the earth through the church. Click To Tweet
The Politics of Jesus
We no longer need to get angry when the politicos make false promises, misconstrue the facts, and pander towards religious people simply for the votes. We do not need to feel torn between the lesser of “two evils” in a polarized two-party system. The good news is that Jesus is King and he isn’t a donkey or an elephant; he is a lamb. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. An election has already occurred in heaven and only one vote was cast. (It was God the Father). God has voted and Jesus has won. Jesus is King! God is ruling presently in Jesus on the earth through the church. The good news is that Jesus is King and he isn’t a donkey or an elephant; he is a lamb. Click To Tweet
The Gospel does not mean we are apolitical. By no means! Feel free to involve yourself in the political process as much as your conscience will allow. But remember: the kingdom of God is the government of God, that is, the administration of God.
Jesus comes with a deeply political message, but it is one that was rather unexpected. Jesus has only one issue on his platform; it is love. Love God. Love neighbor. These are the politics of Jesus. He does not rule through earthly governments. Jesus rules through his body, the church. As we pledge allegiance to King Jesus and worship him as the president of all presidents and the prime minister of all prime ministers, we serve as living, breathing vessels of the kingdom of God. As we love our neighbors, care for the marginalized and oppressed, and show kindness to our enemies, the policies of the kingdom of God get implemented. All of these acts of love begin when we see the kingdom.
In the end, the only Christian strategy to “make America great again” is to “make” America the servant of all. The only we we can “make” America be anything is by love, a love that flows from hearts that have caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We can only “make” America anything by the love that flows from the kingdom of God. Click To Tweet