Earlier today a friend of mine asked my opinion about a blog post she had come across in which pastor and author Scott Sauls did exactly this same thing; he offered his perspective on the way in which Christians ought to posture themselves toward President Donald Trump. The more my friend and I discussed it, the more I realized this particular piece highlighted in a single place several of the most prominent points of debate this election has brought to bear, at least in terms of the intersection of Christianity and politics. So, instead of simply drafting my own stand-alone post, I am going to respond point by point to Sauls’ post. For purposes of clarity, Sauls’ own words will be provided in italics and my response will be provided in boldface. If you would like to read his post in its entirety before reading my response, you can find the original post here.
Before I begin my response, I want to point out that this is the first time I have ever encountered Scott Sauls or any of his work. I found his tone to be respectful and his argument thoughtful. I was also pleased to see from his bio that he and I have been influenced by some of the same people. It is worth noting that as a Presbyterian, Sauls is approaching the topic from a Reformed standpoint. As a Wesleyan, I am well aware that much of my disagreement with him is rooted in the deep theological differences inherent to those traditions. Obviously, those theological disagreements will not be settled here. In spite of these differences, I hope it is clear that I offer this response in the spirit of charity with regard to Sauls as a brother in Christ. My prayer is that the dialectical nature of this piece gives my readers something to think about and enough material for them to make up their own mind. With that extended introduction, let us begin.
“This week, I will offer a prayer for our new president. But first, a few things to establish the tone. Mr. Trump is neither the savior nor the devil.”
I agree. Donald Trump is neither the savior nor the devil. That’s not really saying much, however because there is only one savior and there is only one devil. Martin Luther King Jr. was not the savior and Hitler was not the devil, but the chasm between the two is incredibly wide.
“He is a frail, fallen, fearfully and wonderfully made broken and talented and sinful and misguided and intelligent and paradoxical man whom God, in his infinite (and, to some, mysterious) wisdom, decided, for his own sovereign purposes, chose to occupy the most powerful office in the world.”
Frail, fallen, fearfully and wonderfully made, broken, talented, misguided, intelligent, paradoxical? Yes. As we all are to one degree or another. Again, nothing particular to Trump here. Sovereignly chosen by God to occupy the most powerful office in the world? Not so much. Now, this is where our deep theological differences are beginning to show. I reject the notion that God sovereignly appoints every civic leader. This is obviously not the place for an extended excursus on free will, however I believe scripture teaches that God, in his infinite sovereignty, bestowed upon humankind the freedom to choose. Sometimes people use that freedom to do wonderful and beautiful things, and sometimes they use that freedom to do evil and destructive things. In democratic elections, the God-given freedom to choose includes the freedom to choose elected officials. Certainly scripture teaches that God has, at times, intervened in human political systems to accomplish his intended goal. Even in scripture, however, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. God did not choose Donald Trump to be President, the American electorate did.
“Whatever hope some might be placing in Mr. Trump to be the answer to the world’s problems, such hope is misdirected, as only Jesus has the power to change the world with all of its complexities and thorns and thistles.”
This gets a little complicated. It is certainly true that no politician will ever be THE answer to the world’s problems. That, of course, is Jesus. However, to say that “only Jesus has the power to change the world,” is to miss the beautiful and important point that Jesus has called and empowered his followers to partner with him in that world-changing mission. As someone who has been influenced by N.T. Wright, I’m sure Sauls would agree that Christians have a part to play in making this world reflect the coming kingdom. Again, as I’m sure Sauls would agree, we do not just sit idly by waiting for Jesus to change the world; we participate in the process. Now, I am not suggesting that secular governments are the most ideal way to accomplish that; I have written previously about what I believe to be appropriate and inappropriate Christian participation in the political process. However, even secular governments can reflect certain aspects of the kingdom of God insofar as they promote human flourishing. It is naive to suggest, as Sauls (probably unintentionally) seems to here, that there is no substantive difference between candidates and policies in terms of the real differences they will make in real people’s lives. Even scripture seems to suggest that God holds secular leaders responsible for the degree to which they uphold justice and promote human flourishing.
“Conversely, whatever despair others might be feeling over Mr. Trump is misguided and misinformed. Jesus is still firmly seated on his throne, holding the hearts of all kings in his hands, and this is not going to change.”
Again, I must disagree. I reject, and I believe the overall narrative of scripture rejects, this notion of divine determinism in which everything that happens does so according to the express will and desire of God. Certainly the millions of Jews and others slaughtered in the Holocaust were not misguided in their despair, nor were the actions of Hitler ordained and directed by God. The same can be said about Stalin, Kim Jong-Un, Castro, etc., and the people who fairly despaired their regimes. Now, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that Trump is Hitler, Stalin, or Jong-Un. I am saying that the policies of human governments can and do rightly cause people to despair. Is that despair mitigated for Christians who have anchored their hope to the promise that God will one day restore justice and set the world to rights? Absolutely. That does not, however, mean that policies enacted by the administration will not have devastating effects on certain segments of the population; effects neither willed nor intended by God.
“So then, let’s pray for Mr. Trump and all national, state, and local leaders as the Scriptures instruct. Let’s affirm and applaud him when he makes decisions, and supports initiatives, that help to advance the common good. Let’s refrain from insulting him, but look for ways to speak well of him because of the office he occupies.”
I agree. We ought to pray for all of our leaders, though that prayer can take on many forms. I also agree that we ought to look for and applaud the good whenever we see it. We ought not to insult anyone. However, simply holding a respectable office does not entitle one to respect. The office deserves respect, the officeholder must earn it and keep it.
“And, where prophetic voices are needed, let’s speak truth to power — but always with honor and dignity and respect. For if Daniel would speak honorably of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, and David of Israel’s Saul, and Peter and Paul of Rome’s Caesar, there is truly no basis and no reason for Christians to ever shout “Not My President!” to or about a man that the Scripture itself tells us is the leader God has chosen for this next season of history (His-Story). Many Christians did not heed this biblical imperative with the previous administration. Perhaps we can learn from that mistake, so as not to repeat it, with this and all future administrations.”
Yes, but… We must realize that “dignity and respect” are often terms appropriated by the powerful to maintain the imbalance of power. Paul may have spoken honorably of Caesar, but he was also executed by Caesar for his treasonous assertion that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord. Jesus himself called Herod a fox, a term that Herod certainly would not have regarded as dignified and respectful. Jesus also called the Pharisees “fools,” “snakes,” “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” and “whitewashed graves.” He was also willing to flip some tables when the occasion called for it. None of that would have been perceived as “dignified and respectful” by those in power. I generally hesitate to use those examples; I think Christians use them as an excuse to behave badly more often than they should, but they are a part of our Christian heritage, and they do have a place in our responsibility to speak truth to power.
“Lastly, wherever government may fall short of achieving truth, beauty and justice in the land — and this will always be the case until the Forever King returns to occupy his cosmic throne — let’s be the kinds people that our King has called us to be. Let’s live as salt. And light. And a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Let’s live as those who are filled, renewed, and sent by the Spirit into the world, that we may leave the world better than we found it. Let’s live in such a way, insofar as it is possible, to make government less necessary by the way we spend our lives toward loving God and neighbor. Let’s live in such a way that if the light of Christ in us was suddenly removed from the places where we live, work, and play, the world would notice and be sad about our absence.”
Yes and amen. I would simply add that the kind of people our King has called us to be is the kind of people who defend the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And, best I can tell so far, being that kind of people will often set us in direct opposition to the current administration.