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The Conversion of Donald Trump

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According to Politico and other sources, James Dobson of Focus on the Family informs us that Donald Trump recently accepted “a relationship with Christ.” This is news because…?

I know many evangelical Christians. I was trained in a seminary that must be considered “evangelical” if we define that to mean grounded in Scripture. Most evangelicals I am acquainted with are gentle, generous, loving people. I believe that Mr. Dobson is sincere in his characterization of Mr. Trump’s conversion – to have now achieved the level of “baby Christian” as Mr. Dobson puts it. I applaud Mr. Trump’s decision and sincerely hope that as he matures in his Christian walk he will come to express Scriptural traits such as devotion to justice, righteousness, love, and mercy.

The election of 2016 is not to elect Pastor in Chief, a position, if it existed, for which Trump would be spectacularly unqualified. It is to elect the President of the United States. A President’s duty is not primarily to spread the gospel or even to espouse its principles, but to uphold the principles embedded in America’s founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Arising out of the anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, these documents are unique in that while they do not express or demand a religious devotion, at the same time they do not condemn or forbid one. The Constitution prohibits both the official establishment of a religion and infringement of the exercise of religion. Contrast this with later revolutionary liberal regimes, in France and in Spanish America, that violently persecuted the Church. The United States achieved religious toleration in an era that was characterized by both religious intolerance and intolerance of religion. That is one expression of its genius.

I believe as a Christian it is my duty to live out the principles of my faith in my public life. Calling myself a Christian means that I profess to be a disciple of Christ. I believe that the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more like Christ. But, as someone well trained in evangelical theology, I believe that one does a disservice to the gospel when one conflates its principles with any political party. Even a rudimentary understanding of the Bible has to yield concession that no political party in the United States can be labelled “Christian,” nor can the United States itself be considered a “Christian” nation. The idea of a nation as instrument of exclusion is itself contrary to the Christian eschatalogical vision of a universal brotherhood of humanity enlightened by the love of God.

I think I might also add here that what came to be known as the “wall of separation” between Church and State not only protects the State but also the Church. As Christians we know that our faith demands allegiance to Christ before all else, as determined by our conscience. When the State comes to represent Christ, we are enslaved to it, rather than our conscience. Martin Luther King, Jr. astutely observed, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

So when it becomes news that Donald Trump has accepted “a relationship with Christ,” one wonders at the public fascination. Does Mr. Dobson hope to sway conservative voters who also happen to call themselves Christian? Or do some hostile to Christianity having the public ear seek to hold this up as an example of Christian hypocrisy? Or perhaps both? Any way you look at it, it denigrates both the message of the gospel and the principles of the United States.

I am re-posting an old post about this issue from January 2015. It addresses some of the same issues pertinent to the stories of Mr. Trumps conversion, and gives a general framework for understanding why the United States is not a Christian nation. I hope you will find it illuminating. Readers who are interested in exploring this topic from the point of view of an evangelical pastor are invited to examine Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. 3/30/07 ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Zondervan, 2007.

Franklin Graham is What’s Wrong with American Christianity – Dispatches From Exile: History, Philosophy, Theology, Culture

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