Donald Trump Is Total Depravity

John Calvin’s <em>Institutes of the Christian Religion</em>
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

Donald Trump may or may not be worst human being ever to enter the presidency, but he is certainly in the running. His first week in office has been a noxious potion of pedantic tantrums, outright lies, and ugly executive orders. Trump claims he is a Christian. He claims he is a Presbyterian. He claims that the Bible is his favorite book. Well, as an ordained Presbyterian Elder, I’d like to offer Trump a little lesson in Presbyterian theology.

Let me give a quick caveat to everyone who’s still reading (Trump supporters, I’ll see you in the Comments section, I know you generally don’t read past the headline or first paragraph anyway): I’m not a partisan. I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans. I’m a principled and registered independent. I cannot bring myself to believe in political parties, and I cannot sympathize with anyone’s willingness to put the advantage of the Democratic or Republican Party above the common good. In Virginia’s open primary, I voted as a Republican just so I could vote against Trump. (You’re welcome, John Kasich.)

The Reformed tradition of Protestant theology, to which we Presbyterians belong, values everything that is the opposite of Trump. Our unofficial motto is “decently and in order”–not exactly the guiding philosophy of the Trump White House. We are the nose-to-the-grindstone kind of Protestants. If Martin Luther was the free-wheeling, beer-drinking, bold and dangerous hip-shooter of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, the founding figure of the Reformed tradition, should have been his lawyer. Calvin was systematic and brilliant in a boring way and a really excellent pastor.

We Presbyterians aren’t exactly optimists on the human front. Calvin well captures our jaundiced view of humanity: “a veritable world of miseries is to be found in [hu]mankind… our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies.” In that good ol’ Augustinian tradition of believing in Original Sin, we Reformed folks have really majored on the desperation of humanity. Humans are wretched, weak, depraved worms. But the good news is that, according to Reformed theology, we weren’t always such and needn’t always be so. We were created good, and God wants us to be that again.

Calvin used the word “depraved” a lot. I think it captured for him the strange human condition. God made us good, and we made ourselves bad. Depravity is the gulf between our original potential and the mess we find ourselves in. Calvin’s interpreters picked up the phrase Total Depravity to describe the human condition. No part of us is free from sin’s influence. Sin has seeped into every crack – it’s in our every motive, our every impulse. And we desperately need the grace of God.

In the Reformed tradition, God is indisputably and amazingly good. God loves, God provides, God serves, God suffers through our obstinacy. We may be weak-willed, lily-livered, damned fools, but God loves us anyway, and God’s out to bring us home, forgive us, and set us back on the right path. For Reformed theologians, our depravity–the gap between what we were created for and what we actually are­–can be filled, and is more than adequately filled, by God’s grace. In the end, it’s really a pretty hopeful way of thinking about the world, so long as you can pay the price of entry: humility. We’re dirty to the core, but God loves our dirty selves, so we’re going to be OK.

I realize this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Donald Trump says it’s his, so I’d like to offer Mr. Trump a few Presbyterian thoughts:

Mr. President, your campaign was built on total depravity. You catered to the worst in America: our narcissism, our superiority complex, our racism, our sense of entitlement. You drew out the ugliest recesses of the American id, and you continue to govern that way. There’s a word for that in our tradition, and that word is evil. That part of us that we should resist and denounce by the grace of God, you turn into a gleeful play thing.

I cannot deny your political brilliance. You sure suckered our country good! But brilliance that is still depraved is not a credit to you. It just reveals the upper limit of how bad we humans can get without the intervention of the grace of God.

Jesus Christ was a loser by your standards, sir. He lived among the poor and died as a criminal. Jesus is the model for all Christian living, and, you sir, are no Jesus Christ. In fact, I cannot detect any of the Christian virtues in your worldview: Where is compassion? Where is humility? Where is generosity? Where is regard for the needs and desires of others?

Mr. Trump, as much as I am drawn to hate you (that’s the worst in me), on my better days I pity you. By all appearances, you don’t know the love and the kindness of God. If you did, you wouldn’t live in such a small, heartless, confining, selfish, and neuralgic way.

I would love to welcome a repentant Donald Trump into the bosom of the Presbyterian church with open arms. I sincerely wish that he would stumblingly and insecurely bring what must be his unbelievably fractured ego into the forgiving embrace of Jesus. But until he does that, I’ll keep loving him with good Christian love and with the truth, just as, I believe, Calvin would: Donald, you are a wretch, a vile, dirty, shameful, slithering snake of a human being, and you need God’s grace every bit as much as the rest of us. Turn around now, Donald.

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