Trump, Christians, and Authority: A Surprising Fit

A local resident is reflected on a religious picture as he votes for the first US presidential primary at a church in Concord
A local resident is reflected on a religious picture as he votes for the first US presidential primary at a church in Concord, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016. New Hampshire voters headed to polls at the snowy break of day on February 9 for the crucial first US presidential primary, with Donald Trump chasing victory and Hillary Clinton looking to narrow the gap on Bernie Sanders. The northeastern state, home to just 1.3 million people, sets the tone for the primaries -- and could shake out a crowded Republican field as the arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz and establishment candidates led by Marco Rubio battle for second place behind the frontrunner Trump. / AFP / Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Many pundits have wondered if Donald Trump can appeal to self-identified Christians, and now that a number of states have held primaries or caucuses, we have an answer. It appears that he bears great appeal even to some of the most socially conservative Christians.

That's kind of surprising, given that Trump is a sometimes-attending Presbyterian on his third marriage who doesn't seem to have much of a working knowledge of the Bible. His positions on the social issues Evangelicals care about-- abortion and same-sex marriage-- appear wobbly. He reeks of excess. Determining someone else's faith, of course, is a misguided enterprise, but the temptation to do so was irresistible even to the Pope.

Yet, this is the man who handily won the primary in South Carolina, where over 70% of Republicans describe themselves as "born-again Christians." How did that happen?

First of all, it is a mistake to think that Christians simply want to vote for someone who shares their faith most heartily. That idea was thoroughly dispelled in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Carter was a devout Southern Baptist, while Reagan shared some of the attributes of Trump: he was a divorced Presbyterian not known as a regular churchgoer. Yet Reagan thrived with the votes of conservative Christians.

Beyond that, there seems to be something about Trump that appeals to a wide swath of Christians. It could be this: He exudes confidence and authority. That aura of authority matches the way that many Christians view the Bible and their own faith, in that it gives them the authority to judge others and draw bright lines. The have learned to accept the world as divided up between good people and bad, rather than as one kingdom.

Listening to a Trump speech recently, I was struck by the way that he drew a circle around his audience and talked about "us." Trump cultivated that dynamic every time he starts a sentence with "What the people in this room understand...." He drew a clear in/out line, and defined his followers as being "in." On the outside of the group were the other Republican candidates and their deluded followers, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

It shouldn't surprise us that this works. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that sometimes we want the bully to like us-- we want to be in his group of friends, laughing furtively at others. Most of us remember how easily the person a bully taunted sometimes became a follower.

Unfortunately, this tracks the dynamic relied on by too many Christian churches. They attract and keep adherents by describing a hostile world and a Biblical authority that is useful primarily to define others as evil. Liberal churches do this by demonizing fundamentalists, while conservative churches do it by describing the world outside of their walls as the poisoned domain of homosexuals, liberals, and others who they contend will not be found in heaven. Just like Trump, they draw clear in/out lines, and define themselves and their followers as part of the sacred zone within.

That view is true to neither the Bible nor the Constitution. The Bible describes one God over all humankind, and the Constitution begins with "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...." The drawing of in/out lines is contrary both to what Christ taught and the nature of democracy. The propensity of Trump and other politicians to not only draw those lines but build them into walls is the sad end-game of the authoritarian streak in our parallel twin tracks of faith and politics. We can and must do better.