I’ve been wondering at the utter impotence of the church in the face of the spiritual phenomenon of Donald Trump. Evangelicals flocked to him in droves. Progressive mainliners failed to move the needle politically, with denominational leaders dusting off their standard platitudes and appearing utterly confused on how to prophetically respond to ugly racist incidents at their own gatherings.
Why is this? I think it’s because we fundamentally operate on the same set of principles that Donald Trump does.
Let me hold up a mirror for a second:
- Obsession with buildings, power, and wealth.
According to Donald Trump, why is he “the very definition of an American success story?” Because he’s rich, because he’s very important, and because he’s built a lot of real estate.
How do we measure whether a church is successful or not? In my denomination, there are three statistics: the number of people who come to worship, the size of our budget, and how much money we pay back to the denomination.
*Every* single time I’ve heard someone describe a church as successful, it’s always described in these terms. It’s because their worship attendance is growing, because they put up a new building, or because they can now hire more staff.
*Every* time I’ve heard a pastor described as successful, it’s because they were able to get a church to do one of these three things.
I’ve never heard a church being described as successful because its members became substantially more loving or because they made their community a measurably better place to live.
If our criteria for success looks solely to the size of our religious institution, with nothing but secondary concern for whether that institution is actually helping cultivate better people, how is that any different than Donald Trump bragging about his wealth, his buildings, and his power?
- Thin-Skinned Defensiveness
Even his most ardent supporters would never characterize Trump as humble. Nothing is ever his fault – whenever something goes wrong, there’s always something else or someone else to blame. The system is rigged against him: whether it be the media, the election, or even the Emmys. No one has the right challenge him: regardless of whether it is a former Miss Universe winner or a Gold Star family, every critic deserves his personal scorn.
Do Christians really do much better?
I think about the talk in our churches about why our institutions are declining. More frequently than not, I hear people blame external factors: whether it be the people who go to Sunday sports, the moral decline of our society, or even that other sellout church down the street, rather than using our institutional decline as a call to spiritual self-reflection.
Anyone who’s tried to lead a change process in a church learns that every tradition can be turned into a sacred cow, every loving critique interpreted as a personal attack, every nasty tactic justified by its supposedly sacred ends. Combine that with the utterly unfunny field of Christian humor and the hypersensitivity of so many Christians on social media, and you end up with a type of defensiveness and reflexive self-justification that should ring a bell.
- Belief that Your Own Gain Is the Greatest Good
Donald Trump is notorious for exploiting others for his own purposes: whether that be proudly finding loopholes in the tax code, importing his products from other countries with looser labor laws, or not paying his contractors. For him, there is no ethical dilemma: what is good for him is the greatest good, period.
For those of us in the church, there is often a willingness to think that what is good for our institution is the greatest good, period.
For United Methodists, consider the conspiracy of silence that surrounds our ethical decisions, when that silence will benefit our institution, whether that be electing Bishops with significant character flaws because of their political connections, shielding he careers of pastors who have histories of emotional abuse, or the quiet practice of deferring to the most influential leader or donor in a local church, because of fear of what would happen if they left. (Note: If your church would collapse if they left, then the church probably isn’t worth keeping open anyway.)
Consider that in my conference, it was (and may still be) common practice to hire support staff for 29.5 hours a week: because 30 hours a week is when we’d have to give them health insurance, which we can’t afford. (No one seems to have considered that if we have built a structure where we can’t treat our employees well, then maybe we need a new structure.)
Even more basically: How often do we invite people to a worship service or another church event, not because we thought it would be good for them, but primarily because our church needed another person to show up? Or asked people to up their pledges to the church, although the vast amount of the money would go to buildings and staff, rather than to help people?
When we decide that the perpetuation of institution is the greatest possible good, we participate in exact ethical framework that made Donald Trump ethically repulsive to so many of us.
Yes, I acknowledge that we inhabit those principles, on the whole, much better than he does.
Yes, I acknowledge that he is not the only person who espouses that set of assumptions.
Yes, I acknowledge that there are moments of genuine, generous goodness that break out in our denominations.
It’s no surprise that we were caught so spiritually flat-footed. We have no alternative vision to offer. We may advocate for justice, preach about love, and even practice following Jesus within our institutions, but all of this is rendered impotent by the embodied theology of our church’s structure. Voting for Trump is an acceptable part of our cosmology, because it’s not as a far a leap from buildings-butts-and-budgets to “build that wall” as we like to think.
Until we decide to deal seriously with the way we organize our lives together, we have no reason feel self-satisfied. After all, when we boil it all down, are we really that different from Donald Trump ourselves?
 Some pastors advocate for this. There are simple, concrete ways to measure spiritual growth and community impact, if we were collectively interested in tracking them.
Nice post. Resonates with my recent re-reading of Resident Aliens and the whole line of thought that Hauerwas (based on Barth) pursues. The Church, whether UMC or otherwise, often (most often?) does not live in a way that is distinguished from and thereby have the critical distance to critique the other powers at work in the world. Much of the Church continues to expect the world/state to support its agenda – whatever that agenda might be. That agenda changes today depending on what “kind” of church it is: evangelical, mainstream, etc. Which leads me to Hauerwasian type questions: what kind of church would we have to be to form a community that challenges the other powers? what kind of church would we have to be to form a community that isn’t bound by its own institutional restraints? what kind of church would be we have to be in order that Annual Conference didn’t look like the Democratic or Republican National Convention with a few extra prayers slapped on? what kind of church would be have to be to form a community that doesn’t fall into the trap of the conservative/liberal/left/right conversation and move the conversation to a new level?
Thanks for the post. For me this new reality continues to create opportunities for the church to rediscover the heart of what it means to be Church.
I agree! (William Stringfellow is the person I’m returning to right now.)
I’ve come to believe that living at the heart of Empire is about the most spiritually toxic place any church can be. When I look at the very slim spiritual distance between our church and our national culture, I’ve begun to wonder whether we have been almost entirely co-opted by the spirit of empire; the primary difference being that we use Christian-religious language, whereas government, business,etc. does not.
I think about you frequently, in fact – and how difficult it must be to keep a spiritual center while ministering at a place that is so closely located to the hyper-anxious heart of the institution.
Glad to hear you’re asking some of these questions – and praying that we’re all willing to pay the institutional cost to truly seek after their answers!
Thankful that my local church, HopeGateWay in Portland, Maine, is one of those churches, and I know of others, that seek to truly follow Jesus.
I agree, but would add the fact that many Evangelical Christians seem to blindly follow the candidate who is pro life, and nothing else natters, rather like a one-trick pony. I also believe that a main reason why he was elected is because he represents change. Sadly, the last time Americans chose a President based on the desire for change, Jimmy Carter was elected. Although he is a fantastic person, he was a lousy President.
You refer to valuing life as a “one trick pony” that is “followed blindly”? There is a Holocaust against our most vulnerable citizens (please Google and watch late term abortion videos before you respond) I’m sure you won’t be using the “one trick pony ” analogy again.
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