Nine months ago I was certain that Donald Trump’s campaign for President would be another media stunt designed to bolster the brand of the reality TV star. While I remain convinced that was the present front-runner’s original intent, his run for the GOP nomination has been anything but a flash in the pan. The more appropriate metaphor would be a wildfire. I find some solace in knowing that I was not alone, not by a long shot, in underestimating Trump’s staying power.
But now the destructive blaze has consumed nearly the entire South, save Texas and Oklahoma. (I’ve never been more proud to be a Texan than when we slapped down The Donald.) How did this happen? How did the Trump wildfire spread through a region of the country traditionally known as the Bible Belt?
Consider the facts. Here’s a man who presents a long history of moral, uh, problems and inconsistencies. To name just a few: mob connections, exploiting foreign workers, entrapping foreign women, defrauding individuals under the guise of education, degrading women and the handicapped, using vulgarities with bravado, hesitating to disavow the KKK, repeating racially inflammatory “history” that he knows isn’t even true, threatening the press’s First Amendment freedoms, and praising fascist leaders like Putin and Mussolini. And then when he’s caught in his lies, he lies and lies and lies and lies about lying. Oh, and he has denied ever asking God for forgiveness because he’s not sure that he’s done anything to warrant a need for it.
But he won the Bible belt. So I ask again, how did this happen?
Well, I place a good bit of the blame squarely in the lap of pastors. Those who ascend the pulpit Sunday after Sunday have a responsibility to declare the whole counsel of God. That task has largely been neglected in many churches over the past couple of generations. Instead, most evangelical churches today have adopted the consumerism of our culture rather than challenge it. We have tried to take the culture’s winning trends and co-opt them for Christ. Populism has infected the pulpit. Rather than letting the Bible shape pulpit strategy—say, by letting Paul dictate the way we preach Romans or Moses determine knew the best way to teach the history of Abraham—we turn to pop culture and cleverly craft series like “Extreme Makeover: Church Edition” or “Fifty Shades of Grace.” Lord, have mercy.
I’ll be blunt. Rather than a bold prophetic voice declaring the truth of the Bible—all of it, verse by verse—many sermons are glib, pansy whimpers of cultural accommodation more concerned about leaving the consumer warm and comfortable than exalting the glory of God in Christ. The results have been tragic and manifold, but I am going to mention just three that have given us The Donald as a serious contender for the most powerful political office in the world.
First, Christians have not been taught God’s Word. They don’t know very much truth. They think they do, but they do not. It’s clear, as research confirms year after year, that basic historic doctrines of the faith have been sidelined for pat, pseudo-biblical motivational affirmations. Theology is considered passé, cold, even harmful. But without knowing the theological underpinnings of the gospel, Christians have no discernment. Subtle falsehood tastes acrid only when we’ve experienced the sweetness of deep truth again and again.
Second, pastors have enmeshed patriotism and discipleship. Don’t misunderstand me. I am patriotic, love my country, believe Christians should be involved in politics, support the military, and pray with all sincerity, “God, bless America!” But we have too often made an idol of our country. The United States is not the Bible’s shining city on a hill; the Church is. Our nation is not the world’s hope; Jesus Christ is. While churches should express gratitude to God for our country and the freedoms we enjoy, we should not displace worshiping the risen Christ with red, white, and blue fanfare on July 4th each year. In many ways, great and small, pastors have elevated patriotism as a form of Christian faithfulness, often to the point that partisan positions overshadow biblical principles. Far too many evangelicals have been indirectly taught that if it isn’t Republican, it must not be Christian.
Third, Christians have been conditioned by flimsy, vapid Sunday messages to perk up for pseudo-biblical sound bites, crafty wordplays and trite phrases. These sound good, even moral, but are mere puffs of air, easily deflated with the slightest weight of biblical reasoning. A steady diet of jelly beans does not help one acquire a taste for fresh veggies. As evidence, I would point you to the standard Facebook feed, in which a myriad of well-meaning Christians post memes of baptized fortune cookie phraseology. Add a God reference and put an angel or a cross in the background, and bit of pop psychology or new age wisdom will amass thousands of likes and shares by Christians who should know better.
But they don’t know better. Why not? Their pastors have trained them to respond to one-liners, to not have to focus for too long, to not have to do the hard work of applying a thoroughly Christian worldview in nuanced ways to the world’s complex problems. The pulpit is a place of teaching, and that teaching comes not only in the content but methodology. Pastors are to teach people how to think biblically. So even if a pastor is saying right things, if he rushes to application without showing people how he arrived there from the text of the Bible, he neglects a formative step toward shaping Christian minds.
So what do we get when we have a generation of church-goers who have very little biblical discernment; confusion on the roles of politics, patriotism, and partisanship; and a conditioned positive response to churchy thumbnails? We get an opening for an opportunist with a populist message to hijack the conservative movement with empty and often foolish words and phrases: Make America great again! We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it! We don’t win anymore, but trust me, we are going to start winning again!
“Never mind appealing to abuse of executive power. Forget racist overtones. Ignore issues of character, integrity, godliness. Let me watch a YouTube video and wear my ball cap and watch the flames burn it all down. And if you question my candidate, try to bring up his sketchy past, talk about the Constitution and limited government, or reveal his inconsistencies, I have a “Judge not, lest you be judged” meme for you.”
Pastors may not have lit the match to ignite the Trump wildfire, but we did prepared the kindling by not washing the Church with the water of the Word from our pulpits week by week.