The Scandal Christians Cause by Supporting Trump
Here we are. At the time of my writing of this piece, we Americans are 19 days, 11 hours, 58minutes, and 3 seconds away from arguably one of the most controversial presidential elections in our country’s relatively short history. In case you have been living under the proverbial rock, you probably already know what makes this presidential election so controversial. News headlines blaring, radio pundits yelling, presidential candidates debating, and the rest of the world commiserating– these have all characterized the 2016 race for the presidency of the United States. If we are being honest, we know that every presidential election brings with it a host of issues- the potential candidates are put through the strainer, past sins are brought up, polemical attacks typically suppress fruitful dialogue, and so on. This is commonly found wherever American politics exist. Different groups support different issues; in recent years, the Democratic Party has moved towards greater efforts at gun control, pushing for same-sex marriage equality, advocating for reproductive rights, as well as highlighting a need for universal healthcare, and for tax cuts for the poor while increasing taxes on the wealthy. The Republican Party has pushed for a greater emphasis on individual liberties, a strong protection of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), opposition to abortion and gay marriage, ‘religious freedom’, and tougher stances on illegal immigration. While these are general characteristics, different candidates fall under different points of the political spectrum. Usually, for Americans, we are given a choice between two (often contrasting with the other on a number of issues), and the task for Americans is to vote who they believe is the best candidate for the job. Of course, we Americans are guided by our own political beliefs, biases, morals, and convictions. Some American citizens are influenced to vote for a certain candidate or party by purely political motives- Republicans often demonstrate resistance for government-mandated regulation of universal health care and oppose greater restrictions on who is allowed to purchase firearms because, they argue, it won’t stop criminals from obtaining and misusing firearms in the first place. Similarly, out of a strong environmental defense ethic, Democrats push for a need to protect the environment and combat global warming, which includes a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. And, of course, there are people in between- the independent, unaffiliated voter is the fastest growing demographic currently in America.
The Role of Religion in the Voting Booth
Speaking of demographics, a crucial part for any presidential candidate is to convince people holding religious convictions of any sort that he or she will be the best choice for the religious voter’s particular faith community. While there is indeed a separation between church and state (so as to protect the rights of both institutions), the role of religion within a voter’s decision still has a significant role, albeit a decreasing one. A Pew Research Center survey found that in 2008, “72 percent of voters said it was important for a president to have strong religious beliefs”, while “that number is down to 62 percent today.” Confirmation of religion’s declining influence in the lives of American citizens can also be found in a recent Gallup poll which found that only 65% of Americans answered “yes” when asked if religion is an important part of their daily life. Still, this number is extraordinarily high when compared to other Western countries who also took part in the survey, such as Sweden (17%), Denmark (19%), and even the United Kingdom (27%). Dr. Nigel Barber, author, professor, and contributor to the popular website “Psychology Today”, wrote an interesting piece on the question of why religion continues to play a major part in American politics today. One of his theories regarding the ongoing influence of religiosity on American politics includes the “push” by the conservative, Evangelical right during the 1970s to assert a moral platform in the face of the “Sexual Revolution” and other changes. As a reaction to this push, Democrats, for fear of losing voters, decided to insert religion into their political debates and rhetoric, so as not to lose the influx of immigrant-voters, who brought with them their own religious traditions from their homeland. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that religion, even in 2016, is an important factor in a voter’s choice between candidates.
I, myself, am a practicing Roman Catholic, studying theology on the graduate level, discerning where in life I believe I am being called next. I come from a particular religious tradition, with a particular set of beliefs, practices, and customs, and am held to certain expectations within the public and private sphere. I am expected to attend mass weekly, to live a moral life joyfully, and to love God & my neighbor unconditionally. Also as a Catholic, I am bound to participate in the public life, to promote the dignity of the human person, to work towards the common good, and of course, to participate in the salvation of souls by my life, words, and deeds. Above all, as a Catholic Christian, I am called to follow Jesus Christ in all that I do & in all that I say. For the Christian, if life is a race, then the imitation of the life of Christ is the goal. And one can only imitate Jesus when they know Him, pray to Him, and follow Him. Jesus is seen as the Divine Teacher, the Incarnate Word of the Father, and the object of a Christian’s love and devotion par excellence. Contrary to the belief of some Christian anarchists who believe that Christ calls for us to reject all authority, Jesus Himself believed that in this temporal world, political rule has its place. However, He also taught that all authority, even political authority, derives from the ultimate authority of God (John 19:11). As the “both-and” cliché in Catholic theological circles goes, the Christian is to respect both the authority of the legitimate political leader, and the authority of God.
Now, what happens when a Christian is faced with a political authority whose policies directly conflict with the Gospel? Ah, welcome to the 2016 presidential election! Plenty of articles have been written on both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’s fittingness for the Oval Office, and this is not going to be one of them. A number of bloggers and speakers involved in religion have also presented the case for voting for X or Y, and no, this is not one of them either. Without hyperbole, this election has been arguably the most frustrating and conflicting for the voter’s conscience in the history of American politics, and my intention here is not to tell you who to vote for- my intention is for you to realize how supporting Donald Trump on the basis of Christianity is false and dangerous, resulting in a direct assault on both the Gospel message and those who earnestly try to live it.
Put simply, Christians who support Trump are committing one of the greatest sins in Christian theology: scandal. In the Bible, a book hopefully familiar to many Christians, the word ‘scandal’ is written in the Koine Greek language as “σκάνδαλον/skandalon” literally meaning “stumbling block”. Jesus is recorded using the word four times: three times in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Mt. 13:41, 16:23 18:7) and once in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk. 17:1). Of all the occurrences of this word, perhaps none is as poignant as when Jesus uses the word while rebuking Peter in Matthew 16:23: “But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This occurs when Jesus is foretelling of His eventual suffering in His Passion & Death; Peter hears this and immediately rejects any notion that his friend, teacher, and master will have to suffer at the hands of authority. Jesus, who reveals throughout the Gospel that He has not come to do His will but the will of the Father, rebukes Peter for being a “stumbling block” to His mission- that is, the salvation of humankind. Peter is ‘called out’ for his misguided attempt to shield Jesus from imminent suffering. Jesus also uses a derivative of the word ‘scandal’ later in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when He says “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). Throughout the centuries, Christians have had to come to terms with this powerful warning of Jesus. The Catholic Church categorizes ‘causing scandal’ under the violations of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” Here, the Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” (CCC #2284). The person who commits scandal becomes a source of temptation to his or her own neighbor (#2285). And, in one of the most sweeping statements on this matter, the Church proclaims:
“Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.” (CCC #2286)
Re-thinking Trump as the “Pro-Life” Candidate
Donald Trump has made headlines ever since the announcement of his campaign, and very few of them have been positive affirmations of his humane proposals, upstanding moral character and strong family values. Actually, it would seem that it is the opposite. Take, for instance, the time he publicly mocked a man with disabilities. Or the time he said that he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Or the time he insulted the entire country of Mexico and the Mexican people. Or the time he claimed that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and wouldn’t lose voters. Or the time he expressed his desire to punch a protester in the face. Or the time he insulted nearly every political rival of his– and one’s wife. Or when he stated that there must be a “punishment” for women who choose to abort their fetus. He discredited the heroism of a P.O.W., he asserted that he would authorize methods of torture as well as murder the families of terrorists (a war crime), insulted women time and time again, lusted after his own daughter on-air, and, as recently revealed, bragged about sexual assault, and tried reducing it to being “locker-room talk”.
To defend voting for Trump under the illusion that he is somehow “pro-life” is to the definition of asininity. And yet, it is a mantra often chanted. Father Frank Pavone, National Director of the Priests for Life, has endorsed Trump, and encouraged his faithful followers to do the same. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, takes a more theologically-nuanced view. In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, state that Catholics are not “single-issue voters” (no. 42). The U.S. bishops also reiterate the fact that abortion is of the gravest sins of our day, but also state that:
Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the indiscriminate use of drones for violent purposes; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; to oppose human trafficking; and to overcome poverty and suffering. Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort after all peaceful means have failed, and to end the use of the death penalty as a means of protecting society from violent crime. We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God. We stand opposed to these and all activities that contribute to what Pope Francis has called “a throwaway culture.” (no. 45)
And, while many Catholic commentators on social media & blogs will assert correctly that abortion holds preeminence among all violations of the human person and that one can never do evil to promote good, they tend to leave out this point: according to Catholic theology, there is such a thing as formal vs. material cooperation, and that Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), arguably the most theologically-conservative of post-Vatican II popes, understood this well. While Catholics may not vote for a pro-choice candidate on the grounds that the candidate is pro-choice, a Catholic is permitted to vote for a candidate who happens to be pro-choice when all other options are exhausted. M. Cathleen Kaveny, Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Boston College theology department, writes about this at length here. And, for skeptics of this claim, one need not traverse far from the previously-mentioned USCCB document on Catholic participation in the public life, where again they state in number 36:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
While his counterpart, Hilary Clinton, supports abortion (understood by Catholics as an intrinsically-evil act), Trump also supports the use of torture- an oft-forgotten “intrinsic evil”, as so clearly stated by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the USCCB here. And therefore, now, the Christian is faced with a daunting task- which candidate is “more likely to pursue other authentic human goods”? Well, because I realize that oftentimes women do not choose abortion arbitrarily but rather because they are victims of societal sin, injustice, racism and poverty, I would probably choose the candidate- if any- who seems to promote social justice- not detract from it. As Eric Sapp wrote in The Christian Post, while she supports a woman’s right to choose, Hilary’s policies can very well lift women out of these rough situations where abortion is even seen as an option, anyway. He points out that under the two “most pro-choice” presidents, Clinton and Obama, abortions reached their lowest point since Roe V. Wade. Also notable is that when President George W. Bush was in office and the GOP controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate, and 2/3 of the Supreme Court, absolutely no motion was made to overturn Roe V. Wade. None. But yet, we are somehow supposed to believe that Donald Trump is “pro-life”, when he still allows for abortion in certain circumstances? We are somehow believed that Trump is “pro life” and is going to appoint “pro-life” judges, when he suggested that his sister, a federal judge, would make an excellent choice for the Supreme Court? (The same sister who publicly opposed a partial-birth abortion ban in New Jersey, but hey, Crooked Killary or something, right?)
The Gospel of Jesus Christ vs. the Gospel of Trump
Now that Trump’s claim of being “pro-life” has been effectively struck down, is there any reason for the Christian to support him on basis of the faith? Of course, Christians who supported him since the start of his troubled campaign in June 2015 and still do to this day remember the words of Jesus, right? The words proclaimed in His famous “Sermon on the Mount”, where He taught His disciples how to conduct their lives? “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20)… “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5)…“Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8)- have any of them been primary ways many a Christian have decided who to vote for? Apparently not. While the outcry against Trump was most vocal after the revelation of his recent comments towards women, the religious right have been at best, sheepishly criticizing his comments and at worst, absolving a man who claims he has no need of forgiveness.
The credibility of Christianity is at stake here. Which unbaptized person in this country considering Christianity would want to enter a faith community in which the vast majority of members in the United States view Donald Trump as a legitimate option? How does support for Trump translate into the Gospel message? How are we leading others to Christ by supporting this rising demagogue? The Christian right has all but canonized Trump, and it is quite creepy.
In this, the hypocrisy of the religious Christian ‘right’ is tenfold. Not only are the majority of them sticking by Trump, but they dare to masquerade their support of him as “Christian forgiveness”. Trump can (and did) say that he grabs non-consenting women “by the pussy”, and the Christian right will tweet “It’s fine, we are all sinners”, and yet if I posted “#ImWithHer”, I’d receive a direct message stating “you’re going to hell”. The conservative right who blindly supports Trump even after his lewd comments are now using a language of reconciliation and mercy when they have shown none to those who feel differently than they. Christians who support Trump not only commit scandal, but they also do so at the risk of denying Jesus’ own words. For millions of Christians in the United States, the infallibility of Scripture has been denied in favor of an infallible ideology. To them, Trump- and not Jesus- is the Messiah. It is Trump, not Jesus, who will lead this country back to prosperity. It is Trump, not Jesus, who will grant us peace & safety. It is Trump, not Jesus, who guides their attitudes towards their enemies, or even to their neighbor.
Why would Christians, even after all of his disgusting comments and behavior, tolerate the thought of voting for him? The support of Trump by Christians usually follows a particular and awkward trajectory. Since Trump is against abortion (sort of), he is “pro-life”. And because he is “pro-life”, he is the obvious choice for the presidency. And yet, one must ask: how “pro-life” can one claim to be when he has advocated the use of torture (an intrinsic evil, according to Catholic moral theology), or who chooses a running mate who supports electrocuting gays until they become heterosexual, or who mocks persons with disabilities, or who supports unrestricted capital punishment, or who wants to increase militarism, who threatens to jail his political opponents, who doesn’t think abortion is murder, who claims abortion is “okay” in certain circumstances, who has bragged about adultery, who has said absolutely nothing regarding assisted-suicide, who criticizes gun control, or who has literally amassed a fortune at the expense of not paying a fair wage to those under his care?
Can we please stop pretending that Donald Trump is the “Christian” choice for president? The people who actually believe that are not following the Gospel of Jesus Christ- they are following the Good News of Trump. Instead of putting their faith in God, Christians in this country have fearfully hid behind the intimidating figure of Trump. And yet, how can they reconcile their choice with the Gospel? Hint: they cannot. Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, said in an editorial that Christians should not support a man whose life is based around “idolatry, greed, and sexual immorality”. “The revelations of the past week of his vile and crude boasting about sexual conquest — indeed, sexual assault — might have been shocking, but they should have surprised no one,” wrote Andy Crouch, editorial director.
While I applaud the decision by certain Christians who have abandoned the Trump Train, it’s a golf clap. What took you all so long? I’m astonished that it took a man bragging about sexual assault and objectifying women to splash the cold water in the face of delusional Christians, making them say “Hm.. maybe he isn’t a good choice.” As the well-known Christian hymn often sung on Good Friday goes: “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?”
Now, I ask the Christians who support Trump:
- Were you there when Trump insulted a reporter with a disability?
- Were you there when Trump bragged about sexual assault?
- Were you there when Trump expressed his love of war?
- Were you there when Trump championed “getting even”?
As Jesus stated quite clearly in the Gospels, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, you did to Me.” (Matthew 25:40), and therefore, if you were there supporting Trump when he did the unfathomable, you are the whips that flogged Jesus in His Passion. If you were compliant with Trump’s obviously misogynistic comments, or his words about refugees, or his business practices which exploit the poor for the gain of the rich, you are the nails put into Jesus’ wrists on the Cross. In Matthew 25, when talking about the Final Judgement, Jesus asserts that in the end, we will be judged by how we treated the poor, the sick, the downtrodden. How a Christian treats the marginalized is a direct reflection of how they treat Jesus Christ. And so, to support a man who regards strength and power as the highest virtues and calls the poor, the lowly, and the defeated “morons” and “losers”, is one thing. To support the same man under the auspices of him being the “Christian” choice is pure, unadulterated scandal. Will Donald Trump become a saint one day? I hope so. Saints are canonized as a public sign that they are those who led others to Christ. But as for now, Trump isn’t a saint. He is a stumbling block- as are those who continue to support his bid for the presidency. As a Christian, I am called to seek the holiness and salvation of all. No Christian rejoices in the death of another, and of course, we leave the Final Judgment up to God.
If you want to support and defend Donald Trump, hoping he becomes the next president of the United States, fine. That is entirely your prerogative and your civil right. Just please, for the love of God (literally), do not use Christianity to justify your choice. You’re causing others to stumble.