In response to the alarming statistic that eighty percent of white evangelical votes went to Trump, the Christians in opposition to the now-President were quick to point out how Christianity should have created the opposite effect. They, and even some agnostic and atheistic voices, point to large swaths of Biblical verses that are incongruous with much of what Trump says and does on both a political and personal level. Caring for the poor, welcoming refugees, being truthful, and just about every other Biblical mandate is routinely ignored by the commander-in-chief in unprecedented ways, the narrative goes. However convincing this narrative is, it hasn’t made an observable impact on Trump’s many supporters, who remain ever in favor of his bold personality and “says-it-like-it-is” politicking. They must have been swindled, we think, to betray the fundamental tenants of their Christianity in favor of radical partisanship. On the contrary, I think our fellow citizens who support Trump do so because they are deeply faithful to God. It is their unique understanding of God’s ultimate power that has created the space for their abiding support of Trump, and it is only through understanding their faith that we might be able to understand why all the informed arguments detracting from Trump have had minimal effect.
I believe the faith of Trump supporters is best put in context of Old Testament wrath. The New Testament and the Old Testament exist in dialectical tension with each other—which is to say, the picture of God we are given in each doesn’t seem to fit the other’s. We have in the New Testament, for instance, a deeply pacifist martyr in Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount informed us to love our enemies in one of the Bible’s most challenging verses:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
If we pair this verse with Paul’s famous description of love, we are given a fuller picture of Jesus might mean:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
But this picture of love doesn’t match with the God of the Old Testament, who killed every Egyptian firstborn child in Exodus, washed away all of humanity in a flood, and frequently ordered the destruction of enemy nations. With this portrait of God, we have to grappled with verses like this in Psalms:
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Many theologies accommodate this tension by placing more importance on the words and life of Jesus, which serves to temper the Old Testament’s anger by showing how our understanding of God matures through the ages. Regarding the faith of Trump’s most adamant supporters, I don’t believe this was Jesus’ accomplishment. Rather than letting Jesus, in essence, “make new” what we once thought of God via the Old Testament, God’s wrath remained more influential than God’s love.
At this point, the above claim can only be understood as conjecture, but we’ll undoubtedly see it proven true over time. Already, Trump’s evangelical advisor confirms it in part, saying that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” It’s a nebulous claim, but that doesn’t matter—it fits comfortably within this theology’s framework, in which God is just as likely to preach love to an unbeliever as to slay them. Which one He chooses depends entirely on the practitioner’s faith.
There are serious philosophical and theological quandaries at play here, though we aren’t likely to see them engaged with by the Religious Alt-Right. If Jesus’s vehement teachings on nonviolence do not challenge the believer’s understanding of the Old Testament God’s violence, that believer has an astonishing capacity to hold opposites together, whether they know it or not. More often than not, the resulting logic of this mindset goes as follows: God is holy no matter what. We lowly humans could never understand such a being. Everything we have been told about him is an absolute truth, impervious to our objections, and everything he does is good, even if we can’t say why. Within the above framework, to even call these aspects of God “opposites” isn’t a reality. God’s boundless grace and murderous justice aren’t opposites, for the simple reason that God is inherently perfect, and if he’s perfect then he’s not contradictory.
Trump once claimed at a rally that he could walk out into the street that very moment and kill someone without losing any support. His claim has rung eerily true ever since—to near global bewilderment—because his gaffs have absolutely nothing to do with partisanship, like being caught red-handed making claims of sexual assault and failing to apologize for it. What could earn this kind of trust? How could someone do the things Trump has done with so little repercussion? The answer lies in faith—the same faith that makes it possible to believe unquestioningly in a God who kills newborns to satiate his wrath. Just as the faith of Trump’s supporters demands constant surrender to a higher power with motivations so complex as to appear contradictory, so do their politics. Their Christianity has paved the way for a way of thinking that places the leaders they admire in the same, unchallengeable space that God occupies in their hearts and minds. President Donald Trump, chosen by God as a vessel to lead his people, can do anything he wants without reproach because this is the example given to them by their ultimate leader.
Pointing out Trump’s flaws, lies, and hypocrisies has been ineffective because we’ve been operating under a false assumption: a good line of reasoning, if effectively laid out, will make sense to everyone. But imagine if a teacher used this same logic in the classroom. Lessons would be catered toward a select few while students with a different style of learning would suffer tremendously. A good teacher works hard to understand their students who are struggling, to find what they respond to best, and to provide the resources these students need to grow. If this metaphor condescends too much, presuming to place the Trump supporter in the shoes of the student, consider this one: if you and a loved one are locked in a disagreement where seeing eye to eye feels like an impossibility, what actions would you take to resolve it? Would you repeat the same thing over and over in different ways until something clicked? Would you fight until you “won” the argument, regardless of how it affected your relationship in the long term? I hope your answers to these questions are “no,” and, similarly, hope the problem of our current political situation is now clear. By noting the similarities of Trump supporters’ politics with their faith, whose theological flaws have been incessantly observed and critiqued by other Christians—and similarly dismissed or ignored—we might be able to drastically change our approach to the United State’s toxic political climate.
Rather than continued retaliation via lengthy theological examinations that point out why Trump supporters are wrong for holding their worldview, our response should be to respect it, even daring to hold it in high esteem. Jesus did encourage us to have a childlike faith, after all, and for all the criticisms we may have of the example before us, we are witnessing a childlike faith on a broad scale. Though the outcome has been akin to a horrendous episode of Black Mirror, a refusal to accept this worldview as a valid one is no different from a refusal to accept the people themselves—the very hearts, minds, and souls wherein this worldview could be said to be an intrinsic part. These are a people with hearts willing to completely trust a deity they cannot possibly understand. Even if this deity occasionally looks like Donald Trump, that’s a rather remarkable statement of fact. If we can learn to appreciate this faith that’s so astonishingly different from our own, the way a teacher might in order to benefit a student, or a loved one might to maintain a fruitful relationship, seeds of change will be sown of their very own accord.
Love as described by Paul is not easy—it’s a gratuitous, demanding discipline. Think of someone you know who is an exemplary practitioner of love and all the ways their presence in your life has changed you. Has it been luminous? Encouraging? When you feel challenged by them, do you become defensive, or do your knees weaken at the audacity of their grace? Now, ask this: do the enemies of your heart deserve your grace? Or is grace reserved only for those we want to give it to?