Is Trump a “Christian”?
Pope Francis’ words about building walls and Donald Trump’s bombastic, hyper-defensive reaction have raised some interesting questions.
- What is a “Christian”?
- Is being a Christian defined by our behavior?
- Is being a Christian solely between you and God?
- How would anyone know if I am one?
Let’s start with what the Pope actually said. After celebrating mass on the Mexican border, the man whose papacy has been built around the model of St. Francis’ compassion for the poor, suffering or marginalized said:
A “person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
In his written response (an unusual thing for a first-class showman who generally says whatever will move the crowd at the time), Trump said: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful…No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
Really? I thought it was the job description of a religious leader, pastor or teacher to question, challenge, inspire, or guide the spiritual growth of his/her followers. I think that’s what a Pope is supposed to do.
Jeb Bush, the only Catholic running for President, responded with a widely-accepted understanding of what it means to be a Christian: “I think his Christianity is between him and his creator…I don’t think we need to discuss that.”
The assumption that being a Christian is solely a matter of a personal relationship with God that makes no observable difference in a person’s behavior is a uniquely American religious idea that is deeply rooted in our tradition of individualism but has no basis in scripture or Christian tradition.
What the Bible Says
Read the gospels. When Jesus’ called people to be his disciples, he was inviting them into a process of training by which their lives would be reoriented around his vision of the Kingdom of God becoming a reality in this world through their actions.
Read the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. Jesus calls his followers to a radically different way of living, to observable behaviors, not merely to intellectual agreement with a set of beliefs or to an inner spirituality that does not transform external behavior.
Read the epistles. While Paul, as teacher and theologian, proclaims the content of the Christian faith, as a faithful pastor he questions, challenges, guides and models for his people the specific behaviors that bear witness to faith in Christ.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews defined faith as “the reality [‘substance’] of what we hope for, the proof [‘evidence’] of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1) The writer describes faith with active verbs, beginning with Abraham, who “obeyed when he was called… [and] went out without knowing where he was going.”
Throughout scripture, faith is not so much intellectual assent to doctrinal affirmations or mystical experiences of personal spirituality (though it includes both of those) as it is active obedience to and participation in the will and way of God.
Being a Christian is about the way the Spirit of God is at work to shape our lives around observable behaviors that demonstrate a growing consistency with the way, words, and will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
In the Methodist tradition, being a Christian involves the combination of belief and practice that results in specific behaviors that demonstrate a life that is constantly growing in love for God and love for others. We are always imperfect people who are always on the way toward perfection.
Like it or not, the Pope was doing precisely what faithful pastors and teachers are called to do. Fellow Jesuit priest, James Martin, wrote:
[Trump’s] belligerent tone stands in contrast to the pope’s nuanced, even reluctant, comments, where he phrases things subtly, never uses Trump’s name and ends by giving him the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to these two competing versions of Christianity — one of exclusion and hatred and contempt, and one of inclusion and love and good wishes — I know which one I’d vote for.
So, the question for each follower of Christ: Would anyone know that I am a Christian by the way I live?
Grace and peace,
P.S. There is still room for you on the Alaska cruise in August. I’ll be speaking on “All Nature Sings: How the Bible Hears Creation.” Come join us! http://www.eo.travelwithus.com/tours/ac16-h#eotours.