Monday, June 27, 2016

Born-Again Trump, or GOP Religiosity?


Whether you like Donald Trump or not, we can all agree:  Trump always speaks his mind.

Trump has built an improbable march to the Oval Office on bluntness, hubris, hyperbole, and pugnacious political incorrectness.

Yet when it comes to what evangelical Christ-followers believe to be one of the most defining moments of one's faith, Trump appears to be letting a celebrity Christian do the talking for him.

Odd, don't you think?

In this case, it's Focus on the Family founder James Dobson who has outed Trump as a born-again Christian.  During Trump's flirtations with evangelicals in New York City last week, Dobson told Pennsylvania pastor and blogger Michael Anthony that Trump had recently entered "a relationship with Christ" that now makes him "a baby Christian."

According to Dobson, his bombshell news is second-hand information from the person who claims to have led Trump to salvation, an event Dobson said is relatively recent.  Yet Dobson wouldn't reveal his source, his source has yet to independently come forward and confirm Dobson's assertion, and neither Trump nor his campaign have confirmed it.

On the one hand, it would be nice if Trump is actually digesting his new salvation in a reverent manner, refusing to sensationalize it for political gain.  If that is the case, it's certainly not the Trump style we've all come to recognize, and it would be a welcome departure from his usual campaign bombast. 

Indeed, Dobson went on to cajole evangelical voters into cutting Trump "some slack" in our expectations of a quick change in Trump's demeanor and language.  "He didn't grow up like we did," Dobson explains, regarding the churchy attitudes and protocols that usually suffice in defining Christianity.

Although... anybody half-way familiar with Trump's biography knows the Trump family were devout Presbyterians in Queens, and that the Donald attended Manhattan's Marble Collegiate Church for years.  Marble Collegiate was the home of Norman Vincent Peale, the "power of positive thinking" guru, whose followers included the Crystal Cathedral's "possibility thinking" marketer Robert Schuller.

If Dobson is correct, it would be great news that Trump has indeed repented of his sins (something he's previous stated he saw no need to do); acknowledged his need of a Savior; agreed that no good works of his can get him into Heaven; accepted Christ's death, burial, and resurrection on his behalf as the sole atonement for his sins; and has received the Holy Spirit into his heart and life.  And with Trump, as it is with any of us who come to Christ, it is completely understandable that the full impact and implications of his salvation won't be genuinely understood or demonstrated within days - or months, or even years - of his conversion.

Expecting an instant about-face from the xenophobia, ebullient immorality, pro-life ambivalence, religious obstructionism, and sexism of Trump's campaign persona would indeed be miraculous, but not entirely realistic, even for the most common of converts, let alone the deeply narcissistic, like Trump.

After all, sanctification is the process by which our faith is worked out in our lives, and although it starts the moment we're converted (what evangelicals call "saved"), sanctification is rarely a smooth and seamless process.  It involves an often-grueling journey God calls "discipleship," which according to Dobson, has only begun for Trump.

Nevertheless, while I'm willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, at least at this point, what really obfuscates this whole story is the eagerness with which Dobson and other evangelicals, particularly Ralph Reed, so readily presume Trump's conversion to be authentic, while they continue to deny claims to Christian faith by Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.

Even more than Dobson, Reed is being blatantly hypocritical on this subject.

Trump "made it abundantly clear, 'I don't know the Bible as well as you do, I'm not a theologian, but I'm a Christian,'" according to Reed, as quoted by CNN. "He talked about his children and how he raised his children, moral values, don't smoke, don't drink, don't do drugs.  It's not really our job to judge other peoples' spiritual journey.  Just because they're not in the same place we are, we accept him for who he is now."

Okay, so now morality is a key to born-again authenticity?  Isn't that works-based salvation?  And how many born-again Christians actually do drink alcohol, and smoke?  Cigars are very fashionable within many hipster church circles these days.  What kind of born-again litmus test is that?

Yet Reed truly blows his credibility with his "judging other peoples' spiritual journey' line.  Seriously?  That's exactly what he and dozens of other evangelical celebrities have been doing for years with the professed faith of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, our current president, and many other Democrats.

We accept them in faith for who they are right now?  Seriously, Reed?  Do you really believe that?  Then why can't the Democrats you've been vilifying for years not also be born-again; just with flaws we think are pretty big?

Frankly, I don't believe that either Clinton, or Obama, or Trump are born-again.  I've been praying for their salvation for years, but if we can discern a person's heart condition in relation to Christ by their fruit, the jury is still out on all of these politicians.  And frankly, if Reed's salvation is works-based, I guess the jury is out on his as well.

None of us knows the mind of God, and only God knows the people who truly follow Him and love Him.  Some self-professing Christians may put on an excellent show of piety for us, all the while never fully confessing Christ as their Savior.  Others may live what appear to be exceedingly sloppy spiritual lives (such as King David, remember?) yet be people "after God's own heart."  It's like Christ in the temple, watching people give their offerings, and commending the widow's mite as being more valuable than all the rest.  We simply don't know the deep condition of anybody else's heart.

So not only is it too early to gauge whether Trump really is born-again or not, I'm in no hurry to even discern whether or not his personality and attitude are navigating the sea-change that would be indicative of desiring to please our Savior.  I will continue to pray for his salvation, at least until he publicly comes out and confirms Dobson's outing of his faith.  And I will continue to pray for the Clintons, Obama (I don't know enough about his wife), and even Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, I remain convinced that it is disingenuous for our evangelical celebrities to continue presuming that God is a card-carrying Republican in the way they fawn over GOP'ers while marginalizing Democrats.  While I admit that I don't see how a politician can enthusiastically advocate for things like abortion while also being a Christ-honoring disciple of His, I at least have the sense to realize that genuine Christ-followers can vote Democratic without giving up their faith.

And it smacks of heresy, if you think about it, for people like Dobson and Reed to make a political spectacle out of the holy miracle by which Christ can metaphorically turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Belief in Christ as Savior is not an act of convenience or gamesmanship.  Nor is it an appropriate topic of gossip, which is basically what Dobson is doing, since the convert in question hasn't made their own profession public.

Then, too, could it be that in his caution with broadcasting his literal change of heart, Trump is better honoring Christ in this election year than the folks who are broadcasting his testimony for him?
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Update 6/29/16:  FYI: Adding insult to injury, James Dobson is now recanting his story about Trump's conversion, admitting it was the notoriously heretical Paula White who claims to have led The Donald to Christ. What is it about Trump that is turning so many admired evangelical celebrities into clanging gongs?


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