Editor’s Note: Samuel L. Adams is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the McNair Chair in Biblical Studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of Wisdom in Transition: Act and Consequence in Second Temple Instructions and Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea, and he writes regularly about the intersection of faith and politics in American public life. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Donald Trump is now presenting himself as God’s special agent, defending American Christians against evil Democratic opponents. Trump declared earlier this month that Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who has relied on his faith during moments of crisis, is “against God.”
Trump’s tweets are usually petty and spiteful, but now they have taken on an apocalyptic flavor. His recent language about God, Christianity and the Bible suggests that the universe is in grave danger if enough Americans vote for Biden.
The President maintains that Biden is “going to do things that nobody ever, would ever think even possible because he’s following the radical left agenda. Take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God.”
I am a biblical scholar and Presbyterian pastor, and such language is theologically bankrupt and dangerous. Trump labels himself a Presbyterian who attends church “occasionally,” but he clearly has not heard a sermon on divine sovereignty – basic Presbyterian theology would never argue that God is going to be “hurt” by partisan American politics.
Nor is Trump aware that the Bible is a complex text written over many centuries, and that there are different ways of interpreting its content.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this incendiary rhetoric is the claim by Trump and some of his supporters that they have exclusive rights to what is “Christian” and “evangelical.”
Such language implies that most Christians support the man who had American citizens protesting in Washington dispersed with tear gas and batons in order to brandish a Bible for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
This claim of proprietary rights to “Christian” is not just offensive, but statistically inaccurate. Christianity is a broad and diverse faith tradition, practiced by billions around the world. In the United States, there are millions of African Americans, Latinx, White mainline Protestants, Catholics of diverse backgrounds, and many other ethnic groups that comprise a far greater percentage of American Christians than Whites who attend so-called “evangelical” churches.
Yet many Trump supporters argue that their religion is under attack and that the President will save them from the secular drift of American life. They point to themselves as the sole defenders of their faith tradition, with Trump as their champion.
Even the stunt in front of St. John’s Church was justifiable, in this reading, because Trump was “defending” Christianity.
Trump may not be a role model for their children, but he will fight for “Christians” (i.e., them) against the progressive, modernist, religiously bigoted, secularist tide.
It is time to confront more directly Trump’s fake apocalypticism and the frequent conclusion that his followers represent Christianity as a whole.
I teach my students that the Bible demands a more inclusive faith than what the media often depicts as Christian. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels dines with outcasts, lifts up outsiders as part of the beloved community, and rejects the lure of empire for an alternative kingdom based on love of God and neighbor.
Following this model, Christian believers should promote wide and affordable access to health care, racial justice, compassion towards those escaping persecution in their home countries, and respect for God’s good creation.
Along the same lines, perhaps the moment has arrived to retire the “evangelical” label when referring to Trump supporters (some journalists now use “White evangelicals”). The original word for “evangelical” in the New Testament means “good news,” as in Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
In the Bible, an “evangelist” is someone who proclaims Jesus’s startling message of reconciliation, with concern for the poor as a bedrock principle (Matthew 25). If we could recover this original meaning, many Christians might want to engage in spreading good news rather than avoiding the term evangelism altogether.
It will take a concerted effort to quit using “Christian,” “evangelical,” and “Trump supporter” interchangeably. Journalists, elected officials, and religious leaders who want to be more accurate and reflective of the range of Christian believers in the United States will have to be more careful with terminology, so that one slice of the electorate does not represent an entire religion.
One alternative label might be WCC’s: White conservative Christians. The problem here is the large number of Whites who are both “Christian” and “conservative” but do not support Trump.
Another possibility is simply “Trump Christians.” Yet another option would be to return to the traditional “Religious Right” label. Whatever we decide, it is past time for our terminology to reflect the diversity of Christianity in the United States.
As the school year begins, I am about to teach a wonderfully diverse group of students at my seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and all of them are faithful Christians. We will open the Bible and study it rather than wielding it as a weapon, and none of us will claim to speak for God.
These bright students represent an aspect of Christian practice in the United States, just as the WCC’s or Trump Christians or Religious Right represent another.
Followers of Jesus are a diverse lot in a country with many faith traditions. All of us can debate the “Christian” response to any number of issues, but we can no longer accept the erroneous conclusion of Trump and his supporters that they alone speak for Jesus.