The most disturbing thing about Donald Trump, at least to me, is not his stance on specific policies, his rhetoric on freedom or the obviously racist undertones of his speech. Rather, it is the way in which he weaves in talk of God into his political engine to pander to the ‘Christian’ voters of America. His views on ethics and public policy seem to run against the grain of everything remotely close to the biblical text, yet his invocation of God’s name remains persuasive to some who are already convinced by Trump’s dispositions.
This is not surprising. For decades Christianity in the states has been somehow associated by some with the so-called American Dream (roughly, the view that a free individual who works hard enough will be able to achieve a materially successful life) – an identification that Trump seems to assume in his mind. It is through God, he says in one interview, that he was able to make the decisions he made in order to become a successful businessman, all the while admitting that he never asks God for forgiveness.
What emerges is the subversive use of God under the terms of a particular cultural agenda. In these contexts, rather than attending to the word of God to discern his will for our lives, we have used God to serve our own self-determined agendas. When this occurs, it becomes easy to identify his so-called ‘presence’ in those individuals that have achieved those ideals. They are free, rich, and hard-working, because God must be on their side – that family, obviously, however, does not have God on their side because they are struggling, oppressed, or the like. God becomes a predictable and impersonal presence.
It may be easy, as outsiders, however, to critique this phenomenon as we watch it occur in a different culture. Talk of God is embedded in our own culture in this instrumental way just as much as it is elsewhere. Human sin, after all, is universal. There is an American dream that has enveloped God for its own ends; there is also a Chinese-Indonesian dream – a dream into which we have often subsumed God.
In our context, rather than a God identified with freedom and individual rights, we have a God whose presence is identified in order, honor, and solidified families. A familiar birthday greeting, for example, runs as follows: “May the Lord enlighten your path for you to be a good person always and with God’s help you can make all your dreams come true for the pride of your family.” The implied message, so assumed in our culture, is clear: if you follow God’s enlightenment, his ways and his path, he will make sure that the honor of your family is retained. The implication, again, is straightforward. The family with a good image within the community, obviously has the presence of God residing over them. The family with disobedient children, or the family that is anti-social, perhaps not so much. A pastoral problem also often arises in this context, as going to church becomes a badge of honor and social prestige – one does not find confession easy when the family’s problems must remain within the family so that the church can continue to be a means by which one’s family shows itself to be honorable – a pride intact.
But who determines how honor is defined or bestowed? And why is God so interested in maintaining the pride of our families? True enough, the family is a covenant community. But this means that the family is accountable to the God who sets the terms and conditions of its existence. This means that parents must lead their children in a way that forces them to discern how best to obey God in their lives, and parents have to model Jesus. And if they do obey Jesus (and individuals within the family may obey him in very different ways than the other members of the family!) – why should they expect to receive honor when Christ himself received none in his own day? Indeed – obeying God as a family actually involves possibly letting go of that pride – letting go of our values, and letting his word determine how we interpret our surrounding culture.