Shortly after last year’s presidential nomination, Michael Gove interviewed Donald Trump and made the following startling observation. He said, “I think that he’s probably one of the American presidents least influenced by religion for a long time. Barack Obama was influenced by his own personal faith. George W. Bush, ditto. Bill Clinton, even though there were all sorts of character and ethics issues, was clearly influenced by his faith; Ronald Reagan, ditto; George H. W. Bush, a particular type of Episcopalian; Jimmy Carter, clearly. I think you’d have to go back to Richard Nixon to find an American President who was less influenced by their faith than Donald Trump.” He points out that Trump doesn’t read Scripture, there are no prayers, he never attends church and he appears never to lean on spiritual principles in his life.
Now, as Canadian Christians, we never voted for or against Trump. But it is impossible to live in this country without being aware of our neighbours. The older Trudeau once remarked that living next to the United States is like sleeping in bed with an elephant. He said, “One should be aware of every grunt and movement it makes.”
And of course, we are! For many evangelicals in Canada, the support from American Evangelicals for Donald Trump strikes us as troublesome. In response, many American Evangelicals would explain that while they know they have a highly flawed president, the reality is that this is the choice that they were given. Furthermore, the issues of abortion and the replacement of vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court make this an important consideration for them.
In his classic book entitled Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines five classic approaches Christians have historically taken toward culture and politics. For our purposes, I will explore only three, and then draw a few conclusions to the environment in which we live.
The liberal Christian position on Christians and politics is simply to marry the two. Liberals assume that the more progressive aspects in our culture, which include issues like gender equality, sexual orientation recognition, environmentalism, and other human rights causes are central to the cause of Christ. Rather than emphasizing the uniqueness of the Gospel, they allow the wider cultural agenda to become the new Gospel. This is a profoundly unbiblical position.
The Classic Anabaptist position has been to pit the wider culture in opposition to the gospel. Conversion is transference from the realm of darkness into the kingdom of His Son. Hence, political involvement is seen as fraught with compromise, and a source of continual distraction.
The Classic Reform position is to see the gospel as a source of transformation to the wider culture. Even while the wider culture is never “Christianized,” Christians are called upon to be salt and light. William Wilberforce’s crusade against slavery is but one example of this mindset.
Now, to the present situation. I think it wise to have a healthy tension between the Anabaptist and Reform position. On the one hand, we must never confuse a political party or a sitting president or prime minister with the gospel. The gospel advanced in the time of the Roman Emperor Nero, and it can surely advance under political conditions that are unfavourable to the Gospel. No one deserves our ultimate loyalty outside of Christ. But on the other hand, conditions in the west are such that Christians can make an impact, and should seek ways to do so.
What then of the current controversy around the American President? Two things: 1) Christians should make it clear that we do not think that the current president is one of our own. It should not be our duty to defend him or to belittle him. We should pray for him. Indeed, we are Christians, not an agenda of a political machine. 2) We should seek to influence where it advances the Gospel, or where it advances righteousness.