Theories abound as to why Trump won the presidency and/or why so few predicted that he would. Whether or not any one cause can be singled out, many of these theories should provide fodder for some much-needed soul searching. Some blame identity politics on the left, some fear of terrorism on the right. Some implicate both sides by saying we’ve all been stuck in our own filter bubbles or, one theory that particularly gets to the deep root of the issue, helplessly in thrall to the national religion of American self-idolatry.
My own theory requires 2000 years of history and supernatural forces for explanation: yes, Christianity itself has let us down. Its leaders, institutions and morality have become so hopelessly eroded that the vast majority of people who call themselves Christian (75% of the population) know almost nothing about the actual religion they profess (fewer than half can even name the four Gospels).
This is, of course, not new to the Trump era. We have watched over the past several decades as so-called Christians have increasingly identified themselves as pro-war, pro-consumerism, anti-poor and anti-immigrant, despite a wealth of scripture all pointing in the opposite direction of these stances, and anti-gay and anti-abortion despite scant scriptural evidence for either of those positions. As the heart of the faith has been eaten away over the past several decades and turned into a series of opportunistic political positions, we finally crossed the last bar, it would seem: not caring anymore about basic human decency and civility. Christians were apparently happy to vote for one of the least civil human beings on the planet because they’ve been somehow convinced that their faith can be boiled down to the single issue of abortion.
For those of us who are Christian who haven’t fallen prey to this, who have been listening for and even trying to speak with the prophetic voice, trying to call our brothers and sisters into the exile with us, away from the demon of consumerist secularism that has seduced them, this can be beyond disheartening. It’s painful to accept that people who supposedly share our faith are so willing to get on board with a proto-fascist political agenda that flies in the face of everything Jesus taught us and died for.
Enormous Failure of Christian Formation
To be more specific, and lest I implicate Jesus, the apostles, and the whole church universal in this current mess, the essential problem here is one of Christian formation. Formation is the process by which one learns not only about the faith, as in beliefs and history, but also how to live the faith. Formation occurs not only in sermons and Bible studies, but in the whole liturgical worship, as well as implicitly whenever we are in the company of fellow Christians, especially those in leadership positions. We learn how to be Christians ourselves not only intellectually but by direct observation of those Christians around us whom we admire, those who exhibit the Christian virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity.
When we learn from those who exhibit these qualities, we cultivate them within ourselves. Formation is distinct from Christian education which can, of course, be formational, but often is reduced to the presentation of an interesting/controversial topic that people are curious about which may or may not impact how they live. Formation is other-directed with the goal of becoming part of and serving the larger community. Education is self-directed with the goal of mental stimulation and reflection. The two are related, but the first is much more about the life of the church and the second more about the individual.
Clearly, we have not been doing a good job of forming our parishioners into the faith. We need to be empowering them with information, not just giving them watered down, feel-good platitudes. Rather than simply urging them to read the Bible on their own, we need to teach them how to engage with scripture in community, and how to develop a corporate prayer life that helps us discern how God is speaking to all of us through scripture.
Deeply-Formed Christian Communities Must Be Part of the Resistance
When someone comes to you seeking a fuller and deeper knowledge of Christ, that is a profound responsibility. Spitting out platitudes and easy answers may mollify the seeker in the moment and stoke your own ego, but it does nothing to carry our faith forward, and it is in direct contrast to Jesus who repeatedly challenged the beliefs not only of the Pharisees whom he opposed, but also his followers whom he loved. Pastors, Christian educators, and all who teach in the church and religious institutions must rededicate ourselves to generously giving away the knowledge and disciplines that we have so diligently learned over the years.
While there are certainly Christians knowledgeable about the faith who nonetheless voted for Trump, theologian Wayne Grudem among them, Christians on both the right and left can all agree that when people think that what makes them Christian is insisting on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and maybe having a framed copy of the footprints poem on their wall, a better-formed body can only be an absolute good, regardless of political outcome.
Resistance must be lived out not only in the streets and in town halls but also in our pews and prayers and wherever two or three of us us are gathered. Let’s go deeper into the mines of our faith and give away all the gold we find there, for the good of our country, the good of our faith, and the good of our own souls.