On January 3, Donald Trump held a rally at Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús in Miami, the largest Hispanic congregation in the United States. It showed why Trump’s campaign enjoys such strong support from religious voters. It also showed how that support can sometimes veer into heresy.
Trump was welcomed by the church’s pastor, Guillermo Maldonado, an immigrant from Honduras. He prayed for Trump before a crowd of Evangelical leaders, including James Dobson and the granddaughter of Billy Graham. Several of the speakers suggested that we are witnessing an increasingly fierce contest between religious and secular Americans. They are right.
America was long spared the absolute religious polarisation that made the politics of European nations bitter and often fatal. That has now changed. Democratic politicians defend infanticide and demand that nuns pay for contraception. Republican politicians promise, with varying levels of sincerity, to stand for faith and protect the unborn. As Trump told the rally, “we’re defending religion itself, which is under siege”.
Obvious problems occur when both parties aspire to be on God’s side. Clashing visions of godliness tend to discredit public faith. But they also teach an important lesson. They remind us that we can never know whether God favours a politician or party.
By contrast, when one party expresses open contempt for religion, it becomes easy – too easy – for the other to assume that it is faithfully serving God. In his rally at Miami, Trump succumbed to this temptation. “I really do believe we have God on our side,” he told the audience.
Trump’s remark was widely, and rightly, criticised. Pete Buttigieg sententiously observed, “God doesn’t have a political party.” This is true as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. Buttigieg, who seems to believe that true Christianity consists mostly of explaining why people to his right are not true Christians, has himself been guilty of claiming a divine sanction for his views.
If certain Republicans now claim that God is on their side, they are not so unlike those Democrats who for years have been claiming the absolute approval of the gods they worship, Progress and History. In August, Buttigieg claimed that the Trump administration was “on the wrong side of history – and our values.”
This type of talk is now standard among liberals. According to David Graham, a writer for the Atlantic, President Clinton used the phrase “right side of history” in his public remarks 21 times. President Obama used it more than a dozen times. In an Oval Office address on terrorism, he declared, “I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.”
When supporters of LGBT causes, American arms or any other thing say that they are on “the right side of history”, they make a claim no more defensible than Trump’s. Like him, they invoke a higher authority that judges the acts of men, approving some and condemning others. They look toward a future judgment that will separate the sheep from the goats, the enlightened from the deplorable, marking some down as allies and others as bigots. They too presume to know the mind of God. They simply speak of it in impersonal terms.
A much sounder view was articulated by one of the guests at Trump’s Miami rally. Angel Belcher, a black evangelist, spoke of the criticism she has endured for her public support of Trump. People have said to her, “You shouldn’t be with Donald Trump. You’re supposed to be with your party.” Her reply is: “What party? The only party I got is Jesus’s party.” With that single statement, she reminded the audience of a truth that Trump had earlier obscured.
Christians believe that the tares and the wheat are mixed together, that the City of God exists alongside the City of Man, the borders between them unclear. They do not imagine that any state or party can stand in the place of Christ and his Church. They should therefore be wary of anyone who claims to have God – or history, or progress – on his side.
Trump’s remark no doubt caused many to conclude that we have too much Christianity in our politics. If anything, it showed that we have too little. For Trump’s claim to have God on his side runs counter to the faith he seeks to protect. If our politics were more thoroughly Christian, such statements would be simply unthinkable. That is one reason why our politics needs more, not less, Christianity.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things