Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious leaders of his own people (Matt 23). The prophets before him similarly condemned Israel in the fiercest terms for their failure to pursue justice, truth, and mercy (Micah 6, e.g.). In both cases, the promised judgment was severe: Roman destruction in the case of Jesus, and Assyrian or Babylonian conquest and exile in the case of the prophets.
Jesus and the prophets focused their critiques on their own people because Israel had a special relationship with God: they were intended to be the instrument through which God’s kingdom of justice and peace would be established everywhere. The nation collectively failed over and over, but Jesus took on the mantle of his nation and succeeded, opening this special relationship with God to anyone. Now followers of Jesus of any ethnicity serve the same role as witnesses and representatives of God’s good kingdom.
And because of this vital role, Christians ought to be more concerned with our own household of faith than with any other group. If we believe what we say we believe, then we must get our house in order. We must allow God’s kingdom to reign in us so we can be conduits of that kingdom for everyone around us. We must maintain the credibility of our witness.
It is for this reason that my writing has always largely been directed at other Christians, and why, in this moment of national crisis and trauma, I again focus on the church. After the events of this week I must say once again, the witness of the church is being destroyed by Christian complicity with Trumpism, and much of the church won’t even talk about it.
Christians must firmly dissociate from Trump
I have always thought it was bad judgment for a Christian to vote for Trump in either election, and I have said so. But I have also said on many occasions that there was some room for ambiguity. I know many Christians who voted for Trump who I believe were genuinely trying to do what Christ would want. As I said before the election, there are reasons a Christian might choose to vote for either Trump or Biden (or a third party), even if I strongly believed a vote for Trump to be unwise.
But after this week, there is no longer any ambiguity. Supporting Trump, after Wednesday, is no longer justifiable for the Christian. Trump’s words and actions are so at odds with Christ that supporting him now, after the Capitol riot, actively destroys Christian witness.
This does not mean Christians have to suddenly like or support Biden and Democratic policy. Many conservative policy goals are still valid and worthy of pursuing. Nor does it mean that people who voted for Trump are evil or that all Republican officials should be repudiated. It is Trump himself, and the idolatry of him that is rampant among Christians, that must be addressed. To a lesser extent, the same applies to the prominent, powerful enablers of Trump in Congress, such as Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who continue to perpetuate Trump’s lies after Wednesday.
Would you support the KKK?
This unequivocal stance against Trump will come across as judgmental and self-righteous to many, so let me explain with an example. If a prominent politician today were to join the KKK, most Christians would easily understand that such a politician is off limits for Christians – the politician has crossed a certain line and neither his other beliefs nor the positions of his opponents is relevant any longer. Christians simply cannot support politicians who are in the KKK and credibly claim to follow Christ. It would destroy our witness.
The same has been true throughout history. Once politicians pass a certain threshold of immorality, it becomes clearly wrong for Christians to support them in any way, whether the person in question is Joseph McCarthy, openly racist or pro-slavery politicians, or the worst figures of genocide in the 20th century like Hitler, all of whom garnered strong Christian support even after the extent of their evil was apparent.
In such cases, taking a firm stand and saying that no Christian should support such figures is not judgmental or self-righteous; it is just morally right. But when those historical moments occur, such a perspective always comes across as judgmental or self-righteous to the politician’s supporters and even to moderates, who are always looking to balance the ills of one side with the other. In the moment, it can be very difficult for Christians to admit that someone they support is unacceptable, even though it may be completely obvious in historical perspective. Christian political support of slavery, Jim Crow laws, Nazism, and the like are all deeply damning faults that to this day hinder the church’s witness and never should have been accepted by the church.
Just like a politician announcing they have joined the KKK, Trump has now crossed a line. Ever since the election he has pressed his manifest lies in an attempt to tyrannically seize control of government, despite pushback from hundreds of officials and judges of his own party. And then he incited a violent attack on democracy, which thankfully failed, but still led to multiple deaths and a national crisis. Importantly, his violence may not yet be at an end. These actions simply go too far.
What about the Democrats?
At this point many Christians will scream, “but abortion!” and tell me the liberals are far, far worse. Many have already done so. First let me remind of what I just said: Christians don’t have to actively support Democrats and their policies. My main argument is that Christians must repudiate Trumpism.
However, as I detailed at length before the election, Trump is a threat to the foundational civil order of our country, the civil order that allows for any systematic justice whatsoever, for the born or the unborn. Trump’s threat to order and justice was exposed for all to see this week. Anyone who thinks the tyranny Trump has encouraged would produce justice for the unborn is truly not thinking. Tyranny does not produce justice. Supporting a tyrant is not pro-life.
I oppose abortion and support policies I believe will reduce it while respecting the nuances and complexity of the topic. But we must first secure the civil order if we are then to pursue justice in any other area. The threat from Trump is simply a much higher-order problem than any policy disagreement conservatives have with liberals. And further, the assumption that a Republican president will actually lead to reduced abortions is not as straightforward as many think. For those specifically interested in the topic, I highly recommend this excellent article by David French which addresses this topic from numerous angles, with data.
Coming back to Witness
As I noted above, justice has always been one of the key results that God expects from his people, and failing to pursue justice has often incurred his wrath. So Trump’s fundamental attack on civil order and justice is reason enough to deny him Christian support. But he goes further still. The foundation of Trumpism is an attack on the very notion of truth. His entire argument is based on a towering mountain of lies, stretching back years, and millions of Christians have supported him in spreading the lies, and, sadly, have even defended the violent fruit of those lies this week.
And here we come back to witness: upholding the truth is the absolute first requirement of the church. If the church does not uphold truth, it can never claim to speak the ultimate shocking truth of Jesus’s resurrection. Without upholding truth, we have no witness. So any politician who is willing to press his lies to the point of an attempted coup and physical violence, as Trump has this week, is quite clearly beyond the pale for Christians.
The Church’s Complicity – Denouncing the violence is not enough
Many Christians, myself included, have been warning of this violent outcome from the start, and even more so in this last year as the election approached. But for every Christian who has called out Trump (and I am thankful for every one of them), a great many more have been completely deceived by Trump, falling fully under his spell of lies and hatred, or have perpetuated a false equivalency between the effects of Trump’s evil and the evil of others (as discussed above). This week we saw the fruit of the church’s failure, as Christian symbols and signs were held aloft by the same anarchic mob that paraded a confederate flag through the halls of Congress.
Now there have always been fools and miscreants masquerading as Christians who do not really follow Christ. Many of them made themselves clear this week. And I am so glad that many Christians have in fact opposed this foolishness and chaos. But it is no secret how deep the lies that inspired this week’s violence go into the conservative church. Denouncing the violence is not enough because the lies and idolatry that enabled the violence this week are flourishing unchecked in our churches.
It is easy to find pastors like Robert Jeffress who have preached Trumpism from the pulpit, or other Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas who have cravenly bent the knee before the false god of Trump. It is equally easy to find Christian leaders who pretend to be wise only when the violent fruit of their complicity becomes apparent, like Al Mohler and the many Christian politicians who are finally saying enough is enough just now, as if this all just snuck up on us. And the followers of these blind guides and others are a huge multitude, in your local church and mine.
But easier than any of these people to find is the Christian leader, be it pastor, priest, lay leader, political leader, or other who has been completely silent while QAnon, Trumpist idolatry, xenophobia, and every lie under heaven have festered openly in our churches. Many Christian leaders have been unwilling to address these particular sins, despite their severity, though perfectly willing to address other sins that produce less devastating results.
We say porn is a problem, but not a life that is dominated completely by lies? We say it is wrong to worship money, but it’s not wrong to worship Trump? We say Critical Race Theory is the devil, but QAnon doesn’t even merit being mentioned (not to mention racism)? Lies have consequences, and when they come to dominate us, violence is inevitable. When they dominate the lives of Christians, the name of Christ is dragged through the mud. (And lest my tone be mistaken, although CRT does pose certain problems for the Christian, the hyper focus on it in the church was always a means for distracting from the real problem of racism.)
What we can do
If you are a church leader—of any kind—you must speak out. There is no room for silence. And we must avoid jumping right over the sin, straight to “it’s time to heal.” There is no healing if the sin is not first acknowledged and addressed. Repentance must come first.
So speaking out about the violence at the Capitol is not enough. We must address the grievous sin in our congregations that led to the church’s complicity in this crisis.
We must speak out when people start spreading absurd QAnon nonsense like it’s the new gospel. We must counter the obvious and facile political lies intended to glorify Trump while minimizing his egregious sins (of which he openly boasts). We must speak out when people deride the “tyranny” of a facemask but exalt the actual tyranny of the mob. We must call to account the dehumanizing and hateful Facebook memes that Christians regularly laugh about and share. And, very importantly, we must be willing to do this on an ongoing basis. Political idolatry is not new, and it is not going away any time soon.
Will attendance fall? You bet. Will people get angry? Definitely. But it is not OK that QAnon, Trumpist idolatry, and unadulterated lies have found such a happy home in the conservative church. It must end. Christians must speak out to address the sin in our midst and preserve our witness to God’s good and perfect kingdom.
Two priests from my denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, and David French have also written excellent articles on similar topics. I encourage you to check these out, especially if you feel my article is extreme or hyperbolic.
“We worship with the Magi, not MAGA,” by Tish Harrison Warren, in Christianity Today
“Truth over power: It is past time for the church to speak plainly about the election,” by Esau McCaulley, on Religion News Service
“Only the church can truly defeat a Christian insurrection,” by David French