Stop Calling Donald Trump a Bad Christian

Plenty of his critics see Trump's malevolence and declare he's a bad Christian, or not even Christian at all. But that approach is an ahistorical, disingenuous and indefensible cop-out

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President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church across from the White House after peaceful protestors were forcibly cleared from the area. June 1, 2020
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church across from the White House after peaceful protestors were forcibly cleared from the area. June 1, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky,AP
Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky

It’s Christmas, and for the last time, Donald Trump is the president of the festive season. 

He declares "Merry Christmas!" while warning darkly that Joe Biden will ban the phrase in favor of "Happy Holidays!" His son declares his father has "literally saved Christianity." His Presidential Prayer Team encourages Americans to send Christmas prayers to himself, his wife, and his son. He revels in being the nation’s Christian-in-Chief.

Many people understandably bristle at the idea that Trump is a particularly Christian leader, or even a Christian. 

He’s mocked his Christian supporters in private, referring to leading evangelical pastors as "hustlers" and saying, "they’re all full of shit."

Many of Trump’s core policies — separating children from their parents at the border, or massive tax cuts for the rich — are hard to reconcile with the Jesus of the Gospels, who urged his followers to welcome the stranger and aid the poor. If a rich man is as likely to get into heaven as a camel is to go through the eye of a needle, then Donald Trump is likely going to the other place.

President Donald Trump accepts blessings at the International Church of Las Vegas. October 18, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

This is why some Christians insist, "When I look at Donald Trump, I do not see a Christian." For them, Trump’s boorishness, egoism, and cruelty is the antithesis of Jesus’ message. 

But while it’s understandable that Christians would want to wrest their tradition from Trump, and the attraction of redrawing the borders of the faith to exclude the disreputable, the conviction that bad people can’t be Christians (though convenient) is historically and morally indefensible.

If "real" Christians have a monopoly on goodness and righteousness, it leads to the presumption that only they can be trusted with great power— a formulation with which, uncomfortably, many Trump supporters would agree. And it leaves non-Christians, such as Jewish atheists like me, out in the morally barren cold.

Christianity has at various times been the religion of the poor and the downtrodden; it has been a religion of peace and generosity and of resistance to oppression. But that’s not all it has been. Christianity is the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s also the Crusades, the Inquisition, and a tradition of antisemitism on which Hitler built. 

More, in the U.S. specifically, white Christianity has been intertwined with white supremacy. Christianity justified invasion, removal, and genocide of indigenous people in the name of conversion and Christian dominance. Christianity also was the express ideology of enslavers.

The KKK burns crosses as a sign of their faith in Christian purity, and as a means of terrifying Black people, Jewish people, and other non-white, non Christians. For the Klan, there is no contradiction between Christianity and hatred. The two fit snugly together. One even builds on the other.

That history continues today, according to Yale sociologist Philip Gorski. Gorski notes that white Christian evangelicals didn’t just settle for Trump; they actually preferred him in the primary to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, candidates with much deeper roots in the Christian community. 

President Donald Trump supporters kneel in prayer as they rally outside the Maricopa County Recorders Office in Phoenix. November 4, 2020.Credit: Matt York,AP

Gorski argues that white evangelicals love Trump because "they are white Christian nationalists." White evangelicals "were attracted by Trump’s racialized, apocalyptic, and blood-drenched rhetoric" precisely because "it recalled an earlier version of American religious nationalism." 

White Christians in the United States have seen themselves as the protagonists of history, smiting the impure and clearing the land for virtue — i.e., for white people. Trump speaks to that particular white Christianity of empowerment, contempt, domination, and blood. 

To sweep that ugly Christianity aside is to sweep aside much of Christian history. And it’s to do it in the name of defining Christianity as good, in contrast to many of those whom Christianity has persecuted, who are left to be evil by default. 

When Christianity is the definition of virtue, where does that leave Jewish people or atheists? As writer and ex-evangelical Chrissy Stroop argues, "We must recognize that Christians are capable of violence, atrocities, and being horrible people. To equate ‘real’ Christianity with goodness is Christian supremacism." 

A Proud Boys member gives a white nationalist hand signal during a November rally in Denver protesting Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 elections.Credit: KEVIN MOHATT/ REUTERS

Of course, it’s not only Christians who use this rhetorical frame to cast bad actors into outer darkness. As a Jewish person, I certainly recognize the impulse to say, "Stephen Miller is not Jewish." As an atheist, I’m tempted to say that the anti-Muslim bigotry of Sam Harris isn’t really what atheism is about.

Everybody would prefer that their own Scotsman not be true. Everybody would like to invalidate and erase the ugly aspects of their own traditions. No one is immune to the temptation of claiming virtue for themselves alone. 

When Christians do this in America, though, they end up cosigning the very Christian intolerance they claim they want to forswear.

Christians in the U.S. hold great sway over American policy. Every President has been a Christian, and America regularly uses Christian rhetoric and Christian moral frameworks to justify and rationalize its place in the world, whether it’s George W. Bush talking about the war on terrorism as a crusade or Trump (who has used more God language than any of his predecessors) declaring, "I am the Chosen One" to justify his trade war. 

So when Christians claim the mantle of goodness, they do so with the force of institutional, political and cultural power. And when Christians say, "Trump is not a Christian," they aren’t actually marginalizing evangelical Christian bad actors. Instead, they’re joining those bad actors in positioning Christianity as uniquely virtuous, uniquely worthy to rule, and uniquely blameless for the failings of their own tradition.

If you want to fight white Christian supremacists, the way to do it is not to deny that they are Christian. It’s to acknowledge that Christianity, like any tradition, can cultivate both good and evil. Jewish people and atheists, among others, have reason to know that. If Christians of good faith want to prevent another Trump, they need to know it too.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago. Twitter: @nberlat

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