Max Lucado, the pastor and best-selling author of 32 Christian books, doesn’t like Donald Trump. In a column published on his blog and in The Washington Post last week, Lucado blasted the Republican frontrunner for his indecent “antics.” Lucado wrote that Trump, “ridiculed a war hero. He made a mockery of a reporter’s menstrual cycle. He made fun of a disabled reporter…. He routinely calls people ‘stupid,’ and ‘dummy.’ One writer catalogued sixty-four occasions that he called someone ‘loser.’” Lucado went on to say, “Such insensitivities wouldn’t be acceptable even for a middle school student body election.”
My initial reaction to Max Lucado’s article was Hallelujah! and Amen! I was thrilled that a respected, thoughtful pastor and writer like Lucado was using his platform to guide Christians in this turbulent political season. May his tribe increase, I prayed.
Over the last few days, however, I’ve come to see an additional layer to Lucado’s column. While I still applaud him for speaking up and affirm everything he wrote, I now recognize two subterranean qualities within Lucado’s article that highlight wider problems with the leadership of American Christianity. While I am grateful that Lucado has identified the unchristian tone of Donald Trump, a closer look at his article shows how candidates like Trump arise and gain so much support among Christians in the first place.
Issue 1: Pastors Need To Talk More About Politics, Not Less
In an interview with Christianity Today, Lucado explained that he has been very careful to keep politics out of his ministry, but when he saw Trump holding up a Bible and claiming to be a Christian, he had to speak up. “I’ve never done anything like this,” he said. “It’s an unprecedented act on my part.” So much of the interview was focused on Lucado’s discomfort with addressing politics that CT even titled the interview, “Why Max Lucado Broke His Political Silence for Trump.” And Lucado made it clear that he intends to resume his political silence. “I do not want to continue this. I have no desire to police presidential candidates.”
He is not alone. According to Lifeway research, ninety percent of pastors avoid any political endorsements and most are uncomfortable addressing politics from the pulpit. Despite the popular perception that Christian leaders are too political, the facts reveal precisely the opposite. Most pastors have no stomach for political controversy, and they certainly don’t want to risk alienating their flocks by addressing such matters from the pulpit. Popular etiquette says one should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Avoiding religion in church is difficult (although some congregations try), so most pastors are vigilant to avoid politics.
Those who don’t often pay a heavy price. For example, in the months leading up to the Iraq War, Greg Boyd preached a series of sermons at Woodland Hills, a megachurch in Minnesota, titled, “The Cross and the Sword.” He addressed the dangers of mingling Christian faith with nationalism and militarism. In other words, he explained the implications of Christian faith in a way that intersected with a contemporary political issue. Within weeks over 1,000 people—a quarter of his congregation—left the church.
Being a pastor is hard enough. Most have no interest in upsetting more people by talking about politics, but that may be precisely the problem. By not tackling the complicated intersection of Christian faith and politics, pastors have abandoned this area of spiritual formation to the “Christian” voices on the radio and cable news claiming to speak for the church. The average Christian, therefore, has her political ideology shaped more by pundits dressed in a veneer of Christian faith than by her pastor or local church community. Ironically, if pastors talked more openly and thoughtfully about politics Christians may be perceived as less political, or at least less partisan.
It may be the political silence of godly pastors like Max Lucado that has led forty percent of evangelicals to support Donald Trump. Again, I applaud Lucado’s article, but was it too little too late? In the dangerous land of politics, many Christians are like sheep without a shepherd. Rather than apologizing for breaking the unspoken commandment (“Thou shalt not preach about politics”), we need pastors who will boldly and unashamedly declare their mission to protect their flocks from the wolves in sheep’s clothing in the media by preemptively teaching the political implications of the Gospel. Would such silence be applauded in matters of marriage, sexuality, generosity, evangelism, or personal ethics? Of course not. Any minister who refused to address relational issues would be accused of pastoral malpractice. So why is refusing to address political issues not only tolerated but applauded? Jesus Christ is either Lord over all of life or he is Lord of none of it.
I am not saying pastors should endorse candidates. There is a difference between being political and being partisan. Churches and leaders should avoid partisanship, but politics is an unavoidable part of being human and being social—it is simply how we organize ourselves into communities from our neighborhoods to our national governments. Certainly we ought to carry the values of Christ’s kingdom into this aspect of our lives, and pastors ought to lead us by example with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other as Karl Barth declared.
Issue 2: Christians Should Be More Focused On Ideas Than Indecency
Max Lucado’s article about Donald Trump focused entirely on the candidate’s “antics.” He compared Mr. Trump to an indecent teenager unfit to date one of his daughters. Lucado wrote that, “The concern of this article is not policy, but tone and decorum.”
Again, I completely agree with Lucado’s assessment of Trump’s uncivil tone and indecent decorum, but is meanness really Trump’s disqualifying quality? Why not address policy? I am far more concerned with Trump’s ideas than his indecency. We’ve had many indecent presidents. Andrew Jackson didn’t just verbally abuse his opponents. He shot them.
Yes, we should be bothered by Trump’s lack of manners, but what about his call to intentionally target and kill the families of terrorists—a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions? He has said the United States should torture people even if it doesn’t work or keep others safe—a violation of human rights. He wants to deport over 11 million undocumented immigrants—a policy opposed by the National Association of Evangelicals and virtually every respected Christian leader in the United States. Mr. Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country which contradicts the First Amendment and threatens the religious liberty of every American. His policies are so clearly unchristian that he has won the support of many white supremacist groups and has waffled in his disavowing of their leaders.
By focusing on Mr. Trump’s uncouth language rather than his anti-Christian ideas, we perpetuate a problem within American Christianity—a focus on style rather than substance. If Donald Trump was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered politician but advocated the same unchristian, bigoted, and illegal policies would he still attract the concern of Christian leaders? I fear he would not.
Too much of American Christianity has become defined by sentimentality—the warm-fuzzy feeling we get walking through the gift section of the Christian bookstore or listening to the saccharine announcers on the radio station that is safe for the whole family. It’s what we expect from our preachers who tell heartwarming stories about their kids, and from our movies where the Christian always wins, the prayer is always answered, and all boys go to heaven.
There are two obvious problems with this focus on safety, feelings, and “decency.” First, anyone who reads the New Testament will quickly discover that Jesus was not always nice. Most remember the story of Jesus overturning tables and driving the money changers from the temple, but we forget that he sometimes called people names, mocked their ideas, and even intentionally insulted his hosts at a dinner party (Luke 11:37-52). (For more on this under reported side of the gospels, I recommend Mark Galli’s book, Jesus Mean and Wild.)
Second, while decency is an admirable quality in short supply in our culture, we must not confuse civility for sanctity. I am grateful for Christian leaders who are seeking to lift up the importance of civility in the public square—Doug Birdsall and Os Guinness come to mind. We must remember, however, that our goal must be larger than the appearance of godliness. We must pursue the real thing. As Jesus said, “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26).
There are serious policy positions held by both parties that are inconsistent with Christian ethics. I would rather vote for an indecent politician who advocates for the value of all lives from the womb to the tomb with real policies, than vote for a polite candidate who does not. Mr. Trump lost my vote because of his ideas not merely his indecency.
The current election is revealing more than the anger and division of the American electorate. It is also revealing the shortcomings within the American church. We have focused too little on the Gospel’s political implications and too much on the importance of niceness and sentimentality. I hope more Christian leaders break their silence like Max Lucado, because it is the silence of Christian leaders that has contributed to the mess we are witnessing.