[I’m reposting this from a year ago because of its obvious relevance this week–mg]
As I watched a recording of the Evangelicals for Trump rally on January 3 in Miami, I couldn’t help but admire one speaker who has worked tirelessly for pro-life concerns at California State University at Fresno (California). And I was grieved that the school’s administration tried to block their efforts at making their views known—and that it took a lawsuit for her student group to enjoy the right to present their views to the student body.
Examples like this energize Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters, so much so they wonder why many pro-life Christians are so furious with the president’s public moral bearing, especially how in his Tweets and comments he insults and mocks his opponents. “When the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in the womb are at stake,” they say, “why make such a big deal about the president’s bad manners?” They go on: “So he has a few rough edges; we need a leader who will stand up to the liberal bullies and rough them up a bit if we’re going to defend life in the womb and freedom of speech.”
I grasp the logic here, but I wonder if these Christians have thought deeply enough about the nature and power of speech, and how destructive is the culture of contempt the president is fostering. They seem to subscribe to the aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”—that is, actions count, but words are ephemeral and in the end don’t matter all that much.
That to me is a view the Bible does not support, and it fails to appreciate that Mr. Trump’s caustic speech will in fact hurt us more than do sticks and stones. Let me show why I think this, and do so in a way that conservative Christians I hope can appreciate.
All Have Sinned…
Let me begin by acknowledging that contempt for one’s political enemies did not start with Mr. Trump. I’m not sure when exactly it ascended as it has, but all of us now are tempted by this manner of speaking. Certainly Mr. Trump’s opponents are not guiltless, with the most notable example being Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of many Americans as “a basket of deplorables.”
And if we are honest with ourselves, we each have to confess that we’ve succumbed to the temptation. I know I have to fight this temptation to disparage others every day, and I’m not always successful. Even if I manage to refrain from caustic words, there is often a speech going on inside my head that is not exactly respectful of those with whom I disagree. So let’s at least acknowledge this sad reality, and that in the end, it’s not someone else’s fault but only our own.
The Trouble with Trump’s Tweets
And yet we live in a society that breathes the polluted air of contempt, and our nation is led by a man who, instead of working to clean up this caustic environment only adds more poisonous fumes to the mix. This only makes our battle with contempt that much harder.
In his tweets and comments, Mr. Trump habitually ridicules, describing his opponents as “unhinged,” “crazy,” “lying,” “disgraced,” “losers,” “crooked,” “phony,” “fake,” and people “of low I.Q.” He mocks political enemies with demeaning nick names, like calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” His comments, which rage every day of the year, are the epitome of contempt for other human beings. (See this online list for a depressing compilation.)
At last Friday night’s rally, Mr. Trump spoke of the need to love one’s neighbor. He clearly means only some neighbors. Other neighbors he delights in despising. To me, this is not, as many of my evangelical friends like to say, a man with “some rough edges,” but someone who is threatening to unravel the last threads of decency in our culture. And I believe this will only have disastrous consequences for many evangelical concerns.
What Does the Bible Say About All This?
My evangelical friends seem to have forgotten the many sobering biblical sayings about the great power of the tongue. Like:
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. —Proverbs 12:18 (ESV, and below)
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. —Luke 6:45
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. —Matthew 12:36
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. —James 1:26
In the Book of James, in fact, we find the most sobering passage on this theme:
A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. (The Message translation, 3:4-6)
Is this not a near perfect description of what is happening in American culture today? Donald Trump may not be the cause of this, but he certainly throws gasoline on the fires that rage across our land.
An atmosphere of sanctity hung over much of that Friday event, with many pious words coming out of the president’s mouth about matters of faith. But as James put it long ago:
The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! (3:7-10)
Again, this sounds like it was written yesterday, just for us.
It is not an accident that the Bible calls Jesus “the Word of God,” a Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, an event we Christians have just celebrated again. It is through the Word that redemption comes to our world, the Word that was, as John put it, “full of grace and truth.” Such phrases have overtones and nuances about which books have been written.
And yet at the simplest level, in describing Jesus as the Word, John is inferring that all our words have the potential to participate in grace and truth, that is, in the very life of God. This is why the Bible, from cover to cover, is so concerned with how we use words. How we speak can drive us and our communities toward life in God, or drive us far from it, as far as Hades itself.
This has specific import for Christians, of course. But it also speaks about the nature of language itself, no matter who is using it. From a Christian point of view, the degree to which a culture’s public conversation traffics in muck, the more godless it becomes. No, we’re not to expect any president to be our pastor in chief—of course not. But we can rightly expect that our leaders use language that treats others with respect, and even honors them when they do good things for our land—even if we disagree with their politics. Language that tries to bridge our differences, that fosters some level of unity in the midst of our diversity. Language that harkens to our nation’s greatest ideals and thus inspires us to let our better selves shine forth.
Who Should Disciple Us Here?
Our conservative Christian friends deeply worry about the degradation and even possible death of American culture. That’s what “Make America Great Again” is all about. What they don’t recognize, in my view, is that when our nation’s leader speaks with disdain and contempt about those with whom he disagrees, he’s making America worse. And even more troublesome: he’s discipling all of us to do the same. He’s teaching us by example how to treat our political and cultural enemies—and let us Christians in particular note: his example has nothing to do with love of enemies or turning the other cheek. He is modeling a speech that not only puts his soul in danger, he’s putting the soul of the nation in peril.
Let me note one specific consequence of this. If we ignore or even cheer on this culture of contempt, what do we think will happen to us and the life of the unborn when Mr. Trump’s opponents end up in power, as they inevitably will? Will they not treat the unborn and those who champion their cause with a revengeful contempt that we can now only imagine, and will not the whirlwind of their disdain demolish any judicial gains that Mr. Trump has made? I fear it will be so if we don’t change our ways.
I’m not questioning the politics of my friends, for I can still imagine an argument that justifies a vote for Mr. Trump, especially given alternatives. But it is mighty difficult for me to fathom how so many ardent Christians can suggest that his caustic public speech is a mere quirk of personality, and—according to the Scriptures we claim is our final authority—not something profoundly dangerous for the life of the nation.
So this is one reason I argued in my editorial that Mr. Trump is morally unfit for office. I certainly am in no position to judge his relationship with God– though I admit that some of my language seemed to suggest that. Who of us does not have a great deal to confess to God when it comes to personal failings? To be sure, we are getting a peek into the troubling state of Mr. Trump’s soul, for as Jesus notes, “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” But in these conversations, I’m mainly interested in Mr. Trump’s public character, in his public actions and, in this case, his public words when he acts as president.
I’m sure some readers will disagree with my assessment here, and I welcome comments—as long as they rise above the culture of contempt 🙂