What does it mean to be a Christian in the United States during a Trump administration? The press, which thinks of Christianity merely as another identity, continues to wonder how it is Trump gained so much support from the Christian community. Particularly when Trump’s profession of Christian faith and his very public lack of adherence to many of the norms of our faith puts us in uncharted territory. All presidents in living memory have professed Christian faith of some variety and many have strayed as deeply as Trump – but none have flaunted it so blatantly. This is a very new time for Christians in America.
I have written that Trump’s election creates an opportunity for Christianity in the nation to rediscover that it is far deeper and about much more than politics. I have written that I think Trump’s election has allowed Evangelicals in particular to firmly establish that they are more about faith than identity. I have also written that Trump’s election sets Christianity free of the active repression it has undergone during the Obama administration. I believe Trump’s election bodes well for the faith, but it does so in historically new and unique ways.
Fans of my writings here, if such exist, will recall that I have been working my way through a book attempting to establish a theology of dementia. Towards the end of the book John Swinton establishes that dementia makes “a stranger” of the sufferer and related caregivers. He then goes on to point out that this status of “stranger” gives such people common cause with the church. To make this point, Swinton refers to the “Letter to Diognetus,” written in the first century, and quotes:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them.
Swinton then writes these words:
The vocation of Christians is to live lives which change and transform the world without themselves being polluted by the values, perspectives, and assumptions of the world – to live among people but not to become like them. In other words, to be a Christian is to live as a stranger. The vocation of Christians today is to become strangers, or, perhaps more accurately to become a community of strangers. (p. 277)
The election of Donald Trump has shifted the position of Christians in the nation. Historically we have been the nation’s trendsetters, if not leaders. Recently we have been in a cold war with our society. But now we find ourselves merely estranged. If Swinton and Mathetes (author of the letter to Diognetus) are right, then we are in the sweet spot for the Christianity – far more resembling the much discussed early church than the final and best form of Christendom.
As Christians we dare not let Trump’s less than stellar conduct of his marital and extra-marital life distract us. Those things have in fact put us in the sweet spot. But note how we take advantage of where we find ourselves. It is not through votes and laws, but through “living lives which change and transform the world.”
In this sweet spot our call is not to more political action, or even to better evangelical programs, but to living better lives. Living a better life does not mean making more money or enjoying more success, but rather living in a fashion that is so attractive people want to change to be just like us. That starts by letting go of measuring our lives by the same measuring stick everyone else uses – we must adopt God’s measuring stick. Is that not what it means to be a stranger?
We live in a world that is increasingly uncivil. “Please,” “Thank You” and “Excuse Me,” could do more to change things than any vote cast ever. We live in a world, where empathy is increasingly disappearing. Being with people in pain is the heart of Christian ministry. We live in a world where humility is considered a weakness. No one in history has been more humble than Jesus. We live in a world where people confuse their politics with their faith. If we really are Christians, then we really are strangers, even in this our homeland.
The election of Donald Trump highlights our status as strangers. If we grasp hold of that status, claim it as our own, we may find ourselves actually building the homeland we dream of.