Predictably, some are saying his pick of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will help shore up the evangelical vote for Donald Trump, just as they said about his New York meeting with a few hundred evangelical leaders. After that meeting, reports surfaced that Trump is himself a Christian. It’s hard to know if that’s true, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.
First, some background. That meeting included some sort of meet and greet with high-profile evangelicals, which James Dobson apparently attended, then a Q&A onstage with the candidate, moderated by Mike Huckabee. Some pro-Trump leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. gave brief statements or prayers. Other perhaps more skeptical leaders like Tony Perkins attempted to nail Trump down by asking questions important to evangelicals.
After this meeting, an attendee named Michael Anthony talked to Dobson. Anthony says the interview occurred at the meeting, and it sounds like it was in the big room where people milled around chatting afterwards. In this unplanned conversation, Dobson said he knew someone who claimed to have led Trump to Christ. You can listen to the recording here. Here is the pertinent part of the exchange:
Dobson: There are a lot of people who are ministering to him personally. A lot of ministers who are…not…. I mean he did accept a relationship with Christ. I know the person who led him to Christ.
Dobson: That’s fairly recent.
Anthony: No kidding. How recent?
Dobson: I don’t know. I don’t know when it was but it has not been long. I believe he really made a commitment. But he’s a baby Christian. We all need to be praying for him, especially if there’s possibility for him to be our next chief executive officer. I think that there’s hope. He doesn’t know our language. We had forty Christians together with him. He used the word ‘hell’ four or five times. He doesn’t know our language he really doesn’t. And he refers a lot to religion and not much to faith and belief and Christ.
Anthony: It’s interesting when you say that, I’m sure that Saul when he became Paul didn’t know much of the language either.
Dobson: Yeah. You gotta cut him some slack. He didn’t grow up like we did. And I think there’s hope for him. I think there’s hope for us. I have great concerns about the next election.
So the best we have from this is that Dobson claims to have spoken to someone who claims to have “led Trump to Christ” recently. As an aside, the discussion of the language issue and how Trump said “hell” is highly amusing. Only in a meeting of evangelical leaders of a previous era would that word be the least bit shocking. Does anyone doubt Trump says worse quite often?
The other thing so telling here is that both men so clearly want it to be true that Trump has come over to their understanding of faith that they bend over backwards to accommodate the rumor, even going so far as to compare Trump to the Apostle Paul. Trump himself might balk at that comparison. Anthony leaps to it.
What to Make of All This
Christian theology teaches that when a sinner comes into loving and obedient relationship with the Creator who made him, heaven itself rejoices. It is an action with eternal consequences, something far larger and grander than any temporal event, including a presidential election. If Trump has indeed met Jesus, that is a joyful event indeed.
This news comes, however, on the wings of rumor: an elderly man recounting his perceptions of something someone else told him about a third party, essentially an evangelical game of “telephone,” where one person whispers in another person’s ear around the circle until the garbled final message is revealed. It is an odd way to hear a fact, especially something so important and personal as the state of a man’s soul. Believers and unbelievers alike would do well to not read into the story their own wishes, desires, or frustrations. Hearing from Trump himself is the only way to know if this story is true, and he has remained silent so far.
Coming as it does in the heat of an election and with a man who changes his story, tells people what they want to hear, then changes again and engages in outright lies, there is definitely room to wonder if this rumor, like his selection of Pence, is all to serve Trump’s courting of evangelicals that some are only too eager to consummate. A supposed conversion is not a get out of jail free card in either an ordinary life or a presidential election. Moreover, making something so eternal and transcendent serve something as small and temporal as an election only trivializes faith.
Trump has always maintained he is a Christian. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church and claims to be a Christian every time he is asked. So how does one who is already a Christian convert?
This story and the attention it has gotten only show evangelicalism’s discomfort with Trump. If Dobson and others like him had already believed Trump exhibited evidence of a true and life-changing faith in Jesus Christ, this story would not be needed. The fact that so many cling to it to bolster their support of Trump shows this support needs bolstering.
Deeds Are More Important Than Promises
Regardless of whether Trump converted recently, has always been a Christian, or is not at all a believer, more important to the choice Christians must make in this election are the tone he sets and policies he embraces.
This election is all about tribalism, dividing Americans into this or that competing group. Claiming Trump as a born-again Christian is an appeal to evangelical tribalism and nothing else. We elect men not on the state of their soul before God, but on the character we can see and the policies they embrace.
In my opinion, Trump’s character and policies both often directly oppose the teachings of Christ. He mocks the weak, broken, and disabled, calling people made in the image of God losers and worse. He lies continually and, when caught in a lie, neither corrects it nor apologizes.
He scorns the weak, considering those who help others to be suckers. He courts worldly power above all else. We all know his familial failures, his divorces and affairs, as well as his allegedly epic sexual conquests. Redemption is available for all these things, but it must be embraced. Trump has publicly expressed no remorse or repentance for the harm he has caused his wives or family—indeed, has publicly bragged about his behavior.
In short, Trump has exhibited no indication of repentance. Unrepentant people continue to destroy. Repentant people may have done terrible things, but they turn toward rebuilding.
His policies are equally wrong. Restricting religious freedom and creating an atmosphere of fear toward Muslims, Hispanics, and other minorities will only hurt Christianity. Moreover, it is the opposite of the love Jesus calls Christians to and the equality the Constitution calls us to. Trump’s “America first” slogan denies our responsibilities to the world, something in which I believe as both a Christian and a constitutional American.
This is all we have to go on in making our choice, not some unsupported rumor of a change of faith that will possibly affect Trump’s behavior in the future. Being a “baby Christian,” if true, may call for compassion and understanding in personal relationships, but is a horrible excuse for bad behavior in the possible leader of the free world.
In fact, if Trump truly did convert and is changing into a man of faith, love, and gentleness, he should withdraw. That is not the platform upon which he ran nor the man for whom his voters voted. The idea that he is changing means he was wrong to begin with. If he so strongly needed a conversion, why did certain evangelicals support him in the first place?