Many traditions in the history of Christianity have attempted to combat and correct the worship of three things: money, sex and power. Catholic orders have for centuries required “poverty, chastity, and obedience” as disciplines to counter these three idols. Other traditions, especially among Anabaptists in the Reformation, Pentecostals and revival movements down through the years have spoken the language of simplicity in living, integrity in relationships and servanthood in leadership. All of our church renewal traditions have tried to provide authentic and more life-giving alternatives to the worship of money, sex and power — which can be understood and used in healthy ways when they are not given primacy in one’s life.
President Trump is an ultimate and consummate worshiper of money, sex and power. American Christians have not really reckoned with the climate he has created in our country and the spiritual obligation we have to repair it. As a result, the soul of our nation and the integrity of the Christian faith are at risk.
As Abraham Lincoln, a politician with a deep knowledge of Christianity, stated in his first inaugural address, political action can, undertaken rightly, appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” But political action undertaken badly, and reckless inaction, can mislead and dispirit us — and appeal to our worst demons, such as greed, fear, bigotry and resentment, which are never far below the surface.
Trump’s adulation of money and his love for lavish ostentation (he covers everything in gold) are the literal worship of wealth by someone who believes that his possessions belong only to himself, instead of that everything belongs to God and we are its stewards. In 2011, before his foray into politics, Trump said, “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” And in his 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for president, he said: “I’m really rich. . . . And by the way, I’m not even saying that in a braggadocio — that’s the kind of mind-set, that’s the kind of thinking you need for this country.” Later, during the campaign, Trump suggested that our country must “be wealthy in order to be great.”
Lately, faith leaders have spoken out against the proposed Republican budgets and tax plans. The Circle of Protection , a group of leaders from all the major branches of Christianity, of which I am a part, said in a letter to Congress: “We care deeply about many issues facing our country and world, but ending persistent hunger and poverty is a top priority that we all share. These are biblical and gospel issues for us, not just political or partisan concerns. In Matthew 25, Jesus identified himself with those who are immigrants, poor, sick, homeless and imprisoned, and challenged his followers to welcome and care for them as we would care for Jesus himself.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, too, has rejected the tax plan, calling it “unacceptable as written,” and “unconscionable in parts” as it would enrich the wealthy and shortchange the middle class and the poor. And yet, much Christian support for Trump and his administration continues.
Then there’s sex. Before Trump, Republicans liked to suggest that theirs was a fairly Puritanical party of family values with high standards for its candidates (despite many embarrassing exceptions). But Trump’s boastful treatment of women — including bragging in a video about grabbing their genitals — and his serial infidelity and adultery are clear evidence of his idolatrous worship of sex. And it no longer seems like his is a unique case.
Speaking of embarrassing situations, the polls showing that evangelical Christians in Alabama express the most support for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore — even after seven women have accused him of unwanted advances when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s — may be the most damning testimony as to the politicized moral hypocrisy of white evangelicals. Or as Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore warned his fellow religionists this past week, “Christian, if you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me how you stand against moral relativism.” And yet, according to a new poll, 72 percent of evangelicals now say that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” though only 30 percent thought so a mere six years ago .
Other responses to Roy Moore’s alleged behavior have been even worse than silence. Take Alabama state Rep. Ed Henry, who was also Trump’s Alabama campaign co-chairman, and who tried to discredit and deny the women’s stories, saying: “You can’t sit on something like this for 30-something years with a man as in the spotlight as Roy Moore and all of a sudden, three weeks before a senatorial primary, all of a sudden these three or four women are going to talk about something in 1979? I call bull.” Some have tried to play down Moore’s behavior, like Marion County, Ala., GOP Chairman David Hall, who said: “I really don’t see the relevance of it. . . . She’s not saying that anything happened other than they kissed.” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler even used a biblical story to legitimize Moore’s alleged offenses. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
Trump, unsurprisingly, has been coy on the matter. He has not called for Moore to step aside, and the White House press secretary said the president “does not believe we can allow a mere allegation . . . from many years ago to destroy a person’s life.”
When it comes to worshiping power, Republican Christians most obviously stray from scripture in their attitudes on race. When 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump despite his blatant and constant use of racial bigotry for his own political interest, it showed that the operative word in the phrase “white Christian” is “white” and not “Christian.” When white Christians say they did not vote for Trump because of his bigotry but for other reasons, faith leaders of color answer with a damning question: His racial bigotry wasn’t a deal-breaker for you?
Week after week, Trump reveals that his leadership is always and only about himself; not the people, the country or even his party — and certainly not about godliness. During his recent whirlwind trip through Asia, for instance, he bragged constantly about his red carpet treatment, and seemed to thrive on the attention and flattery while putting precious little effort into diplomacy. (“They were all watching,” Trump gushed of people who he said called him in droves to congratulate him on the splendor of his visit to China. “Nothing you can see is so beautiful.”) The conflicts between his money, power and governing are always resolved in the same way — by his selfishness; by whatever happens to appeal to him, and only him, in that moment. Though he ran an anti-interventionist campaign, for instance, Trump reportedly decided to ramp up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan this year after an adviser showed him a picture of Afghani women wearing miniskirts in the 1970s.
All leaders struggle with these temptations, and public figures must wrestle with them the most. Christians, rightly enough, have never expected perfect leaders — just those who can keep up their end of the moral struggle. But for Trump, there is no moral struggle. He is not immoral — knowing what is right and wrong, and choosing the wrong — he rather seems amoral: lacking any kind of moral compass for his personal or professional life. That’s why the Christian compromise with Trump and his ilk has put faithful Americans at such serious risk.
Central to the health of our society is for American Christians to rescue an authentic, compassionate and justice-oriented faith from the clutches of partisan abuse, and from the idolatry of money, sex and power. The word “repentance” in Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions means much more than feeling sorry about the past; it also means “turning around” to equity and healing personally, and systemically in our institutions of policing and criminal justice, education, economics, voting rights, immigration and refugees, racial geography, housing, and more. Making repentance practical is the spiritual task ahead.