Last week, James Dobson let us know that Donald Trump recently professed a newfound faith in Jesus. I’m not sure what Dobson’s intention was in making this public, but I’d like to suggest something to Christians who are inclined to immediately react in one direction or the other – to either scoff at this as a certain political ploy or to see it as some sort of new evidence that a vote for Trump might be a good idea for Christians after all. My suggestion: whatever you think of Trump or Dobson, it is ok to be measured, compassionate, nuanced, and discerning in your response.
At a personal level, we can set aside cynicism, assume the best, and embrace the man who professes faith. Really. We can. I’ve seen many people come to faith who I was prone to suspect as insincere, and that suspicion was at least as much about me as about them. This is no different. I mean, this is the goal, right? To see women and men have their lives changed by the good news – even and especially the ones who we think least likely? Time will demonstrate whether or not someone has truly given his life away; our cynicism and sarcasm simply aren’t necessary to speed that process along (a truth I forget or ignore far too often).
At a political level, I think it is wise to ask what meaning we are supposed to attach to Dobson’s announcement. First, this reveals that Trump’s prior claim to being “a great Christian” was either insincere or mistaken; it seems reasonable for Mr. Trump to clarify now by telling us which. (I know…it was kind of funny either way, but it apparently wasn’t true.) Second, this means he is a brand new believer, and Christians almost unanimously agree that a new faith would not qualify one for leadership in a context where credibility or authority is somehow derived from or enhanced by that faith. So we will be suspicious if professing Christians who long have held that position begin offering some sort of enhanced political endorsement of Trump based on this newfound faith, and I think that suspicion is based on discernment, not cynicism. And finally, we are 7.5 years into the tenure of a president whose long-standing and clear profession of faith in Jesus has meant nothing to most folks on the right in terms of his qualification to lead. It isn’t necessary to get into one’s opinion about Obama or his faith; it is sufficient to note that we have from certain quarters an established precedent that a professed faith alone is not a reason for Christians to rally behind a candidate. If we now get a different message from those quarters, something is amiss. And it’s ok to say so.
Wise as serpents. Innocent as doves. A man’s declaration of faith is no time to ridicule him personally. A candidate whose life and words are dramatically and defiantly askew of the model of Jesus suddenly claiming the faith of much of his desired constituency (and a scurry of surrogates suggesting this is a game-changer for that constituency) is certainly a time for questions and discernment.
Both are possible.