By Bill Mefford
On Wednesday donald trump made a number of outlandish and nonsensical comments, which I know, sounds like a typical day in a trump’s American nightmare, but these were far more outlandish than even he has ever made. One of them was a head-scratcher to most folks, but it was eerily familiar to me. It was during a wild 40 minute press gaggle outside the White House when trump claimed, in response to the harm his ridiculous trade war with China is causing the economy, that he was “the chosen one” as he looked up in the sky.
Twitter and Facebook lit up with outrage, and rightfully so. To insinuate that trump is chosen by God for anything - as many of his followers passionately and sincerely believe to my ceaseless consternation - is so completely and utterly ludicrous as to be almost beyond refuting. But we should not be surprised by this claim. I am not at least. I have heard claims like this for as long as I have been a Christian, specifically in the evangelical world.
Some of my earliest memories of being a part of an evangelical church, which happened on and off during my middle school years, I remember hearing the line, “if you had been the only person on the face of this earth, Jesus would still have come down and died on the cross for you.” I was more perplexed than comforted by this thought because if I had been the only person on the face of the earth then I would have had to have been the one to nail him to the cross, which physically seemed impossible to me. Yeah, I was a 13 year old smart ass.
But I got the gist of the message. I was all that mattered to God. God was focused on me, almost solely. In fact, I mattered so much that God seemed unable to accomplish God’s will - God’s desires for the world - unless I jumped in and said yes. This is how important the individual is to evangelical theology. Sermon after sermon, summer camp after summer camp, altar call after altar call, I heard pastors and youth pastors issue the challenge that the people of the world were waiting for me to come and save them. Heck, I even gave some of those sermons and Bible studies myself. And certainly there is a kernel of truth to God’s love being intimately personal in nature, but the truth easily gets buried in the midst of this kind of white-centered, paternalistic, world-condemning, overly individualistic B.S.
The writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, identified individualism as a key characteristic of American life when he wrote that individualism was that “which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the masses of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (Bellah, et al. 1985:37, quoting Tocqueville 1969:506). This rightly defines evangelical individualism today.
One of my favorite writers, Rodney Clapp, claims that modern individualism is an understanding of the self as detached from one’s context. “Thus it remains popular – almost second nature – to think we get at our ‘true self’ by peeling away our social ties like the skin of an onion” (Clapp 1996:91). If the core of each person can be known detached from all relationships and contexts, then the search for meaning in life is best accomplished separately from the sounds of the suffering of others. This justifies the belief that was preached to me over and over as a young evangelical: that I first needed to focus on my personal relationship with Jesus because I reached out to others. Love yourself, then worry about loving the rest of the world.
Evangelicalism’s captivity to individualism is most evident in their overall collective silence regarding the many issues of injustice that donald trump has initiated or exacerbated for his political gain. Indeed, not a single member of his evangelical advisory council has spoken out about his claims of near divinity. Neither have they spoken out against his war against migrants. But this is hardly new. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out several historical examples of evangelism’s capitulation to societal injustices including:
George Whitfield’s support of slavery (2000:25-27),
Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody upholding segregation and focusing solely on personal piety in their evangelism because they were financially supported by wealthy corporate titans who wanted the church to ignore their corporation’s abuse of workers (2000:41),
Billy Graham’s cozying up to President Nixon while Nixon lied repeatedly and orchestrated the Watergate cover up.
The gospel of the evangelical church sacrifices any focus on social justice for one’s need for individual fulfillment. Rodney Clapp shares a story illustrating this when he recalls a German soldier who served during the Nazi regime saying how he once refused a direct order to dance because dancing was strictly forbidden according to his religious beliefs. “So it was that a Christian could assist Hitler in a genocidal cause but stand up to him on social dancing” (Clapp 1996:73).
When Jesus is reduced solely to a personal Savior and when we consider ourselves individually as more vital to God’s mission to the world than the suffering much of the world is experiencing, then the gospel is effectively changed from a call to mutually transformative service to and with the world, to one of therapeutic psychology. Jesus has not come to call his church to incarnation among the poor and redemptive sacrificial love. Instead, Jesus has come to make me happy.
Thus, this allows evangelicals to ignore the racism, the pathological lying, the claims of near divinity, the bullying and constant attacks of donald trump. Even more, as an evangelical I can ignore the policies that create more suffering for others, especially the poor and oppressed. Because the economy is pretty good (for now), we got a few tax cuts (though corporations got the overwhelming bulk of these), and no one is harming me, I don’t care if he separates families, cages kids, zeroes out the cap for refugees entering the country, does nothing about gun violence, and reinstates indefinite detention of immigrants while eliminating their right to due process as he did the same day he endorsed the claim made by a racist birther that he was the “King of Israel.” Me and mine are doing OK and that is all that me and my American Jesus care about.
Me and mine are what being chosen is all about.