Brian Zahnd

Politics trumps everything. That’s an axiom that holds up. Unless you really see the kingdom of God and are willing to rethink everything in the light of Christ, politics trumps everything — including faith and ethics. I learned this the hard way. When I pulled away from lock-step allegiance with the Religious Right because I had seen the kingdom of God and had begun to take Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount seriously, many politically conservative Christians accused me of “going over to the other side.” Committed as they were to a dualistic us vs. them paradigm, they could only interpret my kingdom-conscious approach to politics as traitorous. “If you’re not on our side, you must be on their side!” In their closed dualistic system, even Jesus has to be either a Republican or a Democrat.

So my honest claim to have no interest in the Left/Right political divide because I only cared about following Jesus fell on deaf ears. They could not see the kingdom alternative I was pointing to — they could only see us vs. them, Republicans vs. Democrats, Elephants vs. Donkeys. They were incredulous about my claim to only be interested in following the Lamb. Yes, I learned the hard way that if the kingdom of Christ is not perceived as a viable alternative society, then competition for conventional political power seems the only option for influencing the world.

With a low ecclesiology, politics trumps everything. If the local church is viewed as devoid of what we think of as real power, then we inevitably set our sights on Washington D.C. The National Prayer Breakfast is believed to be important, not because of prayer, but because the President and other power brokers are there. And once you’re convinced that God is working through the political machinations of Babylon, and that God is inviolably on the side of your political party…well, you have set yourself up to make enormous compromises. So let me talk about the elephant in the room — Donald J. Trump.

In the current American context, to talk about Christian nationalism is to talk about Donald Trump. I take the widely reported 81 percent support of Donald Trump among white evangelicals to be primarily driven by the aims of Christian nationalism. Christian Trumpism and Christian nationalism are essentially synonymous. Of course the subject of Donald Trump is as volatile as the man himself, and I want to tread as carefully and speak as precisely as possible. So let me tell a personal story pertaining to Donald Trump and Christian faith that is entirely removed from the present political context.

In January 2011 my book Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness was published. This book is my attempt to present on a popular level a substantive theology of Christian forgiveness. Noted theologian and Yale Professor of Theology Miroslav Volf wrote the foreword. Though it’s written for a popular audience, I regard it as a serious book on the theology of forgiveness. My charismatic publishing company had surprisingly chosen to make Unconditional? their featured new release, and considerable promotion was placed behind the book. I did book signings at bookseller’s conventions, gave dozens of print and radio interviews, and appeared on several Christian television networks, including TBN and Daystar. I was delighted to talk about Jesus’ message of radical forgiveness in these popular forums. But when my publicist scheduled me to appear on the Paula White show to promote Unconditional?, I balked. Televangelist Paula White represents the most egregious form of the American prosperity gospel — a distortion of the gospel so extreme that it can only be described as aberrant. So I informed my publisher that I would not appear on Paula White’s show — my conscience would not allow me to be associated with that kind of Americanized, glamorized, “you-can-have-it-all,” health-and-wealth consumer Christianity.

I thought my decision to decline this appearance would be the end of the matter, but it was not. I received a phone call from the executive vice-president of the publishing company urging me to go on the show. Paula White is extremely popular with a massive television audience, and my appearance on her show would doubtless be an enormous boost to book sales. Nevertheless, I told her I would not do it. A few hours later, I received a call from the founder and CEO of the publishing company who said,

“Look, Brian, I know Paula has been divorced, but I know the story and it wasn’t her fault.”
I replied, “This has nothing to do with Paula White being divorced. I don’t care about that.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The clearest way I can say it is that Paula White and I belong to different religions, and I don’t want to be construed as endorsing her religion.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean she regularly has Donald Trump on her show — as if he has anything to do with Christianity! She’s infatuated with a braggadocios playboy tycoon because he’s a ‘success,’ a billionaire, a reality television star. But what’s that got to do with Jesus?!”

That’s how our conversation ended. I didn’t appear on the Paula White Show and I don’t regret my decision. But this is my point; in trying to communicate to my publisher the best example I could think of as to why my faith differed radically from Paula White’s, I cited her fawning adulation for Donald Trump. How could you be enthralled with someone like Donald Trump and be a follower of Jesus? And this was all long before Donald Trump became a serious political figure.

For me, Donald Trump was the reality TV embodiment of three of the deadly sins — lust, greed, and pride. I had no reason to think the Donald Trump who openly reveled in lust, greed, and pride in his regular appearances on the Howard Stern Show would disagree with me. I have sermon notes from the 1990s where I cite Donald Trump as an example of a popular public figure who would be a poor role model for Christians in business. That’s why when I saw a young man I had led to Jesus reading Donald Trump’s Think Big, I took him aside and urged him to find some better role models for his business aspirations. Why would I do that? Because I take seriously my pastoral calling. In Think Big, Donald Trump’s win-at-all-cost tough guy persona is on full display as he writes,

“The only way to get rich is to be realistic and brutally honest. … It is tough, and people get hurt. So you have to be as tough as nails and willing to kick ass if you want to win. … My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”

Nice motto. Kicking ass and getting even are acceptable if you’re an apprentice of Gordon Gekko but not if you’re an apprentice of Jesus Christ. So you can understand why I had a pastoral conversation with my young disciple regarding his reading material. Donald Trump’s “screw them back” motto and Jesus Christ’s golden rule are mutually exclusive. But what Donald Trump advocates in his business books and Howard Stern Show boastings is nothing particularly new; it’s always been that way in the dog-eat-dog world of ruthless competition where everyone is reduced to winner or loser. Machiavelli set it forth eloquently for the educated elite in The Prince, but Donald Trump has an instinct for marketing the Machiavellian to the masses. It’s business as blood sport. In the end, I lost out with my young disciple — he ended up leaving our church and calling me a “liberal false teacher.” The Art of the Deal trumped the Beatitudes. Again, this was all long before anyone imagined Donald Trump becoming the champion of white evangelicals…or the President of the United States.

The man I admire most is my father — the Honorable L. Glen Zahnd (1931–2009). He was as unlike Donald Trump as anyone I can imagine — humble, loyal, principled. He was a lawyer, a judge, a Sunday School teacher, a civic leader, and most of all a wise and kind man. He was also a very political man, a lifelong Republican. Before he became a judge I remember him leading campaigns for a two-term governor. One of my fondest childhood memories is going with my father to the courthouse on election night to await the election returns. My dad was an ideological conservative who resonated with serious conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley and George Will. But my dad was never a fierce partisan. He admired Jimmy Carter (with whom he shared his Baptist faith) and was less than keen on Ronald Reagan. He thought Rush Limbaugh was a blowhard. My dad didn’t live to see the political rise of Donald Trump, but I have no doubt what he would have thought about it. I also have no doubt what he would have done about it. (My dad led the Baptist church where he was a lifelong member out of the Southern Baptist Convention around the same time that Jimmy Carter left the SBC, and for the same reasons.)

I grew up in a political family. I know about political parties and election campaigns. But I also grew up in a Christian family where I learned about integrity, goodwill, and kindness. My father would never allow partisan politics to trump integrity, goodwill, and kindness. My dad belonged to the 19 percent.

So what happened? How did a thrice-married playboy, a braggadocios real estate tycoon, a pompous and profane reality television star win, not only the votes, but even the hearts of the vast majority of people who spent decades calling themselves the “moral majority,” lecturing on “family values,” and insisting that “character counts”? It’s one of those “only in America” kind of stories. In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, evangelical scholar and Messiah College professor of history John Fea explains it like this.

“This election, while certainly unique and unprecedented in American history, is also the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life. This political playbook was written in the 1970s and drew heavily from an even longer history of white evangelical fear. It is a playbook characterized by attempts to “win back” or “restore culture.” It is a playbook grounded in a highly problematic interpretation of the relationship between Christianity and the American founding. It is a playbook that too often gravitates toward nativism, xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and an unbiblical view of American exceptionalism.”

When authentic Christian faith is trumped by white evangelical fear, we have a problem. My ultimate concern is not for the political state of America (though I do care about this), but the spiritual state of the evangelical soul. John Fea concludes his book with these sobering words.

“Evangelicals can do better than Donald Trump. His campaign and presidency have drawn on a troubling pattern of American evangelicalism that is willing to yield to old habits grounded in fear, nostalgia, and the search for power. Too many of its leaders (and their followers) have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges. It should not surprise us that people are leaving evangelicalism or no longer associating themselves with that label — or, in some cases, leaving the church altogether. It’s time to take a long hard look at what we have become. Believe me, we have a lot of work to do. Believe me.”

If evangelical support of Donald Trump is purely political — driven, for example, by a pragmatic approach to obtaining Supreme Court nominees, I may not agree with this approach, I may think it foolish and wrongheaded, even dangerous — but neither do I have a burning interest in critiquing it. I understand the rationale of the single-issue voter whose sole motive at the ballot box is to cast an anti-abortion vote. I think this approach is problematic, but I understand it.

But that’s not what I see happening. What I see among evangelicals — especially among some of the most prominent evangelical leaders — is an enthusiastic, uncritical, carte blanche support of Donald Trump that has more than a touch of religious aura to it. And this concerns me deeply. I’m profoundly uncomfortable when I see enthusiastic support for Donald Trump impinging upon allegiance to Jesus Christ and what he taught his followers. In April of 2016, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the twelve-thousand member Dallas First Baptist Church and Trump spiritual advisor, told the Dallas Observer this:

“When I’m looking for a leader who’s going sit across the negotiating table from a nuclear Iran, or who’s going be intent on destroying ISIS, I couldn’t care less about the leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”

I too think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. And that’s a problem. They don’t want a peaceable leader — a peaceable leader is denigrated as a Casper Milquetoast. Do they not want Jesus Christ as their leader as well? After all, Jesus is the Prince of Peace who teaches us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. Does Robert Jeffress think that the Jesus we see in the Gospels is a Casper Milquetoast? Do evangelicals really want a “tough” leader who is willing to kill their enemies on their behalf? That’s Barabbas! Barabbas was a national hero and a violent revolutionary willing to kill in the name of “freedom.” When you say, “I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find,” be careful, you might be saying, “Give us Barabbas!”

During the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency CBN televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition Pat Robertson made this outlandish statement: “The Lord’s plan is being put in place for America and these people [who oppose Trump’s policies] are not only revolting against Trump, they’re revolting against God’s plan.” Robertson then went on to cite a verse from Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed.” The televangelist finally made the outrageous claim that Donald Trump is the Lord’s anointed! Let us be clear about what Pat Robertson is doing; he is taking a Messianic passage that the Apostles, church fathers, and Christians throughout church history have claimed is fulfilled by Jesus Christ and applying it to…Donald Trump! This is idolatry. He might as well say, “We have no king but Trump.” For that matter, Jim Bakker already has. Again, John Fea:

“In the United States we don’t have kings, princes, or courts; but we do have our own version of religious courtiers; and many of them have what Southern Baptist theologian Richard Land has gleefully described as ‘unprecedented access’ to the Oval Office. Disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, now back with his own television show after being released from prison, praised prosperity preacher Paula White because she can, ‘walk into the White House any time she wants to’ and have ‘full access to the King.'”

This leaves me speechless. So I’ll let Bob Dylan say it like a poet and prophet:

In the home of the brave
Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave
Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

I don’t care about economy
I don’t care about astronomy
But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Again, if we’re simply talking about a purely political preference, I don’t have much to say about it. But that’s not what I see. And it sure does bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets! I see charismatics — people I know well and love — scrounging around in the Old Testament and making preposterous claims about Donald Trump being some kind of modern-day Cyrus. Please. Do these people not have a New Testament? Don’t they know that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to his right hand? Don’t they know that God has given dominion over the nations to his exalted Son? Don’t they know that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to King Jesus? God may have occasionally worked his will through pagan kings in the world before Christ, but we’re now living in Anno Domini — the year of our Lord. If you’re looking for God to work his will through a pagan king (who will always coincidently belong to your political party!), I’m thinking you haven’t spent much time seriously reading and digesting the New Testament epistles. God is no longer raising up pagan kings to enact his purposes, God has raised Jesus from the dead, and the fullness of God’s purposes are accomplished through him! The Apostle Paul doesn’t talk about God raising up Nero to accomplish his purposes; rather, Paul talks like this:

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” -Ephesians 1:20-23

This is the rich Christology of Paul that should thrill our soul and inform our political theology. But if Paul’s rich Christological understanding of all authority belonging to the Lord’s anointed Christ isn’t real to us, then we are tempted to imagine God working divine purposes through politicians who we pretend are anointed by God. This mistake can at times be relatively benign, or it can be as malignant as it was in Germany in the 1930s. There are consequences to not understanding the full ramifications of the apostolic confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I’m not interested in a political theology mired in a reading of the Old Testament that fails to recognize that Messiah has come. I’m a Christian and ultimately my political theology can be summed up in three words: Jesus is Lord. I’m not reading 2 Chronicles to understand how God’s purposes are accomplished in the world of the 21st century AD — I’m reading Ephesians and Colossians! I’m not looking for a Cyrus — I’m looking for Christ! The resurrection of the Son of God changes everything, and if it doesn’t influence our political theology, we are failing to do theology as Christians. The Hebrew Bible ends in 2 Chronicles — with Jerusalem in ruins and the people of God exiled in Babylon. (The books are arranged differently in the Christian Old Testament.) The New Testament ends in Revelation — with a flourishing New Jerusalem and Christ reigning over the nations. I’m not looking for a New Babylon where some elephant or donkey sits on the throne, I’m looking for the New Jerusalem where the Lamb sits on the throne.

The presidency of Donald Trump has been a relentless tornado of chaos. The controversies connected with Donald Trump seem to change by the hour — it’s neo-Nazis having “some fine people,” then it’s paying off porn stars, then it’s children in detention camps, then it’s Putin and Russia. As I write this I’m on a flight from Toronto, and for all I know what I’ve written will be out of date by the time I land in Kansas City; I’m certain it will be out of date by the time this is published. But I write it anyway. I write it in memory of my father. I write it so I’ll be on record. I write it so my grandchildren will know that during the Trump era I wasn’t duped, I wasn’t silent, and I didn’t go along for the ride. I want them to know that I saw what was happening, I knew it for what it was, and I spoke out.


(This is chapter 9 in Postcards From Babylon. The photo is of my writing desk.)