This month’s conventional wisdom: The current Republican presidential campaign shows the GOP to be hopelessly split. Maybe that’s true, but the real split Donald Trump spotlights is the severe one within broad evangelicalism.
After Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, influential film critic Pauline Kael said, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.” Many evangelical leaders are in the same position regarding Trump voters, but it’s not hard to figure out why millions support him. They feel smooth talkers have lied to them. They’re tired of theorists who spin untethered, abstract fantasies. They want blunt speech from someone who supposedly knows bricks and mortar.
Trump deserves credit for bringing the debate about free markets and immigration down from suite level to street level. Although international trade in theory raises all boats, many Americans who work with their hands, and don’t have the patience to sit in classrooms, are sunk. Economically, many fall behind. Socially, many do not get married, and those who do often get divorced. Wall Street hates tight borders and protectionism, and abstractly that makes sense; but lots of barely employed 25-year-olds need protection.
Trump’s exposure of the split within broad evangelicalism is also educational. The church he sometimes attends, Marble Collegiate in Manhattan, is part of the Reformed Church in America, a denomination often dubbed “evangelical.” Marble Collegiate’s most famous pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, authored the mega-selling “The Power of Positive Thinking” and made comments like these: “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! ... If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. ... If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal.”
Houston’s charismatic Lakewood Church -- 43,000 weekly attendees make it the largest Protestant church in the United States -- offers parallel teachings. Pastor Joel Osteen, dubbed an evangelical by The Huffington Post, The Christian Post, and other postings, says, “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us,” and “We were old sinners -- but when we came to Christ we are not sinners anymore.”
That contrasts with the classic evangelical message that we are still sinners whose only hope lies in the good news that Christ has already laid down His life for us. Key lines from three hymns sung at my church late last month: “False and full of sin I am. Thou art full of truth and grace. ... There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. ... Amazin ... grace! how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
Donald Trump would be comfortable at Lakewood but not at my church, unless he followed Judy Collins and others in switching the start of “Amazing Grace” to “saved someone like me.” After all, he and his friends are the best, the greatest: No way he and they are wretches. The good news of the Trump gospel: We have nothing to confess and repent. The good news of Christ’s gospel: We have much to confess, yet we need not fear, for Christ has already paid the full penalty for our sins past, present, and even future.
In his 1923 book “Christianity and Liberalism” J. Gresham Machen showed how “liberal Christianity” and biblical Christianity are two different religions. The same is true regarding the Christian gospel and the Trump-Osteen-Peale gospel, which we could abbreviate as “TOP.” Donald Trump says, “I was a great student. I was good at everything. . I will be a great president. . I win at golf. ... I have a great, great company. ... I rely on myself. ... Nobody can build like I can build. Nobody.” Trump differs from Osteen and Peale in being tops even in adultery: “Beautiful, famous, successful, married -- I’ve had them all, secretly, the world’s biggest names.”
But, judging from Psalm 51 and many other parts of the Bible, whether we’re at the top or not matters little to God, who wants from us a broken spirit. He does not delight in sacrifice. He wants us to repent our vice. He creates in us a new, clean heart. He gives the lowly a strong, fresh start. He wants our Hallelujah.