Straining Credulity: Trump the Presbyter


On January 18, 2016, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump sojourned to Lynchburg, Virginia to the campus of Liberty University, the brainchild of the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., to deliver an address for Martin Luther King Day. The speech, at least to this author, was Trump’s blatant attempt to ingratiate himself to the Evangelical Right, who are disproportionately represented in the student body. Trump regularly claims that the Bible is his favorite book, but until Monday has refused to name his favorite verse. That all changed at¬†Liberty.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” he said.¬†“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” he continued, conveniently citing the school’s official verse which is displayed prominently throughout campus. Either this is a great coincidence, or Donald found an easy way to avoid cracking open the Bible he purports to respect so much.

I try not to attack other people’s faith stances and attitudes toward religion. I am clearly to the left of many of my colleagues, at least in terms of social issues. I am rather orthodox theologically: I proclaim Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior; I believe that sin and death are not the final words; I confess the four ecumenical creeds that bind Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline Protestant Christians together; and I serve as a pastor in the denomination to which Donald Trump claims to be “very proud” to belong, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But I find Trump’s claims that 2 Corinthians 3:17 is the “whole ballgame” to be quite disingenuous. He operates under the assumption that Paul’s “liberty” is the Western, secular, humanist, capitalist liberty of a laissez faire marketplace. Paul was writing within a context in which Christians were deemed atheists because they did not believe in the Roman pantheon of gods. Paul’s liberty–or, more properly, the Christian liberty about which Paul writes–is one that allows a community the freedom to acknowledge and proclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.

This, of course, is the same God proclaimed by Muslims, the very same Muslims whom Donald Trump wants to keep from entering the country until we, nebulously, “figure out what is going on.” How is that in keeping with liberty? Of course, it is not. But it fits in well with a zeitgeist of American Christian persecution (which, unlike in Syria, does not include beheading but rather the inability to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without shouting distance).

I cannot imagine that Rev. Dr. King would have been in attendance at Liberty University yesterday, were he still alive, and I certainly don’t think that he would echo Trump’s call to ban an entire religious group from entry into the country because of a woeful understanding of geopolitics and the Constitution of the United States of America. I further stand with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in his denouncement of Trump’s rhetoric.

Presbyterianism operates on the principle of lay persons serving as elders and deacons for terms of service, usually three years; the term presbyter means “elder.” We are lay-driven and beholden to the Book of Order. We have ancient rules, all of them aimed at creating a community in which the stranger is invited into the community and is encouraged to become a member; we have a long, proud history of being engaged with social justice and civil rights. We are the denomination of Fred Rogers (see the piece by my colleague Rev. Derrick Weston), and we continue to push ourselves to live into the radical message of Jesus of Nazareth.

It simply strains credulity that Donald Trump knows anything about who we are in Christ Jesus.