One of the most curious aspects of the 2016 President nomination cycle thus far has been the resolute support enjoyed by Donald Trump among many Christians. Trump has received endorsements and praise from such well-known Christians as Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Willie Robertson. Despite his vulgarity and many questionable statements, Trump continues to press on from state to state and receive a steady stream of votes from many self-identified Christians. Politics is a rough and secular business, much of his supporters’ thinking goes, and therefore nothing short of a raging bull is going to make a difference.
There are, of course, plenty of Christians who oppose him. Few, however, are willing to take a strong stand against him the way they have against Hillary Clinton. I was shocked by a recent well-known pastor who bragged about the diversity within his congregation, as he said that many members were split between Trump, Rubio, or Cruz. The pastor said he would not endorse a single candidate, but that he had no problem with Christians voting for Trump. This, to him, was far different than a vote for Clinton because of her views regarding abortion.
And this is precisely the problem: Donald Trump may not be everyone’s political cup of tea, but he is still viewed as a viable alternative within the Christian community. Many Christian pastors and churchgoers would agree that his brashness, demagoguery, and hard-nosed campaigning aren’t particularly attractive, but how many would stand before their congregations and go so far as to say that no Christian should vote for Donald Trump?
Such a shift would require a poignant reason. And the fact that Donald Trump is vulgar is simply not enough – most people understand that such vulgarity is a near-constant occurrence behind the scenes of political life and Trump is just exposing it. The fact that he has engaged in infidelity is a non-starter as well; divorce and re-marriage have been a common part of American society (and the church) for decades. And the fact that he has bought and sold politicians doesn’t hurt him as much as it helps the case that he’s turning against his class for the sake of the people.
No, if there is one thing that should give every Christian pause; if there’s one thing that should make pastors rethink their sermons, and if there’s one thing that should make Christian voters rethink their choice, it is this: during the majority of his campaign, including his initial rise, Donald Trump passionately and resolutely argued that the American military should commit war crimes.
On the surface, this may seem like something easily dismissed as one of a million instances of exaggeration, pandering, or hyperbole common to the political game. Ted Cruz, for example, characterized his own plan to defeat ISIS as “carpet bombing Syria to see if the sand will glow in the dark.” Such a proposal of near-total war, if carried out, would leave countless civilians dead. In Cruz’s case, however, closer questioning and scrutiny by moderators quickly revealed that what Cruz actually meant was a precision-bombing campaign and that he was either unaware of what carpet-bombing actually entails or (more likely) he was using such language as a rhetorical device to show his commitment to ending the terrorist group’s existence.
Along similar lines, Donald Trump also reversed course on his proposal after taking huge amounts of criticism from military leaders. The problem with Trump’s reversal on war crime is that, when pressed, it took him months to back down or clarify the way Cruz did. In fact, in multiple debates and interviews Trump (unlike Cruz) tried to logically justify and strengthen the case for killing innocent Syrian women and children. In doing so, Trump laid out a thorough explanation for why he believed that such execution is just. And it is this explanation and the fact that Donald Trump stuck to it for so long that should make all born-again Christians denounce him immediately.
For the majority of his campaign Trump argued that war crimes should be used to settle the tactical battlefield against ISIS. During this time voters received clear insight into Donald Trump's worldview and exactly how he plans to apply his brass tactics business approach to the political world. Essentially, Trump's method of operation is to attempt to level the playing field and then attack his opponent the same way that opponent would attack him, all the while using low blows whenever and however necessary. Such an approach already doesn't sound like the manner in which a Christian should conduct business, but it becomes even uglier and more dangerous when applied to war and politics where the stakes are higher.
Nonetheless, Trump has marched on this course for months. How can it be fair, he often claimed, that such terrorists are chopping off heads and drowning their prisoners of war when we don’t even waterboard the ISIS terrorists we capture? And, he argued, women in particular should be targeted based on guilt by association --- they have knowledge of what their husbands are doing. This knowledge is enough to not only convict them as co-conspirators, it is enough to consider them combatants and thus execute them the same way we destroy active terrorists. By implication children are unlikely to be rehabilitated and might as well be killed, for which child whose parents were slain by Americans would not turn against us? In this manner Trump showed that the 'Great America' he hopes to build is one which will rest on a foundation of retaliation applied to the political world.
This language should sound familiar to Christians. There are good reasons for us to be acquainted with the concepts – indeed, they make up large portions of the Hebraic laws and battles of the Old Testament. The principle of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”) is given in Exodus, and in 1 Samuel God commands Israel to leave no child or woman alive in their conflict with the Amalekites. Thus, in following Trump’s effort to apply retaliation to politics, we follow in the footsteps of the ancient Hebrews who under God’s authority converted entire villages into pools of blood. The only difference is that they did this over 3,000 years ago with swords and spears and we'd be doing it in the modern era with drones and A-10s.
It is precisely at this juncture that Christians should ask themselves exactly why Jesus Christ came to this earth and what he means to us. The relationship between the laws of Leviticus and what Christ said and did is crucial here. For our sake, did Jesus not come to fulfill the law, save us from the bondage of retaliation, and teach and embody the most excellent way? Was not the core of his teaching that the goal of life is to love God and love our neighbors, and that we cannot do the former without doing the latter? And did Christ not specifically say that such love must be extended to one’s enemies?
This isn't to say that Christ was a pacifist. He confronted the author of evil, and he faced human depravity at its worst. He healed, taught, and emboldened the innocent all while facing his enemies with steadfast resolve. Christ was victorious not because he sunk to the level of his enemies, but because he overcame their underhanded schemes as he held close to the Father and maintained his virtue. Christ fought evil with good as he embodied something the world had never seen -- sacrificial innocence delivered unto crucifixion which resulted in the defeat of death itself. The ethic of Christ is that we were all once made in the image of God, and that we return to this purity not by retaliation but by shunning evil and accepting Christ’s sacrifice as the essence of what is good.
Innocence is thus a supremely important concept for Christians. It is for this reason, I believe, that many Christians have been outspoken in their belief that neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders should be elected president. To elect another liberal candidate, they say, would result in more pro-choice justice appointees and many more innocent children being killed. I agree with such sentiment and for the sake of unborn children I too find it important that we take a stand to prevent another pro-choice president. But I also find it shocking that the same Christians who join me in this stand cannot find a similar reason to denounce Donald Trump.
The fact that Donald Trump finally backed down from his long-held position of proposing war crimes is merely the first indication that his brass tactics principles are unlikely to work in the political world. And even if he could make them work, they would still not be anywhere near the level of virtue to which Christ has called us. Whether or not Trump's reversal was heartfelt or politically motivated may become more clear in the months ahead; but one fact will be unchanged: for many months this man enjoyed wide Christian support while openly calling for our military to find, fix, and finish innocent children by shooting them in the head.
We can and must do better.