The conversion of Donald Trump and the problem with evangelicalism’s gospel

June 27th, 2016

What does it say about evangelicalism in America that James Dobson, one of our leading voices for the last three decades, can claim that Donald Trump has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior yet not a single one of Trump’s political policies or tactics has changed or been significantly modified by the lordship of Jesus? What does it say about us that the same man who, months ago, expressed no need for repentance before God, has now been declared a member of the Christian community without expressing that most foundational Christian disposition? Of course, Dobson excuses Trump’s lack of change with such lines as “he just doesn’t know our language” or claims that Trump’s “baby Christian” status excuses his plentiful references to “religion” without explicit statements of “faith and belief.” But I think these things are less the failure of Trump’s Christian infancy as much as they are a microcosm of the underlying problem with much of America’s evangelical movement — we actually have no idea what it means to be Christian. We lack a meaningful understanding of faith and belief.

Trump’s conversion experience, lacking as it is in fruits of repentance, godly sorrow, and changed life, isn’t primarily a reflection of what’s wrong with his soul (though it is that, too); it’s a reflection of what’s wrong with the soul of evangelicalism. Our reductions of Christianity show a general lack of understanding of what it means to say “Christ is Lord.” The biblical authors didn’t tell people, “You need at accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” as if accepting Jesus is the primary thing that happens in salvation. No, for the biblical writers, the gospel proclamation is, “Repent and believe; repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” Not only is this imperative not about intellectual assent to bullet points of doctrine, not only is this imperative not about my acceptance of Christ, but it is also not primarily about what I have done at all. It’s about the grand story of God, in Christ, healing a broken world and bringing about a new creation starting now.

Instead of this understanding of faith and belief, on national level we have reduced Christianity to a partisan political agenda, an entrenched representative of the culture wars, and a cognitive ideology to which one must claim assent in order to hold political power in America. On a local and individual level, we have reduced our faith to intellectually assenting to propositional truths (1. You are a sinner, 2. Jesus died for you. 3. You can go to heaven when you die), a cultural identifier (particularly in the South), and a religion of therapy, self-help and moralism.

Thus, the question is not whether Donald Trump has prayed some prayer. The question is not whether he has even made a verbal confession of Christ’s lordship. Do not demons even do the latter, according to James? The question is, what has Christ done in his death and resurrection to offer the grace of repentance to you, me and Donald Trump? Has a genuine life change occurred because he has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to come out of his sin and pursue Christlikeness in both his personal and political life? And what might such a conversion look like in the life of any person, in this case Donald Trump?

Of course, someone might challenge and say, “C’mon, man, give him a break. Dobson’s right, Trump’s just a baby Christian. He doesn’t know everything he needs to know. He can’t know all the gospel requires of him.”

Indeed. No Christian is perfect, especially young believers who are just wading into the love and holiness of God. But, again, I don’t think the problem is with Trump’s infancy or newness to the faith. The problem is a bland gospel that says, “Accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and you can go to heaven when you die.” The problem is with an understanding of the gospel that is limited to personal decision, preferences for heaven over hell and offers blessing without a cross, salvation without confession and repentance

But the gospel of Christ is much more robust than the privatized, personal gospel of my evangelical tradition, and this fact should be part of what Trump (and all other converts) is presented with. Doesn’t anyone else find it odd that Dobson is speaking of Trump’s new-found faith, but Trump, himself, has said nothing? Even if his conversion were genuine, this seems suspect, especially given the church’s call for public confession of faith throughout history. The early church used to have those who wished to convert wait an entire year before they were publicly baptized and declared to be Christians. While certainly the Bible offers examples of immediate baptism upon profession of faith, the early church recognized that the kind of life change required by the gospel meant that they had a responsibility to make sure that converts understood as clearly as possible what they were entering. During the year-long waiting period, the converts were taught Christian belief and were invited to follow (i.e. be discipled) the lifestyle of a mature believer.

I’m not saying we need to go back to a one-year waiting period, but such a tactic would solve the problem raised by James Dobson, that Trump speaks of vague religion but not the specifics of “faith and belief.” Indeed, such a discipleship period would help new Christians see precisely that Christianity offers no bland, oblong blur of a faith, but says something specific about the creator God and what that God has done in Christ for the reconciliation of the world. Maybe such a period wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it’d be a step in the right direction.

So why don’t we do something like this?

Our Protestant free-grace teachings have combined with our American pragmatism and a valuation of numbers, resulting in an understanding of conversion so easy that there is no cross to carry let alone lifestyle to change. We ask people to say they’re sorry for sin in general, but we don’t speak of the specific repentance the gospel calls forth, nor the life of holiness and sanctification Christ says is necessary to be his disciple. We talk about salvation as something we enter into so our soul can go to heaven, but little about the holines and sanctification of life that the gospel empowers in the here and now. Our gospel has been Americanized, privatized, commodified and politicized. And thus it is stilted, stale and sad.

Am I picking on Donald Trump here? No. Donald Trump is a microcosm of a larger problem. It is time we who claim to be followers of Jesus actually start living and proclaiming what Jesus actually said. Yes, of course, salvation is a free gift of God, offered by grace, received by faith. Of course no one is going to “get it” all immediately (or ever). But the same Bible that teaches that freeness and grace also says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s time to consider what that might mean, not just for Donald Trump, but for me and you, our communities and the world in which we live. After all, is it really possible for great God of creation and redemption to enter into a human soul or community without leaving a mark? I think not. I sincerely hope Trump’s conversion is legitimate. The fruits of repentance will tell. They will be lived out in his personal and political life. That’s what the gospel teaches us, anyway. It’s what it’s always taught us, whether we wanted to acknowledge it or not.

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Tom Fuerst blogs at He is the author of the forthcoming Underdogs and Outsiders. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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