Being Christian During A Trump Presidency

by Aristotle Papanikolaou

When it comes to voting, I had always thought that there was never a way for Christians to vote with clean hands. Regardless of party or candidate, a Christian could not vote without being implicated in supporting principles that are counter to Christian faith. And that’s how it should be: Christian witness points to that which is more than the political. Put another way, the political is something but it is not everything.

If Christian witness is to point to what is more than the political, then Christian responsibility is not done after we vote; it only intensifies after an election. No matter who is elected, Christians must always exercise a prophetic voice.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, Christians would have had to exercise this prophetic voice—some would have focused on her failure to promote a consistent ethic of life, while others might have targeted her collusion with special interests.

The reality is, however, that we have a Trump presidency: so what should the Christian prophetic voice look like now? 

First, Christians must condemn unequivocally Trump’s vulgar statements about women. He boastfully proclaimed that because he was rich and famous he could “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Since Trump has been elected, I have heard Christians—including women—say that God has answered prayers in the election of Trump. It is very hard for me to believe that God would have intervened to elect a president promoting “pussy grabbing.” Trump has apologized for the statement, but then dismissed the seriousness of the comments as locker-room talk. This dismissal does not inspire confidence that he will not abuse his office, nor does it unequivocally signal that such behavior is wrong. The US presidency is a powerful symbolic presence not simply in this country, but in the world. Christians should demand of Trump that he take concrete measures to signal that any form of violence against women is unequivocally unacceptable. Rather than using the power of the presidency to demean women, he needs to use it to honor and value all Americans, over half of whom are women.

Second, Trump has never definitively disavowed support from the various leaders and forms of white supremacist groups in the country. This is a serious problem. As a result, it has emboldened white supremacist groups and has created doubts about Trump’s commitment to fight racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Christians must demand of Trump that he publicly disavow any and all support from white supremacist groups, and that he not appoint anyone to any position of power—let alone his Cabinet—that has any remote ties with white supremacist movements. It is not the case that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist; however, if Christians do not prophetically demand of Trump that he publicly disavow white supremacist support, then Christians are complicit in extending and empowering racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Third, Trump has made negative statements about Muslims and Latinos and has mocked disabled people. This does not inspire confidence that Trump has any respect for difference—one of the landmark principles of the United States of America. One of my students confessed to me that she is now afraid to walk around New York City wearing her hijab—this is sad. There can be reasonable debate about immigration reform, but many statements by Trump regarding difference are not reasonable. Christians must demand of Trump that he publicly retract his statements that he will block Muslims from entering this country. Christians must also lead the way in extending hospitality to the stranger. Jesus never said “love thy neighbor, except when you’re feeling insecure.”

What Christians must avoid most is what I call political Nestorianism, which is a politics of dualism, a politics of us vs. them, a politics of demonization. What Christians need to struggle to realize, and this is an ascetic struggle demanding spiritual commitment and discipline, is a politics of empathy. A politics of empathy calls all Christians to attempt to imagine what it would be like to be in the body of a woman who has been physically assaulted; what it would be like to be in the body of a Muslim afraid to wear the hijab in public; what it would be like to be in the body of someone who is fearful of a hate crime because of their sexuality; what it would be like to be in the body of someone whose disability might subject them to mockery; what it would be like to be in the body of a person of color who lives in a country where slavery is its original sin and who endures continual suspicion in this country due to the color of their skin. Such a politics of empathy is part of what I would call a politics of theosis—it is part of our struggle to love as God loves in the world.

Trump has made specific statements that have scared many people. Christians cannot simply dismiss those statements as empty rhetoric. Christians must exercise their prophetic voice. If they do not, then they are complicit in racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and mockery of all difference. Without prophecy, Christian witness is a failure.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.