Largely overlooked in Donald Trump’s nuclear-level comments disparaging Sen. John McCain’s war record was another, possibly more illuminating quote Trump gave at the same Iowa event. Moderator Frank Luntz asked Trump, a Presbyterian, a very simple question: “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?”
The audience chuckled at the question—this was Trump after all—but to his uncharacteristic credit, he seemed to seriously consider with the question. Alas, that consideration resulted in the following response:
“I’m not sure that I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
He attempted to clarify that in a borderline incoherent word salad, but his general thoughts remained clear: Trump doesn’t believe in asking God for forgiveness.
This is not deep theology. One needn’t be well-versed in Barth and Calvin to see the holes in Trump’s line of thought. Any third grader who’s watched Veggie Tales could have answered Luntz’s question. It’s central to all major strains of Christian thought.
So it is curious that a CNN poll from last weekend found that Trump has handily wrangled the support of of America’s right-leaning white evangelicals, with 58% of them saying they want him to remain in the race. The study also confirmed that 52% Republicans at large want Trump to remain in the race, and 22% think he’ll eventually take the nomination.
(Notably, non-white evangelicals have not thrown their hats into Trump’s ring the way their white peers have. There is certainly no shortage of reasons for why that might be.)
Now, any polyscience major will tell you that, fifteen months away from the actual election, such studies need to be taken with a serious grain of salt. The national attention span is fickle, and will likely flicker between several candidates between now and the actual GOP nomination.
But the question remains an interesting one nevertheless: Why are evangelical voters, faced with a historically large number of candidates, currently enamored by Trump? Conservative evangelical voters’ personal beliefs are certainly well represented by the likes of Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson, all of whom have spoken eloquently about their faith. That’s to say nothing of Governor Mike Huckabee (no relation to this author) who is an ordained pastor.
So, what gives?
It’s not his proposed policies. Meryl Streep has made her political platform clearer than Trump has in this election cycle. He’s expressed a lot of anger about the current state of immigration, Iran negotiations, Planned Parenthood, health care and trade regulation, but you could fit his stated plans for reforming those things into a Tweet. No, Trump’s appeal lies in something deeper.
When talking to Trump’s supporters, you hear about how refreshing he is. The thinking seems to be that although his foot may be rather inextricably lodged in his mouth, he at the very least is speaking his mind, and that is a welcome change of pace from Capitol Hill’s doublespeak. His supporters tend to qualify a lot of their praise with something like “I may not agree with how he says it, but…” There is a certain charm, the thinking goes, in his bald-faced honesty. It’s an improvement over hypocrisy.
There’s a troubling underlying assumption here that equates honesty with being a jerk. The idea is that Trump’s touches of meanness, xenophobia and arrogance are unfortunate but understandable byproducts of his authenticity. Today’s politicians are too nice and too eager to please. Trump is a necessary pendulum swing.
It’s a bad sign for the state of American discourse when the only options available to us are to be reasonable but spineless or mean-spirited but honest.
This isn’t just Trump’s problem. It’s common to all of us. How often have we allowed ourselves to say cruel, belittling things to others because we’re “just being honest?” How easy is it to forgive our lapses in kindness and thoughtfulness under the blanket of being authentic?
Likewise, it’s just as easy to bend the truth a little for the sake of being “agreeable” and “nice.” We’ve all sounded a bit like politicians angling for votes by burying cold truths that need to be said under a mountain of qualifications and what passes for kindness. We call it being “loving.” We’re often just trying to get elected.
“Speaking the truth in love” is something Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians. Considering how often the phrase is brought up, it’s surprising that Paul added it in almost parenthetically. It’s brings up the end of a lengthy, beautiful passage about the need for unity and maturity in the church. He describes how easy it is for young Christians to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” before explaining the welcome alternative: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up into him who is the head, into Christ.”
So, speaking the truth in love is more than just a nice idea. It’s a pathway to maturity and wholeness.
The problem is, when it comes to speaking in truth and love, most of us are very good at one or the other. That is, we tend to speak in truth or love.
We wear truth and love like hats, and swap them as need be. Someone is wrong on the Internet? Time to speak the truth. A friend is making some dangerous, bad decisions? Time to be loving. Someone challenges a personal belief we hold dear? Truth. Someone says something insensitive about someone else’s race or gender? Love.
It’s a pretty easy way to live, and a lot of people get a lot of mileage out of it. But the higher, better way that Paul advises means integrating love and truth fully into your speech, at the same time. It means being sensitive and being honest. It means saying hard truths in kindness. It means never confusing “speaking your mind” with “speaking the truth,” and never confusing “loving one another” with “trying to be loved by others.”
This is where Trump goes wrong, but it would be unfair to single him out. Lots of politicians miss the mark here. So do lots of writers and pastors. And really, so do we all, on occasion. But the future public discourse does not lie in further entrenching ourselves in love or truth, but love and truth. And while it would be exciting to see a presidential candidate exemplify that in their own lives, it’s even more important to start living it out in our own.