Many of my fellow Christians have been watching in horror and dread as Donald Trump has continued to rise in the pools, knocking out his rivals for the GOP nomination one by one. And now that he is the last man standing, many life-long Republicans are turning in their cards and searching for new alternatives. Myself, I’ve never committed to any one political party, so the political upset before us isn’t hitting me as personally as it is some. But the big question on a lot of peoples minds is “How ever did Trump get this far?”
Those who read my blog with any regularity may also be wondering what I think I’m doing, trying to write about politics. Indeed, political science is not my strong suit.
But I have studied theology, the Bible, and also a great deal of history. And as a minister who particularly has the job of preaching a sermon every week, it is part of my role as an attentive pastor not only to have one foot in “Bible land” but the other foot “in the world,” as preaching is about bridging the gap between the two. So cultural observation is an important part of my job as a member of the clergy, and every now and then I come across thoughts about some of the why’s and how’s of current events.
Politically speaking, Donald Trump is all over the map. He has a history of supporting Democrats, even though he’s running on the Republican ticket. I’m told his economic and governmental views are not entirely typical of right-wing politics. He has been quoted to say that his own campaign website might be inaccurate, revealing his penchant for “changing his mind” from event to event as suits the whims of his audience.
What Trump is, however, is pragmatic. He wants to win, and he will do whatever makes sense to achieve that goal. This can lead to a great deal of self-contradiction and hilarity. Tired of Mexican immigrants? Build a wall! Want to win over the evangelical vote? Talk about faith! These (and probably many other) examples are rather silly; building a wall isn’t a terribly helpful plan, and the authenticity of his Christianity is widely doubted. Despite all that, though, he has something going for him here: American culture is extremely pragmatic.
Perhaps this has something to do with what some sociologists like to call “the Protestant work ethic.” With a practical view of life separated from traditional religion and traditional aristocracy, the American colonists formed a culture of hard work and independence. The quintessential American, realizing the American Dream, is the man or woman who starts out with little, applies himself or herself through honest work and diligence, and ends up rich and successful.
Although a litany of failed businesses have been dredged up to argue that Trump is not really a wise businessman, it goes without saying that he has been a successful businessman somehow. He work hard, and has become wealthy; he sets goals, makes priorities, hires and fires, and achieves. Ignoring his methods and his ethics, Trump is a veritable American poster boy. The culture of pragmatism is in his blood, and people recognize that. Granted, there is much that he lacks, and there are many reasons to be upset at his ascension through the electoral process thus far, but I believe it is his pragmatism that has made him so popular and successful thus far.
what to make of all this…
The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most appropriately direct Christian response to the philosophy of pragmatism. The book begins by exclaiming “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” Purely on a pragmatic, or materialistic, or worldly perspective, life is a vain exercise – ultimately meaningless. The world continues on long before and after we live on it.
It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. – Ecclesiastes 1:13b
This, I think, is the kind of thing we have to remind ourselves when considering the success of folks like Donald Trump. He is operating on a principle that doesn’t last. The allure of pragmatism is its immediate sensibility. But what seems sensible “right now” does not often line up with what’s wise in the long run, or even what is moral and just and right. Certainly there seems much in what Trump says and represents that appears heartless and ignorant; he represents a brutal form of pragmatism. But a pragmatist he is, and for better and for worse Americans love a pragmatist.
As Christians we have to remember that such worldly philosophies all have their limits, and Donald Trump is perhaps a good reminder of the downfalls of pragmatism, and indeed the very American Dream that “made America great.” In this regard it’s no great surprise that Trump is doing so well in the polls. And thankfully this turn of events is causing many Christians to reassess their political alliances and affiliations. Too many of us have attached the Christian faith to various worldly causes and philosophies for too long; it’s time to explore anew what it looks like to be a Christian in this place and time without the clutter and intrusion of non-biblical worldviews.