When faith meets politics, does being a 'good Christian' matter?

People lay hands on then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they pray during a pastors leadership conference in Cleveland, Ohio, in September of 2016.

At a conference for Christian colleges in California this month, one topic in particular wafted through seminars and workshops, permeating conversations among professors of every discipline: President Trump and his impact on the conservative faithful who did so much to help loft him into the Oval Office.

Can people who espouse by-the-Good-Book principles of Christian living continue to embrace a president who – to cite a few first-year lowlights – conflated the protests of white nationalists and anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, played fast and loose with facts, used vulgarity to describe Haiti and Africa, and most recently was accused of paying off a porn star to hide an alleged affair?

That question has fired up debate, and exposed fissures, in even the most Bible-abiding circles. “There is a lot of dispute right now…about what [being a good Christian] means and how that carries over to political stances and how we vote,” said  conference attendee Greg Schaller, a professor of political science at Cairn University, a Christian college in Langhorne.

Camera icon Cairn University
Greg Schaller, professor of political science, Cairn University.

“I know self-identified conservative evangelicals who would never vote for Trump because of his personal behavior, divorces, affairs, his moral character, and that he has not been strongly aligned with a faith most of his life,” Schaller said. “At the same time, I know some strong, self-identified conservative evangelicals who believe it was right to vote for him, the only correct vote to make. Then, there are people in the middle who say they disagree with a lot of what he stands for, but it was down to the lesser of two evils.”

In the November 2016 election, 81 percent of white evangelicals supported then-candidate Trump, along with a majority of Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, according to a Pew Research Center study. One year into his presidency, his job approval has declined among some Christian groups, but remains highest among white evangelicals, at 72 percent.

The past week alone bore witness to the ongoing willingness of conservative faith leaders to draw a dotted line in the sand for Trump, even in the face of damning accusations.

In a CNN interview, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, minimized the importance of the president’s alleged liaison with Stormy Daniels by saying it occurred “11, 12, 13, 14 years ago.” He described the reported comments about Haiti and African countries as the rough language of a businessman. He said Trump was a “good man” put in the White House by God.

Tony Perkins, president of the activist Family Research Council, told Politico that he would grant Trump “a mulligan…a do-over” on past bad conduct – providing he puts forth policies favorable to evangelicals on bedrock issues such as abortion, support for Israel, and religious freedom.

For the Rev. Dr. Frank James, president of the Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield and Philadelphia, the rationales raise “an important question that requires some self-examination: What are we driven by – our political and cultural concerns, or our biblical, theological concerns?”  The answer is evident to him. The theological meaning of “good Christian” has been co-opted by politics.

“Our faculty is very concerned about not only the question of what does it mean to be a good Christian,” James said, “but what does it mean to be a Christian at all?”

In a collection of essays to be released this week, faith leaders examine what the book’s editor, the Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton,  calls a crisis among evangelicals in the Age of Trump.

“When people representing themselves as mature Christian leaders are endorsing someone whose life seems to be a subversion of what that leadership is all about, that’s a problem,” said Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

In one essay in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social and Theological Meaning, Shane Claiborne, a Philadelphia-based Christian activist, asserts that the core beliefs that have historically defined an evangelical – “a personal relationship with Jesus, salvation by grace of God, a love for the Bible as God’s Word” – have been hijacked by a contemporary image that accommodates some of the very things Jesus decried, like self-righteousness.

“We’ve become known more for who we’ve excluded than who we’ve embraced,” writes Claiborne, a leader of the nondenominational movement Red Letter Christians, which opposes the incursion of politics into faith – from the right or the left.

Camera icon Ekemini Uwan
Ekemini Uwan, a theologian from Germantown who is co-host of the podcast Truth’s Table.

Asked what constitutes a good Christian, James pointed to the Bible and Micah 6:8 specifically: “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Theologian Ekemini Uwan, of Germantown, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and co-host of the podcast Truth’s Table, referred to the New Testament. When asked about the greatest commandments, Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” But the second most important resonated with Uwan, no fan of the president: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“When you love your neighbor as yourself,” she said, “you should walk into that voting booth thinking about who’s struggling…How do I vote in a manner that benefits them?”

Camera icon Kathryn Getek Soltis
Kathryn Getek Soltis, assistant professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education, Villanova University

A more detailed set of requirements is outlined in Matthew 25: 34-35, said the Rev. Dr. Dan Williams, pastor of New Life in Christ Fellowship in Coatesville. Explaining who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, “Jesus said, when I was hungry did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you provide water? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was in prison, did you come see about me?” Williams said.

In other words, he added, “How you treat others is paramount.”

But the very act of defining a good Christian is a loaded proposition, said Kathryn Getek Soltis, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University. By identifying the “good,” one also conversely identifies the “bad” or the “fake.”

And that, said Soltis, “is not very Christian.”