Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Faith and the Election. Read other perspectives here.
Now that Donald Trump is the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, we can look back at some of the promises he has made. Of interest to the current Patheos Public Square conversation on faith and politics are his promises to make businesses say Merry Christmas and his pledge to “work like Hell” for Christian power.
In February, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas TX Robert Jeffress told a rally that if Donald Trump is elected that evangelical Christians “will have a true friend in the White House.” Trump followed Jeffress’ remarks by declaring:
Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker and I had a meeting with various ministers and pastors about two months ago and I’m pretty good at figuring things out. And I say with them and some of them said we love you. We want to endorse you but we are afraid if we do we are going to lose our tax exempt status. And I said what’s this all about. That takes you and makes you less powerful than a man or woman walking up and down the street. You actually have less power, and yet, if you look at it, I was talking to some, we probably have 250 million, maybe even more, in terms of people. So we have more Christians — think of this — than we have men or women in our country, and we don’t have a lobby because they’re afraid to have a lobby because they don’t want to lose their tax status. So I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition, and we’re going to have the strongest Christian lobby, and it’s going to happen.
About Christmas celebrations, Trump said.
We’re going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ now on Christmas. We’re going to start going to department stores, and stores, and you’re going to see big beautiful signs that say, ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday,’ and we’re going to have a big, big, big lotta fun.
Working “like hell” seems like an apt description of what Trump has in mind. If we can take him at his word, he plans to somehow coerce business owners to post Merry Christmas signs and favor Christianity as a kind political lobbying force.
There is another religion Trump mentioned briefly in his February speech and then repeatedly throughout the campaign. Trump has famously suggested shutting down some mosques and banning Muslims entering the country. If Trump wins and he follows through on his promises, Christianity will have a “true friend” in the White House and Islam will have quite an adversary.
Does Christianity need this kind of help? Will special help make America great?
The issue of Muslim (Mahometan) participation in the new Republic came up during the North Carolina debates over ratification of the Constitution in 1788. Some delegates expressed worry that the lack of a religious test would allow atheists or people from non-Christian religions to be elected to office. In the debate, James Iredell, appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington in 1790, answered concerns that a pagan or Mahometan might gain office:
But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened. Nor would it answer the purpose, for the worst part of the excluded sects would comply with the test, and the best men only be kept out of our counsels. But it is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own. It would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines. The divine Author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority. Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? It made much greater progress for itself, than when supported by the greatest authority upon earth.
Justice Iredell addresses the Trumpish desire to favor Christianity over non-Christian religions. Iredell told his North Carolina peers that even the “least difference” opens the door to persecution. Iredell, speaking as a member of the majority, exhorted his colleagues to resist the temptation to consider themselves always right and others wrong.
As Iredell warned, favoritism can lead to persecution which is why the Constitution protects religious freedom and included the clause barring religious tests for public service. Moreover, Iredell argued, Christianity needs no assistance from the government. He asserts that religion should take its own course and stand on “the excellence of its own doctrines.” If Christianity is the religion it claims to be, why should it require “worldly authority?”
James Madison wrote in 1785, “every page of it [the Christian Religion] disavows a dependence on the powers of this world.” The same is true today. Christianity does not need a “strong lobby” or a “true friend” in the White House to accomplish its mission. We don’t need governmental power to enact a coerced allegiance to our religion. It is unconscionable that Trump would promise such a thing and worse that ministers of the Gospel would applaud it.
Christianity doesn’t need Donald Trump’s kind of help.