Who are the REAL Christian Americans?
The thing about words is that we have to agree on what they mean in order for them to work properly. On several occasions, I’ve gotten myself into trouble on social media simply by misunderstanding what people have meant by using the word Christian in their statements. My mistake has been in assuming that others have meant the same thing I would have meant were I the one using the word. But I've since learned a technique to avoid these misunderstandings, and navigate conversations about Christianity much more peacefully.
For example, during the recent presidential campaign season, when leaked audio files revealed Donald Trump making lewd statements about women to Billy Bush, things got a little dicey when an old friend—whom we’ll call JD—posted the following Facebook status:
As one who identifies as both Christian and American, but not much of a Donald Trump enthusiast, I was taken back by this statement—totally confused about how Trump's disgusting behavior had anything to do with me, personally. I commented:
And this sparked a whole lengthy discourse that eventually moved to private messages as JD couldn’t figure out why I thought his statement was a generalization, and I couldn’t see how he thought it wasn’t.
I knew JD from our former days in the world of non-denominational, evangelical Christians. (Or what members of that world simply refer to as Christians). He and my husband went to Oral Roberts University together, an evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So I was familiar with the Christians he was referring to. I tried to explain to our old friend that he was only speaking of one type of Christian, and many (if not most) other Christians actually would not associate with Trump in any way whatsoever.
JD assured me that he was not my enemy (which I already knew), and he said, “May I suggest that in the future rather than assuming someone is lumping you in or generalizing you and your deepest convictions (especially someone you've known to share those convictions) you just ask them to explain their meaning.”
I took his words to heart, and sincerely sought to understand why he said what he did. As it turns out, the statement was his own way of trying to make a connection with the younger evangelical Christians in his life who were becoming disillusioned about their spiritual heritage by watching their parents and leaders continue to promote Donald Trump as the Christian candidate, despite this man's many unchristian qualities. JD said it felt hypocritical to them, many were walking away from the faith, and this was clearly heavy on his heart.
I got it. I knew those young, disillusioned evangelicals. I was that young, disillusioned evangelical. And they are often on my heart as well.
JD shared statistics about how 80% of Christians were leaning towards voting for Trump at the time, and I asked him to share with me the source of his 80% figure, because I never take stats at face value. I have to know as much about statistical information as possible to get an idea of what it's really saying. Otherwise, I just disregard it. So he shared an article with me citing several statistics about Christian voters, and after my own analysis, I responded:
Since then, whenever I read something that includes words like Christian or Christian Americans, if the statement makes absolutely no sense to me, I mentally substitute those words for Evangelicals or White Evangelicals or American Evangelicals, and voila! The statement usually makes much more sense, and I spare myself the trouble of defending myself when no one was really talking to or about this particular Christian American in the first place.
"What unites us is much greater than what divides us."
Now, I can continue to make these nuanced interpretations in my mind. But we could also start using the word Christian a lot more accurately as well. In reality, Christians are the entire collection of people who worship the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. We are the ones whose prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And some of us happen to be Americans, too. There are many, MANY different expressions of Christianity, and we tend to disagree on some details, but as a Roman Catholic Christian, I believe that our mutual Baptism unites us all to Christ Himself, and therefore, to each other in a special way. And as Pope St. John Paul II said in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”
So what unites us must be so intensely great, right? Because we tend to create pretty spectacular divisions. Take the way we approach American politics, for example. This, right here! What we are doing, right now! The thing is, while we may be real Christian Americans, we don’t always have truly Christian responses in life. Sometimes real Christians are also real hypocrites, myself included, and even those who don’t follow Jesus can tell that we’re betraying the real Christ. Oddly enough, it is this very quality in us that makes us need Him so much.
If we're going to acknowledge this weakness of ours, though, then we also need to acknowledge the fact that sometimes real Christians respond to life in truly Christ-like ways, and this is extremely powerful, and beautiful. These things happen when Christians remember to pray to God in a way that both speaks and listens. We remember that Jesus called peacemakers blessed. That He wanted his people to be unified. One. That things like pride and anger are natural, but they easily become deadly sins when left unchecked. So they need to be replaced with humility and forgiveness.
Sometimes we remember to be wise and compassionate, and in that wisdom, we realize that God is infinitely bigger than our American politics. He existed long before this country began, and will reign long after—eternally in both directions. So we don’t lose sight of eternity amid the daily chaos of temporary things. We chose to serve others, instead, because that is how Jesus changed the world, and that is how we are meant to as well.
Sometimes we remember to be wise and compassionate, and in that wisdom, we realize that God is infinitely bigger than our American politics.
Right now, so many of my fellow Christian Americans are very quick to disown each other in the face of our current political crisis. This is not the heart of Christ, and even though so much of what I see saddens and frustrates me, I still claim every single one of these very real Christian Americans as my spiritual relatives. The ones who voted for Trump. The ones who voted for Hillary. The ones who voted 3rd party or didn’t vote at all. The ones rioting in the streets, and the ones speaking out against the rioters. American politics are complex, and usually require us to prioritize certain issues while sacrificing others in order to participate. Sometimes we choose to prioritize different political issues as they relate to our faith. So Christians can follow the same Jesus, and still vote differently. But if Jesus is the One they rely on to save them from themselves, then yes, they are my Christian brothers and sisters. And for the times when our responses are less than Christ-like—when we Christians are more hateful than loving, more arrogant than humble, more foolish than wise, more divided than unified—for the times we make it harder to see Christ clearly, rather than easier, I do sincerely apologize, for whatever it's worth. We are supposed to be better. Like lights. And it was never ourselves that we were meant to glorify—only Jesus Christ.
So that’s where I point. To Jesus, still. Because the most real Christian response any of us can have, American or otherwise, is to continue looking to Him, pointing toward Him, hoping you won't give up seeking Him on account of our failures, because we know that only He can help us, and as a nation, we sincerely need God's help if we're ever going to get through this.