That’s complicated isn’t it? On the one hand, it feels like youth pastors have a responsibility to say something. Trump embodies and communicates unchristian positions about women, refugees, foreigners, the disabled, human rights, and personal morality. And now this man has the ear of every teenage son and daughter in America. My daughter, and every daughter in our student ministries, will hear from the steps of our highest office a message that treats them below what God has declared. Doesn’t that deserve a response?
But on the other hand, if the youth pastor does speak out against Trump’s indiscretions, it isn’t just a moral statement, but a political one too. If the statistics are anything close to accurate, the majority of my students’ parents voted for Trump. And those parents don’t expect their kids to be told how to view political candidates, especially not at youth group. Even if that’s not what I intend by my commentary, that’s certainly how it will be perceived. Not only that, but by denouncing Trump you are also denouncing a religious right, and the moral calculations millions of parents made, for their own sake, and presumably for their kid’s.
America’s love of the binary complicates the matter even more. In our country’s language, to speak against Trump (or republicans) means you are for liberals. In almost every political conversation I have, to hold a contrary position on a particular party-issue is met with the charge of being against all party-issues. The knee-jerk goes: ‘Well you must be a liberal!”
Nuancing this conversation even further is that you – the youth pastor – are not the (capital-P) Pastor. Perhaps parents would tolerate this from the pulpit on Sunday morning, but is it really the youth pastor’s place to speak into issues this important? Is the “youth guy” really an authoritative opinion on our public leaders?
When morality is politicized, how does the youth pastor respond? And should they?
I feel all these things deeply. I feel inadequate to speak to these big issues. I feel too low on the totem-pole to teach our body how to think about politics. I repeat in my head, “that’s for the ‘real pastors’” and “It’s not my place to speak about politics, I just need to preach the gospel.” And that’s true as far as it goes, right? We should avoid needless controversy and let our only offense be the gospel. But as complicated, delicate, and nuanced a response this situation demands, youth pastors must speak out against Trump’s actions and words. I sincerely believe gospel-issues are on the line.
An important theme running throughout Scripture is the “imago dei.” The “image of God” is this God-given spark that sets us apart from the rest of creation, and puts each human on a level ground with one another. All people – regardless of color, or gender, or any other defining trait – are unique pictures of God’s goodness and diversity. This image was given to us at creation, and we were told to cultivate it and spread it throughout the lands, to give glory to God as we reflected His image on the earth. Throughout Biblical history, we have rejected God’s vision for the world, and instead chosen to deface and devalue His image. We see this in Cain’s murder of Abel, and Babel’s attempt to hoard God’s glory through human progress. Despite this, God redeems that image by recreating us in Christ. In Christ, we are invited to begin again God’s glory-spreading, image-diversifying force in the world until all tribes and tongues worship Him around the throne.
It’s because of this that youth pastors have a responsibility to say something. Trump proclaims through his words and actions that there is no image of God to be respected, and no value in the Christian’s diverse future. Let me expand on both.
1. There is no “image of God.”
For Christians, equality is mandated since we are all God-breathed and God-formed. Since God made both whites and blacks, men and women, Haitians and Chinese, each are to be accorded equal dignity, value, and protection.
So as much as Trump might say he contends for “equality,” his words prove otherwise. From Trump’s platform, people of color, women, and “the least of these” are consistently met with vitriol, name-calling, race-baiting, fear-mongering, and (in the case of women) objectifying and worse. Trump’s character and his words are at odds with gospel-shaped Christians. He refuses to offer the quality of speech that would “have done unto him.” And in doing so, he commits the same sin as Adam, Cain, and those who built Babel. Accounting his perception of truth as weightier than God’s decrees, Trump seeks to build his own kingdom on fear, intimidation, and power.
You might say there is no reason to expect Christian behavior from a non-Christian. That’s true, but 1) public Christian figures are saying otherwise, and 2) Christian’s have a responsibility to speak truth to immoral and unchristian powers. John the Baptist was our example in this. He was beheaded for his “political” critique of Herod’s lifestyle.
In his words and behavior, Trump isn’t just acting like a non-Christian. He is teaching Christian teens a worldview that is utterly contrary to the gospel of Christ. He is teaching our students how to see the “other.” And that picture isn’t pretty. Trump’s candidacy and presidency has emphasized and crowbarred open deep divides in America that he refuses to address. He has placed Muslims, Syrians, women, and refugees on the far cliff of chasms called Civility, Dignity, Respect, and Worthy of Protection. In doing so, he sets up one group as more deserving, more image-bearing than another. If our students take that message to heart, the results will be insidious to say the least.
The imago dei doesn’t just mean equality in person and dignity, but also equality of consequence. Because we were equally given God’s image, we are also called to extend that dignity equally to all of God’s image bearers. Our failures in this regard mean we all equally deserve death. But that’s eventually good news! When our sin is total, then our salvation can be totally a gift of grace. Freely given, and “unsnatchably” secured by God’s hand.
In our politics, as soon as one group is more deserving and another group less, it’s only a matter of time before that worldview spreads to our faith. We will forget that not one of us deserved the grace that saved us. It will become easy for our idol-factory hearts to churn those widgets of pride and superiority down the conveyor belt, leading us to believe our salvation lays somewhere inside of us. And to the extent that our own efforts, or our own superiority give us confidence of our salvation, that is the extent to which we are robbed of our security of salvation.
2. The future hope of the Christian is illegitimate.
One of Scripture’s great promises is that on the last day we will worship Jesus with people from all tribes, nations, and tongues. The great Christian victory is a multi-cultural and diverse celebration (Revelation 5). One of the first implications of the gospel is that we are to become an ethnically diverse church (Ephesians 2:11-22) and that we are to be ministers of that reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-22). One of the Universal Church’s first edicts was to provide a way for Jews and Gentiles to share meals together (Acts 15:1-29). The new earth will be multi-cultural, and it will be beautiful. Trump has no intention of working towards a world that looks like what God has planned. In many ways, he serves to undermine it. The big buzzwords are “globalism” and “nationalism” – and those are distractions. The Christian future is neither a secular globalized utopia, nor is it a culturally-neutral “nationalism.” It’s a Church, unified in its core beliefs and diverse in its skin-color and its linguistic and cultural expression.
Since we have no voting record, all we have are Trump’s words, language, and rhetoric. And his words do not speak grace, his language does not communicate gospel-imperatives, and his rhetoric tells us that the heavenly Kingdom planned for our nation has no part in his agenda. Yet, it’s exactly to people like Trump for whom grace is intended. He, like us, is an image bearer of God, and deserves all the dignity that comes with that description. Should the youth pastor denounce Trump? We should denounce his actions; gospel-truth is at stake. But should it stop there? By no means! We must passionately extend the same grace offered to us by fervently praying for him, far more frequently than we call him on his faults.