I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
-1 Corinthians 4:3-5
After the Donald posted a status in response to the Pope questioning his Christian credentials, as well as critiquing any “walling” policy, a flurry of responses and arguments followed debating the wall around the Vatican City.
However I am less interested in the wall issue than the issue of Trump’s Christian credentials. I will have to be very careful and specific about the aims of this article with respect that issue lest the discussion be derailed.
“I would not open windows into men’s souls.”
I generally accept the cliché that we can distinguish between the sin and the sinner, and that the former is open to our judgement and examination in a way in which the latter is not. As Queen Elizabeth I’s popular saying goes, I have no desire to make windows into man’s souls.
The words of Queen Elizabeth is ultimately rooted in St Paul’s teachings which counsels us to pass no judgement on our guilt and innocence until the coming of the Lord when the true state of our hearts will be revealed. The distinction between outward visible actions and the invisible inner heart has been reinforced by Archbishop Cranmer in his unpublished Thirteen Articles:
In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.
Thus, it is important to note that I pass no judgement on the state of Trump’s soul, salvation or heart. My answer to those is simply, only God knows.
Determining who are members of the Church Catholic
Of course we can still make rough evaluations as to whether someone is visibly a Christian, generally speaking. However we need to be careful to distinguish between the question of whether someone is a Christian or not, as opposed to whether someone is a good or bad Christian. There is difference between saying that someone is a bad Christian and that someone is no Christian at all.
Now again if we go by Cranmer’s words a reasonable indicator of someone ceasing to be part of the Church, and thereby ceasing to be Christian, is if he has “openly denied [Christ]” or have been “lawfully and by his Word excommunicated”. Now, none of us are Trump’s pastors or elders, as such there is little we can say about Trump’s membership in the Catholic Church visible.
However, it would still be instructive for us to examine a little of how church disciplines and excommunications work in practice by referring to Rev. C.H. Davis’s commentaries and notes on the English Church Canons of 1604.
Commenting on the canons of excommunications Rev Davis writes:
It is also to be observed that the sentence is not that all such shall certainly be excommunicated, but only that they deserve it—that it is right for the authorities of the Church to excommunicate them : — “let” them “be” so. And they are not to be treated as “excommunicate” persons, until they are actually excommunicated. For, as Archdeacon Sharp observes : “They are laid under this censure here as being excommunicated ipso facto in the Canons under the first title; but, till a sentence hath passed upon them, this discipline of repelling will not reach them.” (Charge vi., p. 104.) So that, as has been observed, the import of these Canons is, that “the Church has a right to excommunicate any person who boldly and publicly affirms the Articles, Liturgy, &c, to be superstitious and erroneous.” (The late Rev. C. R. Elrington, D.D., Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College, Dublin.) Upon ipso facto excommunication it has been remarked : “The ipso facto excommunication takes effect, as to the intention of the Canon, from the moment that the fact is committed. It has not a legal effect till a sentence has been pronounced in court. The man who commits the fact, knowing the Canon, is excommunicated in his own conscience from that moment forward. If he be brought into a spiritual court, and it be proved against him, he is not excommunicated then, but pronounced to have been excommunicated from the time of his offence. The court does not excommunicate him, but the Canon. The effect of this method of excommunication is, that he is prevented from anticipating his sentence by a profession of penitence and submission. For the rule anciently was that no one should be excommunicated, except he were obstinate as well as criminous.
It is vital to note that those who do violate the canons are in fact excommunicated from the moment of the offence. However, the excommunication has no legal or public effect until a spiritual court so judges him excommunicate. Until then, “they are not to be treated as “excommunicate” persons until they are actually excommunicated”. Therefore, until Trump is so formally excommunicated by a spiritual court or ecclesiastical tribunal, and as long as he is baptised and continues professing the faith, we prima facie can still accept him as a Christian.
More importantly, the purpose of “this method of excommunication”, via a public spiritual court, is that he can prevent himself from being so publicly excommunicated when he is confronted with his charges in a fair hearing and given a chance to give a reply or a “profession of penitence and submission”. Thus, this excommunication method has as its ultimate end the inducement of repentence in the subject or the prevention of scandals to the consciences of others. What it is NOT meant to do is to separate the sheep from the goats on earth before the Day of Judgement.
Therefore, I am only concerned with examining Trump’s outward words and actions which alone I can evaluate to determine it compatbility with the Christian faith as revealed in the Scriptures. As for his status as a Christian and his heart, I prefer to leave it very well alone.
A Response to Criticisms of Trump’s Words on the Christian Faith
Now, I am by no means saying that Trump is a good Christian. My concern in this section is simply to examine some of the objections to what Trump says about the Christian faith to determine whether or not there are merits to the objections.
First, it is frequently alleged that Trump never asks for forgiveness. There are two distinct sayings from Trump which are brought as evidence for this claim. The first is this:
I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good, I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.
Now, what exactly is wrong with this statement? The only thing objectionable would be the sentence that “I am good, I don’t do a lot of things that are bad”. We can rightly object to this overconfident evaluation of the goodness of his character and that he ought to have a healthier and much more robust awareness of his sins. However, what other parts of this quote are objectionable? If someone wants to be good, is that a bad thing? Trump doesn’t want to behave in a manner which would place him in a position to have to ask for forgiveness, what exactly is wrong with that? Are we to “continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Are we sin merrily away and place ourselves in a position of having to ask for forgiveness? As St Paul answers in the next verse, “By no means!”
So we do not want to condemn the desire to do good, to avoid evil, and not to do things where we have to ask for forgiveness. So far nothing really objectionable here. Let’s look at another quote:
“I am not sure I have,” Trump said when asked if he’d ever asked God for forgiveness. “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Okay, the quote is a lot more objectionable from a Magisterial Protestant standpoint, such that we have good grounds to think Trump a bad Christian. However, does it count as so terrible as to turn him into a heathen? First, his remark about not bringing God into the picture when he’s trying to make things right. He’s definitely wrong technically about denying God’s role in our sanctification and in inspiring or guiding us in our good works. However, read charitably, that would simply make him a pelagian or extreme Arminian whereby his good works are simply the product of his free choice or decision.
What about not remembering to pray for forgiveness? Well, I don’t think he means it literally especially if he has prayed the Lord’s Prayer before. I think what he means is that he has never asked for forgiveness for specific or particular sins even though in praying the Lord’s Prayer he would have asked for forgiveness in general. But then again, how many Christians do ask for forgiveness for specific sins on a regular basis? The sort of introspective Evangelical piety isn’t exactly the norm among American Christians.
Finally what about “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right”? I don’t see much difference between this and Luther’s remarks that the best penance one can do is to not to do the sin again. Thus, to be sure he should ask God to specifically forgive those particular wrongs of his, however, it is undeniable that he is echoing Luther’s dictum that the best repentance he can present is simply not to repeat the wrong and to make things right.
In the end where does this leave us? Trump is nothing more than an average vague Christian of deistic leanings, where forgiveness is sort of assumed in the background and one’s focus is upon moral improvement. This, ironically, makes him in fact, very very American.
Conclusion: A Comparison of Trump, Constantine and Augustine
Let’s compare the lives of two celebrated figures in church history against that of Trump.
“St” Augustine had a child out of wedlock and wilfully refused to marry the child’s mother and bastardised him. Yet for such sins he not only was elevated to the episcopate but sainthood as well.
Constantine had his son and wife executed, exploited a loophole in sacramental theology to get baptised at the past minute so that he can sin merrily away throughout his life. Considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church, hailed as a hero in many other parts of Christendom.
Trump: Appeared on playboy and divorced and remarried. OH MY GOODNESS WHAT A HEATHEN.
The fact of the matter remains that Trump is not less holier than even sainted figures of church history. Of course being a good Anglican I accord the title of saint only to biblical figures and pass over in silence the sainthood of all post-apostolic saints.
To summarise my conclusion, Trump is by no means a good Christian, he certainly has questionable works and operations, e.g., operating casinos, being divorced and remarried, etc. However, unless I am his priest or pastor and am in a position to call him to give an account of his activities and hear his case, I simply prefer to pass those over in silence. In the end, the evidence suggests that he is simply not holier or worse than the average American Christian.
It looks like my reading of Trump’s understanding of the Christian faith is essentially correct according to this interview:
Clarifying his comments on forgiveness, Trump declared, “I go to communion and that’s asking forgiveness, you know, it’s a form of asking forgiveness.” During the interview the current GOP frontrunner stressed that he “likes to work where he doesn’t have to ask forgiveness.”
Trump has reiterated on several occasions on the campaign trail his Protestant and Presbyterian background, and more recently, his admiration for his former pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, a popular Reformed minister.
Cooper followed up asking Trump if “asking for forgiveness” is a central tenet in his faith life.
“I try not make mistakes where I have to ask forgiveness,” Trump answered.
When further asked about repentance again by Cooper, Trump said “I think repenting is terrific.”
“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” asked Trump. “I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”