Why Bill Johnson's Defence Of Trump Is A Masterclass In Missing The Point
It now seems inescapable that evangelical Christians put Donald Trump in the White House. According to polls (although, who can trust those anymore) somewhere close to four/fifths of American evangelicals voted for the Republican nominee, as opposed to just 16 per cent who backed Hillary Clinton. The reasons for this are complex and manifold, and are almost certainly dominated by the candidates' stated positions on abortion. That said, in an age of soundbite theology and celebrity Christians, we shouldn't underestimate the effect that influential Christian leaders had on swaying those voters, either by actively supporting Donald Trump, or by refusing to speak out against him.
The support of some of those leaders was hardly surprising: The 700 Club's Pat Robertson for instance was never likely to find his way on to the Road to Damascus; his support for the eventual victor amounted to a daily party political broadcast. And conservative Christian voices like Wayne Grudem, who briefly flirted with withdrawing his commendation, were naturally so opposed to having another Clinton in the top job, they'd have pretty much supported anyone but.
Some voices of support were more unexpected and controversial, and this was certainly the case with Bill Johnson. He's a senior pastor at Bethel church in Redding, California; a charismatic church known far more for its world-conquering worship band and cancer-fighting prayer ministry than its politics. Johnson attracted his fair share of criticism for speaking out in support of Trump during the campaign, and shortly after the announcement of his candidate's victory, he took to his own Facebook page to defend that position.
Johnson's statement is a lengthy attempt to explain a biblical justification for Trump above Clinton, and was widely applauded among his own followers, who shared it thousands of times within a few hours of posting. However, while I acknowledge that Bill and I are viewing Trump's election from vantage-points thousands of miles apart, we're looking at the same Bible and seeing very different things. To my mind, Johnson's justification constitutes an extraordinarily biased and blinkered reading of the two candidates, and takes a pick-and-choose approach to Scripture. He might, like others, have suggested that from a pragmatic, pro-choice, conservative-value perspective, Trump represented the lesser of two evils, but he doesn't do that. In fact, he pretty much suggests that Trump is God's own candidate. To demonstrate, it's worth looking at each of Johnson's main points in turn:
Johnson says: [looking at the Bible] "I found that murder/abortion was wrong, which Clinton approves of even up to the point of delivery." Now I don't by any means underestimate the importance of the abortion issue in the US; it's very likely the issue on which the election was won and lost. Yet evangelicals like Johnson were able to throw their weight behind a candidate who simply claimed to have changed his mind on abortion despite previously having been pro-choice. They were also prepared to allow the facts of Clinton's support of very late-term abortion in a minuscule number of cases to become conflated with the number of abortions in the US; to the point that she became caricatured as a monster who would happily sign-off a million strong slaughter of innocents. Yes, Clinton's position on abortion is extremely problematic for many evangelicals, but the lazy polarisation of the two candidates on the issue was irresponsible and misleading.
Johnson attacks the honesty and integrity of Clinton, calling her "deceptive" and a liar. Trump's attempt to cast 'Crooked Hillary' as a total, compulsive liar was a work of truly evil genius; by suggesting the idea often enough, it took root in the psyche of an entire nation. It is an idea to which Johnson gives credence and validation in his post. True, Clinton does appear to have acted dishonestly on occasion, but Trump's own ability to lie, rewrite history and generally claim ridiculous stories to be true became a defining feature of the campaign. In one speech just before the election, he entirely fabricated a screaming exchange between President Obama and one of his own elderly supporters, when in fact Obama has quietly and compassionately defended the man's right to free speech. For Johnson to enter into the 'Crooked Hillary' narrative, and to overlook Trump's misdemeanours in exactly the same area, is to prioritise one sin over another, and to become complicit with a political spin strategy which was in itself hugely deceptive.
Johnson says: "I found that compassion for aliens (visitors to a nation) is vital, but here again the responsibility to provide safety for its citizens comes first." The first part of this statement is entirely biblical ("The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 19:34); but then Johnson shifts gear into personal political opinion as he criticises an "open borders" policy. Johnson devotedly follows a refugee; a descendant of a people whom God moved into new countries when they drifted in and out of exile. The international politics of the Old Testament is complex and can't simply be mapped neatly onto modern ideas of nationalism or the makeup of the atlas in 2016. It's fine for him to hold opinions about immigration, but he shouldn't tell us that he finds their justification in the Bible.
Johnson says: "I found that God gives us the ability to make wealth, and that merely giving people money without work can create a lifestyle of dependency that is dangerous for them and our government." By this point, we're just knee-deep in Johnson's own political opinion, a capitalist worldview which is unrefreshing but unsurprising within the charismatic movement. It's the sort of approach more likely to produce Rich Young Rulers than First-Become-Last Servants to All, but it's a legitimate perspective. Somehow claiming that you found this in your Bible is a lot more tenuous, and requires a very generous reading of certain cherry-picked verses such as Luke 10:7 ("the worker is worth his wages"). The Bible says an awful lot more about taking care of the poor and dispossessed among us than it ever says about wealth creation schemes.
Johnson says: "I found that redefining the family according to the latest immoral code is in fact cursed by God. Tragically this is a primary focus and value of the Clinton candidacy." There's so much one can say to this, and our response will differ depending on our theology. One thing on which we can all agree however is this is a hideously heavy-handed form of words for a man who has so often spoken of grace. It needlessly and unkindly kicks out at everyone – both within the church and outside it – who doesn't happen to find themselves heterosexual and cisgender. And again, to suggest that 'redefining the family' is a 'primary focus' for Clinton is the sort of tabloid generalising you might expect from, well, Donald Trump.
Johnson says: "I found that socialism is contrary to Jesus and His teachings." Now the wheels really start to come off. Outside of the church, Jesus Christ is one of the most widely-acknowledge lefties in history. He's the guy who told the rich man to sell everything and give to the poor; who espoused peace, mutual submission and service, and who said the height of being human was to love your neighbour as yourself. The church he built actually ran a communist-style system (Acts 2:44 says they held "everything in common") and continued to care for the poor throughout the early centuries of its existence. Now as a more educated and experienced Bible teacher than myself, I defer to Bill's right to suggest that Jesus wasn't a socialist, but to claim that the Bible actually contradicts a worldview of sharing everything and making sure all have enough, is frankly madness.
Johnson excuses Trump's well documented bad behaviour, suggesting that somehow the devil was behind accusations of racism, and rushes to pronounce forgiveness for his "sexually-demeaning" speech about women. These parts simply aren't good enough, especially for the millions of non-white people and the millions of women who woke up to the reality of President-elect Trump. He may now be the next President of the USA, but that does not mean that he hasn't done truly unacceptable things, nor that he gets a free pass without some serious repentance. It is absolutely a Christian perspective that enough grace should exist to forgive Donald Trump his sins, but in the circus of the last six months we have seen nothing to suggest character transformation, nor heard him offer humble, meaningful apology. Suggesting that the devil is half to blame, and that Trump has somehow instantly reformed himself simply invokes a cheap and meaningless notion of grace.
Johnson ends his lengthy statement by declaring "I believe the outcome is from the Lord." I don't doubt that, considering his obvious politics. I'm not offended by his views – he absolutely has a right to those – but I'm outraged that he would suggest that President Trump somehow offers a Christ-like, God-honouring model of leadership. There's no doubt that the views of evangelical leaders like Johnson had a profound impact on voters as they considered an undoubtedly difficult election choice. While he has a right to his own political opinions, or his own belief in The American Dream, he should know better than to declare those things biblical.
Such leadership is undoubtedly one of the many reasons why Donald Trump is now preparing to take up America's ultimate office, and part of the responsibility for that belongs with the teachers, not with their Bible.