Donald Trump’s Sandbox

December 21, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

Donald Trump

Credit:  Huffington Post

I decided it would be best to wait for a while to write on what has become Donald Trump’s now infamous proposal that there should be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” for a couple of reasons.  First, the outrage, predictably, over Mr. Trump’s ban was fierce and fast and I wanted to allow some time for it to cool.  Reacting to the hottest thing is not always the wisest thing.  Second, I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts on what has transpired.  It is a tricky thing for a pastor to write about a politician and I never do so lightly.  This is why I also feel compelled to state upfront, lest there be any confusion, that, though I do reference certain political realities, the primary purpose of this blog is not to analyze Mr. Trump’s politics or campaign.  There are others who are far more adept at these types of analyses than I.  I do believe, however, that Mr. Trump’s ban on Muslims has worldview and theological implications that are important for Christians to recognize and to address.  Indeed, what fascinates me most about Mr. Trump’s ban is not so much what he proposed at first, but how he has continued to defend his proposal.  In an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael, the presidential candidate argued, “It’s not about religion. This is about safety.”

Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban on non-resident Muslims entering the country is not about religion, though it may be in some sense politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  He is, after all, singling out adherents of a religion – not citizens of a nation or members of a political party – in his ban.  This is about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

There is no doubt, as we continue to deal with the fallout from the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism is real and that national security should be a top priority.  But what often gets overshadowed in so many of our frenetic discussions concerning radical Islamist terrorism is Islam itself and the people who practice it devotedly on a daily basis.   Islam, before it is anything else, is a religion with a developed theological system.  It makes claims about what is true and what is false, what is orthodox and what is heretical.  This is why I am sympathetic to the many Muslims who have claimed that the people who carry out terror attacks are not true Muslims.  In the eyes of these Muslims, radical Islamist terrorists have said things and done things that have placed them so far outside the pale of orthodox Islamic theology that they cannot be called Muslim, at least in any theologically responsible sense.  I would argue in like manner that what members of the Westboro Baptist Church have said and done has placed them so far outside of the pale of orthodox Christian theology that we cannot consider them to be Christian in any theologically responsible sense no matter what the marquis on their “church” may claim.  But it is only through explicitly religious and theological analyses of these groups that we can arrive at such conclusions.  Thus, a theological understanding of and, I would hasten to add, a theological repudiation of what has happened in these terrorist attacks is inescapable.

Though he probably does not realize it, Mr. Trump’s assertion that his ban on Muslims entering the country can be made without thinking through the religious implications could only be taken seriously in a secular liberal society like ours.  In a recent column for The New York Times, Ross Douthat explains how secular liberalism views Islam:

Secular liberal Westerners … take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in …

Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.[1]

The secular liberal view of religion is one where orthodoxy always takes a back seat to pluralism and transcendent ethics must eventually bow the knee to today’s contingent truths.  Theological claims must ultimately give way to political and cultural concerns.  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this is precisely what Donald Trump assumes when he claims his ban on Muslims is “not about religion.”  He assumes the long-standing theological heritage of Islam can be quickly and easily ushered aside to make way for a security-driven ban on Muslims in the same way some progressives presume the theological distinctives of Islam can be breezily brushed off in favor of a Western-style spirituality that calls for no real doctrinal fidelity from its adherents.  In Mr. Trump’s case, the politics of security have, excuse the pun, “trumped” any real discussion of theology.  What other name can there be for this kind of prioritization but secular liberalism?

One need to look no further than to the middle part of the previous century to see what happens when secular liberalism gets what it wants.  Mainstream Christian Protestantism now lies in ruins because it bartered away its classical theology for a bourgeois intellectuality acceptable to a politically-minded modernity.

Confessional Christians are in a unique position to discuss with Muslims potential solutions to the crisis posed by radical Islamist terrorists because, for all we disagree on, we at least agree that theology matters and ought to be taken seriously.  It is a particular theology, after all, that, no matter how grotesquely perverted and morally repugnant it may be, drives, at least in part, the aspirations of ISIS.  Such a theology needs to be confronted, deconstructed, and condemned, which, thankfully, is precisely what some Muslim theologians are doing.  An appreciation for theology can also lead us to question whether or not a whole religious group should be summarily and indiscriminately dismissed with the wave of a hand and a flip explanation that a ban on this group is not about religion.  If a group defines itself religiously, as do Muslims, it probably behooves us to respect, study, and take this group’s theology seriously.

Certainly, there would be challenges in any honest theological discussions between Christians and Muslims.  I am no Islamic theologian, but as far as I can tell, Islamic theology does not conceive of an Augustinian distinction between a City of God and a City of Man like Christian theology does.  It is this distinction, outlined for us beautifully in Romans 12 and 13, that has allowed Christians to work comfortably and conscientiously in all sorts of governmental systems, including in American democracy, because they understand that no matter what the system of government, the City of Man that is human government is ultimately, even if hiddenly, under God’s control.  The Christian’s call, then, is not to try to create a Christian government, but to be the Christian Church. In Islamic theology, such a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man does not feature nearly so prominently, if, some might argue, at all.  Mosque and government go hand in hand.  Even so, many Muslim majority countries have figured out ways to create at least some distance between their religion and their rulers.  In this way, then, Christians and Muslims have plenty to talk about, for we both struggle with how to live out our respective faiths in our societies, even if our theologies of how our religions relate to our rulers differ.  Furthermore, we agree that traditional religious categories like orthodoxy, heresy, truth, revelation, prophecy, and deity are important, even if we disagree on how each of these categories, right down to the category of deity, should be filled.  But at least we agree that questions about theology are more important and, ultimately, more enduring than questions of politics and power.  This is more than can be said for some in the secular left.

I do not think that Mr. Trump has rigorously thought through the logical and theological inconsistencies of his statements about Muslims.  I suspect he offered his ban to score political points with his base while also tweaking the milquetoast de rigueur of many of the political elites.  I also have a feeling that Mr. Trump might take issue with me claiming that his ban on Muslims “is not about religion” actually shares with secular liberals an assumption about the nature and importance of theology.  But even if he’s doing so naïvely, his comments betray that Mr. Trump is still playing in the secular liberals’ sandbox.  And the consequences of such a foray, to use Mr. Trump’s own phrasing, are “yuge.”

[1] Ross Douthat, “The Islamic Dilemma,” The New York Times (12.12.2015).

Entry filed under: Current Trends. Tags: , , , , .

Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donald A Novian  |  December 21, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Good piece Pastor Zach. And yes I do believe we can and must coexist. I have some Moslem friends and former co-workers and feel I can trust them just like my christian friends. So yes I take exception to Mr. Trump’s complete ban; however, I do believe our government needs to do a better job of weeding out the good and bad emigrants. If we can coexist with the many radical groups already in our country, we can and should coexist with “ALL” religious persons……….

  • 2. jon trautman  |  December 21, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Thanks for a great blog….Loved your comments on the de-evolution of mainstream churches to adapt to a political correct, ”wanna be cool” secularism, and the re-write of their theological beliefs. Also, the 5 pillars of Islam…Faith in the oneness of god,daily prayer,giving of alms, fasting, and participating in the hajj have nothing to do with the murdering of innocents. Great read…..even though I had to read it twice due to the restraints of my intellectual capacity.

    Merry Christmas JON

  • 3. Mark Hoelter  |  December 21, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Zach – I resonate to and understand much of your commentary, including your critique of liberal ideology that downplays the value of religious thought and distinctions. But I don’t think Trump is “playing in the secular liberal sandbox”. Why do so many right-leaning Christians join his game? I think that as Christians, we should be deconstructing the fundamentalist ethic of fear and lovelessness that is cheering Trump on. A blessed Christmas to you and Melody.

  • […] Last week on this blog, I discussed the danger of trading theological integrity for political expediency in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed ban on all non-resident Muslims entering our country.  As I explained, Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban is “not about religion,” though politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  His ban, I argued, is necessarily about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people. […]

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    […] Although I do not think it is always inappropriate to discuss a particular candidate in a blog (I myself have done so), I do believe that a pastor should enter into such discussions with more than a fair share of […]


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