Christmas and Donald Trump

I had occasion to spend 10 days in the USA before Advent. I learnt that in Oregon you can buy rifles in a supermarket and in Texas church ushers and sometimes the preacher may be wearing a pistol. I learnt that the Episcopal Church is not obsessed with finding a solution to the debate about same sex marriages.  ‘Never mind sex’ I was told, ‘what about people in poverty? Economic issues are far more important’.  America is not the land of mega churches: 75% of Americans worship in churches of less than 100. These churches are not full of Donald Trump supporters. People that I met were both embarrassed and hostile towards their President.

I was in Oregon for the launch of Professor Roger Newell [2017] new book Keine Gewalt! No Violence! The book outlines how the role played by the German Church in the 1940's laid down the foundations for her part in the ending of the Cold War in the 1980's. In the first half of the century the German church withdrew into pietism and individual spirituality leaving the political area to the Nazis. In the second half of the century the German church actively engaged in the civil society leading to the peaceful overthrow of Communism.

The underlying question in Roger’s book is how the Church relates to society. This question is especially relevant in the UK and USA with the Trump phenomenon on one side of the Atlantic and Brexit on the other. Being anti American is seen as the last acceptable form of racism but it is the American policies with which we disagree and not the people. The people are warm-hearted and, when I was there, asked me no end of times about whether I was having a ‘nice day’.

In the 1940s Germany the Church was told to look after people and leave society to the state. It is not for us to make the same mistake. I told my hosts that Donald Trump was a symptom and not a cause of a changing world. If he comes to visit the UK I would be happy for him to come to the church and talk about his view of the world. More significant than Donald Trump, as an individual, is the vote to put him there and what that says about the American people. It is a false morality for us not to be prepared to listen.

The USA is suffering its own form of church decline. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40% of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20% are actually in church. This still compares favourably to 2% of the population in the UK regularly attend church. America sees it as her role to send missionaries to the UK, some of whom I have benefited from working alongside []. We are all glad for the work they do in the local community.

Roger’s question is also relevant to us all socially with the Christmas celebrations in full swing. We face our annual onslaught of Christmas clichés: “remember the true meaning of Christmas; don’t forget the reason for the season; church is not just for Christmas”. The Christmas season is a modern day revival of the medieval tradition of ‘fat days’. Prior to each season of Lent, the medieval Church granted the folk a series of official ‘fat days,’ during which they might legally celebrate pleasures of the flesh before a period of fasting began. Mardi Gras [Shrove Tuesday] was one of the original fat days. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday". These celebrations became known as ‘carnival’ because they embodied the “final days of carnality”.

‘Fat days’ at Christmas bring with them the offer of cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticised the 1940's German church for peddling cheap grace. In his opinion the Church was selling off Christian truths like bargain basement goods. Are we any different in what we do now? A hundred years on we rely on the idea of cheap grace as the cornerstone of our Christmas evangelism. Like one of the big six business energy suppliers, offering discounts to new customers, the Church, at Christmas, will offer people a message of grace and forgiveness as a down payment on a future life of discipleship. Christianity should carry a health warning. The challenge of the Gospel is to give up everything and to follow Christ, not simply to light a candle, feel good about ourselves and to sing carols. The only solution to cheap grace is the refrain of George MacDonald: God loves us just the way we are but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.

This blog first appeared as an article in the Church of England Newspaper. Follow Bob on Twitter -  @RevBobMayo