“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” – Donald Trump
“I don’t question anybody’s Christianity because I honestly believe that’s a relationship you have with your creator and it only enables bad behavior when someone from the outside of our country talks about Donald Trump.” – Former Governor Jeb Bush
“He’s not a guy who’s been running around wondering who’s pure and who’s not. So if he said that, I’m sure he would regret having said that, because it’s not up to any of us to judge who’s good and who’s bad.” – Governor John Kasich
The oft quoted and misunderstood story about Donald Trump’s and Pope Francis’s comments about the U.S.-Mexico border wall revealed something shared by the majority of American Christians. The three quotes above, by one former and two current presidential candidates, present a reality that ought to disturb Christians of any confessional stripe. It is the view that the state of one’s faith is a matter entertained exclusively by the individual alone before God. The role of the church and its pastors is reduced to a merely advisory role, stripped of any real authority, to be ignored or assented to at will by the individual Christian.
This mistaken view is common to Americans, born out of a society that privileges individual liberty and, by extension, seeks to maximize a person’s ability to decide every aspect over his or her life. With religion, the laudable and necessary concept of individual liberty has been pushed to an extreme. This view is a product of a peculiarly American version of Christianity born out of the Second Great Awakening, a series of revivals which occurred across the eastern and Midwestern United States between 1800 and 1830. Those revivals took the Protestant Reformation’s privileging of the individual relationship between the Redeemer and the redeemed individual, and pushed that idea to the point where the individual conscience is the sole and absolute arbiter of right and wrong before God. The consequence being that church communities and their pastors may be present to offer companionship and advice, but cannot exercise authority to keep their congregants accountable to leading the Christian life. For too many American Christians, a church is a seen as a voluntary association of believers where any authority is, at best, advisory because it is wholly subordinated to the authority of the individual. Priests and ministers, according to this thinking, cannot hold people accountable for their actions as being Christian or not Christian. (This is why I do not call this American form of Christianity a Protestant Christianity, because most Protestant churches confess an authority with their churches and clergy.)
In addition, this attitude is often part and parcel of an anti-intellectual faith. It hinges on the idea that God directly inspires and informs the individual conscience to the point that many Christians today rely on that influence alone without the help and direction of a cleric, a religious, a lay minister, or a church community. They absent themselves from any formal catechetical and theological education, and the individual study of the Christian theological tradition except, perhaps, reading the Bible.
This view is a problem because the mastery of holiness and virtue cannot be achieved alone. Our churches, backed by centuries of pastoral experience and the presence of the Holy Spirit, possess unsurpassed expertise in human nature, including our vulnerabilities to vice, our licit needs, and our desire for God. The Church has the mission to be a community of virtue and holiness always present to provide support, encouragement, and yes, admonishment and correction so we can have the moral and spiritual foundation for responsible adulthood. These candidates forget that our clergy, ministers, and teachers are educated not to judge the disposition of our souls before God. Only God can do that. But, they can and must judge the Christian nature of our human actions, which do impact our relationship to God and neighbor. Church authority is a sign to the world that we are not simply a voluntary association of persons who, incidentally, happen to love Jesus. Instead, we are a communion of persons called into being and vivified by the Triune God who bear the Kingdom of God into the world. We seek to transform that world into a community of character and holiness in prophetic defiance of human caprice, whim, or social fads.
Maturity for the Christian is an invitation by God to build on the moral foundation developed in childhood within our churches, and grow into greater and more profound levels of commitment to virtue and holiness. Conversion is not reserved for those who enter Christianity from the outside, it applies to those who are already Christian but want to live that life with ever greater levels of commitment. This conversion is a discipline that requires the continued guidance and support of our church communities and its religious authorities. Our greatest saints and theologians were never exempt from the discipline of knowing God through authoritative guidance, study and prayer in a church community; neither are we.
These three presidential candidates’ comments reveal the degree American Christians have forgotten that elementary truth about the Christian life.
Ramón Luzárraga is Division Chair of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.