Fact checking faith: Who gets to define what it means to be Presbyterian?October 29, 2015
Four times on Saturday in a speech in Jacksonville, Fla., Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared himself to be Presbyterian.
Trump said, “Look, I don’t have to say it,” and then said, “I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian.”
Then, with increasingly emphatic speech, Trump declared, “I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian.”
Concluding he said, “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness.”
The only way that being Presbyterian is “down the middle of the road” is if you’re driving off the left shoulder. The political and social positions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Trump’s assumed denominational self-affiliation, are so far to the left you can’t see the middle of the road anymore.
Have you seen those motorcades that avoid driving among the bothersome masses — speeding their way around traffic by driving on the left shoulder? That’s pretty much where you’d have to be to think that the PCUSA was “down the middle of the road.” The denomination’s advocacy in both Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations includes everything from amnesty for illegal immigrants to universal ammunition registration to divestment from companies doing business with Israel to progressive taxation and the redistribution of wealth and, yes, support of same-sex marriage. Bernie Sanders is much more Presbyterian than Donald Trump if you look at the PCUSA’s official social witness positions and political advocacy.
Trump seems to have an image of what it means to be Presbyterian that does not jive with the reality of his own chosen denomination.
At the outset, Trump says that it goes without saying and then he says it: “I’m Presbyterian.” Saying what goes without saying is classic political speech. Admitting that no one believes what you’re saying about yourself is not.
When Trump admits that “nobody believes I’m Presbyterian” he’s telling a truth that he doesn’t seem to understand. The repetitive emphatic insistence of his faith credentials reveals an ardent depth of feeling but not what he actually means when he says “I’m Presbyterian.”
Does he mean he’s a member of a particular church? (No church claims him as a member.)
Does he mean he actively worships and participates in church life? (No church claims him as an active participant.)
Does he mean that he tithes? (I’m pretty sure we’d know if he did as his tithe would be big news.)
Although Trump claims to be Presbyterian, no actual Presbyterian church or denomination is laying public claim to him. One assumes that he considers himself Presbyterian by his baptism as a child at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a Presbyterian Church (USA) church in Queens, NY. But does that make a person a Presbyterian?
That begs the larger question: who gets to define a term like “Presbyterian?”
Presbyterians assume that Trump means PCUSA when he says he’s a Presbyterian. That makes his affiliation with the faith tradition historic, not active. The Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, the highest ranking official in a Presbyterian denomination, issued an open letter schooling Trump on the position of the PCUSA on immigration – a position that couldn’t be further from Trump’s position.
What is a Presbyterian?
Part of Trump’s challenge on this issue is that the PCUSA itself is in the midst of an identity crisis. The Moderator of the denomination has called for a national conversation to gather public opinion around the question of the PCUSA’s identity and mission. One can only hope that Trump will participate in the cattle call for what the Presbyterian Church (USA) is and is called to be.
Maybe Trump can help the denomination find its way out of its liberal political rut that has led it into an ever deepening financial and membership ditch. Maybe Trump can help make the Presbyterian Church (USA) great again. But to do so he’s going to have to begin seeing it for what it is: a denomination that has been driven off the left shoulder on every social and political issue.
People don’t believe Trump is Presbyterian because they know where the Presbyterian Church (USA) stands on issues that differ significantly from Trump’s positions. Here’s a quick run down from the left lane:
- Abortion and Presbyterian support of Planned Parenthood
- Same-Sex Marriage
- Gun control and ammunition registration
- Tax Reform
- Reform of the financial sector
- For profit prisons
- Drones, war and surveillance