Televangelist Mark Burns warmed up the crowd at a Trump campaign event in Hickory, North Carolina today. His message was, um, special:
“Bernie Sanders who doesn’t believe in God. How in the world are we going to let Bernie? I mean really? Listen, Bernie gotta get saved. He gotta meet Jesus. He gotta have a come to Jesus meeting,” Burns said.
This is obviously not the right thing to say at a presidential campaign rally. Sanders is running for a secular political office, which is mandated by the First Amendment not to be subject to a religious litmus test. Burns could argue that he was just giving Sanders some spiritual advice, but come on, that’s barely even a fig leaf. This is clearly telling Trump supporters not to vote for the Jew.
The threat to America’s historic separation of church and state is plenty to talk about, but I’m actually more interested in a different aspect of the story. Burns’ comments led Vox’s Matt Yglesias, among others, to wonder: “Isn’t it baseline Christianity that everyone should find Jesus?”
Well, no. Christians have always had equivocal ideas about the conversion of Jews in particular. Paul repeatedly argues in his letter to the Roman church that Jews and Gentiles stand as equals in terms of salvation. At the same time, he’s quite critical of Christians who lapse back into Judaism, and the entire New Testament is fraught with a sometimes bitter rivalry with mainstream Judaism as Christians are slowly moved out of it. Likewise, major theologians like Augustine and Luther said on the one hand that Christians should treat Jews with respect, and on the other assured their followers that Jews would burn in Hell with other non-believers. (Luther in particular was given to noxious anti-Semitism in later years.)
Perhaps the kindest theologian before the modern era was Calvin, who affirms God’s covenant with Jews, even as he calls them “obstinate” and says the majority are bound for “altogether cast off and doomed to eternal death.” After Calvin, it became a commonplace among theologians that the Israelite nation would be converted at some point.
In the twentieth century, however, official teachings have softened. The Catholic church, while refusing to explicitly endorse a “dual-covenant” theology, has made it clear that Jews are not subject to its proselytizing missions, and that it does not doubt that God can save Jews through sovereign grace, without comment on conversion. Protestants have gone further, affirming explicitly that God’s covenant with the nation of Israel stands.
More important, American Christian laypeople are generally what you might call “practical henotheists”: that is, they believe their brand of religion is the right one, but they refrain from judging other paths. In fact, according to a Pew Research poll from 2014, nearly two-thirds of all Christians agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Surprisingly, that’s down from 70% who said the same thing in 2007, which I suppose tells you something about how fractured we’ve become as a nation.
Less of a surprise: of the major groups, Evangelicals are the least supportive of this idea, at 52%, and they’ve also declined the most from 2007, when 57% said yes. Close behind are Historically black church members, who went from 59% in 2007 to 57% in 2014. Even mainline Protestants have slipped a bit, but at 80% support for universal salvation (Catholics 79%), I’m not sure that’s really a big deal.
So to answer Yglesias’ question, no: exclusionary ideas may have been the norm for Christians historically, but they’re not now, even for the majority of Evangelicals.
But let’s be serious: given his nativist and barely-coded racial remarks, do you think Trump is really seeking voters who want to generously extend their faith’s salvation to non-members? Of course not. His base are the people who want to restore Christianity to the center of American life, making it the norm for judgment in this life and the next. There’s no doubt that he’s aiming squarely for what we might call the 29%’ers—the Christians who think their religion is “the one true faith.” It’s all part of the package of “Making America Great Again.”
That might work well for Trump in the primaries. The Republican base is running angry and exclusivist this year. But it puts him badly out of touch with the majority of Catholics, mainline and Evangelical Protestants, and most important, the ever-growing ranks of the religiously un-affiliated, who really, really don’t give a damn what faith Bernie Sanders holds or doesn’t hold. Can a man walk into the presidency after pissing off 66% of American religious voters? We may soon find out.