Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump consider themselves to be Christians. Those who have had the audacity to call their claims into question have often stirred a firestorm of criticism. Faith is often seen as a very private thing which no one has the right to challenge or question. I would suggest that the difference of opinion stems in part from two different ways of understanding faith and Christianity. For lack of better terms, I will call these two viewpoints “Traditional Christianity” and “Progressive Christianity.”
Traditional Christianity crosses denominational boundaries and has always taught that all human beings have sinned against God. Our sinfulness manifests itself in specific attitudes, thoughts and actions, but is more deeply rooted in ultimate allegiances to power, glory, honor, wealth, religion, family, self, entertainment—anything but absolute allegiance to the God of the Bible! This sinfulness has separated us from a holy God and results in his wrath against us. No amount of good works on our part can make up for our rebellion. By ourselves, our situation would be hopeless.
The solution, however, was provided by God Himself who became human in the person of Jesus Christ, lived among us as a perfect example, and died a torturous death as an atoning sacrifice in our place. God applies the benefit of this sacrifice—a right standing before Him—to all who repent of their sin and turn in faith to Jesus as their lord and king.
Repentance is often misunderstood. To repent is not just being sorry we’ve sinned. To repent means to have a change of mind or a change of heart. A repentant heart is one that no longer looks at sin as merely a mistake. It no longer relativizes sin as if the fact that I’m not as bad as others somehow excuses me. It no longer excuses sin as the fault of my environment, or circumstances or genetics, or parents. Repentance emotionally and intellectually comes to grips with the fact that I have rebelled against a holy God and am without excuse. This heart attitude, coupled with a sincere desire to change, is repentance.
Faith is also widely misunderstood. Biblical saving faith is not just believing certain facts about Jesus, like his deity or resurrection—as important as those facts are. Even demons have that kind of “faith”! Saving faith is not just trusting that God is going to take you to heaven. Jesus said that many on judgment day will say to him, “Lord, Lord…”, but he will say to them, “Depart, you workers of iniquity.” Biblical saving faith is a heart attitude of loving devotion/ commitment/ dedication/ allegiance, to Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and King; trusting him alone to make us right with God. This kind of repentance/faith cannot help but result in a change that produces increasing obedience to Jesus, our King, resulting in love, kindness and compassion (theologians call this “sanctification”). Biblically speaking, repentance and faith are like two sides of the same coin. Repentance turns from sin. Faith turns toward Jesus.
Although some traditionalists will quibble with my wording, I would argue that this gospel has basically been the core teaching of Christianity for 2,000 years, precisely because it is so thoroughly and solidly rooted in the New Testament. Admittedly, this teaching has been widely distorted at times by both Catholics and Protestants. For example, many in the Roman Catholic Church have, throughout history, seemingly substituted good works, or adherence to rituals, or commitment to “the Church” for genuine devotion to Christ. Among Protestants, John Calvin, once denounced those who have no devotion toward God and yet falsely think they are saved just because they intellectually believe certain doctrines. The view Calvin denounced is still wide-spread in contemporary Christianity. But these are distortions of Traditional (biblical) Christianity.
A second kind of “Christianity” is what I will call, “Progressive Christianity.” This also crosses denominational boundaries but tends to be found more in old, mainline denominations. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg calls this the “emerging paradigm.” This is misleading, however, since Borg’s “emerging paradigm” is pretty much the same as “liberal” or “modernist” Christianity and has been around for over two hundred years. Progressive Christianity tends to deny what Traditionalists have—for almost two thousand years—seen to be core doctrines of the Christian faith—e.g. the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the bodily resurrection, etc. In Progressive Christianity, the core ideas of sin, repentance and final judgment tend to be ignored, downplayed, denied or even denounced. Progressive Christianity is primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with being kind, compassionate, loving, tolerant and non-judgmental towards everyone (the book by Marcus Borg cited above gives a detailed explanation and defense of this view). In this view, faith is not so much loving devotion to a person but a feeling or preference for a particular religious worldview. How dare anyone call in to question your personal preference!
Evangelicalism once stood firmly in the line of Traditional Christianity, though in recent times, many evangelicals seem more like practicing progressives. What I mean is that while these progressive evangelicals technically still hold to core tenets of the faith, they tend to shy away from teaching doctrine, and they ignore or downplay ideas like sin, repentance and final judgment. Preaching on sin and repentance may seem too judgmental, intolerant and politically incorrect to Progressive congregations. Like the liberal version of Progressive Christianity, the evangelical version seems to focus largely on tolerance, love, and compassion.
Of course, love and compassion are essential features of any version of Christianity, but the Progressive version is problematic. First, traditional Christianity places a great deal of emphasis on biblical standards of honesty, ethics, biblical morality etc. In the book cited above, Marcus Borg characterizes this as an emphasis on purity rather than on compassion. The problem is that when compassion and tolerance are separated from biblical standards or “purity,” they quickly descend into inconsistent and sometimes even hypocritical relativism.
Secular progressives, for example, loudly preach tolerance, and yet they are often among the most intolerant people on the planet—showing tolerance only toward the views they support! Being compassionate toward someone (e.g., a rapist) may unintentionally involve being uncompassionate toward someone else (e.g. his victim). Non-discrimination toward one group may necessarily involve discrimination toward another. Love, compassion and tolerance must be rooted in absolutes—what Borg decries as “purity” standards, which Traditionalists find in the Bible—or else the result is often inconsistent relativism.
Second, unless love and compassion flow out of a heart of repentance and loving devotion (faith) toward Jesus Christ, our acts of love and compassion are really nothing more than the kind of works-righteousness or works-salvation denounced so strongly by the Apostle Paul. Paul strongly and repeatedly insisted that no one is saved by the good works they do, but only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Besides, if our ultimate allegiance (faith) is not to Jesus as King, then any good works we do are but “filthy rags” to God since they would be coming from a heart which is ultimately in rebellion against God.
Finally, the idea of faith as a feeling or personal preference is a modern viewpoint congenial to modern pluralist sensibilities in which would be loath to place any one “faith” or religion over another (except by way of personal preference). It is certainly not, however, the viewpoint which, according to the New Testament, was taught by Jesus and apostles. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus taught, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the apostles and very earliest followers of Jesus would have considered many modern “Progressive Christians”—whether of the liberal version or the “evangelical” version—to be Christians in name only. And when I look at the "fruit" of the words and deeds of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, I find it hard to believe that the apostles would have considered either of them to be Christian.