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Donald Trump is taking some flack for his crude, opportunistic Biblical reference to a captive audience of evangelical Christian students at Liberty University last Sunday. Eager to show he was one of them, the Republican presidential front-runner—uncharacteristically consulting some notes—told the gathering: “Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame.”
(Actually, I think most Christians would probably cite John 3:16 as a better summation of Christian doctrine.)
“Where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty,” quoted Trump, relying (as do many fundamentalist Christians) on the King James Version of the New Testament published in 1611.
(I personally prefer the modern Jerusalem Bible translation: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The Revised Standard Version—essentially an update of the KJV—also renders the Greek word eleutheria as “freedom.” Apparently Trump wanted, in a couple opening sentences in his address, to kill several birds with one stone. He would pay tribute to his host institution’s name, cite some Bible passage to convey sincere religiosity, and publicly declare his allegiance to “Liberty” as a patriotic concept. Quite likely he Google-searched “Bible” and “liberty” and stumbled on this passage.)
Trump has since been mocked by the press and blogosphere for his odd mode of citation; the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians is usually referred to in brief as “Second Corinthians,” not “Two Corinthians.” To many churchgoing Christians the reference sounds jarring, or amusing if not offensive. To an academic student of the Bible it sounds like someone on the outside looking in. It sounds the last thing Trump wants to be: dumb. Stupid.
The fact is, Trump has displayed utter indifference to the Bible other than to endorse it to religious crowds—as a book even better than his own Art of the Deal! He has, with a grin on his face some might actually find condescending, alluded to the sacrament of Communion as a rite in which you “drink the wine and eat the cracker.”
(I’m not suggesting that the ritual in reality entails any more than that; I am not a believer. But then, I’m not pretending to be, and Trump is. And you notice that little smirk he can’t control when declaring his own religious affiliations.)
What is Paul Really Saying in II Corinthians 3:17?
So anyway—what’s this “whole ballgame” crystallized in Second Corinthians, referenced by Trump at Jerry Falwell’s U? Let’s look at the whole passage:
“As it is, to this day, whenever Moses is read, their hearts are covered with a veil, and this veil will not be taken away until they turn to the Lord. Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Does Trump have a clue about what this means?
The New Testament, as you know, consists of the four gospels, which purport to tell the story of Jesus’ life; the Book of Acts describing the emergence of the early Christian community up to the 50s; assorted letters (“epistles”) attributed to the apostles; and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. The letters attributed to Paul comprise almost half of the total content of the New Testament.
Paul, of course, was the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” a Jew who had once persecuted the followers of Jesus but then (in his “road to Damascus” experience) become a believer with a special sense of mission: he would preach primarily, not to the Jews (as Peter, James, Matthew, Mark and the other disciples of the crucified Jesus were doing) but to non-Jews bringing them the message that the Son of God had died for everybody’s sins.
Paul’s message, which was initially resisted by the leaders of the nascent Jesus movement in Jerusalem, was that the “old testament” or “old law”—the massive body of religious rules found in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, supposedly conferred by God Almighty to Moses on Mount Sinai (and very comparable, by the way, to Muslim Sharia law)—was not binding on new followers of Christ. Put simply, one did not need to become a practicing religious Jew to become a Christian. That’s the point of Corinthians 3:17.
Paul’s “freedom” mentioned in Trump’s citation is liberation from the burden of the old Law, a spiritual freedom arising from the belief that Jesus will “save” any sincere believer. It’s a freedom connected with the notion of human equality in the sight of God. Elsewhere Paul famously declared that “in Christ there can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). (The French communist philosopher Alain Badiou praises Paul as the “founder of universalism.”)
This conviction had extraordinary ramifications. Jesus’ disciples were, according to Paul’s epistles and the Book of Acts, won over to Paul’s opinion that Gentiles could become followers of Christ and members of their emerging community without submitting to Old Testament law. The “Council of Jerusalem” circa 50 CE alluded to in the Book of Acts and in Second Galatians may have inaugurated a global ekklesia even while the Jesus movement was still taking shape in Roman Judea.
Paul traveled all around his native Anatolia (Turkey) as well as Greece and possibly Rome, preaching to mixed (Jewish and Gentile) audiences in synagogues or sometimes more publicly. He especially appealed to Gentiles who believed in the God of the Jewish scriptures (available in Greek translation) and who desired salvation but didn’t want to observe the Law. He was followed by many others who proselytized non-Jews. Especially after the fall of Jerusalem in the Great Revolt (66-70), the Jesus movement evolved from a small Jewish sect with internal debates about inclusivity to become a highly diverse world religion “free from the veil—as Paul might put it—of the Laws of Moses.
Liberty…from Rules that Profit Nothing
The Old Testament Law of course included the requirement of circumcision (Leviticus 12:3). Every male descendent of Abraham must be cut on the eighth day. But for Paul, who frequently references this phenomenon, it’s no longer necessary. According to Paul, it “profits nothing” for a Gentile convert to be circumcised, and indeed to have it done after the resurrection of Christ, is virtually a statement of lack of faith (Galatians 5:2).
I suspect it’s because it wasn’t so difficult for a Greek, Roman, Syrian or any other non-Jew male attracted to the Christian movement to adhere to Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath observance etc. But the prospect of being circumcised was daunting, and in a society where public bathing was common, a potential embarrassment. We might say Paul made a good practical move here, easing the ekklesia admissions process beyond what James or Peter might have wanted. Or But let us assume that Paul truly believed that this quintessential Jewish rite vital to Jewish identity had become irrelevant to the believer’s salvation.
This (as I understand it) is the doctrine of “salvation by faith” (as opposed to salvation earned through “works”) at the core of Paul’s theology. It is at the heart of Scots Confession (1560), a seminal document of the Presbyterian Church in which Trump repeatedly claims membership. Whatever one might think of this message, it’s in fact the “whole ballgame” here.
And again, part of the message is that “in Christ there is neither slave nor free,” as Paul had written to the Galatians. He conveys this to the Corinthians as well in his two letters (which are likely edited from three or four originals). He depicts the Christian freeman as a slave of Christ and the Christian slave as free in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:24); that is, he does not question the institution of slavery itself but promotes a concept of eleutheria that can accept the existing class system.
While readings these letters one should be aware that Corinth was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire in Paul’s time, and home to its largest slave market. Trump having brought his Bible passage up might have treated his audience to some basic exegesis. (Nah.)
The “liberty” Paul refers to here is not that discussed by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, which related to limits on government power. It has little resemblance to the concept held by the Sons of Liberty in colonial Massachusetts in the 1760s. It’s not a modern concept that would seem immediately relevant to contemporary politics. So what was Trump alluding to, in his rambling rant to the young Christians corralled into the lecture hall to hear him last week, as the liberty that constitutes the “whole ballgame”?
Is it not clear? The liberty from want that propelled Trump’s real estate career and produced a fortune that can fund a presidential campaign independent of the traditional donors. Trump boasts of his freedom from lobbyists.
(I’ve always assumed as a rule of thumb that the candidate with the most corporate backing will win the nomination and the presidency. In this case, however, the spiraling fortune of Wall Street favorite Jeb! suggests that this may not be the case. Trump provides a new model: a candidate to be chief executive of the U.S. ruling class who can fund his own campaign (on a dime as it turns out), owing no political debts; who can draw upon a huge fan-base due to his TV celebrity status; and who has some Machiavellian savvy abetting his ambitions.)
In Christian theology, the term “antinomian” is used to refer to the concept that the Old Testament Laws do not apply to Christians. (Or at least not all of them.) The term is sometimes used more generally (and negatively) to refer to someone who believes that the laws governing other people don’t apply to him or herself.
Trump is an antinomian in the latter sense. He truly thinks he is special.
Especially, he enjoys the liberty from rational thinking. The liberty to say anything you want and suffer no ill consequences but on the contrary, get surges in your poll numbers. The liberty to press the limits of outrageous speech, sit back and rejoice at how totally stupid people can be.
A child of privilege, Trump has had it all. The best education (he constantly reminds us). Good genes! (I don’t know what he cites more routinely, his MIT genius uncle or the 60-year-old veteran raped and sodomized by the illegal immigrant.) Stunning business success; billions and billions in hard-earned wealth. A best-selling book telling other people how to succeed. A popular TV series advertising himself. A sex life to boast of; three trophy wives. A firm niche in popular culture. Celebrity.
St. Paul preached that the believer finds liberty through faith in Christ. The Donald preaches that the believer in him will make America great again through blind faith that he, the great Deal-Maker, will make it happen.
Isn’t that the whole ballgame? A billionaire narcissistic blowhard bully telling us (in the words of the Temptations’ immortal “Ball of Confusion”) “Vote for me, and I’ll set you free!” And indeed, he has his believers, especially among Christian Evangelical voters. These include Christians whose concept of liberty accepts mass deportations, a Great Wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the exclusion of all Muslims from the U.S. and the denial of abortion rights.
Some commentators seem puzzled that evangelicals are so little concerned with Trump’s many political flip-flops and lack of “real conservative” credentials. They perhaps do not understand the power of faith, and the liberty it confers to people who can’t (or prefer not to) think and to the people who’ve figured out how to exploit their stupidity.
The Obama-hater who KNOWS the president is a Muslim born in Kenya may not care to investigate the details of Trump’s life and career. (Hey we all make mistakes!) He or she may not want to know much about the man’s religion. Isn’t it enough that he says he’s Presbyterian, calls the Bible the best book ever, and says when he’s president the department stores will all have “Merry Christmas” signs in season? Just like they used to, before Political Correctness?
I think such Trump supporters understand neither their Bible nor their Trump. The St. Paul Trump cited in his awkward reference last week would have sheltered the illegal immigrant. He was a proponent of inclusiveness. The Trump who uses a random Pauline epistle passage to affirm that liberty’s the whole ballgame is something else.
Trump is betting that his management of the Evangelical question (throwing out some Bible references sometimes—concealing the indifference he feels in his gut to these random words that make no sense to him—reversing some stands on culture wars issues) will win him the business contract in the end. But can he really sell himself to the serious Bible-thumping base?
Or will they resist the tempter, have a Jesus moment, look around and shout, “Get thee behind me, Satan?”