A few days ago, in the midst of a contentious Presidential election year, candidate Donald Trump decided to voice opinion about comments that were made by Pope Francis. The Pope commented on Trump's campaign promise to build a wall to slow the movement of illegal/undocumented persons into the United States through the Mexico/U.S. border. In the course of those comments, the Pope stated that anyone who builds walls instead of bridges is not a Christian.
Trump fired back at the Pope. Trump called the comments disgraceful. Specifically, Trump felt that as a religious leader, the Pope had no grounds for claiming that Trump is not a Christian.
Since that time, Trump has backed away from the heat of an argument. He responded to Anderson Cooper about the remarks by saying that the comments may have been softer than the news media had reported. He even made the claims that he liked the Pope and complimented the Pope's work.
Here is where I need to step in.
As I read it, Donald Trump feels that as long as a religious leader is doing good work and being charismatic and very full of energy, then a religious leader can remain on his good side. But when a religious leader is calling a person to account for their behavior or intervening into a private issue, such as religious faith, then it is disgraceful.
I think Donald Trump may be the ideal American religious person.
He does not feel that any person has a right to judge another in areas that are privately held. And he is not alone. There is a huge sentiment within our culture that says, "I have a right to believe whatever I want and you don't have the right to judge me or hold me accountable." The privatization of faith is well entrenched even in our churches.
Who has the right to hold Christians accountable for their actions or deeds or behavior?
Who has the right to determine what defines a "good Christian"?
Who has the right to establish the boundaries for what it means to be a person of faith or a person outside of faith?
All of these questions have become personalized over the course of the last 400 years. One consequence of the European Reformation was that faith became a personal issue. Stepping out of the authority of the Pope began to localize authority. The Orthodox Church functioned that way from the beginning. But within the rest of European Christian experience until the Reformation, Christians were bound to the authority of the Pope and Church. After the Reformation, authority began to be localized in protestant groups. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and so on, grew up around an authority based within the group.
But after the Enlightenment, when "all" persons were established to have rights and freedoms, then the localized authority became privatized. This was not an immediate reaction. It has taken time to become fully enmeshed in Christian culture. But it is clearly visible within the life of Christians.
Or are they Christians?
There are plenty of surveys and polls taken on how religious Americans are. And the numbers have been consistently higher than the middle. The most recent trends put the number of "christians" in the 60-70% range. And there is a lot of hand wringing over how those numbers are dropping. But when you compare those numbers to markers of how Christians live out their faith, you begin to see the discrepancies. Church attendance and participation, prayer, reading the Bible, participating in service or mission outside of church all show significantly lower percentage numbers.
Maybe I can be accused of using statistics and numbers to justify. But I also look at how often "christians" take to social media and betray a lack of love and justice and kindness and mercy within their souls. I can hear people talk about how they will not forgive someone or they deserve to be treated better or another person is less valued and I know that is not coming from a heart like Christ.
I am not perfect. I make mistakes. And at times I wonder how "christian" I am. But in the midst of that falling short, and being honest about it, I can become better. I can improve. I can become more like Christ. And everyone can, too.
But I cannot do anything in another person's life if they do not believe or accept that I have the authority to do so.
God has placed a call on my life to be an apostle - sent under the Holy Spirit's power and guidance to be a voice of authority regarding life, revelation, and Scripture - to guide others in becoming mature in their faith and following of Christ. The United Methodist Church has seen (graciously) fit to ordain me under the authority of a leader (the Bishop) to be a religious leader among a community of believers. If I am to be faithful to my calling, then the authority granted to me is to evaluate another believers life (check the membership vows of the United Methodist Church) and hold them accountable to the life they claim.
We all are called as followers of the Christ to live by a different set of boundaries. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a different kind of life. And God has joined us together in community to lead and guide each other in following those boundaries and leading that life. Religious leaders have the authority to call another person's belief into question if it does not fall within the boundaries or if their life has taken a different path.