You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.
Our patron saints
Are you a Donald Trump Presbyterian or a Mister Rogers Presbyterian?
by Derrick L. Weston
During the middle of the summer, I perused my social media and watched many recoil at the terrible news: Donald Trump is Presbyterian!
“I am Presbyterian,” Trump proclaimed in an August interview, much to the horror of many of my friends. There were many denunciations: “This can’t be!” “Well, he’s not my kind of Presbyterian!” “I don’t think he’d be very comfortable in my church!”
Fear not, my fellow PC(USA)’ers! Mr. Trump’s (non-active) membership is with Marble Collegiate Church, a Reformed Church in America (RCA) congregation. Thank goodness, he’s not one of ours!
Hold your horses. Mr. Trump attended First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, when he was a child. That’s one of ours.
A quick scan of the church’s website (firstchurchjamaica.org) shows a church that doesn’t seem too in line with Trump’s view of the world. It’s inclusive, diverse, and justice-oriented. Websites can be deceiving, but it looks like a church I would like to visit. It looks like what I hope our denomination is and can be. I wonder how different it was in Trump’s younger days.
I understand the knee jerk reaction to Trump’s declaration of Presbyterianism. A politically calculated caricature who enamors with his frankness and shocks with his offensiveness, Trump has drawn enormous crowds of supporters and equally enormous crowds of haters. He’s become many things to many people, but I doubt anyone has ever looked at Trump and said, “Now there’s a Presbyterian!”
This isn’t because he’s conservative (Trump identified as a Democrat once upon a time). There are conservative Presbyterians, and there are liberal Presbyterians. It’s because in Trump’s world, he reigns supreme, whereas in ours, that status belongs to God alone, gifting us ideally with a posture of humility, love, and reconciliation.
Now when I tell people I’m Presbyterian, I have to explain that I’m not a Donald Trump Presbyterian, and that makes me angry. As a progressive Christian, I have long had to declare my faith with the caveat: “I’m a Christian, but not the Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, abortion-protesting, gun-toting, science-denying caricature of faith that is often paraded in the media as my chosen representative.” It gets tiring having to make these endless and immediate explanations, and I suspect many of my evangelical brothers and sisters feel similarly. They may recoil at that laundry list of characterizations I just rattled off, thinking to themselves that those attributes don’t describe them either, or if some of them do, those issues may take a very different shape in their hands.
I’m no more like Donald Trump than many evangelical Presbyterians, and yet in the wash of media and sound bites, we’re all lumped together.
I think it’s time to give up on the guilt-by-association that some of us wrestle with. Donald Trump’s being Presbyterian or not doesn’t affect the quality of my faith one iota. We understand our faith differently, and the best thing we could possibly do is sit at a table together and find some point of commonality, even if it is just denominational affiliation, around which we could work out our differences. At that table, we wouldn’t make assumptions about one another based on labels or so-called representatives; we’d actually get to know each other and discover our nuances.
I’m already imagining the collective “yeah, OK Derrick” at that suggestion. So let me try another one. If we’re not ready to make Donald Trump the patron saint of Presbyterianism, and if it’s going to take some time to build unique knowledge of one another, perhaps another television personality will fit the bill.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was baptized in all things Mister Rogers. We would drive by buildings and neighborhoods that appeared in the show. I went to college not far from the studio where his show was filmed. My mentor spoke at his funeral. In fact, it was at this funeral that I was first introduced to Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, who felt the need to protest the funeral of Fred Rogers because he attended Sixth Presbyterian Church, a More Light congregation. I have the image of the “Mr. Rogers is in Hell” sign burned in my brain. This was before I knew that being protested by Westboro was a sign of a life well lived.
The recent book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers gives a stunning look at Fred Rogers, the humble, loving Presbyterian minister who, in many ways, was the anti-Trump. He was pro-peace, anti-discrimination in all its forms, radically inclusive, and a champion of the environment. He loved people and cared about how we talked with one another, especially children. As author Michael Long argues, it’s enough to say that Rogers was a compassionate person, but we have to understand the source of that compassion. “Fred Rogers was not just a compassionate human being; he was a practicing Christian who firmly believed that human compassion has its ultimate source in a God whose love for all creation never ends.” That is the kind of Christian that I want to people to think of when I identify myself as a Presbyterian.
One Sunday morning, as I was preaching at the first church I served in Pittsburgh, I noticed an older gentleman had come to visit. He smiled gently at me throughout the service and came up to speak to me when worship concluded. He introduced himself as a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church and a friend of Fred Rogers. He grabbed my hands, his kind eyes locking onto mine, and said, “Oh, how Fred would have loved that sermon!” I melted. It remains the best compliment I’ve ever received for a sermon. Rogers is a hero of my faith, and if anything I said would have pleased him, then it would have to be near the heart of God.
So let’s not be afraid to state boldly that we are Christian. And if someone should ask what that means, let us answer with one voice, “I am a Mister Rogers Presbyterian.”
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.