Dear Thoughtful Pastor: What does it mean that Donald Trump has accepted Jesus into his heart? Has Hillary Clinton accepted Jesus into her heart? Thank you for your reply.
Let me state this clearly: I am not able to enter into the minds/hearts/souls of anyone, including the two candidates for the highest office of the land.
However, your question touches what has been all over the religious news this past week: a statement by religious leader James Dobson that Trump “has accepted a relationship with Christ.”
In a radio interview, Dobson described Trump as a “baby Christian” who still needs to learn the language of the faith. Since the Trump campaign has not confirmed this conversion experience, I will only speak to the general nature of such a decision.
The idea of “accepting Christ” or “inviting Jesus into your heart” or being “born again” as a means of conversion appears to be fairly recent in the history of Christian thought. It emerged sometime after the 16th century Protestant Reformation, but probably not recognized as a basic Christian conversion method until the mid-twentieth century.
Billy Graham’s version of the “Sinner’s Prayer” popularized it:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name.
I became familiar with this methodology during my post-undergraduate foray into the world of Campus Crusade for Christ. Under the charismatic leadership of Bill Bright, untold millions of “The Four Spiritual Laws” booklet were printed and read/given to others as a way to bring them into the Christian life.
The prayer in that booklet reads,
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. Amen.
The idea of “accepting Jesus into your heart” or “receiving Christ” was to serve as a marker by an adult into a radically different life and way of belief and being. It was never intended as a free pass or ticket to heaven without other responsibilities. Instead, it means that a new person, one freed from the binding power of sin, is emerging. As a rule, baptism follows the conversion moment.
Clinton, however, was brought up in Methodism, with its heritage through the Anglican Church back to Roman Catholicism. Children are generally baptized as infants. Family and church community take vows to support them and teach them how to be Christian through their own lives and words. At a time when they can make decisions for themselves, they “confirm” their own faith after a period of intensive instruction. There are certainly adult conversions, but the emphasis in on rearing children in the faith.As a Methodist, Clinton would have internalized the General Rules of the church: Do all the good that you can, avoid evil, and stay in love with God. At Confirmation, she would have affirmed her baptismal vows. They include this phrase or something similar to it with the expectation of a “yes” response:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
Any methodology that marks the entry into Christianity “works” with adequate follow-through. In both cases, i.e., the individualist Sinners’ Prayer or the communal Baptism/Confirmation methodology, the proof is always in the pudding.
How is the faith lived out? In the history of Christian thought, conversion with the expectation of eternal life has always been coupled with the expectation of a life on earth radically changed.
I believe it is unfair to Trump to loudly trumpet his late-in-life conversion. Anyone who has sought significant life change knows the difficulties involved and the ongoing challenges of living faithfully. Trump should have been offered private support and accountability, not public proclamation.
The ideal: build habits early, starting in childhood, of charity, compassion, generosity, kindness, personal integrity and love for God and neighbor. This process then gives time for the normal questioning of childhood faith that almost all late teens and young adults who have been raised in any religious environment need to undergo. This way they can own their own faith lives and work through the “proof in the pudding” of their conversions.
The sum of the answer to your question: We probably will never know for sure if Trump “Accepted Jesus into his heart” or the internal details of Clinton’s religious life.
We can, however, look at their concerns for the poor and marginalized and see what the pudding looks like. These concerns are central to Christian thought and reach far back into Christianity’s roots in Judaism. Caring for “widows and orphans,” i.e., the most vulnerable of society, those without family or any means of protection of economic survival, has always been a hallmark of a well-integrated person who’s religion does revolve around love for God and love for neighbor.
[Note: a version of this column is scheduled to run in the July 1, 2016 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. Please email questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.]