Max Lucado has a message for you: Do not be anxious.
That’s basically the title of his 4 gazillionth book: Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World, released last fall.
Now, full disclosure: I haven’t read this book, and beyond the Amazon blurb, I don’t know what’s in it. Obviously, that fully qualifies me to write several hundred words about it on the internet!
Kidding. Kind of.
But let’s be honest; it doesn’t take a lot of insight to notice that this book came out exactly 10 months after the election of Donald Trump and all of the anxiety that attended – and has continued to follow – it.
In fact, Lucado himself, who deserves credit for being one of the few big names in evangelicalism to explicitly condemn Trump during the campaign, sounded the first notes of his anti-anxiousness message shortly after the election:
I’m not anxious. I’m not troubled. I’m peaceful. If I’m troubled about anything it’s the kind of fragile nature of our society. We’re really at odds with each other, but I’m hopeful that with time that this will settle down and we’ll be more and more at peace.
So Lucado already was noticing a broader anxiety in American society, and the publisher’s blurb seems to indicate that’s what the book is about, as well:
Max writes, “The news about our anxiety is enough to make us anxious.” He knows what it feels like to be overcome by the worries and fear of life, which is why he is dedicated to helping millions of readers take back control of their minds and, as a result, their lives.
I want to reiterate that I haven’t read the book, so it’s possible that it goes in an entirely different direction than I’m thinking (although that wouldn’t change my argument much). Also, I don’t hold any grudge against Lucado. He’s a good writer, a good speaker and a nice guy; he and I graduated from the same journalism program (a few decades apart), so I’ve always admired him and been proud of what he’s accomplished.
But the way in which Lucado addressed Trump during and after the campaign is telling – because of what he said, and what he didn’t say. And that affects how I see his current call for people to “be anxious for nothing.”
Lucado made waves by criticizing Trump directly in a blog post that became a Washington Post op-ed headlined, “Trump doesn’t pass the decency test.”
The gist of Lucado’s argument was that although he doesn’t endorse candidates, he does feel the need to defend Christianity from those who claim it on the one hand and behave in an unChristian manner on the other.
If a public personality calls on Christ one day and calls someone a “bimbo” the next, is something not awry? And to do so, not once, but repeatedly, unrepentantly and unapologetically? We stand against bullying in schools. Shouldn’t we do the same in presidential politics?
That was published in February 2016; by October, Lucado was singing a slightly different tune to NPR:
I think these days, my main concern is not really with either candidate. But my main concern is with the anxiety that has settled upon the country. I’m concerned about the consequences of this 18-month conversation that seems to have just really sucked the joy out of our people. And so I believe that we’ve had difficulty carrying on this conversation because there is genuine fear on one side and the other that if so-and-so is elected, we’re all going to hell.
Later in the interview, Lucado said he “never disclosed for whom I am voting,” and that on Election Day he would “cast what I’m considering to be an informed vote” after getting “on my knees” the night before.
In other words, Trump was not decent enough to date Lucado’s daughter in February. But by October he was maybe decent enough to be president of the United States. With all due respect, that is not a profile in courage.
Lucado focused initially on Trump’s crudity, his mocking Megan Kelly’s menstrual cycle, his constant labeling of others as “losers,” his jeering impersonation of a disabled reporter. Then, as the election drew closer, those egregious examples become concerns about a generic, even amorphous fear afflicting both sides and poisoning the campaign.
Now Lucado has a book out once again talking about anxiety. If his public comments are any indication, it does not attempt to diagnose the causes of that anxiety. Lack of a diagnosis, however, doesn’t stop him from prescribing Philippians 4:6-7:
Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (CEB)
That’s a good message! People need to hear it.
But do you know from whom they don’t need to hear it? Someone whose skin color and wealth leave him immune to any actions taken by the Trump administration.
Because let’s be honest: Yes, Donald Trump is unfit because of his crudity and lack of decency. But he is also unfit because he spewed racism and sexism throughout his campaign, demonizing Latinos, women, Muslims and African Americans, painting them in ways both overt and subtle as the takers of money, jobs and benefits – and power, prestige and social standing – from hard-working, upright white men.
In his strongest denunciation, Lucado only got Trump’s unfitness half-right, and as a result remained confused as to why the country was plunging into a state of anxiety. Now he seems to be telling Americans on both sides of the aisle to let go, and let God.
The Anxious for Nothing blurb promises that “Max guides readers through this Scripture passage and explains the key concepts of celebration, asking for help, leaving our concerns, and meditating.” It closes by saying:
Stop letting anxiety rule the day. Join Max on the journey to true freedom and experience more joy, clarity, physical renewal, and contentment by the power of the Holy Spirit. Anxiety comes with life. But it doesn’t have to dominate your life.
I’m sorry, but that’s not enough.
If a black preacher who has experienced first-hand police discrimination and brutality wants to preach contentment, meditation, celebration and “leaving our concerns,” more power to her. If a Hispanic priest wants to encourage parishioners living in fear of ICE deporting them thousands of miles away from their children to “be anxious for nothing,” he should by all means do so.
But best-selling author and megachurch pastor Max Lucado, who not once found Donald Trump’s racism and xenophobia worthy of public condemnation before his election, is not the person to deliver that message.
Philippians 4:6 is a verse too often preached from a position of privilege. I would put more stock in rich white men telling others not to be anxious if they first acknowledged they had any idea why their congregants might be so worried in this political moment.
Telling to me is that in March 2016, in another NPR interview, Lucado pointed out that “there’s an angst in the country, and I think there’s a fear.”
And I’ve tried, maybe you can help me, I’ve tried to put my finger on the root of this fear. I feel like really we’re better off than we were eight years ago, 10 years ago in many ways. There’s certainly things we can do better at, but the economy is somewhat stable. We’re not engaged in the level of international conflict that we’ve been involved; still, you would think we were. There’s just a level of anxiety.
Lucado accurately notes that many Americans were expressing fear despite a material improvement in economic and international conditions, but is baffled as to why.
There are two problems with this:
- He flattens and makes equivalent fear of Trump with the fear fueling Trump.
- He seems oblivious of the ways in which Trump himself was using demagoguery and racism to stoke that fear, which itself predated Trump and was fueled by demagogues and racists in conservative media consumed by many of Lucado’s own congregants and customers.
Lucado has become an incredibly successful pastor and author by not delving into politics. His instincts, likely honed by his roots in the pacifist-leaning Churches of Christ, tell him to ignore the messiness of politics by appealing to broader theological concepts, such as grace, redemption and salvation.
Those instincts have served him well – until now.
As long as the political system worked reasonably well, it could be compartmentalized and ignored. Now that it’s failing, the shockwaves are reaching into all aspects of Americans’ lives, and simply breaking out Philippians 4 to tell people not to be anxious is no longer enough without addressing the inherently political causes of that anxiousness.
The fears of white Americans will not go away until popular white pastors like Lucado confront the racism and paranoia their congregations are imbibing from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart and other conservative media.
The fears held by immigrants and Americans of color will not go away until popular white pastors like Lucado stand up for them and back up that stand with political advocacy and votes to match.
To his credit, Lucado has indeed stood up for immigrants – he was a signer of an open letter calling on Trump to reverse his travel ban in February 2017, then again a year later advocating relief for DACA recipients. But if he has criticized Trump specifically for the president’s dehumanizing and unChristian rhetoric regarding immigrants, asylum seekers and African American protesters, or for his administration’s horrific and unconscionable policies at the border, I can’t find it.
To reiterate one final time: I like Max Lucado. Perhaps his book openly discusses the causes of the anxiety that has gripped so many Americans over the past few years, and I’m way off base, in which case I will happily apologize and update this post accordingly.
But if his public comments are any indication, Lucado is caught in the same trap that has ensnared so many people who believe they can straddle the political fault lines and either blame both sides or simply not pick one. When one of those sides openly consorts with white supremacy and sexual assault, the only way leaders like Lucado can escape that trap is by breaking from their old habits of conciliation and inoffensive centrism.
This moment calls for prophetic voices, not milquetoast ones. Anything less damages the Christian witness Lucado has spent so much of his life advancing.