The Danger of Demagogues

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

I have been hearing the word “demagogue” lately in the media. I thought I knew what it meant, but I decided to look it up anyway. Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

My goodness, what a precise and handy word these days.
It’s a dangerous thing for an editor of a denominational magazine to get into politics, but sometimes the situation calls for it. Something pernicious (another good word: having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way) is going on, and it needs to be called out.

According to the definition above, I think it is safe to say that one U.S. presidential candidate fits the definition of demagogue. His dismissive and prejudicial language about various groups of people, his slanderous statements about fellow candidates, his cavalier attitude toward the truth, all tend to appeal to voters’ basest instincts and legitimize their prejudices. And to top it off, he is no longer a fringe candidate, a political curiosity, but the frontrunner for a national party.

The most disturbing thing is that one of his strongest bases of support seems to be from self-identified Evangelical Christians. If there is any group of people who should be able to smell out demagoguery and reject it, it should be Evangelicals. Whatever their political party and whatever the religious persuasion of the candidate, Evangelicals should stand for civility and truthfulness in public life and walk away from candidates who characterize others with crude and abusive language.

In a recent post on The Twelve, Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee wondered when is the right time for preachers and Christian leaders to speak out on political issues and candidates. Certainly they should avoid advocating for a particular party or candidate (although a startling number do), but when patently unchristian values are being paraded and widely accepted, perhaps it’s time to speak out. He suggested that the disturbing level of civil discourse in this election season needs to be addressed directly.

I agree. For the welfare of the United States, the guarding of its civil discourse, and the spiritual guidance of the church, Donald Trump needs to be called out for the demagogue that he is.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (8)


First, Len, let me be upfront and say I am no Trump fan, both for reasons you allude to but also others.  Still, I think you err, as Banner Editor, in stepping a bit too far into political waters with this article.  You may certainly hold to whatever political views you choose an as individual person, but entering the political fray as this article does, as Banner Editor, is a step too far.

Let me explain.

You point out that Trump is a political demagogue -- and I agree.  Indeed, I think the great majority of denominational members are with you on that one.  But that's only the beginning of the story, even if your article's story ends there, and this story can't really be told "part way" once your pick out Trump as your demagogue.

Here's the rest of the story.

Hillary Clinton has been every bit as much a political demagogue as Trump has been in this election cycle, arguably even more so.  Recall your definition: "Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument."  Certainly, Clinton is less crass in her expressions than Trump, but she first distanced herself from Barak Obama, then aligned with him and went further to create distinction between herself and Sanders ((e.g., no deportatation of illegal immigrants), then distanced herself from Sanders while she also "out-Sandered" Sanders on some issues (e.g., her latest higher education promises).  She has been a constant maze of following the polls and Democrat voters demand for more for themselves, refashioning both her rhetoric and positions in an attempt to maximize the votes she might get.  Again, how much more can you do that than Clinton has? Clinton and/or Sanders are promising: free education, reduction in existing college loans, free health care, more welfare benefits, zero export of illegal immigrants, a distribution of wealth taken from others, etc. etc.  How is this not "seek[ing] support by appealing to popular desires"?

But now of course we are mired in a full throated political debate about which party, and which individual within the respective parties, should be elected our next president, right?  Not so much because you brought up the subject of "political demagoguery" but because you assigned that label to one and only one presidential candidate, in one and only one political party.

For the record, I'm a John Kasich fan.  He is one of the few who has an extensive record/experience, who has consistently pitched looking at his actual and consistent record instead of his promises (the latter being the entry point to political demagoguery), and one of the few who holds to a political philosophy (that he has acted consistently with in the past) that most correlates with my view of what government should and should not do within the American system.

But no, I don't want the CRCNA, whether by its Executive Director, Synod, or by the Banner Editor, to pitch for John Kasich, even though I do.

Thanks Len for your caution.  The definition of Trump as a demagogue seems to fit.  But at the same time, I appreciate Doug’s concern in regard to the church abstaining from officially taking sides politically. I’ve always thought that was a strength of our denomination to speak on issues but not on parties or political contenders.  But does there ever come a time for the church to speak out where it hasn’t spoken in the past?  If history is any indicator, perhaps the church in Europe was extremely slow in speaking out against Adolph Hitler. Certainly we don’t want to repeat past mistakes.

As to Doug’s characterization of Hillary Clinton as also being a demagogue, he seems to be speaking from his own personal political prejudice.  It’s understandable for a candidate to agree with a particular person (such as Obama or Sanders) on some points but not on others, or to see better ways to accomplish similar goals but in different ways.  Clinton’s disagreement or agreement with others has to be taken in context.  I think Len is accusing Trump of something different as to demagoguery than what Doug is accusing Clinton of.

I also picked up in Doug’s comment, differences as to whether “democratic socialism” (such as in Canada) is preferable to a “capitalistic” political frame work.  That might be an interesting debate, but perhaps not in the middle of a political campaign, because we too quickly attach names to the debate.  Thanks for the article and for the comments.

Doug, I appreciate your comment. I thought long and hard about this one, and I am sensitive to your hesitation about church officials making such public statements. But in the end I decided it was the right thing to do. As you can see from the link with Hoezee, it seems to me there comes a time for Christians to denouce what they see as public wrongdoing, and sometimes this applies to a particular candidate. And I am not alone; such evangelical luminaries as Michael Horton, Max Lucado, and others have made similar public statements. 

As to your linking some of the other candidates with demagoguery, a few may come close, but it seems to me a bit of a strech. Of course, almost all candidates try to appeal the the public's desires in one way or another. But Trump goes a few steps further by appealing to the darkest instincts, by biggoted statements on immigration and religious freedom, advocating torture, and doing so in demeaning and vulgar language. The proof of his appealing to the public's darker instincts is in the violent and abusive behavior of some of his costituents. 

Len.  Thanks for responding.  I read Michael Horton's article in CT, but that's the difference -- in CT.  Had you written a CT article, I would have no objection at all and probably have high fived you.  

The problem is not you or Scott Hoeze having or expressing political opinions, but rather the institutional CRCNA expressing it's political opinion, via its agent/office.  That line is very meaningful, not merely arbitrary and senseless.

Let me suggest that a "way around" this is you publishing a mere "In My Humble Opinion" article, stating cleary (if concisely) that this is Len Vander Zee talking, not the Banner Editor or editorial committee.  I think folks would both understand the difference and appreciate it as a meaningful and appropriate distinction.  I certainly would.

Let me give the Banner a kudo while I'm at this.  I so appreciate the Banner's willingness to allow comments, and without a heavy censorship hand.  In my mind, that itself does much to counter the base "complaint" I have in the first place.  And your willingness to exchange does even more in that direction.  So thanks again.

But I still think Clinton is as much a demagogue as Trump, albeit with a more civilized style. :-)

This editorian was entirely appropriate, necessary, and timely. No candidate was endorsed. No party was endorsed. Perhaps it bothered some peoples' sacred cow, the 19th century concept of sphere sovereignty, which is neither confessional nor part of the Reformed tradition prior to modernity, and which was promulgated, ironically, by a pastor and theologian who became a politician and prime minister. Kuyper himself would never shy away from addressing important moral and social issues that are crucial for both church and society to reflect upon. It is wise for clergy not to endorse a particular candidate. But to warn the church about a candidate who is so hateful, vulgar, and anti-Christian in terms of the poor and the foreigner (in biblical language, think: the sojourner)...that is no vice, and many would consider it a duty.


I wonder whether you may want to write an update to this article considering the demagogues on both sides! Now the issue is, should a Christian vote and why? This isn't considered endorsements, but votes are determined by people who should be considering the closest to a biblical viewpoint. In fact, everything we do should be done through a biblical lens. As such, writing about issues and candidates isn't a big deal at all.

It seesm as if the CRC does not learn from their past and history means nothing to them or this author anyway.

In 1960, the CRC pastors used their church pulpits to preach against the election of John F. Kennedy. The argument was that, if elected, "The Vatican would rule the White House!" I personally heard this at The Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI in 1960. That was rediculous then and it is just as rediculous now for our CRC "leaders" to become involved now in endorsing or not endorsing anyone for the US Presidental election.

I would suggest the phrase," Stay in your own lane."

Whatever views the Banner, the CRC, or it's now even more liberal leaders of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church have on the US Presidentail election is meaningless to me. Their ideas can be placed with those of LeBron James and the Hollywood "airheads."

I do not need the CRC to tell me how to vote. Do your jobs, CRC leaders. Preach the Bible and educate our students at Calvin. Stop telling us for whom to vote or not to vote unless the CRC has really become so liberal and arrogant now that they have gone over the edge.

Dr. Robert J. Blok, Sr.

Calvin College, BA 1965

Depraved and "Deplorable"