Christian Music in Trump's America: Two Artists on the Pressure to Keep Quiet
Almost as soon as this past election year started, high-profile mainstream artists like Beyoncé, YG, Green Day, John Legend, and Katy Perry lobbed jabs at now-President Trump, in song, on stage, and on their social media (sometimes, on all of the above).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the contemporary Christian music industry has stayed comparatively silent on the subject of Trump. An informal survey of the social media accounts of Hot Christian Songs charting artists over the past six months found practically none making statements of any kind about Trump — including on Election Day and Inauguration Day. Only one song —TobyMac's "Love Broke Thru," with an attendant music video referencing the Black Lives Matter movement — appears to engage directly with the current political climate. (At the time of the video’s release in January of this year, Billboard spoke to Mac, who would only say the song is about how "we need God to break through and heal our divided nation”).
Through their representatives, the vast majority of charting Christian contemporary artists — including Amy Grant, Skillet, Crowder, DC Talk, Britt Nicole, and Mac (among several others) — either did not respond to or declined interview requests for this story. Their publicists and managers were also reluctant to discuss Christian artists’ silence on politics lately; one prominent publicist, who requested anonymity, replied: "I’m sorry, we typically don’t really have many, or really any, clients that want to talk about any political topics at all."
But two artists did agree to chat. Mike Donehey is frontman for the contemporary Christian band Tenth Avenue North, whose last album, 2016’s Followers, debuted at No. 5 on Top Christian Albums, and whose previous three albums all reached the No. 1 spot. Donehey, who is based in West Palm Beach, Fla., used to candidly address political issues on his Tumblr, Seized By A Great Affection. In 2015, he used it to call for tolerance and understanding in the wake of the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage ("Until you've sat down with some gay couples and listened to their stories, please don't just start tweeting hateful, judgmental things"). And in January of this year, he re-tweeted an “incredibly articulate little blog” by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens (“a guy I really look up to as an artist”), about the danger of "applying the word 'Christian' as an adjective to a nation, because there are things a nation is going to do that are inherently Christian, and things that aren't.”
That re-post taught him a lot about just how strongly Christian music fans often react to anything remotely political their musical idols might say. "All the people who follow me got hung up because [Stevens] said one little thing that didn't follow their exact theological standpoint," Donehey says, adding that the slew of negative comments included accusations that he was “Universalist” and must not believe in Jesus. When he tweeted "Jesus, help us help" in the wake of Trump’s recent ban on Muslim immigrants, he says, "I had people who were very, 'That's right, Jesus cares for refugees...' but then I had people who said: 'F you, and I hope the terrorists come and F your children.'"
Nonetheless, Donehey still uses social media to occasionally touch on political subjects, including abortion (the day after the election, he tweeted, “I dream of Pro-Life signs that no longer read, "Abortion is Murder," but instead, read, "I will adopt your child"), and he called on Trump to “please, embrace humility.” As a Christian artist, Donehey says he does "feel the need to at least address what the culture is up in arms about."
Donehey’s friend Matt Maher — a Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated Christian artist who won Songwriter of the Year at the 2015 GMA Dove Awards — is a practicing Catholic. He has also protested the travel ban (tweeting that it "wounds the heart of God"), and decried Trump's assault on journalistic institutions (tweeting on Feb. 24, “Either we believe in freedom of the press or we don't"). Last year, he criticized Trump on his personal blog during the Republican primary — but shortly after he decided to back off.
"I was ripping on Trump pretty hard because it was entertaining,” Maher says. “I was just amazed that this person was leading in the polls. And then I stopped and realized that he's tapping into a sense of grievance and woundedness. I would say things, and people would be like, 'Stop it. I love your music, just stop talking about politics.'"
Indeed, as Donehey and Maher both note, Christian artists’ fans look to them as moral idols in a way that mainstream pop artists’ fans as a whole don’t. "Potentially 50% of your audience feels one way or the other about certain issues,” Maher says. “But 100% of your audience agrees on this need for prayer, the need for God. As a Christian I want people to find reconciliation, redemption and grace. So when what I tweet elicits a negative response, it feels like we are fueling their anger."
Maher says he and his wife (who isn’t Catholic) pray every night for Trump to "actually become a Christian, because I think it would make his decision making a lot better, and I think it would affect his character in a beneficial way. I'm not saying that in an antagonistic sense.”
But he also sees the current political moment as one in which Christian artists could follow the example of the man they most admire — and speak their minds thoughtfully.
"Jesus pissed off the right and the left. He pissed off the Zealots because they wanted a political revolution, and he pissed off the Pharisees because he wasn’t religious enough. The Romans didn’t get him either," Maher says. "We’re at a moment of historic impact, and I think it’s important for everybody to try to take as much time to stop and get to know their neighbor, listen first, and speak second.”