I warned you!
On Monday when Donald Trump raised overhead a Bible – the Sword of the Spirit, to believers – he unwittingly cleaved his loyal Christian supporters into two camps.
His most ardent evangelical supporters saw it as a blow against evil and described his walk from the White House to St John’s Episcopal church, over ground violently cleared of protesters, as a “Jericho walk”.
The Rev Johnnie Moore, president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, described Trump in shepherd-like terms on Twitter:
“I will never forget seeing @POTUS @realDonaldTrump slowly & in-total-command walk from the @WhiteHouse across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church defying those who aim to derail our national healing by spreading fear, hate & anarchy. After just saying, ‘I will keep you safe.’”
But evangelicals are not monolithic: some saw the gesture as cynical, a ploy by a president whose decisions, both private and public, do not align with biblical principles.
“I guess it’s a sort of Rorschach test, then,” said Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who is one of Trump’s most important defenders among the faithful. “You see what you expect to see.”
But that’s not true, Trump’s emerging evangelical critics say: an objective measure is contained in the very book Trump wielded.
“Blessed are the peacemakers! Blessed are the merciful! It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College. “Just read Jesus.”
Trump’s photo opportunity required police to attack and push away protesters against police brutality. He walked surrounded by key civilian and military advisers, some of whom later said they were caught unaware by the stunt and the violence that preceded it. Some evangelical leaders said they felt similarly aghast, watching the event unfold.
“Pelting people with rubber bullets and spraying them with teargas for peacefully protesting is morally wrong,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “What we need right now is moral leadership – from all of us, in the churches, in the police departments, in the courts, and in the White House. The Bible tells us so. So do our own consciences.”
The day’s events left Moore “alarmed”, he said.
The staunchest of evangelicals, 90-year-old televangelist Pat Robertson, split from Trump on Tuesday.
He told his television viewers of the president: “He said, ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities.’ A matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr President. It isn’t cool!”
It could be far worse than uncool, politically.
Trump can’t afford to lose evangelicals, even by the handful. A record 81% of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016, and he only narrowly won the presidency, sometimes by just a few thousand votes in crucial areas. His gesture with the Bible outside St John’s was meant to shore up that support, reminding his base of a tacit agreement.
“It’s a contract between him and evangelical voters,” Fea, the professor, who is a Christian, said. In exchange for their ballots, he said, Trump has packed the courts, including the supreme court, with conservative judges who agree with them on social issues.
So while evangelicals lifted Trump to power by voting together, they may prove his undoing if a contingent breaks away. In which case his campaign might shudder to hear of evangelical believers like Anthony Kidd in Daphne, Alabama.
During the week Kidd works at a salvage yard, and on weekends he does audio work during church services. He’s conservative.
“The past few years he has done things that are good for Christians, I’ll grant that,” he said. But when he saw Trump lift the Bible outside St John’s, he said, “It made me want to throw up a little bit.”
Fea said it was unclear what happens next: whether evangelicals will stay by Trump, or make a significant split. But whatever happens, he said, is unlikely to be peaceful.
“Here’s a good rule of thumb,” he said. “Looking back through history, whenever you see someone in authority using the Bible to justify law and order, it ends badly.”
Americans have had enough …
… and are marching for justice in unprecedented numbers. In small towns and big cities across the country, thousands of people are giving voice to the grief and anger that generations of black Americans have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. Young and old, black and white, family and friends have joined together to say: enough.
The unconscionable examples of racism over the last weeks and months come as America’s communities of color have been hit hardest by the coronavirus and catastrophic job losses. This is a perfect storm hitting black Americans. Meanwhile, the political leadership suggests that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The president who promised to end the “American carnage” is in danger of making it worse.
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No one should have been surprised by President Donald Trump’s co-opting of the symbols of American Christianity — a church, the Bible — to speak Monday to the white evangelical base that made his election possible. Every American president since George Washington has sworn his oath upon the Bible. Every American presidential candidate who wants to be taken seriously must proclaim loyalty to some church or another. Every presidential speech — whether to press for civil rights legislation or gain public support for a mendacious war — must end with “God bless America.” Candidates and winners alike are expected to participate in inaugural prayer gatherings and worship services, including those at the church where I pastor and with the denomination to which I belong.
From the founding of this nation, the church and the Holy Scriptures have been used by the state with the church’s permission to dislocate people, rain violence upon them and declare the sovereignty of American empire and white male flesh.
Trump’s contrived excursion from the Rose Garden to St. John’s Episcopal Church, was then, far more than a photo op: It was the latest in a long line of acts that wed the church to the state in ways that evidence the conundrum of faith that has always been present, but is now more pronounced. When Trump dislocated the protesters from Lafayette Square, he actually cleared them from a space designed to commemorate the violence and victory of the Revolutionary War; he stood in front of a church whose history is rife with complicity in such settler colonial violence. Episcopal Bishops Michael Curry and Mariann Budde rightly decried his actions, but there are no clean hands in our faith.
The American church sold itself long ago to perpetuate the myth of America’s divine destiny for the paltry price of access to power and respectability. From the days of the Roman emperor Constantine (who ended the persecution of Christians in order to shore up his power) until this moment, politicians have known that the surest way to quiet a revolution is to subsume it under the guise of allyship. In its insatiable desire for proximity to power, the church has fallen prey to this seduction, repeatedly bowing down to the twin golden statues of capitalism and empire.
Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, famously quipped, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This propensity to atomize institutions and ideas intended for the commonweal is clear in American politics, yet artfully obscured in American Christianity. Shored up by white evangelicalism and its propaganda machine, the American Christianity that informs the popular imagination takes the grand gospel — which envisions a new heaven and a new earth committed foremost to human flourishing and care for the earth — and drowns it in the bathtub of individual piety and soul salvation.
Jesus’ politics as a revolutionary, then, have been subsumed by the glory of his personal resurrection. That kind of mendacity, this theological malpractice, has relegated freedom from oppression to the great “by and by,” and unashamedly acted in the service of empire and personal fulfillment.
The challenge before American Christianity now is to find the courage to disentangle itself from America’s imperialist impulses — and among the first steps toward this courage is in truth telling. I am disinterested in the outrage of my colleagues, whether feigned or heartfelt, around Trump’s use of the Bible and the church to further both his political ambitions and American imperial violence, domestically and internationally. It is intrinsically disingenuous to be outraged by a visual act while remaining silent about the ways American Christianity makes violence and oppression more palatable, especially when you’ve silently watched other rhetorical acrobatics, informed by the truth that you can sell most Americans almost anything that is wrapped in God-language and stamped with the imprimatur of the church.
The murderous conquest of Native peoples upon this continent was so languaged and so wrapped. The stealing of Africans and the violent extraction of labor from them was so languaged and so wrapped. The subjugation of women was (and is) so languaged and so wrapped. The vitriolic exclusion of non-heteronormative persons is so languaged and so wrapped. The dehumanization of immigrants is so languaged and so wrapped.
It is time for all churches to unequivocally declare that they will no longer be theological marionettes whose strings are pulled by kleptocratic capitalists and imperialists. We must build power to topple regimes that work against the flourishing of humans and the earth. God’s wind and fire seek to create something new in us and in the world.
But will we abandon the mendacity of the American myth and embrace the reign of God?
If American Christianity is to embrace God’s earthly reign and not empire, the church must be committed foremost to structural change. The power we must build is to exert unrelenting pressure such that all human beings — especially those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these” — have full access to quality health care and education, and can earn a living wage and afford safe housing. The reign of God is incomplete unless the prison industrial complex is abolished, fair tax structures are enacted, universal job training and employment opportunities are available equitably to all humans, our economy is one based on the value of what we produce with our labor rather than what we simply extract from others’, retirement benefits are available to all seniors that allow a good quality of life and the earth is revered as God’s creation.
Are we bold enough to do that? That remains the question.