September 21, 2020

Using God — A Prophetic Critique

Note from Chaplain Mike

I have decided to post without taking comments today. I am interested in making a statement, not having a conversation (or argument) about it in this week’s volatile atmosphere. (Besides, I think many of you chimed in about this yesterday.)

Also, although politics is the context of this post, politics is not the subject.

The subject is the Christian faith and how a political leader is transparently co-opting it for baser purposes.

Political policies or positions aside, this is about egregious acts that hit right at the heart of my life as a called and ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These acts deserve prophetic critique, and — this is important — not primarily as condemnation of the party involved, but for the sake of the church in the United States. If the church doesn’t see it clearly now, I doubt she ever will.

• • •

He used violent means to ask to be escorted across the park into the courtyard of the church. He held up his Bible after speaking [an] inflammatory militarized approach to the wounds of our nation. He did not pray. He did not offer a word of balm or condolence to those who are grieving. He did not seek to unify the country, but rather he used our symbols and our sacred space as a way to reinforce a message that is antithetical to everything that the person of Jesus, whom we follow, and the gospel texts that we strive to emulate … represent.”

• Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Diocese of Washington

The church has to stand up in its prophetic role to stand outside of power and say, man, President Trump, we pray for you but what you did was wrong.

Pastor Patrick Ngwolo (George Floyd’s pastor)

On Monday, I witnessed the most cynical and self-aggrandizing use of God and religion I think I’ve ever seen. The President of the United States, declaring himself the new law and order president while piously saying he has always stood with peaceful protestors, subsequently relied upon police and National Guard troops to violently clear a perimeter full of such protestors so that he could walk across the street to pose in front of a church, Bible held high.

Apparently, the crowd-clearing action was ordered by Attorney General William Barr. But that part of the act deserves primarily political critique. The government does not have the right to disperse protestors who have gathered legally and peacefully to exercise their constitutional right of free assembly. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser rightly called it a “shameful” action.

What I’m more angry about is when a politician transparently uses God and the Christian faith as leverage to prop up his own power.

Since 1816 St. John’s Episcopal Church has been known as the “Church of Presidents,” but Mr. Trump cares nothing for that traditional relationship. He did not even let the church know he was coming, nor did he confer with them about using the building as a backdrop for his stunt. The church building and the Bible were used merely as props for the president to make a visual claim that he alone is the Defender of the Faith and Protector of the Nation.

It’s impossible for me to believe that there’s a single serious Christian who can’t see what’s going on here. Trump, backed into a corner, pulls out the religion card.

He did it again on Tuesday. That’s when he and first lady Melania Trump made a visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine and laid a wreath there. Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was appalled. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles,” he complained.

When he returned to the White House, Trump signed an executive order on international religious freedom.

Of course, all this appeared quickly on the “TrumpTeam” Twitter feed, promoting Mr. Trump as the strong and faithful leader the nation needs during this crisis.

But this is really about using God. Don’t you see?

This is nothing new, of course. In fact it’s the American way. But start with the Bible’s first verse, go to the first commandment, thumb over to Jesus’ definition of the greatest commandment, and it becomes clear that the Bible Donald Trump held up says that God is not to be used for our purposes. We exist because of God and for God. We are to honor nothing before God. Our first duty is to love God with all our hearts.

God is the sun and we are planets, revolving around him, not vice versa. Donald Trump has never, apparently, had that Copernican revolution in his heart and mind. Rather, God is just another weapon in his arsenal to gain and protect his power.

“Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote Monday on Twitter. “A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. And God is not a plaything.”

Furthermore, it’s insulting to people who take faith seriously. This is a slap in the face of Christians. The president gives them trifles with one hand to keep them on his side, and then abuses and shames what they believe with the other hand at every turn. So many, especially those who identify as “evangelicals,” have become as predictable as little trained animals. Mr. Trump knows how and when to ring the bell and keep them coming back for more.

A number of them opine that he is some kind of unusual heaven-sent servant, some Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar that God is using to accomplish his will in surprising fashion. The truth is, Donald Trump has put himself in the driver’s seat and he’s doing his best to use God, and he’s using them too to keep himself there.

He’s the man behind the curtain, folks. He whips up support with all kinds of bluster and little tricks, but he’s just a sad, weak, self-absorbed little man who thinks he can hold up a Bible and fool you again.

If you can’t see that now, I have little hope for you.