Idolatry in the White House
Earlier this week, in a nationalistic speech about education, President Trump lambasted anti-racist teaching and promised to uphold an education curriculum that helped our children love their country. Here’s how he said it, “Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their souls.” Sound familiar? That’s because it’s eerily similar to how Jesus summarizes the entire Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. Here’s how the Lord put it when asked what the greatest commandment was in Matthew 22:36-40.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So Trump replaced God with the United States, and the unfortunate part, it was to the fanfare or indifference of white Evangelical (and white Catholic) supporters. When I pointed out the blatant idolatry, his supporters were quick to assume that the quote was taken out of context, or assert that he certainly didn’t mean to state that we should love the United States. It’s disappointing to me, not as someone who is opposed to Trump, but as a Christian, that my fellow brothers and sisters can take such a hypocritical stance.
And it’s not just Trump. The Vice President, Mike Pence, recently manipulated God and the Bible in the same way. Pence, during the Republican National Convention, said this during a speech: “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.” This is a direct misappropriation of Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
This is another plain instance of idolatry and blasphemy. And it’s not just because it’s an attempt to manipulate Christians into continuing to vote for them, they are saying the quiet part loudly: America is your God, and they are your saviors. And I’m afraid more and more Christians are not only duped by this, not only complicit in it, but also perpetuating it.
And this sort of nationalistic idolatry isn’t unique to Trump. On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, George W. Bush, who also was appealing to Evangelicals, misappropriated the words of the writer of the Gospel of John when he said, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” The original passage is from John 1:4, “In [the Word] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Bush pulled a similar trick, this time with a famous hymn, “There is Power in the Blood.” Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address said, “there’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” The original hymn: “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.” So this civil religion isn’t new, and it’s been weaponized to win over the support of white Evangelicals, darlings of conservatives in the U.S.
When I note these instances of idolatry, I am both saddened and angered.
We don’t find salvation in a political ruler, we already have a King
For many White Evangelicals Trump, and his impending Supreme Court nominee, are signs of hope and salvation for them. It is why it is unsurprising that Trump can literally call himself “the King of Israel” or “the second coming of God” without a significant deterioration in his white Evangelical support. These messianic images are blasphemous, but for White Evangelicals who think their world is being destroyed, they are looking for their Savior. Trump is happy to play the part, as this New York Times piece headlined “Christianity Will Have Power,” after a quote from Trump himself, showcases.
The Evangelicals who support Trump (eight in ten White Evangelicals say they will vote for him in 2020, the same number as in 2016) are not different than many followers of God before them. In fact, God warned Israel, when they wanted a king, of the dangers of doing that in 1 Samuel 8. And even though Israel, and later the Northern and Southern Kingdom, occasionally enjoyed the reign of a good king (except for the Northern Kingdom), in general their leaders failed them. Rather than relying on God and listening to the prophets, they often made unsavory alliances that led to their doom and destruction and captivity. Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would fall for their very disobedience. Sure enough, by 581 BCE the Babylonians had taken over. Jeremiah served as prophet under five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, and only Josiah was a good one. When I look at white Evangelicals today, I lament and grieve in the spirit of Jeremiah.
Jesus ultimately came as the true King of Israel (ironic that Trump calls himself that), but even following the inauguration of his Kingdom through his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, Christians still allied with political powers like Constantine, and also throughout Christendom as state churches flourished in Europe, until their faith deteriorated. What this account shows us is that political leaders, though sometimes useful, are never a substitute for God and we should tremble with fear when we approach an idolatrous relationship with them (and, that goes for the left, too, with their political heroes).
White Evangelicals are succumbing to the temptations Jesus resisted
So I am sympathetic, but I want to warn Christians of their alliance with a worldly power for the sake of their own salvation. While it is not inappropriate for Christians to use the political powers to alleviate suffering, promote equality, fight for justice—to fill the valleys and lower the hills, so to speak—doing so for our own salvation, though, for our own power, seems to be replacing the work of Jesus with someone else. And here it is rather explicit.
This is sadly reminiscent of how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. At a moment where Jesus felt weak, in terms of economic, political, and religious power, Satan tempted him with all three. I think that white Evangelicals today are being similarly tempted, but they are succumbing the temptation. Lord, have mercy.
After a prayer meeting with Evangelicals, Trump openly mocked them to his then lawyer Michael Cohen (according to Cohen’s book): “’Trump held a meeting at Trump Tower with prominent evangelical leaders, where they laid their hands on him in prayer. Afterward, Trump allegedly said: ‘Can you believe that bullshit? Can you believe people believe that bullshit?’”
As I observed this moment, I thought that Trump was using Christians for his white nationalist agenda, and the White Evangelicals were clinging to his white nationalist agenda for the sake of theirs. But as I observe White Evangelicals, I realized, this isn’t just a Machiavellian arrangement between two political interests: they are one-in-the-same. It seems to me like White Evangelicals are as opposed to anti-racist training and so-called “Critical Race Theory” as Trump is. It’s so disappointing for them to agree with a president who thinks making things fair for my brown children is “child abuse.” It’s so disappointing to not only see them grasp for political power, but to do so at my expense, as a person of color, and not only that, but to the Gospel itself. Sometimes, they are even trading their faith for a conspiracy-laden belief system that is quite contrary to the Gospel: QAnon. (Here, find Ed Stetzer doing the right thing and rooting out that conspiracy theory.) But ultimately, it seems to me like too many American White Evangelicals have conflated the preservation of the United States with the preservation of the Gospel.
This hurts, but Jesus laments alongside of us
Faith that is enforced by the state does not last, and it will be discarded when it’s no longer useful to the state. The Gospel is never, and can never be preserved by the state, and any Gospel that the state preserves is a false one. The Gospel is preserved and advanced when we learn how to plant seeds in the soil God has given us. And I am very dismayed that the soil seems to be hardening as a result of this blatant politicization of our faith. I admit that my job is mainly rooted in the idea of making the idea of following Jesus not an absurd one, and I’m afraid my White Evangelical counterparts are making it much harder. I lament the challenge they pose to new seeds of faith.
But it’s not just that they are making this environment inhospitable for new faith to grow, it’s that they are isolating me too. I feel it. It’s hard to know we come from the same family, or worship the same God. I come from an Evangelical background, and even a White Evangelical background, and it’s a credit to them that I even have faith. So it’s painful to see that the values they instilled in me, that led me to becoming a pastor, feel so distant from where they are now. I lament that when I look at my brothers and sisters. I feel like I’m a part of another family.
I have hope, ultimately, because I know Jesus will make things right and has made things right. But more than that, Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed by the people that were supposed to be close to him. The Gospel writers sometimes portray the Pharisees, the Jewish political party that Jesus was closest to, as an enemy. There are some reasons for that (find them here), but it shouldn’t go without saying that when Jesus was betrayed by them, it was painful for him too. I find comfort in the prophetic words of Jesus, which I think he would apply to the white Evangelicals blindly supporting the President, in Matthew 23:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
I lament with Jesus, who laments alongside of me.