Are you uncritically embracing American exceptionalism? On what theological grounds do you do that? A Reader's Blog contribution by V. Neufeld.
Though I am a Canadian, I feel compelled to speak out for several reasons. First, being a follower of Jesus knows no boundaries and those who are publicly speaking out as Evangelical Christians are implicating those beyond the borders of the United States. Second, who is President of the largest and most powerful country in the world has huge implications for the globe and biosphere. Third, as someone who has lived in the United States for four years I care deeply for the people of that land. Fourth, Canada is so closely linked to the United States that what happens there matters greatly for Canadians.
As someone raised myself in the evangelical tradition and having invested years of study to learn Hebrew and Greek in order to understand the emergence and context of the Bible, I have been watching what has been going on in the United States with some concern. I would like to share my perceptions and concerns and reflect on the significance and meaning of these concerns.
According to Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, thirty to thirty-five per cent (90 to 100 million) of Americans self-identify as evangelical. This makes the evangelical community a very large identifiable voting bloc in the country. Furthermore, the white members of this community have been one of the largest groups of voters who supported Trump in the last election. This support has doubtless come about because you, the leaders, have fostered this support.
For at least the last four millennia, the world has been under the control of empires that have dominated and controlled populations through violence. Since the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, many of these empires have been “Christian.” Indeed, the mutually supportive efforts of bishops and princes, emperors and popes, and other political-religious partnerships ensured the total control of the lives of people in their charge. Out of all of this experience with empire-dominated religion emerged the modern concept of separation of church and state, a key value in the United States. If you, as religious leaders, publicly endorse a presidential candidate who says he will give you power and whose political power is dependent on your support, there is a an informal political union between church and state that is less like the American ideal of separation and more like how the House of Medici could be the maker of Popes during the Renaissance.
If millions of voters can be influenced as a group to vote a certain way, this results in you having significant “informal” political power. How this power is used gives you great responsibility. As evangelical leaders, you have choices. You can use it to a) further your own causes; b) hold leaders accountable for their words and actions; or c) you can withdraw from directly supporting any political leaders, urging your followers to become personally involved in politics, thinking things through for themselves. I suggest you consider doing b) or c) rather than a). Jesus himself says that leaders will be held accountable for leading those in their charge down a wrong path.
Some of you have proclaimed Trump as being chosen by God to lead at this time. You have laid hands on him and prayed for him. Some have likened him to Cyrus, head of the Medo-Persian Empire, who backed the return of the ancient Israelites (specifically of the tribe of Judah) to their homeland, including Jerusalem, in the fifth century BCE. Cyrus was called a mashiach, an anointed one, the Hebrew word designating “messiah.” It was a term used for Moses but mostly for kings Saul and David. Later it was used to designate a coming leader. The Greek word for this is christos from which we get “Christ.”
But I would ask: on what basis do you have the authority to speak for God? How have you determined that you as religious leaders can designate any leader to be the one chosen by God? Be upfront about this with your followers. Are you really a spokesperson for the Transcendent Spirit that has guided the creation of the Universe and is infinite in consciousness, understanding, and power? Why don’t you be honest with your followers and say, “I have taken it upon my self to be the spokesperson for God on earth and I have a clear signal from God, unambiguously given directly to me because I have been chosen to represent God’s interests on earth and this message is . . .” But if you do something like this, be aware that you put yourself in the same camp as cult leader David Koresh, who made such claims in Waco, Texas.
Be aware that in making claims of “choseness” of a political leader, you put yourself in the role of ancient Israelite prophets. Samuel, for instance, anointed both Saul and David as kings of Israel, making each of them a mashiach. If you are really putting yourselves into the role of a nabi, or biblical prophet, you should note that the book of Deuteronomy has criteria to distinguish between true and false prophets (read Deuteronomy 18:9-22, paying particular attention to verses 20 and 22).
You should also note that biblical prophets held kings accountable to very high standards of integrity and justice (looking out for the interests of the poor especially), and “walking humbly with their God” (Micah 6:8).If any leader is to be designated as “chosen” by God, it would make sense to use Psalm 72 as a way to check whether that leader deserves the designation. This Psalm gives a list of attributes of an ideal king who “rescues the needy crying for aid;” “takes pity on the poor and needy;” “saves the lives of the needy;” furthermore, “their blood is precious in his eyes” (read the whole Psalm; these phrases are from Mitchell Dahood’s translation in The Anchor Bible).
When it comes to Trump’s sexual history, the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12) is sometimes used to exonerate him. If that is the precedent, let me point out that in David’s case it’s clear that there is an abuse of male power involved in his behavior. Furthermore, in the Biblical text Nathan the prophet (a role you seem to be playing) points out the severity of the injustice involved in the David’s action by telling him a story in which he could see himself as being oppressively wrong. Notice that David deeply repents as a leader and as a man. Furthermore, David’s sin results in severe consequences for his family: the child dies, and Nathan the prophet states that evil would come to him from his own household, which it does. It is wrong to refer to just one aspect of David’s story as the basis for completely overlooking Trump’s abuses of power over women, his marital infidelity, and the things he has said about how easy it is to sexually assault women by grabbing their genitals. I am not aware of any deep remorse on his part over his past actions.
You might justify your support of Trump by claiming that he will take action to eventually eliminate abortion by naming Supreme Court justices who might play a role in achieving this goal. If you take the position that all that Trump does as President is justified by the stand he is taking on this one issue, please see that you are closing your hearts to the many harmful and divisive things he has done.
Please read pastor Brian McLaren’s four part Letter to “White Christian Pro-Life Friends” at for a well-developed argument as to why it is inappropriate and dangerous for Evangelicals and Conservative Catholics to adopt a pro-life stand as a centerpiece for their political alignment. He writes as one who was part of the Pro-Life movement at its inception and used to march in the streets for this cause. Here are a few key excerpts from his Letter:
“· I hit a “come to Jesus moment” one Sunday morning at the church I co-led. An unmarried woman in our church got pregnant and had an abortion. In our tradition, we followed a process of “church discipline” that was outlined in Mathew 18, and in the end, we removed her from membership. An older woman in our fellowship came up and handed me a folded over piece of paper. She didn’t say anything; she just smiled, gave it to me, and walked away. On it she had written these words from another chapter in Matthew (23):
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees … tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
I am sad to say that I was defensive at first, but later, her gentle confrontation broke through and I saw myself in her words. I thought of the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery (in John 8:1-11), where a woman was publicly shamed by religious leaders while a man got off scot free. I had played the role of the judgmental religious leader, and I felt truly, legitimately ashamed.
· [My pro-choice friends] explained that being pro-choice does not mean being pro-abortion. You can be personally against abortion because you believe it is immoral, but you can simultaneously be for choice politically, because you do not believe the government should have the power to impose your moral judgment on everyone. Years later (in 2016), my friend Rachel Held Evans made this same point in a widely-read blog post.
· My pro-choice friends also explained that criminalizing abortion is not, in fact, the best way to reduce it — not by a long shot. A number of studies have shown that the best way to reduce abortion is to provide quality health care (including contraception), quality education (including sex education), and economic help to needy people. (That’s one major reason why abortion declined so significantly under President Obama – to the lowest level since before Roe v. Wade. See http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/17/509734620/u-s-abortion-rate-falls-to-lowest-level-since-roe-v-wade).
· My pro-choice Christian friends also explained how they saw the pro-life movement as an arm of patriarchy, which puts female sexuality and female lives and bodies under male control. (This reminded me of the “come to Jesus” moment I recounted in Part 1.) Patriarchy, for example, minimizes the consequences of rape or abuse for men and maximizes consequences for women. The pro-choice movement was for empowering women, so that powerful men would not be able to control women’s lives, moral agency, and bodies. The fact that the Republicans in Congress were overwhelmingly male, together with the fact that both Evangelical and Catholic clergy were exclusively male, struck me as evidence for this concern about patriarchy.
· My dad saw in his last years exactly what I was seeing: the Republican Party adopts policies that hurt people of color, that hurt the planet, and that hurt the poor, and they can count on pro-life Christians to support these policies because of abortion. Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the very policies that have proven most effective in reducing abortion, and to make matters worse, their Christian pro-life voters rarely if ever stand up for the poor, the planet, and people of color, because the abortion issue trumps everything else.
· When I saw this, when I really faced it and let it sink in, I reached this conclusion: a group of political, economic, and religious powerhouses have combined efforts to use the unborn to win over sincere Christians (and others) to support their multi-faceted agenda, first incidentally, and then intentionally. With unlimited lobbying and marketing power at their disposal, they attracted people to the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, but gradually required them to support everything hidden beneath the surface.”
President Trump is adept at using gestures, symbolic actions, and emotionally laden statements to gain the enthusiastic support of his “base,” including white evangelical voters. But so much of his lifestyle seems to go against values that have historically been important in the evangelical tradition—values such as honesty, marital fidelity, care for the poor, and inclusivity. Given his personal history and actions, it seems strange that he is uncritically embraced by evangelical leaders.
In his book, Born Again, Charles Colson recounts how, when he worked for President Nixon, they would invite Christian leaders into the White House. Colson makes it clear that this was merely a calculated way of getting their political support. Trump has similarly pandered to the interests of Evangelicals. He has a talent for dramatic symbolic actions that have an emotional impact on those who watch him. You should be aware that you as leaders have become mere supporting actors in his real-life drama to take control of the United States. This should deeply concern you if in fact Trump is not “God’s chosen vessel.” Are you willing to take that chance?
As evangelical leaders, you have given complete uncritical political support to President Trump. Without the support of a strong majority of white evangelical voters brought in by this support, it is almost certain he would have won the last election.
In a recent book, Embodied Idolatry: A Critique of Christian Nationalism, Kyle Haden has effectively argued that the association of American nationalism with Christianity amounts to idolatry. Your nationalistic political support of President Trump—America First (which is by the way, a Nazi slogan)—implies God appreciates the United States and its citizens more than any other part of the world. How does this mesh with the concept of a universal invisible body of believers that knows no political boundaries? Are you uncritically embracing American exceptionalism? On what theological grounds do you do that?
Two other authors make related points. First, Wolfgang Palaver, in his chapter in René Girard and Creative Mimesis, develops the notion of the “pantheistic temptation of democracy” expressed in the phrase, vox populi: vox dei, a Latin phrase meaning that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Thus, an elected leader might be tempted to say that the “voice of the people” expressed in winning an election is like the voice of God, giving the leader a mandate to do anything he likes. Palaver shows how this applied to Hitler in particular, for whom a mandate to do anything included the Final Solution. Katharina von Kellenbach, in The Mark of Cain, points out that “institutional leadership [of churches] was similarly complicit in many aspects of the Nazi state, most notably with respect to the persecution of Jews” (p. 42).
Second, Tom Reynolds, in his chapter in René Girard and Creative Mimesis, makes a distinction between monotheism and monolatry. Monotheism means that there is one God and no one can stake a claim on having control over what this God wants, to whom God might listen, nor what this God does. Monolatry, in contrast, makes the claim that the one God is the exclusive God of my text, my people, or my tribe. Trump’s rhetoric suggests monolatry as he implies that God is on the side of America in a particular way.
For a multi-faceted and detailed analysis of these issues see the book The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald Sider.
It does not cost Trump anything personally to take actions that buy your uncritical support. What he gets in return is the power of the Presidency which he can use to extend his prestige, burnish his brand, funnel money to his billionaire friends, undermine the sense of truth, divide the nation, keep refugees out of the U.S., empower white supremacists, and extend the power of violence in society.
Fact checking has shown that Trump has frequently not been truthful (see Chris Thurman’s “God Hates a Lying Tongue” in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump). Evangelicals seem willing to overlook this failing. As a Canadian I particularly took offense to him bragging that in negotiations with our Prime Minister, he “made up” statistics to justify his position.
I am deeply concerned about your role as religious leaders in our present-day political environment. Jesus raised with the religious leaders of his day the question of whose children they really were (John 8:39-47). He said that they liked to think of themselves as children of Abraham. But by their actions (not accepting the truth and trying to kill him), Jesus suggested that they were not the children of Abraham but the children of the devil, who was a murderer and a liar. You as evangelical leaders may claim to be the children of Jesus, but by your actions it is not clear to me whose children you really are. I suggest you think carefully about it and about how your actions will be judged.
The Hebrew Bible develops the rich concept of Teshuvah—repentance—which really means “to turn around.” I would hope that before the November election you would repent for your uncritical support of Donald Trump as President and adopt a critical prophetic role of identifying what is unjust, untrue, and immoral, along with supporting that which truly lifts up and empowers the most vulnerable people at a global level.
Vern Neufeld Redekop. Professor Emeritus of Conflict Studies, Saint Paul University (Ottawa, Canada).
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