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How different would the world look if Christians did a better job of speaking truth to power? Better yet, how different would the world look if Christians didn’t just operate with zombie logic — moping and stumbling around as if not getting our way is the same thing as being persecuted for our faith, but then filled with soaring righteous energy the moment things go our way?
Here’s what I think.
It’s a super awkward scene.
Think about it: the dude’s got power, status, fame. And he decides having an affair is a fantastic option for his tenure in office. And not just any affair — an affair with the wife of a true patriot who was out defending the nation from enemies that want to tear down everything their nation represents.
He’s already made up his mind, though. He’s gonna do it. What does he have to lose? Some people revile him; others adore him. Folks in the media have written scathing things about him; some have hailed him as a modern-day saint. A man after God’s own heart, perhaps.
If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself Great, what did President Trump do now? — especially because we’re on the incredibly relevant topic of extramarital affairs — this next part would signal we’re talking about two different people.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]The prophet of God rebuked him for his behavior, and the powerful man accepted the consequences of his grave moral failings.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
How many of you knew I was talking about King David from the get-go? Yeah? You get a cookie. Email me. I’ll bake you one.
That passage in 2 Samuel 12 is jarring for somebody living in America in 2019 for one reason in particular: arguably the most prominent prophet of his time actually spoke truth to power.
To be fair, Nathan probably did a little bit more than just speak truth to power. I couldn’t get a hold of his personal assistant so I don’t have his itinerary from that fateful day. But I have a hunch his day went something like this:
- He woke up (and got ready)
- He left his crib
- He made the trek to the palace (he didn’t have the Uber app on his phone)
- He walked to the throne room, mumbling to himself the whole time: This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid over and over again because he was about to reprimand an actual king
- He reprimanded an actual king
- He lived to see another day
I write this to remind you there was a point in time when being a Christian (i.e. I’ll refer to Nathan and David here as Christians, but only because I don’t want to distract with extreme historicity) meant more than just being a spectator at a sporting event, cheering at the top of our lungs no matter how our home team performs.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]There was a time when being a Christian meant speaking truth to power even at the risk of great personal peril. That was a long, long time ago.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Today, that responsibility of holding leaders accountable has morphed into something resembling fanboy fawning.
Reverend Franklin Graham says Trump “defends the faith.” Is political expediency a good reason for doing so? Or should defending the faith be something etched a little deeper into one’s character and ethos?
Franklin himself thought the latter meant something just a few years ago when he stopped short of calling President Obama a liar for publicly professing he’s a Christian. There seems to be an unreasonable standard he — as well as other leaders — place on opponents in the political arena when the bar is obviously a lot lower for guys like Trump or Gingrich. (Watch the linked video for the Gingrich part.)
Those last two guys are Republicans.
Tribalism has bled into politics in such a profound way, even former morality police like former Senator Rick Santorum can’t get their stories straight on morality. In 2017, he told voters Obama — a Christian political opponent — subscribed to “some phony theology,” adding that it is “not a theology based on the Bible.”
But his tune has changed when it’s come to Trump, despite Trump’s tendency for blatant immorality:
And then there’s Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University, the largest private non-profit university in the United States. In a 2019 interview in the Washington Post, Falwell called it “immoral” for evangelical leaders not to support Trump.
In that same interview, Falwell adds there is absolutely nothing Trump could do that would lose his support. Nothing. (He even compared Trump and King David in a way the prophet Nathan would probably squint real hard and then shake his head at.)
So you have to wonder — especially in the cases of pastoral leaders and other self-proclaimed Morality Police in this Trump era — does power matter more to them than responsibility?
Because while prior Democratic leaders were held to unreasonably high standards of morality, Trump appears to be completely off the hook for far more glaring issues of character.
Church and state
George Washington once said: “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”
One small problem… There’s no proof he actually said this. His own estate even refers to this as a blatant misattribution and “spurious” at best.
Wanna know what the Founding Fathers actually more likely believed?
John Adams, the nation’s second President, had this line included in Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The US Senate unanimously ratified this without debate.
For those who believe Adams and the Senate made this dramatic claim for political expediency during a conflict over Muslim supremacy at sea, it’s a fair claim. But then, you’d have to concede that the Founding Fathers could have added pro-Christian elements to the Constitution for political expediency as well — sprinkling the Christian faith into official documents make people feel a sense of unity.
In fact, tying the fate of the American Revolution to elements familiar to Christians helped buoy the initially-underwhelming, fledgling upstarts from the British Colonies:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"The evangelical tradition supplied spiritual propulsion to the Patriot cause that was unsurpassed by any other element of Patriot ideology. Millennial beliefs provided nearly unlimited resources for justifying the war to a biblically minded people while assuring them that God held the results in his hands."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Thomas S. Kidd, Historian[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
At its best, Christianity’s Gospel is about hope and a new life in Christ. At its worst, its Gospel is merely a tool (1) for political expediency and (2) for eliciting fervor from the masses.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]The motives behind the faith we share are the underpinning to either wanting to make the world a better place or to make the world bend for us.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
And you can trace this back.
Scholars believe the Roman Emperor Constantine knew about the power of conservativism and religion, softening the laws around the persecution of Christians in order to unite the far ends of his empire. The complexity around his conversion and subsequent actions — he had his foot in the door of blatant paganism while trying to unify problematic Christian sects — make his true motivations really gray.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"It is possible that Constantine firmly believed that the most efficient way to restore the ancient glory of the Roman Empire was by joining it with Christianity, the greatest religion he knew, and ruling over both simultaneously."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Brian Franklin[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
Adolf Hitler tapped into Christian faith a lot, too. In his seminal work, Mein Kampf, he challenges the church to follow himself in doing God’s work “to put an end to the constant and continuous original sin of racial poisoning, and to give the Almighty Creator beings such as He Himself created.” He adds an appeal to the people: “To do justice to God and our own conscience, we have turned once more to the German volk.”
If you study history, you’ll find out Nazis were essentially right-wing Christian conservative nationalists. In fact, every Nazi soldier had the words “God is with us” on their belt buckle (a prominent fixture in Prussian/German heraldry):
The talking-head conservative media clamoring against Muslim “Sharia law” is ironic in that what they decry as dangerous elsewhere (the fusion of church and state) is what they seem to want here. But as the post-Constantinian era and Third Reich era have shown in separate ways, this type of symbiosis ultimately leads to chaos: the former leading to “doctrinal and cultural” issues of power (up to and including the rise of the Holy Roman Empire), and the latter leading to the “Othering” (i.e. from marginalization to elimination) of entire groups of people.
So when our leaders talk about a country founded on Christian principles, do they understand the deep-seated motivations of the nation’s founders in unifying a group of people under one banner? One would think the blatant hypocrisy of “all men are created equal” would be enough to raise red flags; slavery was probably a really bad idea and against God’s design for all men’s equality.
The beauty of America isn’t that it’s a Christian nation; rather, it’s because the nation’s founders declared in ink — with the very first amendment — the importance of a diversity of religion.
I went to high school in New York City right around September 11th, 2001. After the attacks, New York was a weird place to be as a brown-skinned person.
I can remember twice — once on the subway and once when I was playing basketball at a park — when I was yelled at:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]“Go back to your country, you sand nigger.”[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
Neither that insult nor the anger in my gut was unique to me. I know a bunch of people who heard this line or something similar. It was gross. It was wrong. It made us want to do bad things. It made us want to retaliate. (Also, I wasn’t from the “sand” of what I presume they meant the Middle East. But it wasn’t like they were interested in geography lessons.)
“Go back to your country” is hurtful as hell. It’s probably why the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits discrimination based on nation of origin. From their website: “Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from.'”
So when the President tweets this:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"... and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how..."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
… And when he says this as a follow-up: “If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.”
… And when churches start chiming in:
… You’ve got to start wondering if they ever took a history class and learned about one of the most enduring Ku Klux Klan slogans:
The anger and hurt and resentment from one side are justified: this is absolutely racist sentiment with an incredibly deep history.
The zeal and doubling down from Trump’s side is not justified. At all.
How Christian leaders have reacted to this and continue to react to this is a fascinating study into the motivations of faith when tied to politics. The prophet Nathan-like questions we should be asking are:
- Can we reconcile this blatant Othering of entire groups of people with the reality that we’re all God’s children?
- How do we stand in the gap for those marginalized, confused, and devastated by this type of language?
- How do we speak truth to power — even at the risk of great personal and/or political peril?
What we see instead is:
- Fake news. What he really meant to say — despite how venomous the historical intent of that term is, how the government agency even views it, and how it’s a crisis of character to even vacillate on this — is…
- The left is out to get us!
Neither of those positions is a healthy one to take.
I saw a post on Facebook the other day that warned against reacting (or over-reacting) to Trump’s comments like this — even if they’re super racist, mind you — because it will lead to negative consequences. His voters are going to be fired up to vote him back into office.
This is the kind of stuff whistleblowers deal with, right? Or folks from like the boonies of Russia who find out about a state secret and have to choose between taking a bullet in the brain or doing what’s right for their families. (Shout out to all my fellow Chernobyl miniseries fans out there.)
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]There's no other way to say this, so here goes: As Christians, the moment we start fearing the consequences of speaking out against evil, we've failed.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
It’s really that simple. It doesn’t matter that we risk losing our place in society, it doesn’t matter that we lose some political power.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]It doesn’t matter that King David could chop off your head to make you an example of what happens when somebody so brazenly challenges the morality of somebody after God’s own heart.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
And I chose the word evil intentionally, but I also will leave it to the reader to decide how far evil stretches. I believe, for example, using religion for political expediency is evil — which is why I’m Pro-Choice; I don’t want post-Vietnam War era conservative propaganda to rule the way I think about critical decisions regarding human life. In other words: I don’t believe the Pro-Choice position is evil; I believe using religion for political expediency (and not doing your homework on the deeper political motivations for your third-rail beliefs because it just feels right) is evil. (A topic for another day, though, folks.)
But racism isn’t propagandized evil. It isn’t fake news evil. It isn’t imaginary evil. It isn’t kinda sorta evil. It’s pure evil. And there’s a complicit and explicit history of intertwining of both racism and the church, the latter perpetuating the former.
What will the church do? Are we that afraid to risk our fame or stature to call out evil for what it is? Or to do our homework on it?
It feels like we’re afraid.
Christians have marketed and publicized the idea that America is a “city upon a hill,” a term first coined by Puritan leader, John Winthrop.
A paragon of virtue? A standard-bearer for morality? That sounds great. This must be what he meant about America.
Well, Winthrop existed before America did. As a Puritan leader with a pretty amazing social reach at the time, he was obsessed with bringing to the New World more Puritans. (Remember: Puritans were considered the Westboro Baptist Church of their time because of their mightier-than-thou, uber-radical, uber-conservative beliefs. The term “puritan” was considered a diss, but the name stuck.)
During the same “city upon a hill” sermon, we find out Winthrop’s true motivations: we wanted everybody to think the actual battle of God versus Satan to usher in the Apocalypse was going to take place in the New World. Like within days or months. Like literally right in the middle of Boston.
This was almost a literal call to arms; Winthrop was leveraging eschatological fears to embolden people (God’s people are on the winning side, duh!) to travel out to the New World and join his Boston community.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Just some good ol’ propaganda to grow the community.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
In a lot of ways, today’s proponents of the blurring of church and state aren’t too different from Winthrop and his Puritan brethren. There’s a sentiment that if we grab all the political seats, get all the Supreme Court seats for our conservative machinations, indoctrinate the masses (you know — if we turn America into an actual Christian nation), we’ll be doing God’s work to bring his kingdom down to earth.
In reality, all we’re doing is putting together a sloppy self-fulfilling prophecy, that makes even less sense when you break it down:
- Trying to force-create God’s kingdom on earth is really, really bad hermeneutics
- It’s counter to what the nation’s founders envisioned when drawing up a country without an established national religion — necessary to ensure true religious freedom
The less the church speaks out against evil in all its forms — running the gamut from racism to politicizing the Bible for propagandization — the less we start to resemble Christ.
I believe the prophet Nathan was a bold dude.
Not just because he walked up to a king and told him the truth.
But also because he didn’t hesitate even though David was actually — Biblically-speaking — a man after God’s own heart. He was literally chosen by God — without question — to rule a nation.
While conservatives today clamor over Trump’s divine right to rule — something many openly challenged when it was Obama’s turn in DC — Nathan didn’t cower when there was an actual divine-appointed ruler with the power to annihilate him if he even breathed an act of defiance.
What’s the church’s responsibility?
If it’s to seek political power and policymaking opportunities, I think we’ve missed the point of Christ dying for more than just the Pharisees.
If it’s to speak truth to power, I think we need to do a better job acting like Nathan and less like historical opportunists.
For a lot of Christians and church leaders, thirty pieces of silver are all it took to swallow our convictions. Thirty pieces of Supreme Court restructuring. Thirty pieces of Pro-Life messaging. Thirty pieces of Republican gains in political seats.
But, funny enough, dignity also costs thirty pieces of silver. So does moral obligation to do the right thing.
All of these things are true at the same time:
- Trump isn’t perfect
- We need to pray for him as our nation’s leader
- We need to stand up to the evil on which he knowingly or unknowingly has built and continues to reinforce his political platform and brand
Maybe we just haven’t been brave enough to see that.
I believe the church should be brave enough to start. ■