Quick quiz: Which recent news story generated the following online comments?
- God must have a wicked sense of humor.
- God also chose to use locusts, plague, and floods in the past to make a point.
- Perhaps it is time to reconsider the whole “omniscient” thing.
- God set this up as a test for the American people. Are we as smart, honest and ethical as God hopes we are? The answer of course, was many, many people did not pass that test. God is really disappointed and pretty well flabbergasted that the test went so spectacularly wrong.
- After the break: God sues Rick Perry for slander.
- “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8. Perhaps Rick Perry didn’t read that far in his Bible.
- Asked for a response, God said “oops.”
- Does God have a return address?
- The smart glasses. They do nothing.
If you guessed that these comments were in response to recent news reports of outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry telling a Fox & Friends host that he saw Donald Trump as “God’s Chosen One,” then you would be correct!
For your prize, let’s talk about separation of church and state and how that relates to religion in the public square, one of my favorite subjects.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” in Milan, Italy.
First, let’s recall that the President and the Secretary were not always singing from the same hymnal, so to speak. This is the same Donald Trump who once told supporters that the former Texas governor “put glasses on so people will think he’s smart,” and that it “just doesn’t work.” And it is the same Rick Perry who, in response to that public put-down in 2015, replied that Trump was a “cancer on conservatism” that “cannot be pacified or ignored,” and instead must be “clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.”
Let the record show that I agree with both assessments.
Second, let’s also remember the (less than stellar) religious grounding of our current president. This is the same Donald Trump who—when pressed to name his favorite book in the Bible—replied that it was Two Corinthians (as in “Two Corinthians walk into a bar?”). He also struggled to come up with a favorite Bible verse, until he remembered “an eye for an eye“—which the conservative Washington Times noted at that juncture in the campaign (before the white evangelical right went all in for Trump) that this was one of the few Mosaic laws that Jesus specifically repudiated in his Sermon on the Mount. (Check out Matthew 5: 38-42 if you don’t believe me; but remember, I grew up Southern Baptist and attended a lot of Bible study classes in my youth!)
Finally, let’s take one quick look into what could be a days-long review of the character of this particular “Chosen One.” This is the same Donald Trump who told approximately 13,500 lies in his first 1000 days in office. (If you think that’s no big deal, check out Proverbs 6:16-19 which includes “a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, and a false witness who breathes out lies” as among the traits that are an abomination to God.)
It is tempting to just use humor to get yourself through these situations; and, thankfully, the responses to Perry’s observation write themselves—at least to those who find it difficult to believe that God chose such an imperfect vessel to enact her purpose. However, I think this comment warrants a more serious look at religion in the public square and our ever-evolving debate over the separation of church and state.
Let’s return and look at the larger context of Perry’s quote:
“I’m a big believer that the God of our universe is still very active in the details of the day-to-day lives of government. You know, Barack Obama doesn’t get to be the President of the United States without being ordained by God. Neither did Donald Trump.”
There’s a lot to unpack in those three sentences. First, Perry is expressing a worldview that it is God who has the ultimate authority in choosing the individual to lead the U.S. If Donald Trump and Barack Obama aren’t ordained by God, then—to Perry’s thinking—they won’t be president. If that’s the case, I guess we can just do away with that pesky democracy thing, which gives the people the right to choose their own leaders, and return to the “divine right of kings.” That always turned out so well in the past. Again, to be fair, there will be a great many evangelicals who would endorse the gist of this worldview, citing Romans 13:1 (although many—for some strange reason—pulled up short at treating Barack Obama as divinely ordained.) In fact, a heavenly host of problems arise with this approach. A simple one is, who decides what God is thinking about leadership? Rick Perry? Donald Trump? William Barr? Mitch McConnell? When the people decide they want a Democratic governor in Wisconsin or North Carolina or Kentucky, do the God-fearing Republicans in the state legislature have the moral right to take steps to undermine the will of the people?
But even being generous and taking Perry’s other point that God has “used imperfect people all through history” to carry out her will—and, by the way, doesn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition assert that all humans are fallen and imperfect (just saying)—it still strikes me as strange that the person in charge of our nuclear arsenal has now written a memorandum to, and about, the person with the power to use that arsenal, comparing Trump to Old Testament kings Saul, David, and Solomon.
The right wing in America seems to have a soft spot for kings and other authoritarian leaders these days. You know, the kind of rulers we fought a revolution to overthrow. (Again, if you don’t believe me, look beyond the famous first three lines of the Declaration of Independence and read the bulk of that document, which is a bill of particulars against King George III specifically, and kings in general.)
The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI – one of the landmarks of religious freedom and America’s founding upon the principle of the separation of church and state
All of this comes at an interesting time in our national conversation. Steven Waldman has just published an excellent history of the progress and setbacks in the cause of religious freedom in the U.S. Ezra Klein also had a review at Vox this week on how religious conservatives see themselves as under attack by a secularism that, in their view, wants to destroy them. In that article, Klein focuses on two recent speeches by Attorney General William Barr. Speaking at Notre Dame University in October, Barr makes the argument that,
“America was built atop the insight that ‘free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.’ But ‘over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack,’ driven from the public square by ‘the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.'”
In response, I find much of Barr’s public career to be at odds with his sudden discovery of religion as a basis for doing what he wants to do to cover-up presidential misdeeds and accumulate power. As my grandmother use to say about dubious statements, “Consider the source.”
In addition, I don’t find any factual basis for Barr’s assertion that the democratic form of government developed in the United States was only suitable for religious people. This is a false narrative built by leaders on the right since the 1930s to control their voters and use fear to maintain their grip on wealth and power. Readers can find a great deal of material on the links between corporate power and radical religion in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips and in Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.
I am the first to admit that I don’t hold to the evangelical right’s theology and the assertion that the United States is a Christian nation. What I can believe in is that an imperfect human is capable of carrying out work in the civic square that follows the precepts of the religious life. Abraham Lincoln immediately comes to mind. Donald Trump does not.
As covered by Phillips, Kruse, and many other authors, historians, and commentators, the so-called Christian right has sold whatever soul it might have had for power. Perry’s comment—which, again to be fair, came in response to Trump calling himself God’s Chosen One—is just one more example of this decades-long trend. As one African American commentator noted, “Rick Perry, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and the Trump-supporting white evangelicals are always willing to forgive and absolve the rich racist white guy in the White House but rarely extend that grace to the black and brown people he torments.”
That torment comes out of the heightened emphasis on Old Testament vengeance among the right wing, along with a decreased focus on the “turning of the other cheek” words in the Sermon on the Mount. This is an administration, for goodness sake, that tried (but failed) to criminalize the actions of a modern-day Good Samaritan. This is an administration that set up a fake university to convince some immigrant students wanting to study in the U.S. that it was real so that our government can bust them. “Then you convince other students that they should help you recruit still other students for your university. Then you bust this second group of students and the people you entrapped to entrap them. Lovely.”
As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., writes, the evil being done in our name “rebukes both the gospels as well as simple human decency.”
And that work happens under the direction of Bill Barr—who claims to have the power to discern what is moral and right without being questioned—and Donald Trump, who simply doesn’t want to be questioned at all.
This is very serious business, and the religious fundamentalists—who generally are not acting out of Christ-like principles—feel they can claim power even when they cannot win their arguments through the ballot box. They are egged on by a broad right-wing media and infotainment network that profits by this chaos.
Thankfully, there are serious Christian voices, such as The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and John Pavlovitz, who speak out from a faith-based perspective to point the lie to Barr’s claims that only the right has the power to define our religious heritage. There are other serious voices coming from non-Christian religious traditions as well. These courageous individuals point out that what the right is looking to do is to weaponize Christianity in order to, among other things, control women, maintain prejudices against LGBTQ communities and people of color, and to legislate theology.
In many traditions, much is asked of those who are chosen by God (see Micah 6:8 reference above.) These are generally the type of requests (or commands, depending on your point of view) that I cannot see Donald Trump or many on the religious right taking seriously.
And for no better reason other than I like the song, I’ll give the last word to Bob Dylan:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God said, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run.”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”
God moves in mysterious ways, so be careful what you ask for.
More to come…