Trump's stunt at St. John's is the result of American churches bowing to power

The American church sold itself to perpetuate the myth of this country’s divine destiny for the paltry price of access to power and respectability.
President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John's Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of protesters on June 1, 2020.
President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John's Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of protesters on June 1, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
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By William H. Lamar IV, pastor, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

No one should have been surprised by President Donald Trump’s co-opting of the symbols of American Christianity — a church, the Bible — to speak Monday to the white evangelical base that made his election possible. Every American president since George Washington has sworn his oath upon the Bible. Every American presidential candidate who wants to be taken seriously must proclaim loyalty to some church or another. Every presidential speech — whether to press for civil rights legislation or gain public support for a mendacious war — must end with “God bless America.” Candidates and winners alike are expected to participate in inaugural prayer gatherings and worship services, including those at the church where I pastor and with the denomination to which I belong.

From the founding of this nation, the church and the Holy Scriptures have been used by the state with the church's permission to dislocate people, rain violence upon them and declare the sovereignty of American empire and white male flesh.

Trump’s contrived excursion from the Rose Garden to St. John’s Episcopal Church, was then, far more than a photo op: It was the latest in a long line of acts that wed the church to the state in ways that evidence the conundrum of faith that has always been present, but is now more pronounced. When Trump dislocated the protesters from Lafayette Square, he actually cleared them from a space designed to commemorate the violence and victory of the Revolutionary War; he stood in front of a church whose history is rife with complicity in such settler colonial violence. Episcopal Bishops Michael Curry and Mariann Budde rightly decried his actions, but there are no clean hands in our faith.

The American church sold itself long ago to perpetuate the myth of America’s divine destiny for the paltry price of access to power and respectability. From the days of the Roman emperor Constantine (who ended the persecution of Christians in order to shore up his power) until this moment, politicians have known that the surest way to quiet a revolution is to subsume it under the guise of allyship. In its insatiable desire for proximity to power, the church has fallen prey to this seduction, repeatedly bowing down to the twin golden statues of capitalism and empire.

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, famously quipped, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This propensity to atomize institutions and ideas intended for the commonweal is clear in American politics, yet artfully obscured in American Christianity. Shored up by white evangelicalism and its propaganda machine, the American Christianity that informs the popular imagination takes the grand gospel — which envisions a new heaven and a new earth committed foremost to human flourishing and care for the earth — and drowns it in the bathtub of individual piety and soul salvation.

Jesus’ politics as a revolutionary, then, have been subsumed by the glory of his personal resurrection. That kind of mendacity, this theological malpractice, has relegated freedom from oppression to the great “by and by,” and unashamedly acted in the service of empire and personal fulfillment.

The challenge before American Christianity now is to find the courage to disentangle itself from America’s imperialist impulses — and among the first steps toward this courage is in truth telling. I am disinterested in the outrage of my colleagues, whether feigned or heartfelt, around Trump’s use of the Bible and the church to further both his political ambitions and American imperial violence, domestically and internationally. It is intrinsically disingenuous to be outraged by a visual act while remaining silent about the ways American Christianity makes violence and oppression more palatable, especially when you’ve silently watched other rhetorical acrobatics, informed by the truth that you can sell most Americans almost anything that is wrapped in God-language and stamped with the imprimatur of the church.

The murderous conquest of Native peoples upon this continent was so languaged and so wrapped. The stealing of Africans and the violent extraction of labor from them was so languaged and so wrapped. The subjugation of women was (and is) so languaged and so wrapped. The vitriolic exclusion of non-heteronormative persons is so languaged and so wrapped. The dehumanization of immigrants is so languaged and so wrapped.

It is time for all churches to unequivocally declare that they will no longer be theological marionettes whose strings are pulled by kleptocratic capitalists and imperialists. We must build power to topple regimes that work against the flourishing of humans and the earth. God's wind and fire seek to create something new in us and in the world.

But will we abandon the mendacity of the American myth and embrace the reign of God?

If American Christianity is to embrace God's earthly reign and not empire, the church must be committed foremost to structural change. The power we must build is to exert unrelenting pressure such that all human beings — especially those whom Jesus referred to as "the least of these" — have full access to quality health care and education, and can earn a living wage and afford safe housing. The reign of God is incomplete unless the prison industrial complex is abolished, fair tax structures are enacted, universal job training and employment opportunities are available equitably to all humans, our economy is one based on the value of what we produce with our labor rather than what we simply extract from others', retirement benefits are available to all seniors that allow a good quality of life and the earth is revered as God's creation.

Are we bold enough to do that? That remains the question.