Thursday, February 6, 2020

Politics and Religion: President Trump at a National Prayer Breakfast

Politics and religion intermeshed can be a nasty business. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, witnessed every venue of his planned tour in Europe cancel because Franklin had “called Islam ‘evil,’ attacked laws increasing rights for transgender people, and told his followers that the legalization of same-sex marriage was orchestrated by Satan.”[1] Although criticizing another religion is religious in nature, turning to laws renders the attack political too. Although Franklin Graham may have assumed that many of his co-religionists would agree with him both in religious and political terms, wading into controversial political matters risks alienating people who are or would otherwise be religious followers. Even the willingness to traverse into the political realm may not be liked by some religionists, whether followers or not, especially if the incursion is into a controversy. Some co-religionists may agree with the distinctly religious belief, yet hold dissimilar political views. Such distance created between religionists can weaken a religious leader’s credibility and even following in the religious domain. Politicians dragging their respective religious faiths into the political domain can also be problematic, though authentic applications can pay off even if there is a cost politically. The incursion of Christianity at the end of U.S. President Trump’s trial in the Senate and as he took a victory lap can demonstrate the complexities of religion distended into another domain. A politician may invoke his or her religious beliefs to justify a political position, as Sen. Mitt Romney did before he voted to convict U.S. President Donald Trump on the abuse-of-power impeachment article. In his speech justifying his vote on the senate floor, an emotional Romney said, “My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”[2] Obviously, his vote itself had the immediate effect of isolating him in Trump’s GOP. Even so, incorporating his religious faith in the senate chamber could have cost Romney more politically to the extent that other Republicans did not agree with his political beliefs. Some Democrats (e.g., secular or of other faiths) may otherwise have thought more of the senator in spite of his vote. Also, his denomination of Christianity, the Church of Latter Day Saints (i.e., the Mormon church) may have taken a hit in religious circles. In other words, a religionist who explicitly brings his or her faith across the border to play a role in the political domain may pay a price back on the religious turf.
Even religion itself can suffer from a politician bringing it into the political domain, especially if he or she contradicts his or her religion in political action. At a prayer breakfast on the day after the senate trial on President Donald Trump ended with an acquittal, he said he did not believe in loving enemies in spite of the fact that the teaching even though Jesus includes in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospels. The president immediately matched his statement, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” with attacks on his political opponents, calling them “dishonest and corrupt people” who “badly hurt our nation.”[3] Then he went after Senator Romney, saying “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.”[4] The charge of religion used wrongly is a good example of how extending the religious domain into the realm of politics can have political costs, as well as costs to the particular religion.
Even though Speaker (of the House of Representatives) Nancy Pelosi was prominently placed at the breakfast and had said that she prays for the president daily, Trump said, “nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.”[5] If Pelosi had lied about the praying, then her invocation of her faith meant that she was misusing her religion in the political domain. If she really had been praying in private, then the president misused his religion in going after her personally.
Instead of the New Testament preachment to love thy enemies, Trump had said that he preferred taking an eye for an eye, a teaching in the Old Testament that Jesus rejects in the New Testament. “It’s striking,” one journalist wrote after the prayer breakfast, “to hear Trump, who is a Presbyterian, so directly reject one of Christianity’s core teachings.”[6] In implying that he can be a Presbyterian and not believe in one of Jesus’ core teachings, both the president and his denomination look bad. That is, that the president cited his religious denomination and faith for political purposes hurt both him and his Church, for duplicity or hypocrisy is not generally looked on favorably.
As if to justify opposing Jesus’ dictum to love thy enemies, the president said at the breakfast, “So many people have been hurt and we can’t let that go on.”[7] He chaffed at having to like his enemies. I contend that loving one’s enemies is not the same thing as liking them. A mother may love her son but not like him, so like is not necessarily implied in love. Coming to an enemy’s aid when help could help the person—and valuing doing so—rather than attacking especially when the enemy is down—is the epitome of Jesus’ notion of loving one’s enemies. This goes beyond merely turning the other cheek when attacked. In fact, assent to valuing voluntarily helping people who have insulted, injured, or even physically attacked you can be viewed as the litmus test of whether a person is really a Christian. Even better is having helped a detractor, especially if he or she really needs help.  Resentment and retribution have no place.
In spite of loving your enemies being viewed as a strength rather than weakness by Christians, religion itself may be weak relative to political force once in the political domain. Pelosi may have been praying for the president, but this didn’t stop the president from going after her (and literally waving a newspaper whose headline was “President Acquitted” in the air) at the National Prayer Breakfast, which was “typically a nonpartisan event that organizers say is meant to provide a spiritual refuge from political warfare.”[8] Not even at such an event could religion have the upper hand; the president could disgorge Jesus’s famous dictum and attack his enemies even in victory. To be sure, that the president could be both a Presbyterian and an eye-for-an-eye guy points to a weakness within institutional Christianity. Even so, extending religion beyond its own domain into another may not be a good idea. However, if Sen. Romney bucked his own political party, which was controlled by the president, on the basis of his faith, then religion starts to look very good indeed in the political realm. Religion can be a strength even beyond its own domain, yet only if religion itself does not expand into something other than religious and, even worse, bring the other back into the religious realm as religious.
Religion must be authentic rather than employed as a political tool to have strength in the political realm. Yet even as authentic, a religious element can be vulnerable and even make the politician politically weaker. Sen. Romney and National Prayer Breakfast itself were vulnerable. The ways of the world are not those of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached.

[1] Rob Picheta, “Evangelist Preacher Franklin Graham Planned a Seven-City UK Tour. All Seven Venues Have Dropped Him,” CNN.com, February 6, 2020(accessed same day).
[2] Michael Warren, “Guilty Vote Against Trump Casts Romney in a New Role: GOP Maverick,” CNN.com, February 6, 2020 (accessed same day).
[3] Daniel Burke, “Love Your Enemies? Nah, Says Trump,” CNN.com, February 6, 2020 (accessed same day).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.