Once during a photo opportunity in the Oval office with President Reagan and his visitor Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, another reporter asked the president about the tax cut bill then working its way through congress. After he answered I followed up by telling the two men: “Remember what the Good Book says that might pertain to taxes: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’.”
The president seemed to enjoy the interruption and might have been about to join the discussion of the “Good Book’s” view of taxes but Cardinal Krol shot a look at me that said “where is Torquemada when we need him” and that ended the colloquy.
I thought of that incident while pondering the rise of religion as it is now used routinely in political arguments. The Lord is brandished like a sword of truth by politicians in an argument over secular matters.
A few years ago when there was hot debate over extending the George W Bush tax cuts I heard a member of Congress insist on the floor of the U S House of Representatives that God wanted them extended without modification. The gentlemen did not say how he came to learn this but clearly he was telling his colleagues they had no choice but to follow the Lord’s will as revealed to this Congressman. I thought at the time that surely the Lord had more pressing and important matters to adjudicate that the Bush tax cuts, but what do I know.
In the presidential campaign of 1960, John F Kennedy delivered a speech to Baptist ministers in an effort to reassure Protestants they need not fear that, if elected, he would seek to impose his views as a Roman Catholic on the Country. He said, in part:
“I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation (bold added) or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” *
That seems for me to be the right way to separate Church and State when it comes to decisions on secular matters. But, beginning in 1980, when the late Reverend Jerry Falwell and his conservative political action group “Moral Majority” helped elect Ronald Reagan and defeat several liberal Democratic Senators, more and more Protestant Christian leaders have openly campaigned for Conservative Republican candidates. It sometimes seems these pastors believe the Lord wants them to spend their main time and energy on electing Republicans rather than preaching the true Gospel to a bi-partisan flock in need of spiritual and moral revival.
Last year Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry jr., Billy Graham’s son Franklin, and a host of other Christian Protestant leaders enthusiastically supported Donald J Trump, a man whose well known personal views, actions, words and habits can not possibly be seen as the epitome of a Christian life as described by Jesus in the New Testament. The question is asked how can Christian leaders overlook such non-Christian faults as Trump’s?
Cynics might suggest that the religious leaders who are sticking with Donald J Trump are, like politicians looking toward re-election, simply taking the view popular with their constituents. After all, Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote last year and still enjoys high approval ratings from that group even as his overall approval ratings drop sharply. But surely the pastors should be leaders, not followers, and if they are isn’t it fair to ask whether it is they who helped lead their flocks to that 80 percent figure voting figure for Trump?
And if they did have a hand in doing that, why?
The answer seems to be that the partisan tribalism that has overtaken the Country has overtaken the pastors as well and that the benefits they see coming their way from a Republican president outweigh even the most egregious collection of non-Christian faults. When Trump famously said “I could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” I wonder, would he lose any pastors?
But now, Donald J Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville has given these pastors a big problem. Falwell, Graham, and others I’ve seen quoted have denounced the racism, bigotry and violence seen there – good for them. But many have tried to shield the president from any blame connected with that day’s awful events or criticism of his response to those events in which he said that there were “very fine people on both sides” which, of course, includes the Nazi side. That’s a hard task since the overwhelming majority of Americans do not think any Nazi marchers are “fine people” but some pastors are doing the best they can.
Franklin Graham said: “Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That’s absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue?”
While several business leaders immediately resigned from two White House Business Councils (which were then immediately shut down), only one religious leader has resigned so far from the White House Evangelical Council, New York City megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard.
Mark Burns, an African American pastor in Easly, South Carolina, who was a surrogate for Donald J. Trump in campaigning last year, when asked if he would resign from the Council, tweeted: “Calls for Me to RESIGN…If God called me to support and Advise @realDonaldTrump spiritually How Can you Resign?”
I thought perhaps pastor Burns should check with the Lord again since he had been called before Charlottesville and the call might be under review now.
I suppose the question would be, what would the Lord say about the events surrounding Charlottesville and President Trump’s response to them? That seems to be an important question for all of us but particularly so for the pastors who are supposed to lead us.
I wish I could remember the name of the Congressman who told us the Lord wanted the Bush tax cuts extended.
Perhaps he would know the answer.
*Not everyone might agree with Kennedy’s view of not imposing his own religious views on the nation were he the president.
For instance, I wonder what Vice President Mike Pence might say about that. It could be important to know.