In a perceptive article published Sunday in the New York Times, Robert P. Jones drew attention to the promise Donald Trump made to Evangelical Christians during the election of 2016: “You will have power.”
It was an invitation the Evangelical could not—and did not—refuse.
They voted for Trump, and Trump has elevated them to places of prominence throughout his administration. We ridicule the arrangement now as beneath the dignity of Christian faith and practice. We demean the Evangelicals for their crass adulation of the President, their crude addiction to political power.
But we best be careful.
Christianity has a long and deplorable history of succumbing to the seduction of power.
Episcopalians in England, Pentecostals in Brazil, Lutherans in Germany, Orthodox in Russia, Catholics in Italy, and Copts in Egypt. We could easily add my own tribe: Southern Baptists in the Confederate states, then and now.
Shall I go further? Jews in Israel and Muslims in Saudi Arabia (and a dozen other nation states).
Human history is full of religious groups trading their rightful role in the social order for a prominent place in the political palace. Evangelicals in America are just the most recent example of this failure to withstand the temptations so carefully described in the Christian gospels.
Satan came to Jesus, you recall, and offered him the world—political legitimacy and leverage in exchange for compromise and co-existence. Jesus turned down Satan, so the story goes. He ended up dying execution style at the hands of the political bosses whose camaraderie he was proffered at that memorable encounter far away from the urban centers where power-hungry people congregate.
We know that story and so did those first disciples, we presume; but that did not keep them from making their own appeal to places of importance:
“Rabbi,” they said, “we want you to do for us what we ask of you.”
“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus responded.
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Those disciples were members of a marginalized social group in a country suffering at the hands of an occupying empire. Jesus reacted to their self-serving fantasy with warnings of danger and death.
Evangelicals today, so they imagine, teeter between privilege and persecution. They recall the days of yore when all power in these United States was at least compliant with the preferences of White Christian America. They sense these perks slipping through their fingers. For years they have whined about this reality using the language of persecution: “Woe are we, for we have been pushed out of the palace.”
When Trump presented his promise of extended power, they packed up their anxiety and polished their pride, leaping for joy at the prospects of this suddenly-sacred invitation to marriage. It has been four years now of romance and wedded bliss. They are planning a really big party to celebrate their anniversary in January.
We understand their delight. We, also, have succumbed to this temptation. In ways small and mostly out of sight, we have traded our best version of our Christian selves for a few minutes or months in the spotlight of power and glory. It is too much to resist, for them and for us.
We fail to remember the lyrics of that very first hymn of praise to the One we call Lord and God. It is imbedded in the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi—
“Jesus, who though in the form of God, did not regard his status as something to be clutched. Instead, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave…became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
That cross was, of course, a place of isolation and sad endings. We, in our lust for a different location, transformed it from rough wood to smooth gold. We carry it high and lifted up as we march our merry way into whatever passes for the place of power and prominence. For us, the White House.
It’s not the Catholics, the Evangelicals, or the Orthodox, O Lord, but me, standing in the need of prayer, in the need of finding my place of service at the end of the table and the corner of the stable. There, surprisingly, we just may witness again something akin to the birth of our savior, even Jesus the Lord.