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Donald Trump in front of a church with a Bible in his hand Monday night got me thinking about George Washington.
Perhaps you’ve heard the stories about Washington’s piety. There are accounts that portray him as a fervent Christian holding communion services before battles, visiting rural churches and inspiring their faith, retiring to the wilderness to pray, and spending nights in humble lodgings in prayer.
He also chopped down a cherry tree.
The cherry tree story was the wholesale invention of Mason Locke Weems—Parson Weems—whose life of Washington, written a few years after the great man’s death, was early America’s most beloved book. In addition to creating the cherry tree story out of thin air, Weems invented the piety stories. Weems had an agenda that reality didn’t fit, so he invented new realities. One might call these stories alternative facts.
Washington, a man of his times, certainly believed in God, but he was no evangelical. For example, he never took communion. After hearing a sermon aimed at those in elevated positions skipping the sacrament, Washington was convicted. He responded not by going to the table but by avoiding church altogether when communion was served. His wife Martha faithfully took communion, but he didn’t, most likely because he didn’t believe in it. He rarely mentioned Jesus Christ. He never spoke of things like salvation or forgiveness. When he spoke of God, he spoke of the “Grand Architect,” “Providence,” and the “Supreme Being.” He was, like the other leading lights of the Revolution, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and as a result more deist than orthodox Christian.
However, a pious evangelical George Washington was a better story that made people feel good. He’s even painted ascending into heaven inside the Capitol dome. This saintly character was revived a couple decades ago by evangelicals whose Christian Nationalism led them to lay claim to the Founders in order to paint America as the new Israel, a City on a Hill, and the Light of the World. George Washington was appropriated by religious people for the theocratic purposes of a misguided civil religion.
Monday evening the script was flipped.
Instead of religious people appropriating a President, the President appropriated religion. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used on the people he was elected to serve to make way for the President to stand in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church and hold a Bible in the air. No one from the church knew this was coming, indeed, one of the church’s priests was hit by tear gas in front of the church.
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.
“It’s a Bible,” the President answered.
The whole thing was a photo op. The President wanted a different image after reports surfaced that he’d spent the previous nights sheltered in an underground bunker while protests went on outside. The President holding a Bible he doesn’t read (it’s not just the Bible, he doesn’t read any books) in front of a church he doesn’t attend (with “All Are Welcome” on the sign behind him) played to his base, and the base loved it. Social media lit up Monday night with Trump supporters calling it the greatest moment in American history.
On the other side, posts raged, calling it a mockery and the President “the desolating sacrilege,” “Nero,” and “the antichrist.”
His defenders ask, “How do you know he wasn’t sincere? Only God knows the human heart.”
The President’s Heart
Is there any hope for Christian unity between these poles? I will address that below, but first a word about the President’s heart. The man has opened his mouth and let his fingers tweet enough that we do have a pretty good sense of his heart.
This is someone who praised the Chinese government for their show of force in Tiananmen Square. That’s the playbook he’s following now, not the Bible.
This is the person who took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for the later-proved-innocent Central Park Five.
This is the husband and father who repeatedly bragged to Howard Stern about his infidelities, talked sexually about his daughter Ivanka’s body, and told of walking backstage at the Miss Universe pageant so he could see the contestants naked.
This is the leader who took a Sharpie to a weather map for the sake of his ego.
Let’s not forget the “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
Or “grabbing them by the p_ _ _ _.”
Or Stormy Daniels.
Or the easily disproved claims that his inaugural crowd size dwarfed Obama’s.
Or the obsession that there was massive voter fraud after Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote.
Or the silly claim that there were “thousands” in the lobby of Trump Tower to see him launch his presidential campaign when actually a few dozen reporters and people who had been paid $50 to attend had gathered. You remember that day. He said the Mexican government was sending rapists into the US.
This is the man who kept the birther story about Barack Obama alive.
Let’s not forget his work in professional wrestling.
Or the recent slanderous claim that Joe Scarborough murdered someone.
At the end of May, fact checkers had totaled 19,127 false and misleading claims made by the President. The lies and outrageous behavior come so fast there’s no time to comprehend, let alone react, to them.
We know his heart. We know it all too well. No one is going to use words like joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, or self-control to describe him. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in God or have some sort of fledgling Christian faith. I don’t know. What I do know is what he says and does.
That Was an Unfortunate Stunt
I have long identified as an evangelical and understand the evangelical support of Trump. What I cannot understand is the George Washington-esque projection of him as a religious figure. Why does that matter? As in the case of Washington, there’s civil religion at work here. Christian Nationalism. The path to unity, at least for the church, is a denouncement of Christian Nationalism as heresy. That’s another post for another day, but Hauerwas and Willimon got it right with Resident Aliens.
As for Trump, unity could begin when his supporters admit they support him because he aligns with their political agenda. He’s delivered conservatives on the Supreme Court and battled the left. 401k accounts have zoomed.
Can we drop the religious charade? If we could give up Christian Nationalism, we could then give up the need to cast disparate figures from George Washington to Donald Trump in our own image. Trump, like Washington, may indeed believe in God, but, also like Washington, he understands very little of Christianity, including, by his own admission, the need to ask for forgiveness.
Why can’t we just accept him as he is? He is not a beacon of virtue. He’s a deeply flawed person whose faults are laid bare for everyone to see most every day.
The United States is not the country we want it to be. Many actors are responsible for that reality, but, as a result of his divide and conquer political strategy, the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue bears most of it.
How I wish just one Trump supporter would say, “that was an unfortunate stunt,” about Monday night instead of defending it as some sort of act of Christian devotion.
Your blog gave us a lot to think about. Thank you.
Whether they really need it or not, patients like to have a prescription.
It’s something tangible. Presently, The Body of Christ, in-dwelt by The Holy Spirit, looks just like us. For those of “little faith”, the church then, just doesn’t look heroic enough.
So, humanity – looking for a champion – will find one … and declare it was “sent from God.”
“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”
You’ve written what many of us think of our flawed leader.
What gets me is that his supporters take your statement: “why can’t we just accept him as he is? He is not a beacon of virtue. He’s a deeply flawed person whose faults are laid bare for everyone to see most every day” —-and support him anyway, for all the reasons you have articulated.
We need a President who will put out fires, not stoke them. Vote him out. November.
Exactly. Amen. But it was more than just an “unfortunate stunt,” it may have been an unconstitutional use of force against peaceful civilians. I can accept that he and I have different views on most things, what I can’t accept is the way he abuses the office. Even his former defense secretary basically said it was unconstitutional to push people away for this photo op. We ALL need to vote in Nov.
Thank you so much for this.You have spoken the absolute truth.Beware America.
As someone who has NEVER voted for a Democrat let me say:
“Monday wasn’t a ‘stunt’, it was an asinine display of arrogance.”
As much as I desire to launch into equivalency, I have no leg to stand on here. All I can do is use my vote in November to clean the Augean stables of Washington.
No one currently serving deserves or can be trusted to be returned to office. Nor can we trust the current institutions, agent and infrastructure of governance to act with honesty and impartiality.
To argue otherwise is to claim there are “very fine people on both sides.”
Dean, these statements proclaim such a resounding cynicism that my heart breaks. To say that no one currently serving in public office or part of our government can’t be trusted or no institutions, agent (or agency) or the infrastructure of governance can’t be honest or impartial. That sounds like all protesters are evil or rioters and can’t be trusted or all police are racist or all Christians are nationalist evangelicals, because in a bipolar world (us/them) there are “very fine people on both sides.”
I’m no Republican, and I’m not a registered Democrat, but maybe Reagan offers a helpful way to proceed with our government, “Trust, but verify.”
I don’t agree that we need to throw out all the babies in the government bathwater (that’s a ton of people–police, firefighters, teachers, politicians, civil servants, military. I mean the “government” and its institutions are the #1 employer in our country–I don’t think that’s what you mean, but I mean–as a Reformed Christian, who are we going to vote in or hire who isn’t touched by sin?).
Anyway, maybe our systems, institutions, infrastructure, etc. need serious reform. Maybe we need a wholesale change of the water, and maybe that would start by a national confession of our original sin that goes back to 1619 and continues throughout our history in various and sundry ways. Maybe confession would be good for our nation’s soul. I’m not sure we’ve ever done that, but if I believe in our faith or the faith of most of our religions, maybe repentance, an acknowledgement of our vulnerability and imperfection would be just what you are calling for. And if we’re all broken and working to serve out of our brokenness, and we can acknowledge it and try to work from it to heal our land, then maybe we would have a better footing to reform, to learn to trust again, etc.
Not sure if it’s possible, but it feels like where my faith leads me rather than a cynicism that leaves me hopeless that healing or renewal is even possible.
To clarify, I do not mean all civil servants. My statement was primarily within the context of Washington elected and appointed officials.
Today I am cynical, but not without hope. (Side note, I just broke from this post to interact with a police officer about an accident with my property. We had a good laugh. The curb won vs. their car – don’t try to eat while driving.) Truly, you do make a good point that the vast majority of those who work for government entities are called to serve, they do work hard and are dedicated servants.
My despair is more toward elected officials. Is Joe Biden really better or just more sanitized? Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Gov. Whitmer, Gov. Cuomo. and down the line. What does it take to fill elected positions with true servants not the current charlatans?
Saying “there are no fine people on either side” is just as reductive and dishonest. Maybe if you weren’t so nakedly prejudiced against Democrats you’d see the virtue in many of them. Or stick with your Republican cult. Your call.
Rodney had nearly pulled me from my cynicism until I saw your posts.
Yes, I am prejudiced. I believe we are all prejudiced, we are like a car which forever pulls to the side because it is out of alignment- dangerously pulling us into the oncoming traffic. I am not truly aligned with Christ, and cannot be in this life. And from that I am driven back to him constantly – Hallelujah he forgives me again and again.
Rodney, I am too cynical to break out into “Let there be Peace on Earth (And let it begin with me)” but I know the Prince of Peace can break my heart to throw away the politics and fight in love for justice. I’ll pray that he does that soon – for all of us.
Even Democrats – but especially Republicans, Jason.
Dean, thank you for the clarification. It is helpful. I too find myself in despair from time to time. I find myself sitting in sackclothe and ashes, lament and cries for justice, but I try not to let it slip into cynicism. In my experience, cynicism vaults us into apathy and torpor. It paralyzes us until we become silent. In silence apathy or torpor, we find ourselves on the side of the powerful. (Side note-I found the reporters question of Prime Minister Trudeau so powerful. He asked him his thoughts on our President’s actions and then qualified his question with the truth that silence was patent approval. Trudeau remained silent for 20 seconds, I imagine like the crowd of accusers ready to throw the stone of silence, to not take a stand, and eventually, he had to drop the stone and condemn the actions … powerful question, great reporting). We do have power to change things and it can begin in our own community. I would invite you to go to Campaign Zero and find 10 simple solutions to end police violence (many solutions that police officers agree with). These solutions are not partisan wish lists, but data driven solutions that have reduced police violence in significant ways.
Our elected officials are like people who lick their fingers and stick them up in the air, always checking for which way the wind blows. We are called to be the wind. Push and push and push (for these officials and for the next and the next and the next) until the violence ends.
Wow Jason! might be a record. You accused Dean of naked prejudice, then turned around and did the same thing with only one bit of punctuation in between. The only way to beat that is to do in the same sentence!
Thank you for saying what needs to be said. I wish more people could read it. You made my day.
Jeff, this was excellent. Thanks for it!
Thanks Jeff, for the history lesson. A small point, maybe a big one: You say, – “Trump, like Washington, may indeed believe in God, but, also like Washington, he understands very little of Christianity, including, by his own admission, the need to ask for forgiveness.” – Washington, as I would imagine also Trump, understood the very nature and theology of Christianity. With complete understanding Washington rejected it with a preference for a philosophy that accorded with reason, namely deism, along with Thomas Jefferson and many other founding fathers of the U.S., as well as Albert Einstein.
As to our president’s Christian faith, how many Christian denominations are there in the U.S? Well into the hundreds, maybe thousands? Do they all agree with the smug Reformed understanding of Christian expression? Like you, I didn’t appreciate Trump’s claim to the Christian faith by holding up the Bible, as an expression of the superiority of Christianity. But he only did what nearly every president has done when being sworn into office. Can you imagine our president holding up the Koran? You see, by doing so, he was expressing his religious prejudice, as have every other president. That prejudice is what we expect and hope for from our political leaders. And it’s that religious prejudice that has contributed significantly to the racial prejudice in our country and elsewhere. All religions are mutually exclusive, and all religion contributes to the religious and racial bias that is evident everywhere. But none make such bias more obvious than the Christian faith with the call of the “great commission” to bring the gospel to all the world. Our missionaries claim the Christian bias as do individual Christians by pointing to the superiority of our faith over all others. Such a superiority complex breeds much more contempt than harmony. Maybe Washington was on to something.
I told myself a year ago that maybe I could vote for the democratic candidate, as long as they didn’t nominate a cynical, corrupt, doddering old fool. Oh well . . .
Looks like in November I’ll be in the same predicament as I was in 2016, like standing in line at Taco Bell, trying to decide which of these menu items I will least regret.
I will take issue with one point you made – Trump does not bear most of the responsibility for the current climate, that’s been simmering for a long time. The left has pretty consistently seen a large chunk of America as ‘clingers’ and ‘deplorables’ for a long time now and, just like the current rioting over police brutality shouldn’t be a surprise (even if it’s a wrong and counterproductive response), it’s no big surprise that when DJT tuned into their concerns, right or wrong, they got behind him.
Here is enlightening reading from this blog:
This is complete BS. I’m tired of hearing there weren’t any good choices. This man was a known huckster and liar before he was president. This man has done more to damage and division to the US than any person in history – no democrat has or ever would do more damage than this moron and for you to think he’s not worse than anybody else is beyond belief. i can’t even list all the things he’s done to prove it.
Spot on Jeff. Thank you so much for calling these antics what they are. I wish more religious leaders would do that.
On another note, have you read “His Excellency: George Washington”? It’s quite good.
Trump leads a cult. There is no better word for it. It is not remotely Christian; it is in fact diametrically anti-Christian. Every last person in it has committed the ultimate sin of rejecting Christ for that wretched man.
But I don’t blame Trump for their self-damnation. Someone doesn’t hitch their wagon to the personification of the Seven Deadly Sins unless they’ve already given their heart to the Prince of Lies. And it’s time (way past time) to start separating the sheep from the goats. They are not Christian, and we need the moral courage to say that. We need to denounce heretics like Falwell Junior, Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the rest for their false anti-Christian message. We need to get out of bed with these dogs, before what’s left of the whole Christian church has fleas.
Jason, I think I hear your anger, and I’m trying to listen well. It feels despairing and broken. I think that is appropriate. Rending of clothes and sitting in sackclothe and ashes as followers of Christ, who have long participated in the original sin of our nation, feels just about right for Christian leadership, and if we took the lead, maybe the nation would take the chance to acknowledge our collective vulnerability and imperfection.
However, demonizing our brothers and sisters, as dogs (though I love my dog and he is a member of the family) doesn’t feel like the right path. Jesus tells us that our community will be filled with wheat and chaff as long as we are together on this side of death. I think that sometimes I’m wheat, often I’m chaff. I need my brothers and sisters to heal my eyes, not cast me out. In fact, that’s what I see Jesus doing with Peter … “You are the rock. My community will be built on you,” but then, “Get behind me, Satan!” “You will deny me three times.” And finally, “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” I need to believe that Jesus’ love and mercy is stronger then my despair or blindness. Because if it isn’t, then I’m lost. And I think that may also be true for our brothers and sisters who may be blindly on the wrong path.
As you said, he has already told us about his heart.
Matthew 15:18 (NIV)
18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.
This didn’t age well.
The investigation determined that the clearing of protestors from the area had been planned for days in order to build protective fencing.
Also, your analysis of Washington is misleading. Of course he was not Evangelical as you pointed out, because he was Anglican.
The Mount Vernon .Org website gives a much better analysis of Washington’s religious beliefs.
Washington’s farewell address gives ample warning about the inability to maintain morality in exclusion of religious principle. He also warns of the inability to maintain a free ‘popular’ government without morality.
(As did John Adams)
He also questions the patriotism of those who labor to subvert the great pillars of religion and morality.
He seemed to have anticipated the threat the democratic party would become to our democracy.