Political autocracy is now a daily concern in American public discourse. And authoritarian political leadership is something that communities of faith should engage.
I just re-watched the parts of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech to members of Congress last week where he clearly becomes upset with Democrats for not applauding. This week, the president called those Democrats “un-American” and even “treasonous” for not clapping for him during the annual presidential address.
Then there was “the memo,” which Washington was so obsessed with despite many Americans having no idea of what the memo was, whether it mattered, and the greater context. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, got a partisan vote in Congress and permission from the White House to release his memo, which calls into question the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign, possible collusion with Russian plans to influence the 2016 election, and possible obstruction of justice.
Critics suggested that Nunes, perhaps in collaboration with a worried White House, had deliberately distorted disconnected facts in an attempt to undermine the investigation.
Republican leadership in the Congress gathered around the White House, while Fox News coordinated an extraordinary media campaign to release and hype the memo as revealing “the biggest political scandal in American history,” according to Sean Hannity.
When the memo was finally released, most who read it said the memo didn’t live up to the hype. But those commentators missed the point — the hype was the point. The memo has been used to fuel confusion in the country, and people’s distrust of institutions — which allowed Donald Trump to tweet how the memo both “totally vindicate[d] ‘Trump’” and exposed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a partisan “witch hunt.” We have watched Rep. Devin Nunes, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the White House, and Fox News all help spread a lie to help the president of the United States protect his power, and undermine the rule of law in America.
The question now is whether Trump will fire Mr. Mueller or his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to regain control over the investigation — or simply rely on a strategy to undermine Trump’s supporters’ trust in the Justice Department, the FBI, and any news outlets reporting on Trump’s unlawful political or illegal financial behavior.
Talk in Washington is of a “constitutional crisis” if President Trump does seek to end the investigation, or attempts to block or discredit that investigation’s reports or indictments. But there will be no constitutional crisis unless elected Republican members of Congress are willing vote against their president’s behavior. And the Republicans I talk to in Washington do not think their party’s elected leaders will be willing to do that. Which means that President Trump would “win” in any constitutional crisis.
As one church leader said to me this week, “That would mean the end of the rule of law.” He and other church leaders are coming to believe that the faith community will need to respond to that. I agree.
In the headlines this week, now, is President Trump’s stated desire for a military parade in Washington, inspired by a Bastille Day parade that he was mesmerized by in France. Because such extravagant military shows are not an American habit, people are wondering what this desire means about the kind of leader Trump wants to be. We have been told that the president has met with generals in the Pentagon about having troops, tanks, and other weapons parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and that “dates are being considered.”
This is all just in the past week.
The question we ask here at Sojourners is, as always, Why should these events matter to us as Christians?
So let’s look at the theological case for democracy.
Here is what C.S. Lewis wrote many years ago:
I am a democrat [i.e. a believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they're not true. Whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they're not true without looking further than myself. I don't deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.
In 1944, American public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Dr. Vincent Harding, one of my personal elders and a close associate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said this from his civil rights, black church, and Mennonite roots: "Democracy is not a static thing. It does not stand still. If we don't keep finding ways to expand and deepen democracy, we will see it diminish."
In my opinion, the best description of what I will call “the memo to mislead” means came from conservative columnist — and Christian — Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, who described it this way:
Trump seems to be testing the waters for direct action against the FBI by testing the limits of what his Republican followers will stomach. So far, there are no limits. ...The existence of reckless partisans such as Nunes is hardly surprising. The nearly uniform cowardice among elected Republicans is staggering. ...By his recent actions, the speaker has provided political cover for a weakening of the constitutional order. He has been used as a tool while loudly insisting he is not a tool. The way Ryan is headed, history offers two possible verdicts: Either he enabled an autocrat, or he was intimidated by a fool. ...The United States Congress…watches as Trump makes the executive branch his personal fiefdom. It stands by — or cheers — as the president persecutes law enforcement professionals for the performance of their public duties. ...For Republicans, what seemed like a temporary political compromise is becoming an indelible moral stain. ...By defending Trump’s transgressions, by justifying his abuses, Republicans are creating an atmosphere in which corruption and cowardice thrive.
A Gerson counterpart at the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, is a Democrat while Gerson is a Republican, but Dionne is also a person of faith. He sums up the problem we now face quite well:
The autocratic leader lies and then falsely charges his opponents with lying. He politicizes institutions that are supposed to be free of politics by falsely accusing his foes of politicizing them. He victimizes others by falsely claiming they are victimizing him. The autocrat also counts on spineless politicians to cave in to his demands. And as they destroy governmental institutions at his bidding, they insist they are defending them. ...Autocrats don’t prevail unless they have allies to give them cover. Thanks to House Republicans, our country has taken another step toward the chaos that autocrats thrive on.
I believe that standing up against increasing authoritarian leadership in the United States will become a matter of faith for our communities. Faith communities believe in democracy not because we think human beings are perfect, but because we know we are not. Checks, balances, and accountabilities are essential to our public life.
For us, that is not merely a political issue but a theological one — one I hope and pray the nation’s faith leaders will make clear to the nation’s top political leaders and self-described “strong men” like Donald J. Trump. So help us God.