One of the things that makes America a can-do nation of innovation is that we find ways to work together, using our disagreements and diversity as an asset. Because we don’t swallow the status quo and bow down in reverence to group-think, we have been able to land on the moon, cure cancers, and invent the internet.
That’s true of our religious communities as well. Across diverse denominations and varied religious traditions, our voices are different, but when tuned to the common good, we learn to understand and respect one another. The Apostle Paul taught this spiritual principle when he spoke of us being one body with many members, each valued and honored, no exceptions (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12).
The U.S. Constitution offers us the same powerful formative principle, reflected in our national motto of e pluribus unum, out of many, one. That commitment to religious diversity protects the freedom of each religious community from political oppression and protects our government from being controlled by any religious community. This principle is meant to ensure that no single religious community has a monopoly on politics and no political party has a monopoly on religion.
Tragically, a narrow segment of faith leaders and political leaders have formed an alliance that promotes the sense of religious submission to the current president. It’s not always easy to tell when the politicians are using the religious leaders, or when the religious leaders are using the politicians. Either way, they’ve gerrymandered the Bible and the Constitution into a political theology that promises rewards for submission to an authoritarian leader.
Many of these religious leaders have latched onto the biblical narrative of King Cyrus. In the Book of Isaiah, this 6th Century BCE Persian King conquered Babylon and allowed exiled Jews to return to ancient Israel. Cyrus, not a believer in the God of Israel, is portrayed as a chosen vessel to implement God’s plan.
By casting their religious submission to a modern-day King Cyrus, these religious leaders bless everything the Trump administration does as God’s will, suggesting that to oppose it is to oppose God. By laying hands and praying over this president, they’ve performed a ritual of divine anointing to inspire religious devotion among their followers. As a result, they call for fervent loyalty to a leader well-known for obvious fabrications; adultery and sexual exploits that include allegations of abuse; overt incitement of violence; support for ‘isms and ‘obias (white nationalism, authoritarianism, nepotism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia); vilification of the free press; tax evasion; and a lack of basic empathy.
These Christian leaders never applied this biblical logic to any other American president nor do they acknowledge that American presidents, unlike Cyrus, take a solemn vow to the Constitution and therefore promise not to play the part of unaccountable conquerors, emperors, or kings.
So why go to such biblical lengths now? If you ask these religious leaders, they point to ending abortion and Obamacare through appointment of conservative judges. They ignore the fact that under the Obama administration, abortion rates fell to lower than they were before Roe v. Wade. It isn’t restricting legal access that has reduced abortion rates; it is increasing access to health care (including good nutrition), education, and poverty reduction.
Perhaps a more realistic explanation is to be found in their desire to hold onto the power of white male supremacy, even as much of our nation has made clear that we are ready to move on. The agenda is no longer conservative versus progressive but a matter of whether the arc of justice will snap under the weight of growing authoritarianism. These religious leaders support what the average American has the moral sense to oppose: forcibly removing children from parents and imprisoning children in cages; denying refugees escaping religious persecution and violence their legal right to safe harbor; supporting white supremacy and normalizing hate-filled scapegoating; destroying the planet; even politicizing the right to health care and the right to vote, as this moving video blessing reminds us.
Despite the efforts to manipulate and divide us, the majority of Americans agree on basic moral values and aspirations. We don’t need to agree on everything, but we must stay true to our shared values and shared vision of our nation’s as-yet-unrealized possibility, a future that is better than both our present and our past. We can make our diversity an occasion for new vision. You can call it a 2020 vision for the common good.