Thistlethwaite: God in politics
There have been a lot of references to God in the history of American politics, some perhaps cynical, some likely sincere.
Today, however, a very dangerous way of invoking God in politics has emerged. This is epitomized by Paula White, Donald Trump’s so-called “Spiritual Adviser.” She has recently joined the White House staff to lead the Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a division of the Office of Public Liaison.
White has taken to praying “against” the president’s opponents, and she suggests they “operate in sorcery and witchcraft.” Really. We should recall that for centuries charges of sorcery and witchcraft generally meant one is in league with Satan, and those charges have gotten a lot of innocent people killed.
White is a proponent of what is called the “Prosperity Gospel,” the controversial theology that claims God wants all Bible-believing Christians to be healthy and wealthy. In the God and politics mix we see in the U.S. today, “Prosperity Gospel” is a view found among many evangelicals, though not all, and it is a view held among Trump’s so-called “base.”
In general, this “base” is the Christian-identified, broadly “evangelical” and overwhelmingly white demographic that voted for Trump by 81 percent in 2016. These people still significantly support Trump, despite the sexual and political scandals that have rocked this administration. White’s role now, it seems to me, is to keep shoring up the president’s “base” through such polarizing political theology.
White represents an alarming, and frankly appalling, direction for God in politics. She is becoming a poster child for the part of white, Protestant evangelicalism that has, in my view as a Christian pastor and teacher, completely sold out its religious mission to a narrow political agenda. This kind of Protestant evangelicalism has lost its Christian faith and become a branch of the Republican party.
Paula White’s “prayer” about the president’s “enemies” is quite different from the kinds of prayer and spiritual advice American presidents have received from evangelical pastors before. For 50 years, the Reverend Billy Graham, who used to epitomize American Protestant evangelicalism, met with, prayed with, and presumably advised each president, Democrat and Republican, up through President Barack Obama. But Reverend Graham never once publicly, to my knowledge, condemned any president’s “enemies.” In fact, in 1989, in his prayer at the inauguration of George H. W. Bush, Rev. Graham prayed to God to give the new president “the wisdom, integrity and courage to help this become a nation that is gentle and kind.”
Some evangelicals are starting to wake up to how their faith has been twisted and corrupted by this political identification. Ben Howe is a self-described conservative Republican and Protestant evangelical, son of a preacher, and the author of the new book “Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals chose Political Power Over Christian Values.” They have become “snake oil salesmen,” as Howe writes, and describes himself as “stunned.”
As the effects of this corruption of white Protestant evangelicalism were starting to become clear in the election of Donald Trump, more than 300 Christian theologians and pastors, myself included, met at a church in Boston. We issued a warning and a call to Christian evangelicals to repent of this substitution of conservative politics for the Christian faith. We asked such evangelicals to “believe in the Gospel.”
I spoke at a press conference at this event about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian pastor who was arrested and ultimately executed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler. Bonhoeffer condemned the German Christians of his time for their “cheap grace,” that is, their selling their faith to gain political power in Hitler’s Germany.
I said: “The Christianity Bonhoeffer denounced is the Christianity we denounce today. It is a Christianity that literally enables hate, hate for people of color, for immigrants, for those of other religions, for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender human beings, for women and girls, for the poor and the most vulnerable among us.
“And why do these so-called Christians do this? Not out of obedience to the teachings of Jesus, because Jesus taught the exact opposite of their hate-mongering. No, they do it for power, for political gain.
“Jesus asks, ‘What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?'”
I called on those kinds of evangelical Christians, and, indeed, I call on all of us who ascribe to the Christian faith to embrace the good news of the Gospel.
“The good news, and it is very good news, is an invitation to turn away from greed and turn toward love of neighbor.”
That call has become ever more urgent in our time.
I believe God weeps for such hatred and division promoted in God’s name. And we should weep too.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.