Van Ens: Don’t draw blood with a sharply pointed stick
Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for civility was: “Take things always by the smooth handle.” This adage is posted near the door to my Jefferson Study, which features colonial furnishings and my collection of heirloom books about our nation’s third president.
Jefferson’s adage makes sense. Would you hand a friend a sharp knife with the blade thrusts toward him or her?
Responsible people exchange differences of opinion, often sharp as knives, by civilly grasping “the broad handle.” Practicing such manners does not draw blood.
Jefferson did not always obey this adage about “taking things by the smooth handle.” In private correspondence, he sometimes stained reputations and ruined careers. Speaking publicly, however, Jefferson usually clutched “the broad handle” by defending his convictions without sounding brash.
In contrast, President Donald Trump habitually picks with a verbal pointed stick at scabs caused by our culture wars. These scabs, infected by a lack of civility, do not heal.
Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Along with other voters, they stood up for the president because he used forceful, direct, in-your-face bombast. Evangelicals supported his battle against the “Deep State,” which Trump claimed was composed of career politicians who turned America godless instead of great again. Trump packed courts with conservative jurists, shrunk environmental and big business regulations, sponsored a huge tax cut, strengthened anti-abortion laws, and transferred the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a move some evangelicals believe fulfills biblical End-time prophecies.
Many evangelicals endorse Trump because he opens wounds, verbally using this political agenda as a pointed stick. He achieves what most evangelicals privately endorse, but some hesitate to publicly talk about. Trump functions as their cover. He is their jackhammer who splits what he detests about “government that over-reaches.”
Will loyalists abandon Trump after he incited a seditious mob to destroy our Republic? The president urged them to march up Pennsylvania Avenue and violently take over the Capitol. On Jan. 6, these Trump agitators paraded a Confederate flag in the Capitol rotunda, desecrating these halls where the Peoples’ representatives pursue justice and defend personal freedoms.
Shortly after the stampede into the Capitol, Congress met in a joint session. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voiced what most Americans know is true: “We gather due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of supporters who he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning,” thundered Romney. “What happened today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States.”
Trump energizes his supporters because he speaks to their hearts, not heads. He massages evangelicals’ hurt feelings caused by seeing a Christian nation they once led now losing credibility and cultural clout. The president dwells on these bruised feelings of loss. Rather than dealing with daily policy, he drills down on lambasting political enemies — the press, the Deep State bureaucracy, those who impeached him and fraudulent vote counting.
Before the 2016 election, President Ronald Reagan’s head speechwriter Peggy Noonan warned of Trump’s effect on supporters when he spins raucous, militant riffs at campaign rallies.
“Part of how Donald Trump connects with his audience, those in the hall and those watching at home, is that he tells them how he experiences things,” observed Noonan. He emotes fiery feelings and stokes rage in listeners hearts against the Deep State.
“There is something scatty [unfocused and way-out] in this [tough-guy speechifying],” admits Noonan in The Wall Street Journal in 2016, “but also something interesting, positively potent. There is no invisible scrim between him and the audience. He also has fun and is a comic. I realized he thinks he has to entertain; it’s part of his job to be informal, surprising, personal — to make jokes.”
Trump’s fractured syntax, outright lies, dangling participles and impulsive retorts are seldom linked to the literary grandeur of “The Gettysburg Address.” His pointed-stick tirades, however, spread bias against immigrants and poke at deep-down feelings of resentment supporters hold. His “sticking it to enemies” connects at a primitive, gut level where terrible feelings of loss and anger churn within supporters.
Trump confides to them: “You’re my kind of people. I’m the political sweetheart you’ve been looking to wed for a long, long time. All of us detest high-brow elites hiding in the Deep State who scorn us.”
Evangelicals describe themselves as “Bible-believing” disciples of Jesus. So why not focus on biblical teachings that reject how Trump connects with listeners. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone,” (Colossians 4:6).
Even the Bible allows for his salty talk, say Trump’s flatterers. He rants, abuses enemies and sounds petty and ruthless — all very “salty.”
When the Bible instructs Christians to “salt their conversation,” it does not approve of Trump’s coarse words and quarrelsome tirades. In scriptural times, salt preserved meat and purified what was sacrificed to God in the Temple.
Evangelicals’ heart-felt connection with Trump breaks when they “salt” their lives, preserving and protecting them with what is true, gracious, compassionate and factually reliable.
Be won over by another voice who “takes the broad handle” instead of jabbing with a sharp point. He connects with our hearts. “Have salt [savoring virtues] among yourselves and be at peace with each other,” taught Jesus (Mark 9:50).
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.