Around noon tomorrow, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as our 45th president. The peaceful transfer of power has been a hallmark of our democracy and the envy of nations around the world. It will be the latest validation of the great democratic “experiment,” a term first coined by George Washington in his own inaugural address 228 years ago.
I recognize that this particular inauguration is greeted by a country that is deeply polarized, and a Hyde Park congregation that represents the wide spectrum of political and ideological convictions. It might therefore seem foolish for me to attempt to address the relationship between faith and politics, at a time when discussing both seems hopelessly toxic. In the words of Linus Van Pelt to his friend Charlie Brown, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.”
That’s good advice, especially for a preacher like me who ought to remember that I have no formal training in political science, economic theory, military strategy, social engineering, or many other perspectives that would warrant credibility in this discussion. But what I am is a trained theologian and a student of the Bible, called to speak in the same heritage as the prophets and priests in the grand spiritual lineage of the church’s history
But first, let me speak as a mere citizen of this country. Starting tomorrow, Donald Trump will be our next President. He has earned that office, designated the winner through the same electoral procedure as every other president in our lifetime. To question his legitimacy in office would be to undermine the tenets of our free democracy, and would be a sore reflection of those who questioned the legitimacy of his predecessor. Now is not the time for name-calling or wishing the new President failure. I, for one, hope he makes good on promises to expand economic prosperity for the most vulnerable, to increase access to health care for all people, and to do everything to “promote the general welfare,” as it says in our Constitution’s Preamble. Hoping for the failure of a political party at the expense of the wellbeing of the country is, in my view, unpatriotic and antithetical to responsible citizenship.
Now, as a preacher, a pastor, and a resident theologian of this congregation, I am called to pray for this president, just as I have for presidents prior. Beyond that, we get into the question of whether a preacher, or any Christian for that matter, ought to have a voice in matters of politics and public policy. There are some who believe that the separation of church and state means that preachers should not talk about politics, and that faith and politics should have nothing to do with each other. There are those who believe that Jesus’ teaching dwelt entirely in the realm of the spiritual, the individual, and the interpersonal, rather than with the political.
But I’m reminded that to interpret the life and teachings of Jesus as completely apolitical would be a misunderstanding of the world in which he lived, and the context that shaped him and the earliest Christians. Jesus was immersed in the complicated political structures of his day. He was surrounded by the dichotomy of haves and have-nots. He ministered to people who were marginalized by society. Jesus’ every word and every action were performed in a grand political matrix of Roman and Jewish relations. To claim the incarnation is to believe that Jesus experienced all the complexity of being human in the world. Yes, it is true that Jesus did not march into Jerusalem with an army to overthrow Rome, which is an argument many make in trying to domesticate Jesus from his political context. But that’s a different argument altogether.
Indeed, the church and political power should never mix. Those two have always been disastrous bedmates. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the support of slavery, and the subjugation of women are just a few of the examples of how a fusion between the church and political power only winds up corrupting both and enhancing neither.
Neither should religion and partisan politics mix. Nowhere do we get the sense that Jesus would have been a Democrat or a Republican. The point of the Gospels is not to bow allegiance toward one political party over the other, for to squeeze such a political endorsement out of Jesus would be a gross profaning of the Scriptures. In the words of a popular bumper sticker advanced years ago by the Christian group Sojourners, “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
But with those caveats in mind, the biblical witness is consistently clear: we are not only permitted, but encouraged, to have a voice in political matters. Some of the Bible’s strongest and clearest indictments came from prophets who spoke out against people who were abusing their political power for personal privilege. Nathan confronted King David. Elijah took on Ahab and Jezebel. Jesus questioned Pilate about truth. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state, but the “conscience” of the state.
What does that mean? It means being unafraid to speak biblical and kingdom truth to earthly powers, whether they be presidents, governors, mayors, or any other institution of power. It means advocating positions that are not exclusively or even primarily partisan in nature, but rooted in the Bible’s vision for God’s kingdom on earth.
- It means taking seriously biblical mandates like Micah 6:8, to promote justice, mercy, and humility throughout our community.
- It means building societies that reflect Jesus’ command in Luke 10:27 to love God and our neighbor.
- It means advocating for the welfare of the hungry, the naked, the poor, and the imprisoned. (Matthew 25:35-40)
- It means viewing the Beatitudes as more than just about personal relationships, but also creating societies where the poor, the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are blessed, where those seeking justice are satisfied, and where peacemaking is a shared virtue. (Matthew 5:3-11)
- It means shaping a culture where we draw the circle of inclusion wider, to be a living fulfillment of Paul’s reminder that in Christ, there is no “Jew or Gentile, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
- In short, in the words of Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, it means being political without being partisan.
Ultimately, it means becoming a church community that offers an alternate vision of the brokenness of this deeply divided and anxious world. A community of hope that fosters mutual commitment to Christ, an openness to diversity, a respect for one another’s human dignity, and an embodiment of the values of God’s kingdom for all people. In short, it is a community that receives God’s love and makes it real.
Frankly, I am not as much troubled and fearful about this country’s future, as I am more energized by the necessity of the church. Now, as ever, it is good to be the church. And we are each a vital part of it.
So, let us pray for President Trump. But more importantly, let us be the church God has called us to be.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist