|Tony Perkins; Robert Jeffress; Franklin Graham; Jerry Falwell, Jr. (AP/Getty/Salon)|
This week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is another reminder that Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech, an early denunciation of the evils of McCarthyism in the 1950s, still remains politically relevant, particularly to the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump. Smith decried the lack of leadership that she believed could result in “national suicide” and urged her Republican colleagues to maintain their political integrity and intellectual honesty: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Smith’s biblical imagery makes the speech especially applicable to a certain subset of the Republican Party — white evangelical Christians who support a president whose life exemplifies everything Jesus’ teachings oppose. But for some white evangelicals, the ends justify the means. For example, since many of them believe that the restoration of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital is one of the factors leading to the end of the world as portrayed in the Book of Revelation, it is no accident that two white evangelical pastors offered prayers at the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem.
Donald Trump rode to political victory on all four horses of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear — but his white evangelical enablers provide religious rationalizations for all of them.
All four white evangelical leaders distinguish between the obligations of Christians to follow Jesus’ teachings and the political obligations of governments. As Falwell argued: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome — he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” Likewise, Jeffress insisted, in defense of Trump’s 2017 “refugee ban,” that “the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.
Jesus was an eschatological Jewish prophet who proclaimed, in some sense, the restoration of Israel. As such, he is similar to the prophet Amos, a poor, marginalized outsider who calls for justice and righteousness and proclaims the judgment of God against an entire nation because of social injustice, judicial and economic corruption, and religious arrogance.
Jesus, an impoverished first-century artisan — not an adviser to the emperor — also spoke prophetic words of judgment against the oppressors of his people. Even his famous “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” statement is a classic example of non-elite resistance against an extractive taxation system that transferred wealth from the majority of people in the Roman Empire to the ruling elites. Since the denarius coin that Jesus referenced would have been inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” Jesus is in fact suggesting, “Give that blasphemous coin back to that blasphemous emperor.”
Are there any of the Ten Commandments that Donald Trump hasn’t broken? These white evangelical leaders have excused all sorts of behavior they allegedly believe is sinful, such as lying and adultery; their code of ethics has proved to be flexible, not biblical. They have turned from the ethics of the Ten Commandments to the idolatrous political allure of the Golden Calf, an idol made by the Israelites while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments.
These white evangelicals, by rendering to Caesar what is God’s, have not only lost their integrity; they have lost their credibility as religious leaders. Their hypocrisy, their worship of political power and money, damages the cause in which they claim to believe and betrays the teachings of the person they claim to worship. Whatever political advantages they gain will be short-lived. As Amanda Marcotte writes, “the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it’s also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat.”
What happens when you render unto Caesar that which is God’s? To paraphrase another saying of Jesus: You may gain the whole world, but you lose your soul.
The nation’s nightmare of McCarthyism lasted four years after Sen. Smith’s speech, and its demise is often credited, among other things, to Joseph Welch's famous rebuke to McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The answer to that question about white evangelicals is that — in stark contrast to Margaret Chase Smith — they do not.
As I promised,in my next post I will write about some very positive and important things happening with some Christian evangelicals.