The president brandishes a Bible in front of a church, in search of a divine mandate that isn’t coming.
Late Monday afternoon, President Trump emerged from the White House and strode in the cool spring daylight to St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square. It was supposed to be an act of defiance: Mr. Trump has bristled at the observation that during the protests roiling the capital he has burrowed into a fortified bunker rather than addressing the nation.
Like most performances arranged by Mr. Trump and associates, it made only a disjointed sort of sense. Yes, the president’s decision to march through the heart of the city’s unrest caused police and National Guard units to blast a peaceful crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, carving a punishing path to the steps of St. John’s. But the show of force seemed to emphasize only that his legitimacy has shrunk to the point that he feels moved to dominate his own people with military power.
As he took up his post before the church, which was partially boarded up after a minor fire that broke out during a recent protest, Mr. Trump set his face in a stony scowl and held up a black Bible, tightly closed. “Is it your Bible?” a reporter shouted. “It’s a Bible,” Mr. Trump said neutrally. The entire routine was vulgar, blunt: There Mr. Trump was, holding aloft this mute book — neither opened, cited, nor read from — in the shadow of a vandalized church, claiming the mantle of righteousness.
After all, that was what he had come to do. A ruler maintaining order strictly by brute force has a problem. Such regimes are volatile and fragile, subject to eruptive dissolution. Mr. Trump may lack the experience or interest to even pantomime genuine Christian practice, but he has acute instincts when it comes to the symbolism of leadership. He seemed to know, as he positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, that he needed to imbue his presidency with some renewed moral purpose; Christianity was simply a convenient vein to tap.
“I think that’s a standard trope in American political frames of reference,” Luke Bretherton told me on a Monday night phone call. Mr. Bretherton, who is a professor of moral and political theology at Duke University’s Divinity School, cited Cold War efforts to demonize socialism as viciously atheistic and amoral. It was work undertaken with anxious eagerness precisely because socialist criticisms of American life were substantial and compelling.
So it goes with the protesters who have gathered to condemn the murder of George Floyd and the murders of others like him, black men and women slaughtered in America’s streets and in their homes by those entrusted with the force of its laws. Their moral case is clear, urgent, compelling. In Mr. Trump’s eyes, Mr. Bretherton said, “there’s only one way to combat that symbolically: “To claim divine sanction for what amounts to a declaration of martial law.”
Of course Mr. Trump is uninterested in the particularities of the Christian religion. St. John’s is a liberal Episcopal church, whose presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has vehemently condemned the stunt. (In a twist of bitter irony, the church’s sign posted behind Mr. Trump stated that “all are welcome.”) On Tuesday the president visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a holy space maintained by the Knights of Columbus, in honor of the pope whose blood resides in the shrine as a relic for veneration by the faithful. Mr. Trump is, of course, not Catholic; like the macabre parade in front of St. John’s, this is just an attempt at recruiting a vague Christian pastiche as the moral core of his authoritarian efforts.
Christian leaders ought to condemn this blatant prostitution of the glory of God. Some, like Mr. Curry, will; others won’t, either because of their own political allegiances or fear of Mr. Trump’s wrath. But the most worrisome prospect is that it won’t matter at all what Christian leaders do; Mr. Trump doesn’t need them to stake his claim.
“It’s significant that Trump did this alone,” Mr. Bretherton observed. Unlike prior presidents who sometimes appeared on grave occasions with priests or pastors, Mr. Trump “doesn’t need a Billy Graham figure to give divine sanction. He doesn’t need a priestly figure. He himself can be the mediator.”
And yet it is still worth saying that the Christian faith does not condone the wanton destruction of human life or the presumption of God’s blessing by any earthly power. At the heart of the faith is servitude, not domination; Mr. Trump, hoisting the Bible aloft like a scepter, clearly has other plans.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ is tempted by Satan three times, and the final temptation is this: dominion over “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Christ rejected the offer, scripture holds; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him,” he rebuked the Devil. But it wouldn’t have been a temptation if it weren’t in some way enticing. One imagines that Lucifer didn’t retire the gambit because of the one defeat and that in his years of similar propositions, he must have had many takers.
Post-Jesus Christians are “Christians” who have decided to postpone following Jesus’s teaching until Jesus returns and ushers in 1000 years of peace.
Post-Jesus Christians hold that Jesus’s teachings do not need to be followed in our present era if they are a hindrance to obtaining the power they fear they need to help usher in the Kingdom of God.
Post-Jesus Christians (privately) hold that Jesus’s teachings are a nice thing to follow when dealing with the in-group of their fellow PJCs but may be disregarded when dealing with non-PJC neighbors.
Prophecy: What God Can Do For You
Post-Jesus Christians talk a lot about about prophecy, and unlike the Biblical Prophets, when they do, they punch down, rather than up:
You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence“, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.
Later Craig Greenfield writes:
In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.
- Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
- Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.
An Inversion of Ben Franklin’s Morality
While many Post-Jesus Christians appeal to a historical “Christian Nation” , Post-Jesus Christians appear to be an inversion of founding father Ben Franklin, who in historian John Fea’s description, wanted to discard Jesus’s Divinity but retain and celebrate his ethical teachings.
So what does this look like in practice?
Below are public quotations from prominent Court Evangelicals. These quotations are less extreme that I would expect to hear in private. A friend of mine speaks to supporters in private. He reports that they would (privately) celebrate the stuffing of election ballots in favor of their preferred candidate as a righteous act.
1) Court Evangelical: Anti-Sermon on the Mount
John Fea wrote about a conversation he had with Rob Schenck for the “Schenck Talks Bonhoeffer” podcast @ 19:27. Here’s a quote from Schenck talking about a conversation he had with a prominent evangelical at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service:I must tell you something of a confession here. I was present at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral — not the smaller one held at Saint John’s Episcopal church across from the white house, but the one following the inauguration at the National Cathedral and I saw one of the notable Evangelicals that you’ve named in in our conversation. One of them, I won’t say which and we had it short exchange and I, I suggested to him that we needed to recalibrate our moral compass and that one way to do that might be to return to The Sermon on the Mount as a reference point. And he very quickly barked back at me. “We don’t have time for that. We have serious work to do.”
2) Jerry Falwell Jr: Anti-Turn the other cheek
We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before. The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity. Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:
Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.
John Fea’s Update:
Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement. They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals. Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”
I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement. For that I am sorry. But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above. While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.
Bill Bright and Loren Cunningham both received the same vision for America and the church in 1976. It was the 7 sphere’s of influence that God wanted to take for the kingdom. This series will deal with how we can do that through kingdom authority.
The Dark Ages have a certain appeal to some. It was a time when good and evil was white and black. Church overruled state. And the word of priests was as law.
It was when the Roman Catholic church effectively ruled the whole of the Western world. Under idealised eyes, it controlled every aspect of civil life. Parish priests held sway over small towns and communities. Cardinals and Popes could bend kings and nobles to their will.
In reality, things rarely worked out that way. But it was the accepted doctrine of the times.
Now, some evangelical groups want that all-encompassing power back.
They call themselves Dominionists.
Their declared goal is to take control of society. And the US government is in its sights.
It wants ‘One nation, under God’ … their god.
Only once this is achieved, followers believe, will Jesus return in the Second Coming, initiating the End of Days and the prophecies of the Book of Revelation.
It’s a cross-denominational movement which appears to have been born among television and radio evangelists in the 1970s. They cite one passage, Genesis 1:28, as justification:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
It is interpreted as being God’s mandate for his followers to control every aspect of life.
Now new apostles are preaching a message which puts church above state, and their interpretation of Christian lore above secular law.
And they have a plan to have this enforced.
SEVEN HEADS ARE SEVEN MOUNTAINS
The argument goes something like this:
The long-awaited Second Coming has not yet happened as the criteria outlined in the Bible have yet to be met. Christians have not been taking part in their communities. Instead, they’ve been huddled in their own churches. This has exposed the very pillars of society susceptible to the influence of the devil.
It’s up to believers to change this, they argue, by seizing control of key institutions.
Some evangelical movements believe this is demanded by prophecy. They argue the Bible verses of Isiah 2:2-3 instruct their followers to take control:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths.”
It argues there are seven such ‘mountains of the Lord’.
The key to this thinking is Revelation 17:1-18, which hinges on verse 9:
And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains
The prophetic passage talks of an evil woman ‘drunken with the blood of the saints’ who rides a beast of ‘seven heads and 10 horns’. It ends telling how this beast will be turned against the woman, destroying her.
Most theologians see the reference to ‘seven’ as being Rome — famously built upon seven hills
But some evangelicals argue this beast — and its seven heads that are mountains — represents the structure of society itself.
“So this is now called the Seven Mountain Prophecy,” says advocate David Barton. “If you’re going to establish God’s kingdom, you’ve got to have these seven mountains, and again that’s family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.”
RELIGION: “With a plethora of categorised religions around the world, it’s the Church’s responsibility to reach the lost with the love and Gospel of Jesus Christ, and expand the Kingdom in ministerial efforts, both nationally and internationally.”
FAMILY: “God is calling fathers and mothers (both spiritual and biological) to bring order to the chaos that the enemy has unleashed against families in America.”
EDUCATION: “A reintroduction of biblical truth and Bible-centric values is the key to renewal and restoration in America’s failing educational system.”
GOVERNMENT: “We must see a shift in this arena in order to preserve the Christian heritage that America was founded upon. The goal is to put in place righteous political leaders that will positively affect all aspects of government.”
MEDIA: “ … the arts and entertainment industries wield significant influence. The body of Christ needs powerful, righteous men and women who are not afraid to take their God-given talent into the arts and entertainment arenas.”
BUSINESS: “We believe it is the Lord’s will to make his people prosperous and that He desires for His Church to use its wealth to finance the work of Kingdom expansion. Simply put: Prosperity with a purpose.”
SEVEN MOUNTAINS MANDATE
White Christian evangelicals in the United States remain a powerful voting bloc. Though they are a diminishing group.
In the 1990s, they represented about 27 per cent of the total US population, Now, they amount to some 15 per cent.
And that loss of prominence has proved galvanising.
Dominionist thinking is becoming mainstream among this minority group, and Seven Mountains is regarded by many as a road-map to ‘regain’ control of the country.
The idea first emerged In 1975 when Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, and Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission (YWAM), had what they describe as a miraculous revelation. Both had been given a dream by God, they declared. Its message revealed the need to dominate the Seven Mountains (or Spheres) of influence.
Since then, the theology has been pushed into political circles through media events, youth movements and campaign activities.
Central to its teachings is that members must build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. And that starts with turning the United States into a Christian state.
The movement first met with some sympathy under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.
At the 1980 Republican National Convention, attended by some 17,000 evangelical Christians, Ronald Reagan famously declared: “I know you can’t endorse me, but … I want you to know I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Reagan won in a landslide, primarily attributed to a ‘Moral Majority’. And his governance has since been called ‘the God strategy’ after evangelicals were appointed as Secretary of the Interior, Surgeon General and to the Department of Education.
But, under the Bush Republican presidencies, evangelical influence waned.
The Seven Mountains movement’s leaders felt they had been betrayed. Despite encouraging words during their campaigns, Presidents George H. Bush and George W. Bush just did not follow up with the desired appointments.
President Trump, however, represents a new opportunity: an opportunity that has been delivering.
THE KING CYRUS FACTOR
The Seven Mountains movement experienced something of a revival in the early 2000s under evangelist Lance P. Wallnau and political activist David Barton.
Wallnau is one of the theology’s most vocal prophets. He is a forceful advocate of the need to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.
But, now that only a few remote tribes in South America’s Amazon and the Bay of Bengal’s the Andaman Islands have not been ministered to, Wallnau is endorsing a broader interpretation of the passage. He sees it as an instruction to inject his version of Christianity into the way societies are run.
And President Trump is the vessel for such change.
Wallnau has declared Trump has a ‘Cyrus anointing’ upon him — a reference to the ancient Persian King Cyrus who, despite being no friend of Israel, defeated the Babylonians and set that nation free. Cyrus was therefore blessed by God for doing his work.
In the modern context, the ‘anointing’ of Trump means evangelical Christians can also set their religion ‘free’.
To that end, Wallnau boasted to fellow evangelical leader David Barton that he had ‘ninja sheep’ working with activists, politicians — and members of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.
OF ‘NINJA SHEEP’ AND ‘UNDERGROUND’ AGENTS
Wallnau asserts Satan is in control of academia, entertainment, politics and business: “Our real enemies are the ones that are shaping laws, shaping media, and shaping the next generation.”
To fight them, he’s promoting what he calls the ‘7M Underground’ — an affiliation of producers, directors, attorneys, politicians and economists.
“We should be moving to the top of these mountains,” Wallnau said. “Christians are called to go into proximity to the gates of hell. That’s why they’re showing up in government. They should be showing up in journalism …
“I’m working with believers that I call ninja sheep — those are believers that are actual believers but have to maintain discretion with their public profile.
“And what we want to do is we want to reinstall a culture that honours God and that revives again a morality that’s essential to the survival of America as a Christian-influenced nation.
“So the underground is where we meet and we basically have now mobilised nationwide believers to intercede pray and be informed and then show up at the decisive flashpoints in culture where there can be a presence behind what Trump’s assignment is. So it’s pretty exciting.”
Barton seized upon the Seven Mountains as the logical outcome of his controversial (but incorrect) belief that the Founding Fathers of the United States were all born-again Christians. This means, he says, that the Constitution should be interpreted through Christian — not secular — eyes. This can be done through the Seven Mountains.
“ … those are the seven areas you have to have, and if you can have those seven areas, you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents, and even the world,” Barton said in a 2011 radio interview. “Now that’s what we believed all along is you got to get involved in this stuff. Jesus said ‘you occupy ‘til I come.’ We don’t care when he comes, that’s up to him. What we’re supposed to do is take the culture in the meantime, and you got to get involved in these seven areas.”
‘TAKE BACK THE COUNTRY FOR CHRIST’
Separation of Church and State is enshrined in the US Constitution. Though this has always been an intense arena of dispute.
It’s intended to prevent the repeat of the crises many fled during the founding of the United States: combinations of individual churches and states that oppressed other faiths.
The Constitution itself specifies “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”.
The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
Seven Mountains and Dominionist evangelicals don’t see this as a problem. The United States is a Christian country, founded by Christians, they argue, so the Constitution should be interpreted through a Christian perspective. The Country’s motto is ‘In God We Trust’, after all.
“We realised that it only takes 3-5 per cent of a leadership operating at the top of a cultural mountain to shift the culture’s view of an issue,” the promotional page of an upcoming 7 Mountains ‘International Culture Shapers Summit’ declares. http://www.7culturalmountains.org/
Under Trump, they’ve been getting more than that.
His Vice President, Michael Pence, is an outspoken evangelical. The former conservative talkback radio host has even been declared a ‘covenant man’ — putting him alongside the likes of Moses, Jacob and Noah — for his apparent obedience to God in a corrupt and sinful political arena.
Trump’s new Attorney-General, Matthew Whitaker, once proposed banning non-religious people from being appointed to the judiciary. He also said judges needed a ‘biblical view of justice’: “What I know is that as long as they have that worldview, that they’ll be a good judge. And if they have a secular worldview, that ‘this is all we have here on Earth’, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”
The President regularly trumpets the Christian character of his cabinet.
His first Chief-of-Staff, the since-sacked Reince Priebus, was a devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Ousted Adviser Steve Bannon came from an Irish-Catholic background, as did disgraced National Security chief General Michael Flynn. Former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions is a Methodist, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is Presbyterian. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos belongs to the Christian Reformed denomination. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was born into a Sikh family but converted to Christianity and now attends a Methodist congregation.
That’s just a sampler.
But Trump’s even given an evangelical group open access to the White House — Capitol Ministries — to conduct bible study groups.
This is why — despite the never-ending cloud of controversy surrounding the president — his support among evangelical leaders has remained steadfast.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Charismatic, Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians are among President Trump’s most devoted supporters. And he knows this.
He won 81 per cent of their vote in 2016. A poll published shortly before the 2018 midterm elections by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 72 per cent of white evangelical Protestants still had a favourable opinion of him.
And Trump continues to tell them what they want to hear.
In a closed-door meeting with more than 100 evangelical leaders in August, President Trump said he had repealed a law preventing them from preaching politics from the pulpit. He hadn’t, though it is something he sometimes talks about.
He also said he had dismissed a law that prevents US religious and other tax-exempt institutions from endorsing political candidates. He hadn’t, though he has signed an executive order smoothing the way for religious groups to engage in politics.
It was enough to motivate the religiously conservative groups focused on abortion rights, a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, and support for Israel, to back his midterm election campaigns.
But US progressive churchgoers are increasingly bristling at Trump’s brash character, and divisive approach to race, immigration and women.
They’ve started to push back.
Among those raising their voice in opposition is Anglican bishop Michael Curry, who officiated at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. He’s pushing a manifesto — Reclaiming Jesus — and warning of a “dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches”.
The manifesto rejects white nationalism, calls out political exploitation of racial bigotry, denounces misogyny and sexual misconduct, defends immigrants and refugees — and advocates renewed focus on the poor.
“Representatives of Christianity were buying into political agendas that very often do not reflect the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth,” Bishop Curry said.
But the religious right is showing little sign of being moved.
And Trump’s keen to keep them on side.
Elections, he warned, were “a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment.”
“We’re going to protect Christianity,” Trump declared. “I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.”