A State Religion in Trump’s America
R. Ward Holder
Theology Department, Saint Anselm College
21 April 2017
During his presidency, Richard Nixon re-ordered the established patterns of presidential Christianity.
As noted by David Holmes in The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents, only Nixon would deviate from the model of having a Washington church “home,” that was more or less regularly attended. Nixon instead set up a group of invited pastors who came to give prayer services in the White House. Those who gave a harsh word were not invited again. In a scathing 1969 article entitled, “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court,” Reinhold Niebuhr noted and criticized the role of these “court prophets,” whose job it was to bless the national message and assure the sovereign of God’s approbation of his policies – noting that the court prophet Amaziah was not the prophet of the Lord, Amos.
The relevance and magnitude of that critique are amplified in our current political situation. While Donald Trump claims that in his Presbyterian faith he does not ask for forgiveness, presumably leaving New Calvinists in some kind of apoplectic fit, he did attend worship on the morning of his inauguration. At that service, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, the Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and conservative firebrand, compared Trump to Nehemiah, the biblical figure tasked with rebuilding Jerusalem and fortifying its walls. “You see, God is not against building walls!” Jeffress proclaimed, “President-elect Trump, you, Vice President-elect Pence, and your team have been called by God and elected by the people to do a great work. It is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.” In that moment, Jeffress went beyond the point that Nixon had established, to a full-throated state religion where God has selected Donald Trump, and given him a divine calling too lofty to be bothered by the criticisms of citizens. In making Trump the new Nehemiah, Jeffress accepted his position as court preacher, complete with a charge to evangelize the nations in the new idolatrous gospel.
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