GENE NICHOL: Trump's about loving to hate your enemies

Posted February 13, 2020 5:38 a.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2020 8:05 a.m. EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Americans typically think of the “wall of separation” between church and state as a needed barrier to protect civil government from undue intrusion by forces of organized religion. The Jeffersonian notion of secularized government, though, was not the wall’s only driver.

As Mark deWolfe Howe wrote in The Garden and the Wilderness, “when the imagination of Roger Williams built the wall of separation” it was not because he feared the church would impermissibly extend its reach. It was, rather, “dread of the worldly corruptions which might consume the churches if sturdy fences against the wilderness were not maintained.” Williams would have been horrified by last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

The principal speaker at our 68th non-partisan National Prayer Breakfast was Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute and professor at the Harvard Business School.

Brooks said:
“To start us on a path of new thinking about our cultural crisis, I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew: ‘You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ Love your enemies.”

When President Donald Trump took the podium, immediately after Brooks, he began by saying: “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you. … I don’t know if Arthur is going to like what I’m going to say” – as he mocked a central premise of the Sermon on the Mount. Howls of laughter spread through the crowd. The president then proceeded to lash out at his adversaries – “very dishonest and corrupt people,” who have “badly hurt our nation.”

Trump offered special scorn for Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong”) and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“Nor do I like people who say ‘I’ll pray for you,’ when I know that is not so.”). He next lavished praise on the “wonderful, inspiring faith” of Mike Pence – who beamed at the president’s side, untroubled by his boss’s dissing of Jesus. The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Michael Gerson expressed heartbreak that attendees “cheered and whistled Trump’s bitterness and vindictiveness,” attracted to the “least Christian elements of his appeal, anger and cruelty.”

I won’t claim surprise at anything Trump utters. Like Gerson, I’ve been thinking more of the folks in the audience. No doubt religious conservatives have shown themselves flexible in the stunning embrace of Trump. His unequaled cascade of lies; repeated legal transgressions; relentless disdain for ethical standards; mockery of the disabled; enthusiastic trade in racism; his boasts of sexual abuse; even his taped declaration that “when you’re a star, you can do anything, grab ‘em by the p----.” None seems to matter.

Still, I would have thought that overtly disparaging an explicit, core teaching of Jesus at a national religious convocation would throw up a gigantic and horrified red flag.

Not so. Mum was the word – except for the cheers and snide laughter. No nay was offered by the thousands in attendance, or the fawning Pence, or the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., or Ralph Reed.

The National Association of Evangelicals claims, as its first principle: “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” Apparently it’s time for a new defining tenet. Religion itself bends before power. Williams assuredly, and predictably, weeps.

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