I’ve been where President Donald Trump was last week, with a group of evangelical Christians “laying hands” on me, asking God to provide me guidance and wisdom.
It’s a sacred act, an ultimate sign of respect, a direct intervention with God on your behalf. I’ve also seen it used on people struggling with addiction or cancer or irrational fear. When done well and in the right spirit, it can unify like nothing else while arming its target with the strength to persevere through all difficulty.
Gestures like that kept me in a mostly white evangelical church for nearly two decades, despite my many philosophical differences with the tenets of the church’s foundational beliefs.
Upon seeing the images of the laying of hands in the Oval office, the Rev. William Barber of Moral Mondays fame tweeted the photo with this passage from the Bible: “These people honor me w/ their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”-Jesus
The tweet was liked nearly 8,000 times in less than 16 hours.
I didn’t join others in liking the tweet but I understand why Barber sent it. Given what we know about Trump’s behavior – the only real measure we have of a man’s internal moral compass – the image feels untowards. It’s easy to imagine that the anger Jesus showed when he overturned the money changers would be just as intense for leaders of his flock letting themselves be used for a photo op by a man who has said there’s nothing for which he needs to repent.
The most generous reading of the gesture is that the most imperfect men need the most guidance and prayer, and that those evangelical leaders were simply doing what they’ve vowed to always do. We don’t want faith leaders to separate themselves from those with the power to do great harm or immeasurable good. We want them reminding our most influential leaders about a higher purpose, one that causes them to rise above petty politics and fortifies them against personal weakness.
Saints, the gospel song tells us, are just sinners who fell down and got back up. No matter how many mistakes Trump has made, immoral and otherwise, we should want him to have such guidance, not only for his sake, but for the country’s.
The problem is that Trump is the same man he has long been. And there’s no indication he plans to change. His fomenting of violence and hate at his political rallies, his use of open bigotry, his ability to repeatedly, passionately lie, his embrace of policies that will hurt the most vulnerable among us – after pledging to be their savior – none of it has caused the white evangelical leaders who were in the White House last week to rethink their support. They aren’t guiding him to become a better man; their uncritical embrace makes it less likely he’ll grow in office, spiritually or ethically.
He has the unearned, yet unwavering, support of most white evangelical Christians in the U.S., particularly in the South. He knows as long as that remains, he can do almost anything and fellow Republicans won’t feel pressured to provide the much-needed check on a teetering presidency the Constitution has granted them. That’s a problem. A big one.
No matter the righteous anger, Trump critics must not become the Bull Connor in Trump’s redemption door.
No matter the temptation, Trump admirers must not become the reason Trump will never feel the need to seek that redemption. I’m afraid they already have.