Trump has crossed the line. How will people of faith respond to this blasphemy?
It is happening. The United States of America is on the verge of passing from a country of laws into a dictatorship of terror. In fact, we may have already gone over the edge of the precipice.
Trump’s picture taken in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020, is eerily reminiscent of the image of Adolf Hitler in front of Church of our Lady in Nuremberg, 1934. Trump has crossed the line. The attempt of dictators to align their agenda with a holy mandate while ordering the military to attack citizens should not pass without comment or condemnation from people of faith.
This is exactly what Hitler did in his rise to power.
This is “evil calling upon God,” in the words of author Dean G. Stroud, editor of the book, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich (4).
Hitler surrounded himself with the trappings of religion and a few empty phrases of Christianity while undermining and destroying everything that Jesus Christ stood for. Brute strength and domination were favored over the “weakness” of Jesus. Yet millions of Germans fell for his racist bigotry masquerading as piety.
In a 1938 speech, Hitler declared the religious origins of his crusade of terror. “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord’s work.” That fight led to the death of more than 20 million Jews and other “undesirables.”
Trump, too, has surrounded himself with radical right-wing “Christians” who flock around him like pious pigeons.
They bestow blasphemous benedictions on this Beelzebub as he cages children in concentration camps and stokes the fires of racial hatred. With full-blown toxic narcissism, he has called himself “the chosen one.”
After a speech declaring his intention to turn the military on his own citizens, Trump marched across Lafayette Square to stand holding a Bible in front of the church sign. Before his walk to the church, Trump sent out the militarized police to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at the peacefully protesting crowds. It’s like a scene right out The Handmaid’s Tale when a peaceful protest turns into a bloodbath as the police open fire on the crowd.
I began watching that series in 2017, a year into Trump’s term. I remember watching that scene thinking dark thoughts. “That could happen here. I hope and pray to God it doesn’t. But it could. Look how quickly a society can descend into chaos and a national fall under martial law.”
And here we are. Trump has crossed the line.
In Hitler’s Germany, it was the burning of the Reichstag that gave the Fuhrer the necessary pretext for establishing the brutal police state of the Reich.
In Trump’s MAGA arc, he has now found his perfect excuse to unleash terror: national protests in response to police brutality against black lives.
Just as Hitler’s agenda was steeped in racism and the establishment of an Aryan nation, so is Trump’s plan for domination built on racism and radical white nationalism.
Trump’s forced photo-op in front of an empty church is both ironic and symbolic.
The picture in front of the church is clearly propaganda. Trump’s religiosity is as fake as the orange color on his face, as fake as his criminal “charities,” as fake as his failed university. He is no more a Christian than Hitler was.
But all of that does not matter. All that mattered was the photo op. Propaganda achieves the image while military violence achieves the terror. This is where we are now. Trump has crossed the line.
How will Christians and other people of faith respond to this blasphemy?
Stroud noted that while many clergy and congregations were completely acquiescent and supportive of the Reich, some Christians and clergy recognized what was happening and objected (26). In fact:
Pastor Martin Niemoller founded the Pastors’ Emergency League, whose first official protest was issued at the National Synod of the Church in Wittenberg on September 27, 1933. In the statement, the members of the league, numbering some two thousand pastors, protested the Aryan clause [forbidding non-Aryans from working in the public sector]. One of the members was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Amazingly, the number of pastors who signed on as members of the league reached some seven thousand, and, despite harassment and persecution, the Pastors’ Emergency League existed for the entirety of the Third Reich. (29)
We may need a Pastors’ Emergency League 2020.
Clergy of all religions must unite to condemn what Trump has done and is doing. Of course, many have been protesting his regime from the beginning. But now, many more are needed to join voices and link arms. We must vociferously and publicly oppose what is happening. We must stand on the values we hold in common – values that are now threatened. Justice. Peace. Honesty. Restraint of evil. Protection of the vulnerable.
Stroud notes that “as with any group of this nature, the members’ resistance to the totalitarian claims of the state varied, with most members falling somewhere between radical opposition on the one hand and compromise on the other” (29). The level of resistance will also vary among us today. But do not doubt that this prophetic resistance is both necessary and powerful.
As clergy and congregants, we may appear limited in what we can do.
Yet the symbolic propaganda of the president’s actions today shows us how necessary it is for us to speak out against this travesty and sacrilege that is being used as a mandate to harm and kill.
As clergy facing the very real threat of a totalitarian state that brandishes a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, we are called to engage this struggle with courage. Trump has crossed the line. And so we must hold the line protecting sacred space and sacred lives.
Yes, there will be risks. When we preach prophetically and with resistance to propaganda and brutality, we may be threatened from both pew and police alike. But our faith and our trust in God must be real and uncompromising.
It is in our very weakness that we must come together to find our strength. It is our diversity that must unite us in solidarity. We must stand against the disintegration into chaos and evil.
We already know that God is so much bigger than this pitiful yet dangerous man-child. So resist this sacrilegious evil with all your pastoral-prophetic might. Because God is with us in this struggle, and God does not fail.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).