From Roger Olson: I am honored to present here a guest post/essay by influential theologian Ted Peters, a long-time “friendly acquaintance.” We became acquainted through theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg–Ted’s friend and my theological teacher. No guest poster here speaks for me, as I never here speak for anyone else. Know that Ted is not committed to responding to comments. If you have a comment, make sure it is civil in tone, brief and concise, on topic, and does not include a hyperlink. What follows is Professor Peters’s essay “Donald Trump Meets the Sacred Soldier.”
2020 Sacred Soldier
Donald Trump Meets the Sacred Soldier
The Unifying Power of the Invisible Scapegoat
Ted Peters is co-editor of the journal, Theology and Science, and author of God—The World’s Future (Fortress, 3rd ed., 2015). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.
America erupted like a volcano when hearing that its president, Donald J. Trump violated the sacred. What is the sacred? And how did the sitting president commit a sacrilege?
Writing in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg reports that in 2018 President Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris. Why? Officially, he blamed rain for the last-minute decision to cancel, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly.” He also blamed the Secret Service for being unwilling to drive him there. Neither claim was true.
What was true? Trump turned down the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain. According to four senior staff witnesses, the president exclaimed, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” Also, on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed. 
The media began to replay an interview where Donald Trump proclaimed–regarding John McCain who had been captive in North Vietnam for five years–, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In the midst of the hoopla, the president denied he had said such things. Regardless of the truth or falsity of these reports and the president’s denial, the public felt the sacred had been violated at the mere suggestion of anything less than reverence for America’s fallen heroes.
An outraged cultural volcano extravasated vitriolic smoke and caustic cinder. POTUS candidate Joe Biden, whose son Beau had volunteered to join the U.S. military and won the Bronze Star in Iraq, declared that his son was not a “sucker.” Military service is a “sacred duty,” Biden trumpeted. The government has a “sacred” duty he repeated. Yes, the soldier—especially the dead soldier—is sacred. But, this sacrality is invisible despite the fact that the word, “sacred” is spoken so frequently in public.
America’s Invisible Sacred: The Dead Soldier
The dead soldier is sacred—and all living soldiers are sacred because they “risk their life” for our freedom—because they serve as the invisible scapegoat. What!? A scapegoat? Yes.
First, let’s distinguish between visible and invisible scapegoats. Visible scapegoats are usually identified as the targets of social cursing and become the in-group’s enemy. China is regularly scapegoated right along with Democrats by the current White House. This cursing serves to self-justify the perpetration of division or even violence against the enemy either verbally or militarily.
The invisible scapegoat, in contrast, is a member of the in-group who gets sacrificed on behalf of maintaining social unity. The U.S. soldier is the invisible scapegoat whose sacrifice establishes the civic sacred; and the civic sacred empowers American patriotism, nationalism, chauvinism, and jingoism. Somewhere on the perimeter of the current president’s consciousness, he’s aware that this scapegoat provides the sacred center of his nation. That’s why he so vehemently denies violating the sacred.
I benefit greatly from the pioneering work of scholar René Girard for making the invisible visible. The invisible scapegoat is the product of a certain type of lie we tell ourselves. Whereas the visible scapegoat mechanism maligns and binds, the invisible scapegoat mechanism blinds and binds. The value of both types of scapegoat is that they create community. They bind.
With astonishing insight, René Girard has identified the sacrificial power of the invisible scapegoat at work in ancient city state culture, classic literature, religious structures, political structures, and the human psyche. “The origin of any cultural order involves a human death and that the decisive death is that of a member of the community.” What sustains American cultural unity is the sacrifice of the soldier for our freedom.
Even though in both cases we who engage in scapegoating are trying to purify ourselves through self-justification, the mechanism differs somewhat in how we select the victim. The visible scapegoat is our enemy. The invisible scapegoat is our friend. The soldier, dead or alive, is our friend. The warrior hero is one of us. Because the soldier is sacred, our social unity is coerced by a taboo against desecration of the soldier. This mechanism may be invisible, yet it is perhaps the single most powerful cultural force unifying American society.
When the Christian theologian consults the New Testament account of Jesus as the final scapegoat, the moral imperative we should draw is this: no more scapegoats! But, then, Jesus was not an American. Nor was he a nationalist for any nation. The cultural unity of each nation is likely founded on a similar scapegoat. Check out the monuments.
America Unifies Around the Dead Soldier
What is at stake is the unity of the American people. Violation of the sacred risks division. U.S. Marine General, James Mattis, who had resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018 to protest President Trump’s Syria policy, broke his silence in 2020 regarding the president’s divisive behavior. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis said.
Now, pay specific attention to the general’s concern about national unity. Mattis is quoted for contrasting the American ethos of unity with Nazi ideology. “Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘Divide and Conquer’. Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength’.”
What is going on here? We must “summon that unity to surmount this and every crisis,” declared the general, “confident that we are better than our politics.” America’s unity must be retrieved! There can be no unity unless all revere the sacred, the sacrificed soldier.
The public controversy surrounding Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic may appear to focus on a renegade president who cannot filter his mouth. But, underneath this hoopla, the unity of American society is at stake. The volcano belching red hot lava will not cool again until this sacrilege is righted and the soldier becomes, once again, the invisible sacred.
 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War are ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’,” The Atlantic (September 3, 2020) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/trump-americans-who-died-at-war-are-losers-and-suckers/615997/.
 CNN report (September 4, 2020) https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/09/04/joe-biden-response-trump-troops-atlantic-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/this-week-in-politics/.
 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, tr. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, 1977) 256.
 Ted Peters, Sin Boldly! Justifying Grace for Fragile and Broken Souls (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, Press, 2015).
 Jeffrey Goldberg, “James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as Threat to the Constitution,” The Atlantic (June 3, 2020) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/james-mattis-denounces-trump-protests-militarization/612640/.