Here’s a piece I wrote on Inauguration Day. It ended up never seeing the light of day at a news outlet, so I am posting it here. –JF
On Friday morning Donald Trump attended a pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C.. As part of the service he heard a sermon from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. The minister was one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.
Jeffress used the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to claim that God had placed Trump in the presidency for a “great eternal purpose.” He urged Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence not to let their critics distract them from that purpose.|
In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the service, Jeffress explained why he thought Nehemiah was appropriate for such an inaugural sermon. Nehemiah, after all, was a builder. God told him to build “a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” The megachurch pastor described Israel in Nehemiah’s day as a nation that “had been in bondage for years in Babylon” with an “infrastructure” in “shambles.” No one could miss the analogy.
Jeffress’s attempt to connect the Bible to contemporary political issues facing the United States—in this case immigration, infrastructure development, and national security—is nothing new. Politicians and preachers have been using the Bible to promote similar agendas since the American republic was born.
In his famous revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine tried to convince the colonies to declare independence from George III by invoking the devastating spiritual and political consequences that the nation of Israel suffered after God gave them a King.
Abraham Lincoln quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to bring healing to the nation in a time of Civil War. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan turned to Matthew 5:14 (or at least the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s use of it) to extol America’s exceptional role in world affairs. Barack Obama loved to remind Americans, using Genesis 4:9, that “we are our brother’s keeper.”
Patriotic clergymen in American history have not hesitated to mistake New Testament references to the spiritual liberty that Christians enjoy through faith with the political freedoms that all Americans enjoy as citizens.
For over two-hundred years Christian preachers have used their pulpits to argue that God’s promises to Old Testament Israel apply to the United States of America. With this context in mind, it is worth noting that Jeffress’s sermon was just the beginning.
In his inauguration address Trump quoted from Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” What was originally written as a call for the gathering of Israel to worship the Lord in Jerusalem was used by the new president as a call for Americans to put aside their differences and unite around the Trump presidency.
And it did not stop there. In her closing invocation, evangelical pastor Paula White conflated Psalm 90:17 with the Pledge of Allegiance. She prayed: “Let your favor be upon this one nation under God.”
There were few references to the Bible on Inauguration Day that did not use the sacred scriptures of Christianity to buttress either the United States of America or Trump’s particular vision for it. The closest exception came when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read Matthew 5—a passage, known as the “Beatitudes,” that reminds Christians to be poor in spirit, humble, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, and suffer persecution for their beliefs.
If taken seriously, the message of the Beatitudes should serve as a stinging rebuke to the new President as he enters office. Only time will tell if that is the case.
If Trump’s campaign and period of transition are any indication, I have my doubts