By Timothy Egan
We know that slaveholders in the American South used Scripture to justify keeping their fellow humans in bondage. They could find no words from Christ on this, for there are no words from him. Just a line in the New Testament from mere mortals presuming to speak for him.
But perhaps it made those who tore apart families, who whipped insubordinates until they passed out, who sold children and cotton bales as similar commodities feel better to know that the monstrous crime of their daily enterprise could be a blessed act.
These days, no less an authority than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said recently that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president.”
She offered no sourcing for this assertion, as is the case for vaporous claims that rise from the rot of the Trump presidency on a daily basis. But in blaming God for Trump, Sanders echoed a widespread Republican belief that the most outwardly amoral man ever to occupy the White House is an instrument of divine power. He’s part of the master plan.
Mocking Sanders and the many Ned Flanders of the G.O.P. team is unlikely to make much of a dent. Nearly half of all Republicans believe God wanted Trump to win the election. To them, secular snark is a merit badge on the MAGA hat.
But there is a better way to sway the electorate of faith, as the rising Democratic stars Pete Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams have shown us. They apply something like a “What Would Jesus Do?” test to rouse religious conscience on the political battlefield.
Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, a Rhodes scholar, married to a junior high school teacher. He’s gay and, more surprising for a modern Democrat, he is an out Christian, as quick to quote St. Augustine as Abraham Lincoln. On Sunday, he is expected to formally announce his run for president.
Like Abrams and Senator Cory Booker, Mayor Pete says his faith made him a progressive. Scripture directs him to defend the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the societal castoffs.
But Buttigieg goes much further than mere Bible-citing. He’s taking it directly to Trump and to Vice President Mike Pence, who flashes his piety like a seven-carat diamond on his pinkie finger. It’s hard to look at the actions of President Trump, Buttigieg said, “and believe they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.”
The mayor calls Pence the “cheerleader of the porn star presidency,” and he wonders whether the vice president “stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump.”
Buttigieg’s marriage to Chasten Glezman “moved me closer to God,” he said in a speech last Sunday. To the “Mike Pences of the world,” he said, “your quarrel is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Abrams, who narrowly lost her race for governor of Georgia last year, also uses faith, part of a long African-American tradition, to marshal Christian principles against the repulsive acts of man. The daughter of two Methodist preachers, she said in one of her television ads, “My reading of the Bible says that Jesus Christ was a progressive.”
We should wince at any claim of providential partisanship. The founders were explicit about this in writing a strictly secular Constitution. George Washington’s Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the Senate, contains language stating that “the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
But when a president is held up by his own spokeswoman as an extension of divine will, and that president is embraced by the evangelical community as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, it’s fine to use the source material to fight back.
The best Christian argument against Trump comes from Christ. The essence of Christianity is his exhortation that people treat the sick, the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned as they would treat him. “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.”
No one can know what’s in Trump’s heart. But his policies are inhumane in the extreme. Cursed are the meek, for under Trump’s command, children have been put in cages, and the poor in red states are denied the health care that should be available to them under Obamacare.
Pope Francis, an authority I would trust more than Sarah Sanders in this realm, said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not a Christian.”
Trump is all about self. His bigotry, his boasting, his lies, his pride, his scams of the vulnerable, his worship of materialism, his insults of the dead, his turning a blind eye to refugees, his bragging of adulterous behavior, his treatment of “the least” among us — all of this is antithetical to Christian philosophy.
Buttigieg is right to call him on this. He’s right to attack Pence’s hypocrisy. But the moral high ground is a fragile perch, best visited on rare occasions. He’s thrown down a needed challenge. Now let Trump and Pence try to prove him wrong.