How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?
Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:
It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world. The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?
A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:
Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning. The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age. This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship. This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.
For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”
To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist. It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.
I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.” I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above. A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same. We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.
In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:
Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts
Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort. Don’t fight fire with fire. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy. The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do. In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts. Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)
The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That is the truth on which our hope is based. Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state. If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater. This is the confession on which our very lives are staked. This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.