By William H. Willimon
(The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University)
There’s a history of preachers attempting to ingratiate themselves with the powerful; some clergy are always willing to sacrifice the gospel in exchange for proximity to the crown. Louis XIV had his pet court preachers like Bossuet and Massillon who came to Versailles and, in elegant sermons, told the Sun King what he wanted to hear. Encountering mild resistance from some German Protestant preachers, Hitler elevated a prominent pastor, Ludwig Müller, to the role of Reich bishop in his new German Church and the majority of the churches stepped into line behind the Nazis. I suppose we preachers ought to be flattered that even powerful tyrants, who never care much for Jesus Christ, still require the blessing of willing preachers.
And in every age, there are willing preachers.
There was an elegant dinner at the White House on August 27 in which Trump thanked his steadfast evangelical clergy supporters. He should have. One attendant at that sumptuous affair was the Reverend Franklin Graham. It is not simply that Graham has faithfully supported Trump; Graham’s uncritical support is unsurprising and justified considering his political commitments. What is reprehensible is that Graham gives specious support for Trump as a Christian preacher.
Check out Daniel 1. It’s salubrious to remember that there was a time when God’s servants like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah resolved not to defile themselves “with the royal food and wine” so they refused the king’s invitation to the royal table. These young men may not have known everything about the faith of Israel but they did know that the price was too high even for extravagant, royal fare.
In an interview with The New Yorker on September 4, Graham demonstrated that there is no sin Trump has committed (and for which he has refused to repent or even regret), no sexual misconduct (“that was years ago”), malfeasance, marital infidelity or bold deceit that cannot be excused by the exonerating words of a skillful preacher. When asked about Trump’s profanity and his derisive comments about African-Americans and immigrants, Graham explained, “He’s a New Yorker” with “a bit of an edge” who is sometimes “blunt.” When the interviewer said that Trump’s comments seem “mean,” Franklin said that people in the media were mean, but not Trump.
Graham is glad that Trump met with North Korea's Kim Jong-un and pleased that he made friends with Putin. “Pray for the president and Putin” because “the media” and the Democrats want conflict with Russia. When some of Putin’s crimes were mentioned, Graham said that the Russian people “love him” and that our hands aren’t clean either. Asked about the Russian attempts to disrupt American elections, Graham said he doesn’t know anything about that but he does know that America has interfered in many, many countries’ elections so there’s “enough wrong to go around on both sides.”
Graham draws a line when it comes to separating children from their parents. Why? “Government run facilities have pedophiles working in them.” However, Graham says that the worst aspect of the whole immigrant family controversy is that Trump’s opponents “try to use children to make him look bad.”
When the interviewer quoted evangelical Ed Stetzer’s comment that evangelicals have gained political advantage with this president but in the process have “lost our morality,” Graham responded with a dismissive laugh, “Some people think too much.”
Throughout the interview, Graham never refers to Jesus.
Stetzer is right; Trump has provoked a theological crisis among evangelicals, whether they know it or not. When asked (September 17) how she reconciles her conservative Christian beliefs with Trump’s lies and infidelities, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I’m not going to my office expecting it to be my church.” Fair enough. But do evangelicals like Huckabee Sanders and Graham really want to make so great a separation between their faith and their ethics, their lives as Christians and their role as public figures? Is Jesus Christ really so irrelevant to statecraft and nationhood?
It’s my conviction that the preachers who have sacrificed so much in order to gain a seat at the king’s banquet will soon discover that they have done grave damage to evangelicalism, to say nothing of the harm they have done to the profession of gospel preaching. When the time came for evangelicals to stand up and say, “No!” they had lost the theological ability even to know that there was something worth saying, “No” to.
Though Donald Trump and the marriage and family he has repeatedly betrayed have scant relationship with the church and apparently no commitment to living the principles of the Christian faith, the Trump presidency has become a test of clergy fidelity to our vocations. During World War I, when his congregation fell willingly into the hands of German nationalism and the war effort, Karl Barth repeatedly told them that this worst of times politically could be, in God’s hands, the best of times theologically, “an extraordinary time of God,” a time to recover the grand, though risky, adventure of discipleship.
This week, as I step into the pulpit, I must ask myself a basic theological question, “Is there any word from the Lord?” My delivery of that word to God’s people may not get me an invite to a dinner at the White House, but it’s the word I must serve above all other words.
I know a preacher who, after one of Jeff Session’s mean moves against immigrants, simply stood up in the Sunday service and read Leviticus 19:33, “If a resident alien lives with you in your land, you are not to mistreat him…” He read the passage without comment or application except for ending with, “This is the word of the Lord.” Then he sat down.
Two families (“and major givers too”) left his church saying we are “tired of these political sermons.”
Thanks, fellow gospel preachers, for demonstrating that our task, as preachers, at all times and places, is to be obedient to Jesus Christ as Lord rather than kowtowing and being obsequious to competing lordlets.
What a great time to be a gospel preacher.