by Steve Kindle
I remember well the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. At the time, it seemed like freedom was about to break out in the former Soviet Socialist Republics. We watched the Berlin wall crumble, the statues of Lenin and Stalin topple, and people like President Ceaușescu of Romania ousted from power. But it didn’t take long for the much-suppressed religious and ethnic animosities of the people to emerge. Historical enemies resumed the fighting that the heavy boot of the USSR kept under control in such places as Yugoslovia, Armenia, Azerbijan, and Ukraine. Within Russia, itself, the Islamic state of Chechnya declared its independence and has endured two devastating wars. What seemed like peaceful coexistence among neighbors was revealed to be nothing more than repressed emotions that would erupt at the first opportunity.
The three and one-half years of the presidency of Donald J. Trump have exposed the underbelly of America. President Trump’s personal prejudices coupled with an uncanny ability to tap into the stored up animosities of the American people have unleashed now millions of people who have no compunction against airing their personal prejudices and political grievances. And a sizeable number, perhaps even the majority, are Christians. The “heavy boot” of social disapproval modeled by our best citizens no longer restrains. After all, with the president modeling what America is, there is no reason anyone needs to fear reprisal. So, they insist that immigrants be stopped from entering our country at the southern border and champion separating children from their parents in the process. They oppose the “Black Lives Matter” protests. They march in support of (veiled) white supremacy. They are easily mobilized in support of “law and order” tactics that are no more than increased control over the already oppressed. They continue to keep LGBTQI+ people out of their churches and would keep them out of the public square if they had their way. They refuse to wear masks and demand the immediate opening of churches and most places of business even against all CDC protocols. Indeed, they blithely disregard scientific truths in favor of conspiracy theories and fake news.
Of course, we cannot put this all on our president. The history of America is one of the church catching up to America’s finest moments after decades of resistance. Throughout the years of chattel slavery, preachers were proclaiming how it was God’s will that the black race serves the white race. After all, didn’t the apostle Paul urge slaves to be obedient to their masters? (Yes, he did.) Then, during the period of Jim Crow, preachers upheld segregation as God’s will. The next big social change came with the legalization of same-sex marriage and the predictable resistance from the church.
The lesson I take from this is that the church finally yields when the larger society moves forward, not before. Yes, throughout this period, there were progressive voices from the church opposing the opposers. And I’m sure that as the conscience of the nation, they were influential. But even today the church is seen as backward, even fossilized, unable to accept the modern age. We have moved from being the conscience to being the harping critic. We’ve traveled a long way from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham.
The Turks have a proverb: “The fish stinks first at the head”, meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so. We see this easily in the children of families where a parent is lax or overly strict, the children reflect this in their behavior. It is well known that abusers are highly likely to have been abused themselves. So it is not surprising that Donald Trump’s actions of verbal abuse, disrespect of women, racially insensitive remarks, rebuff of experts, urging of police toughness, promotion of conspiracy theories, tolerance of white supremacists, inability to accept criticism, narcissistic ego with sociopathic tendencies, produces similar responses in those already disposed to act out.
How refreshing it would be for America to elect a president who represents the polar opposite of what we have now; to be able to look up to someone who ennobles, who affirms our highest aspirations, who represents the best that America could be. Of course, this is only a beginning. Those who emulate Mr. Trump and are currently visible will become invisible once again. Reaching them, if not impossible, will be difficult. They like to think of themselves as the presently persecuted Christians.
My hope is in the coming generations who seem to rise above the failings of the present and portend a better future. These are the ones who are organizing against racial injustices, who support LGBTQI+ rights, who are working hard for tougher gun laws after being gunned down in their schools and concerts, who demand a more humane police force, transparency in government, the end of the commodification of individuals in business, and who support citizenship for their “dreamer” friends.
They want a MAGA that means “Make America Good Again,” and know the difference. They aren’t staying away from our churches because they don’t believe in God, or see the value of Jesus’ message. They are looking for communities where their values are shared, where they are respected, and where authentic living involves service to others, especially to the underserved of our world. The truth is there are many churches that are more than able to meet these expectations. May God help them find their way to our doors.