Bully yes; Pulpit no—Honest Patriotism in the Era of Trump

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Senior Editor Chris Iosso

Christians need to be careful with the phrase “bully pulpit,” a phrase often applied to the presidency. One is tempted to say, “bully, yes; pulpit, no.” It is hard to see any “pulpit” of stable moral authority undergirding the current Administration. Rather, we see the marketing of assertions and even threats, as when governments at the United Nations are warned that “we will be taking names” to cut any aid to nations not voting our way. (The UN resolution in question concerns accepting Israel’s annexation of all of Jerusalem as its capital, a subject treated in Unbound’s impending symposium for Christmas and Epiphany, which we will kick off later this afternoon.)

The President claimed that the United States would be glad to not give that aid money:  “Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us, we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

 

Well, Mr. President, we do care—at least in the churches that pray for peace and justice in the world. But it is not enough simply to object to particular policies, or even to the general direction of increasing the wealth of the richest Americans, as in the tax bill just passed. As part of both our arguments for the “common good” this summer and for the concept of “honest patriotism” this fall, we have articulated an alternative vision. In fact, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Social Witness Policy Committee (ACSWP) has distilled many of these sentiments into a resolution entitled “honest patriotism,” and we have welcomed comments on that draft text.

 

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God is not a bully, and neither should we be—whether as believers or, to the best of our influence, as US citizens.
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The articles we have run cover some of the areas where love of country—patriotism—most requires honesty. That is, areas where our country has made or is making major mistakes. Prominent among these mistakes is climate change denial, where one contributor argues for a serious and urgent re-direction of investments and technology. The Vietnam War—until Iraq, the war of choice most destructive of human beings and of our reputation—prompted a response from a pastor who was a protester in ‘68. I have written about the tax bill’s unfairness to non-millionaires and, through its likely addition of at least a trillion dollars to the nation’s debt, asked whether it constitutes treason to our children. Managing Editor Henry Stone was early among male responders to the #MeToo movement in acknowledging that it calls us to make profound changes. We subsequently reviewed the progress that Presbyterians and other mainline churches have fought for in the realm of women’s human rights—though there remains a long way to go. (See also our new page on recommended resources related to sexual harassment and abuse).

Shannon Craigo-Snell, in updating some Reformation theology, and Taylor Tate, looking at the dangerous potential of theological self-righteousness to reduce our faith to a worship of power, both speak to the proper use of the pulpit as a place where truth must be spoken, with passion and compassion both! God is not a bully, and neither should we be—whether as believers or, to the best of our influence, as US citizens.

The phrase “honest patriotism” comes from ethicist Donald W. Shriver, Jr., and in particular from his book, Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough To Remember its Misdeeds (2005), which won the Grawemeyer Award for “most significant religion book” in 2006. Shriver lifts up the wisdom of Germans and South Africans in particular, looking at the sometimes painful processes of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation that have been expressed in public symbols, accurate education, and the well-known Truth and Reconciliation hearings. His earlier work, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (1995), made the case for using the Biblical categories of confession, repentance, and forgiveness in a public and communal way, and not simply in our personal moral lives. We had initially planned to post several essays on a range of Shriver’s works, written by scholars and co-authors of his, over his productive career, but are now planning a book devoted to that dialogue. (In stark contrast with the work of Shriver, we note that the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Undead Past: How Nations Confront the Evils of History,” is weakened by its lack of reference to the religious resonance in every people’s traditions.)

In Honest Patriots, Shriver applied lessons from the German and South African experiences, plus US examples from Lincoln and others, to propose greater understanding, reparation, and reconciliation between majority Euro-Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans. His is a deeply humane vision, layered by historical knowledge and genuine, intellectual piety. He quotes German theologian, Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz, and adds comment:

“A culture that idolizes the winner and shames the loser will always tend to suppress the vulnerable parts of life because it cannot accept the fact that winning is bound up with guilt.” Not all winning is guilt-laden, perhaps, but surely, “How the West was Won,” by hard-driving white pioneers deserves to be paired in American history books with “How the West Was Lost” to Indian peoples” (p. 232).

Muller-Fahrenholtz adds, “Pride and patriotism are in my opinion too often linked to what I call the ‘winner syndrome’ ” (p. 323).

In comments on the current ACSWP draft policy, some professors of theology and ethics liked the emphasis on honesty and truth-telling but were wary of celebrating patriotism. The danger of making love-of-nation into an extension of self-love seemed very clear. Yet to others this is precisely why our love of the United States of America must be lifted up—as a proactive defense against nationalists, nativists, and narcissists. For those who would peddle from a pedestal a picture of perfection, that image of any nation is as false as it is fragile. As with other forms of healthy maturity, an honest patriotism can and must be able to handle what Shriver cites as “the ‘complexities and moral ambiguities’ on all sides of a conflictual human past” (p. 232).

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Shriver’s work provides a model, not of “political correctness,” but of the power of empathy to disarm and strengthen at the same time. His Christian approach does not see every exchange as a zero-sum game or a test of domination, but as the building or re-building of community.
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This kind of honest patriotism looks to the interests of other nations and those peoples subsumed within our own, and looks not to deny but to rectify mistakes. This contributes to an enhanced understanding of citizenship and human dignity overall. Shriver’s work provides a model, not of “political correctness,” but of the power of empathy to disarm and strengthen at the same time. His Christian approach does not see every exchange as a zero-sum game or a test of domination, but as the building or re-building of community. We need to be guided by this approach to the conflicts and moral ambiguities that abound in the Holy Land and broader Middle East—in our next issue—without giving up the prophetic task.

A word more may be said about race, which remains a major source of division testing the nation we love. White Americans have much to learn from Black and Native Americans about what forms justice and activism need to take—even from debates between such leaders as Ta-Nehisi Coates, deeply pessimistic about racism’s persistence, and Cornel West, concerned that the power of whiteness needs to be understood in tandem with corporate and military power, lest it be “fetishized” and seen as too powerful. A kind of reverse argument is made by Peter Steinfels, longtime progressive Catholic observer, who warns that white or majority progressives not abdicate their own reading of their own moral responsibilities and contexts. Guilt is not an effective form of reparation.

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Honest pulpits, finally, have greater power than political pedestals used for projecting images of power that are only about the power of images.
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An example of this claiming of moral and political power can be seen in Jonathan Rauch’s review of Mark Lilla’s book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017). Lilla’s core argument, that the “today’s version of identity politics is framed in a way that inherently restricts its appeal…” by making it a set of disconnected and disconnecting stories. Our citizenship needs to embody a common story. In a criticism of academic community “movement” politics that is relevant to religiously motivated patriots, Lilla sees almost sacramental rituals and recitals of ills that do not reach the unconverted. Rauch quotes:

“Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” (quoted in Jonathan Rauch, “Speaking as a …” New York Review of Books, Nov. 9, 2017, p. 12.)

This is a more Quaker or Anabaptist definition of evangelism than a Reformed one, but the point may be understood. Rauch also quotes that brilliant Black preacher’s son, James Baldwin, to the effect that white people always want to be “innocent.” Well, innocence is not what honest patriotism is about. Honest pulpits, finally, have greater power than political pedestals used for projecting images of power that are only about the power of images. An honest patriot tries to get beneath the easy polarizations and fake images with serious truth-telling and serious empathy. She then acts to renew a public covenant, in defense of the common good.

Merry Christmas!

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AUTHOR BIO: General Editor Chris Iosso has been ordained (Elizabeth Presbytery in NJ), inducted into General Assembly Mission Council service in NYC, and educated (Johns Hopkins—BA, Princeton—MDiv, and Union (NY)—PhD, Seminaries) in the print dispensation. After serving as a pastor and parent of three in Westchester County, NY, he returned to the PMA as Coordinator of the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy. He is married to chaplain Robin Hogle. Beyond books, he enjoys running, kayaking and soccer.

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