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Presidential piety does not ring true

by
27 January 2017

Paul Vallely examines President Trump’s use of religious language

CRITIQUES of President Donald Trump’s in­­auguration speech last Friday tended to focus on how divisive and angry it was. What few noticed was the extent to which it was infused with religious language.

Most incoming presid­ents invite a couple of religious leaders to participate in the ceremony. Mr Trump had six: a Roman Catholic, a Jew, and four Evangelical Protestants. Having made speeches on the campaign trail that largely avoided references to the Bible or to God, or were clearly uncom­fortable on that turf, he now made explicit reference to Psalm 133. “The Bible tells us: ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,’” he said, though he primarily addressed those who had voted for him rather than the entire nation.

The speech was shot through with other biblical allusions. Americans’ lives must “shine as an example for everyone to follow”. They were told to “open your hearts”, although to patriotism rather than to Jesus. The United States was a great nation, echoing Psalm 33. All the US’s children were “infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator”.

Not all this resonated as intended. When he said “Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots,” the bleeding conjured something sinister rather than inclusive.

Before the ceremony, President Trump went to church, as presidents traditionally do on in­­auguration day. There, the First Baptist preacher he chose, the Revd Dr Robert Jeffress — a man with a history of incendiary remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Roman Catholics, and gays — compared Mr Trump to the Old Testament figure of Nehemiah, who helped to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel. “You see, God is not against building walls,” he concluded, dubbing Nehemiah’s biblical detractors “the mainstream media of their day”.

Critics of President Trump’s speech suggested that his embrace of Christianity was no more than a dishonest and cynical attempt to appeal to the Christian Right. One sketch-writer noted that the inaugural choir from Missouri singing about welcoming strangers from overseas to their new land did not seem quite in tune with President Trump’s immigration policy. Prayers noting that the poor and humble were blessed, opponents said, merely emphasised the wealth and ego of the new President.

Pope Francis was more ambivalent. In an interview given on inauguration day, he said that we must wait and see. “I don’t like to judge people prematurely.”

But he offered two revealing riders. He criticised what he called “spray religiousness”, insisting that Christianity was found only in specifics. And he warned against people looking to a charismatic leader as a “saviour” to restore a nation’s identity. “Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people,” he said. “That is the risk.”

The incoming President’s clerics turned everything to his advantage. When the heavens began to rain on Mr Trump’s parade, the Revd Franklin Graham proclaimed: “In the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing.” The rest of us may take a rather different view.

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