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Column: Trump’s first desecration of St. John’s Church

  • Senior Pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress addresses attendees before Vice President Mike Pence made comments at First Baptist Church Dallas during a Celebrate Freedom Rally in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

For the Valley News
Published: 9/19/2020 10:30:04 PM
Modified: 9/19/2020 10:30:02 PM

I assume all of us are familiar by now with the photo opportunity staged by President Donald Trump on June 1 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

After delivering brief law-and-order remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Trump walked across Pennsylvania Avenue, through Lafayette Square, crossing H Street to historic St. John’s Church. He was not alone. His retinue included Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Director of National Intelligence Robert O’Brien, chief of staff Mark Meadows, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who later apologized for his presence).

Peaceful protesters were gathered in the park, on Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street. They were routed from the area by force, their right to assemble and peacefully protest violated by tear gas, flash grenades and law enforcement in riot gear and mounted on horses. For what?

The president, taking center stage in front of St. John’s, gathered the others around him as he lifted a Bible for the photo op. He did not read from this sacred text. He did not pray. He uttered not a word about the unrest and protest following the killing by police of George Floyd just a week before. He simply stood there. It was a bizarre, embarrassing, senseless and sacrilegious non-event.

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, seethed at the way the area was cleared “so they could use one of our churches as a prop.” The Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, decried “using a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”

St. John’s Church is a special church for me. My 40-year ministry of pastoral counseling took place in and around our nation’s capital. For 25 of those years, I was a therapy staff member and administrator of The Pastoral Counseling and Consultation Center of Greater Washington. Our offices were in the classrooms and offices of faith group buildings. For several years, St. John’s hosted me and other of our therapists in its Parish House.

St. John’s hosted many ministries for the people of the District. Its progressive and person-centered presence in the midst of so many government offices and personnel was respected and all were welcomed. No exceptions.

An earlier violation

The events that unfolded on June 1 were not the first time President Trump desecrated St. John’s.

The church traditionally hosts a pre-inaugural service for the president-elect, his family and invited guests. The incoming administration selects who presides and preaches. Who was Trump’s choice for the morning of Jan. 20, 2017, just a few hours before assuming the office of the presidency and its obligation to preserve and protect this nation and all of its people? The Rev. Robert Jeffress.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, an evangelical megachurch, is on record as saying that “God sends good people to hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — not only do they lead people away from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell.”

Jeffress has also said, “The deep, dark, dirty secret of Islam: It is a religion that promotes pedophilia.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “a heresy from the pit of hell,” Jeffress told the Trinity Broadcasting Network in 2010, and Sen. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, is “a self-righteous snake.”

The gay rights movement, Jeffress stated in 2015, “will pave the way for that future world dictator, the Antichrist, to persecute and martyr Christians without any repercussions whatsoever.”

Catholicism’s success, Jeffress has opined, is because of “the genius of Satan.”

It bears repeating that Jeffress has often declared that Jews are going to hell. This is the same Robert Jeffress, of course, who was part of the Trump administration’s delegation to Jerusalem for the opening of the U.S. embassy there. Even more bizarrely, Trump hosted Jeffress at the White House Hanukkah celebration in December and invited him to speak. Most of the attendees, naturally, were Jewish, including the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Is Trump that cruel to his own family, or is the family so political that currying evangelical votes “trumps” the sanctity of his daughter’s and son-in-law’s faith?

Jeffress, God help us all, is one of Trump’s faith advisers.

A kindred spirit

Certainly it is true that Jeffress is not the only Christian to believe, assert and preach that faith in Jesus, the Christ, is the only true religion.

Likewise, many Christians and persons of other faiths do not support the lives and loves of the LGBTQ community. I am not of their minds and hearts and reluctantly accept our differences.

What I do not accept, and desire that none will accept, is our president frequently and literally handing over a lectern or a pulpit — at St. John’s, in Jerusalem, at the White House — so that Jeffress’ voice and his hateful views are given legitimacy.

At the Hanukkah celebration, Trump introduced Jeffress as a person “who likes me. I like people who like me.”

The president is the chief executive of a nation of 330 million precious souls in a rainbow of hues of religious, spiritual and love commitments, all of whom are due the full respect of the office. It is simply wrong — yet not surprising — that Trump embraces Jeffress and, I suspect, finds a kindred spirit in him for his hateful rhetoric, divisive speech and posturing that his brand of religion is the only true faith.

All this carries the foul odor of Trump’s campaign rhetoric: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” He does go it alone. He eschews advice from others. He divides, instills fear, lies.

He has said, “Nobody reads the Bible more than me.” If that is so, how could he have missed the invitation of Jesus to follow him in loving the neighbor, acting and leading with compassion, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked?

A deadly contagion

In her recent book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, writes of her thoughts following a visit to the Hindu Temple of Atlanta. Taylor, who is also a professor of world religions at Piedmont College in Athens, Ga., always includes a visit to places of worship in her course on the world’s five major faith traditions.

She writes that a Hindu colleague at Piedmont “welcomed all of us to join her at the high altar of her temple without asking us what we believed. She enlisted the priest to offer special prayers for us She did not distance herself from those who snickered. She did not take anyone to task for refusing the prasad (almonds offered to the God, Vishnu, and now given to the assembled). She opened her arms to us from the beginning to the end. If there were any problems with the visit, they came from the religious worldview of her guests, who had been taught to be very careful about who and what they embraced.”

She continued; “I stewed about it all the way home in the van. Why was my crowd so defensive? Who had convinced us that faith was a competitive sport and that only one team could win for all eternity? With an attitude like that, who could blame a neighbor for sensing that Christian love was mostly charitable condescension?”

Not welcoming, refusing to engage in the holy curiosity of others, dividing the world and religious expression into winners and losers — this is a deadly contagion that is contributing to the devolution of our nation.

Creating a ‘beloved community’

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the recently deceased U.S. Rep. John Lewis talked often of the need in our nation to be in the business of creating a “beloved community.” They also asserted that faith communities are not to be agents of the state, but the conscience of the state.

For our president to welcome, support and seek faith guidance from Jeffress is a testimony that Trump has no interest in helping to create a beloved community. And God help us all that he looks to Jeffress in matters of conscience.

Recently, as the campaign for the presidency gained momentum, Trump attacked former Vice President Joe Biden’s faith by saying in an interview with Geraldo Rivera, “I’m in favor of the Bible. I’m in favor of the Second Amendment. ... Biden is against all of those things. He’s against oil. He’s against the Bible, essentially against religion.”

In a speech in Ohio, Trump suggested that Biden, a practicing Catholic, would make religion disappear in America: “No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.”

The Trump campaign ran an ad claiming to show Biden asleep in a folding chair. In reality, Biden was in prayer with the parishioners of the Bethel African American Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del. He was there to hear their sorrow, share their pain and listen to their fears of racism.

Since Jeffress has stated that Roman Catholicism is part of “Satan’s genius,” I can only wonder about his influence on the president’s attacks on his rival’s Catholic faith.

One more time: May God help us all.

The Rev. Robert W. Wohlfort holds doctorate in theology from the Claremont School of Theology in California and is a pastor of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who retired from a 40-year ministry of pastoral counseling in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Doris, live in White River Junction.

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