America in Peril

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I am seventy-eight years old, and I have never seen the United States in a more precarious or vulnerable position. And I am an optimist at heart.

These comments update a blog I posted in March. Everything I wrote then is true. My concern is that things have gotten much worse. I am not happy that the scenario I painted then is rapidly turning darker.

With Russia’s help, Donald Trump captured the Oval Office twenty-two months ago. As a result, today the U.S. has grown accustomed to untruth. Lies pour from the White House at on average of six a day, according to one careful count.

Time-honored American institutions are being undermined. Perhaps not yet irreversibly—depending on this November’s Congressional elections and a possible awakening of slumbering consciences in Congress, among cabinet heads, in the Vice President, and among politically conservative Christians.

I believe Mr. Trump is poisoning U.S. representative government mainly in five ways (though there are others).

1. Undermining truth and credible authority.

Trump very cleverly saw the potential of Twitter—bolstered by adoring crowds which he, a consummate showman, could bewitch. Years ago, he saw the political power of casting doubt on President Obama’s birthplace. Raising questions, sowing doubt, claiming to be unsure of what we in fact know—this is Trump’s way. It is diabolical. (Satan: “Did God really say…?” [Gen. 3:1])

Constantly denouncing the news media, government agencies, scientific consensus—even the legitimacy of government itself (“deep state” mythology)—this does something bad to our psyche. We find ourselves accepting a fog of uncertainty. We get distracted from real issues. We largely ignore the damage being done to our environment and the Administration’s systematic dismantling of air and water protections, for instance.

Trump’s poisoning of public discourse has infected three areas: News media, government agencies, and science.

Any government report that Trump believes questions his legitimacy, he labels unfair. Any science that calls into question his opinions or policies, he calls a hoax. Any news that seems unfavorable, he labels “fake.” Now Trump has begun labeling the press “the enemy of the people,” as tyrants and would-be dictators always do.

Trump attacks and seeks to destroy any person or agency who criticizes him. This is a long-standing pattern familiar to people who have worked with him in the past. Recently Omarosa Newman, a long-time associate and (former Trump “Apprentice”) wrote: “Trump’s greatest character flaw is his total lack of empathy, which is itself a function of his extreme narcissism.”

(Now, dear reader, if such comments upset you, please ask yourself one question: Is any of the above factually untrue? Objectively, verifiably, no, it seems to me. If anything here is factually untrue, I will correct it. For unlike the person I speak of, I care deeply about factual truth and accuracy, and the difference between opinion and fact. What has happened to people’s consciences?!)

I thank God we still have a largely independent news media. Yes, it is often sensationalistic, overly U.S.-focused, and too profit-driven. But it is not yet under White House control. I am most especially thankful for PBS, NPR, and the BBC, which still take “Public” seriously and are less sensationalistic and nationalistic in their reporting.

This undermining of truth leads to a second danger:

2. Stoking divisions and poisoning civil discourse.

Mr. Trump has turned the public square toxic. He gained the White House by stoking divisions and stirring up long-simmering resentments. In this he had an immense amount of help—perhaps without fully knowing it—from Russia’s evil cyber warfare, especially through Facebook and Twitter. Some former high-ranking intelligence officials now believe Russia’s meddling tipped the scale (as it may have also with the Brexit vote in England).

Our divisions were already present, of course. Throughout the eight Obama years, resentment toward “the other” and “the alien” was simmering and growing. Obama’s election stirred up underlying racism and resentment. The secret of Trump’s success is that, with Stephen Bannon’s help, he saw this bubbling unrest early. Trump appealed to resentment and fear—to feelings of victimization.

The problems were real enough. Democrats and many others misperceived the situation. They missed the deep sense of alienation, especially on the part of older white Americans, especially in rural and rustbelt areas. Resentment had grown against “elites,” media outlets that talked past them, and government programs that seemed to bypass them.

And beneath this, the venom of racism, ready to be stirred up.

It is always easier to stoke fear (a powerful emotion) than to arouse hope and appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln knew.

The road for Trump had been paved by Fox “News” and some national leaders—especially Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate. Immediately after Barack Obama’s election, McConnell said the top Republican priority would be to undermine Obama—to restrict him to one term, not work with him on the nation’s business. Though Republicans couldn’t prevent Obama’s reelection, they succeeded in nurturing resentment and polarization—powerful, but misplaced.

(I refer here to the Republican majority. A number of Republican leaders, like the late Senator John McCain, showed character and decried such shortsighted polarizing.)

By 2016, President Barack Obama had become the symbol of the other, the stranger. Obama: Incarnate Alien. This is still how he is seen by Trump supporters. Hence the visceral hatred of Obama that I sense among people who otherwise are kind, gentle Christians. In the presidential campaign, resentment against him and immigrants and Muslims could then easily be transferred to Hillary Clinton.

Thus 2016 was tailor-made for Donald Trump. He instinctively perceived this as did no one else. Trump sealed his victory by assuring evangelical Christians that they were the persecuted minority, and that only he could defend them and “Make America great again.®” To most evangelicals, “great” meant white, Protestant, middle-class, 1950s-prosperous, and unquestioningly patriotic and pro-military.

Evangelicals fell for it. They had seen their cultural and political power slipping after the big changes of the Sixties. Robert P. Jones 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, explains the underlying demographic shifts here. In the April 2018 Atlantic magazine, Wheaton College alum Michael Gerson put it this way:

[Today] the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religions demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated. (Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic [April 2018], 48.)

This self-perception would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous. Early Christians were a real persecuted minority. But instead of angry and adversarial, they were joyful and winsome. Seeing much more deeply than do today’s evangelicals, the first Christians leavened the Roman Empire with hope, faith, and justice, rather than seeking protection from aliens and enemies. They trusted in the Lord. Really.

Since the 2016 election, most of Trump’s tweets and policy decisions have stoked more division and resentment, not less. His strategy is to keep his opponents and even supporters off balance by saying and doing contradictory things. But mostly this is character flaw, the fruit of ego without moral convictions.

And so we are distracted from facing pressing issues such as climate change, legal reform, healthcare, and rebuilding infrastructure.

3. Undermining our independent judiciary.

Trump is doing what partisan operatives have long wanted: Filling the courts with judges committed to political ideology rather than to impartial Constitutional jurisprudence and equal justice under law.

Amid the flurry of other news and pseudo-news, Trump’s judicial appointments have gotten little attention. Trump has appointed an unprecedented number of judges, partly because Senator McConnell held up dozens of appointments during the Obama years. These judges will shape legal decisions for decades, since most of these are lifetime appointments. Overwhelmingly they are white males. More uniformity; less diversity.

Isn’t this a good thing, actually? Many Christians think so. Understandably, conservative Christians want conservative judges. But biblical conservatism and ideological political conservatism are poles apart. Two very different kinds of faith.

Trump is appointing judges who have been approved by the Federalist Society (founded in 1982). This is an organization of libertarians and political conservatives that aims to restrict America’s legal system to an “originalist” and “textualist” interpretation of the Constitution.

Originalism is a theory. It holds that the Constitution’s meaning is fixed once-for-all. All interpretations, to be valid, must be consistent with the Constitution’s original meaning or original intent.

Sounds good—but it’s wrong. First of all, original meaning and intent have been disputed from day one. That’s why the Constitution established a Supreme Court. Second, U.S. society is constantly changing. Trying to apply original meaning in an immensely changed context opens the door to big doses of subjective opinion.

J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a federal judge in Virginia often mentioned for the Supreme Court (and a Republican) has written an astute critique of originalism and other theories of Constitutional interpretation. The problem with all such theories, Wilkinson says, is that they become smokescreens for unwarranted judicial activism, even by judges who decry judicial activism! Wilkinson writes:

For all its virtues, originalism has failed to deliver on its promise of restraint. Activism still characterizes many a judicial decision, and originalist judges have been among the worst offenders. They may sincerely strive to discover and apply the Constitution’s original understanding, but somehow personal preferences and original understandings seemingly manage to converge. The fault lies with the theory itself. Originalism, like any constitutional theory, is incapable of constraining judges on its own. And instead of recognizing this flaw, originalism provides cover for significant judicial misadventures. The result is too often a new breed of judicial activism masquerading as humble obedience to the Constitution (Wilkinson, Cosmic Constitutional Theory [Oxford, 2012], 46, italics added).

In practice, “originalism” is a fuzzy idea. The U.S. Constitution does not define key terms and concepts, such as equality. The Constitution is a wonderful compromise document full of intentionally vague language. So its meaning was debated from Day One. (See the Federalist Papers.) Add to this the fact that word meanings and even concepts shift over time as culture changes. Many framers of the Constitution never intended racial equality, let along gender equality! How far back shall we go?

The problem is that all court cases are decided by human beings who have their own prejudices and agendas, not all of which are conscious or admitted. Originalism opens a wide door to ideology and personal preference and prejudice.

Many promoters of originalism are in fact libertarians who believe courts should not promote equality, social justice, or environmental protection.

Here theory and ideology merge. If you are wedded to a theory, you have been captured by ideology. This means you are not open to any evidence, no matter how strong, that contradicts your theory. Research shows that the stronger the evidence against a theory, the more fixed it becomes in the minds of those who hold it.

Today, “originalism” has become a code word for conservative or libertarian political ideology. By definition, originalism and textualism largely exclude concern about environmental protection, civil rights, and federal government involvement in things like healthcare and regulation of business in order to protect the public.

Trump says Republicans “must always hold the Supreme Court.” Fellow citizens, this is unconstitutional. Courts are to uphold impartial justice, not partisan preference. What the United States needs is not ideologues but impartial judges in the best historic sense of that term.

Donald Trump does not appear to understand or accept one of the most basic principles of Anglo-American government: The rule of law, grounded in the Magna Carta of 1215. This charter wrestled out of England’s King John established for the first time that the king is not above the law (thus establishing the rule of law over human leaders), trial by jury, and the principle of a person’s innocence until proven guilty. We must not sacrifice or erode these bedrocks!

4. Upsetting the world order by switching from long-range, long-established diplomacy to me-first business tactics.

Mr. Trump’s whole mindset is win/lose rather than win/win. This is a longstanding pattern, evident in his business operations. The “art of the deal” is about gaining advantage over adversaries, not about seeking common ground or common good.

Such an approach has no concept of common good, civic virtue, or what the U.S. Constitution calls “the general welfare.” This me-first trait is shared by all authoritarian leaders—most obviously today people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Unfortunately, there are many others globally—now in office, or on the horizon.

This is why the United States desperately needs wise leaders who know how to promote national interest by enhancing global wellbeing. Politically, economically, environmentally, and socially.

The fallacy of putting the federal government in the hands of businessmen is that the United States is not a business. Wise business leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett know this.

On the global stage, many observers decry the decline of democracy and the rise of tyrants. This reverses a twenty-year trend. Given this challenge, prudent U.S. leadership, working with broader-minded leaders around the world, could help swing the pendulum back toward democratic reform and human rights. Instead, Trump is giving cover to other tyrants. Belligerent, impulsive, and poorly-informed leadership leads toward conflict and the increasing likelihood of disastrous war.

Mr. Trump’s actions since taking office raise doubts that he actually believes in representative government. His admiration for tyrants and de facto dictators such as Putin is alarming. Trump gives the impression that he would rather not be bothered with things like laws, courts, government regulations, or even Congress. This may be the most serious threat he poses to U.S. constitutional democracy, with its checks and balances.

5. Undermining environmental protection and needed efforts to mitigate climate change.

Around the world, well-informed leaders recognize the fact and dangers of global climate change. In the U.S. however, environmental issues have been so polluted by political ideology and shortsighted economic self-interest that people who consider climate change a myth new exercise national leadership, with very little public outcry.

Scott Pruitt, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, steadily dismantled environmental safeguard after safeguard. One headline noted, “E.P.A. prepares to roll back rules requiring cars to be cleaner and more efficient.” Pruitt scrubbed the EPA website of references to climate change and ditched dozens of online resources for helping local governments deal with it. Recently in an article The Economist dubbed the E.P.A. “The Coal Protection Agency.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thinks climate change is a hoax. Making climate a major policy concern is “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable.” Rather, it is his viewpoint that is ignorant and dangerous.

Undermining environmental stewardship is the most dangerous thing the current Administration is doing. This is so for three reasons. First, people will be more and more vulnerable to climate change and extreme “weather events.” Second, it critically sets back actions that need to be taken now (years ago, in fact) to mitigate changes that are already happening. Third, climate change is an ecological issue in every sense. It affects everything else, literally. As global climate patterns (air and sea, especially) become more and more disrupted and less and less predictable, every other social, political, economic, and spiritual issue becomes more complex and more acute.

The Issues are The Issue

Christians who support Trump say the key issue is not character but policy. Jerry Falwell Jr. said he supports Trump not for his personal life, but “for the issues.” A friend wrote me: “Conservative Evangelicals voted for Trump IN SPITE OF HIS BELIEFS AND PAST. He was the alternative to Hillary (YIKES) and his political promises for the future, including a conservative [Supreme Court Justice], were the main reasons I voted for him! GO TRUMP!”

But “the issues” are in fact the real issue—politically, morally, and theologically. I am concerned both about personal character and public policy. Really, the two can’t be separated.

In sum: Donald Trump imperils the U.S. in five ways: destroying truth, stoking divisions, politicizing the judiciary, upsetting the world’s fragile balance of power, and dismantling environmental protection.

The crisis is worse than it looks, and the cancer is growing. More and more citizens are becoming alarmed, however, which may be a positive sign. A recent Washington Post–ABC poll found that Trump’s disapproval rating has climbed to 60 percent, the highest ever. More than half of Americans now support Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation—and almost half of Americans believe Congress should start impeachment proceedings. This is national public sentiment, not some extremist conspiracy attack!

Answering Critics

Some people strongly criticized this blog when it was first posted. One professedly Christian person responded on Facebook, “Democrats are evil!” This is the kind of sinful scapegoating that Trump is promoting.

My earlier blog appeared on my Seedbed site, which upset some people. One wrote, “Please keep political screeds off of your site. This has nothing to do with the Gospel or Wesleyan faith and practice. Theologically conservative Christians can amiably hold differing political views for valid, consistent, and sincere reasons. If the author feels this level of animosity towards American political conservatives and politically conservative viewpoints, I would suggest that he make an effort to meet and gain an understanding of those outside of his own politically liberal echo chamber. Are you trying to ‘sow for a great revival’ on this site or push a political agenda?”

I find this reader’s response alarming because of its underlying assumption: We’re discussing mere differences of political opinion. No. Trump—his person and his policies—is so foreign to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that it is impossible to support him without compromising the Gospel itself, in my view. It is to attempt to serve two masters. That is impossible for a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

Christians have often disagreed on politics and presidential candidates. But this is the first time in U.S. history that the occupant of the Oval Office has so blatantly defied the U.S. Constitution, attacked truth, and labeled dissenters as fools, “crazies,” dogs, and “enemies of the people,” and tried to use the law and the courts to silence his critics.

My two biggest frustrations are these: The current administration itself, and the now-predictable response of Christians who are mesmerized by Trump.

I write as a Kingdom-of-God Christian, not as a Republican, Democrat, Socialist, or Libertarian. All four of these ideologies have some valid points. But as political ideologies or philosophies, they are flatly incompatible with the Gospel of the Kingdom. We are to worship and serve the Lord God of Hosts, who weighs nations, hearts, and politics in the balance.
Some will see the views expressed here as self-righteous and intolerant. I understand that. What I hope for, however, is a ruthless examination of conscience in the light of Scripture—my own, and that of readers. Christians who endorse the kinds of violations of political norms and discourse documented above do not simply differ in political opinion. They court idolatry and apostasy.

Some may say: Christians shouldn’t say such things about another person. But I speak here of a public figure who has entered the public arena and therefore requires us to speak up, as God’s prophets have always done.

I am praying for a great awakening—and specifically, for an awakening of civic ethical conscience.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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