I am somewhat haunted by a woman I once passed in Florence, Italy while vacationing in the late 90s. Since my teens I had dreamt of visiting Florence, and then there I was—living out the fantasy. But one day walking down a side street, I saw this woman. She apparently had Hansen’s disease, formerly called leprosy. Draped in black tatters from head to toe—her face mostly shrouded, she appeared to be begging as she passed—her bandaged hand perpetually holding out some kind of sign. Upon seeing her, I was overwhelmed. It was so easy to keep walking, to pass on by, to continue on with my indulgence thinking of my next rich Florentine meal, my next visit to an enchanting cathedral or a piazza crowded with doves. Yet the collision of my life and that woman’s reverberated loudly. So distracted and overwhelmed was I that I passed her by, seemingly ignoring her—but I wasn’t ignoring her because I remembered her vividly.
I once heard that we should ask of ourselves: What does our faith matter for the most powerless person we have encountered? When I heard the challenge, the image of this woman came to mind. And often when I think of the “whatever you do for the least of these you do for me” parable and saying in Matthew 25:31-46, she comes to mind (in truth, I think she could have been the “best of these,” not the “least of these”; but you know what I mean.) Who do you think of? What does your faith matter for the most powerless person you have encountered?
Recently I was part of an Episcopal clergy group studying antiracism. A somewhat charged discussion ensued about whether clergy should openly confront Trumpism from the pulpit (or specific actions of the administration). One person advocated that it shouldn’t be done because it would make some people uncomfortable. If one was to be direct in such confrontation, one should acknowledge the result will be discomfort of these individuals and, it was implied, their possible exit from church. Others felt it important to call out oppressive political actions, pointing out that the good news proclaimed by Jesus and the gospel writers was and is inherently political.1
One’s Christian faith should matter for the most powerless person one has encountered. If it isn’t good news for them—for their very real lives and problems in this world—then we have no business calling the Christian message good news. And in speaking of things that are good news to people’s real lives and problems, we are discoursing about things political. I categorically reject the idea that the promise and possibility inherent in the Christian faith is relegated to some post-death, “eternal life” experience—a theology that misconstrues New Testament teaching.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration (since his campaign, really), I have sensed the encroachment of autocracy2 in our country. And though Trump was defeated in this 2020 election, I don’t think our drift toward autocracy has been halted. Trumpism will be alive and well for some time—long after Trump leaves the White House. Clearly, over 70 million US voters preferred Trump and intentionally or not voted for the undemocratic norm-busting he’s engaged in since he took office. Examples of Trump’s autocratic-trending, presidential norm-busting actions were spelled out recently by authors Bob Bauer & Jack Goldsmith in their book After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency (Lawfare Institute, 2020). At the least, these actions include:
—not disclosing his taxes;
—mixing business and profit with public office and defying conflict-of-interest rules;
—abuses vis-a-vis the Justice Department that would have been unthinkable in the last several decades;
—intervening publicly in cases to seemingly protect himself or his friends, calling on the Justice Department to prosecute political opponents, and exerting control over diplomacy and law enforcement to nudge foreign powers to help him, especially with the election;
—using the pardon power in ways that weren’t necessarily illegal but that are seriously abusive.
Since the election we could add the last-minute programmatic firing of administration officials who recently contradicted Trump’s autocratic agenda in some way—people like the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, and the Election Security Director, Christopher Krebs; firings that serve no real purpose but revenge and that put the U.S. at risk during a tense transition period. Add to this his refusal to accept the outcome of free and fair (and legally certified) democratic elections and his brazen efforts to invalidate legal votes, mirroring the behavior of authoritarian leaders worldwide, and you have the quintessential portrait of an aspiring autocrat.
Our 45th U.S. President is an autocrat. Some might say nearly half of American voters supported him in 2020 because of his economic or social-conservative policies, and that surely most do not support his embrace of authoritarianism. Yet a survey conducted in 2018 may contradict this assumption, revealing just how comfortable a good quarter of Americans are with autocracy. A March 2018 Democracy Fund’s ‘Voter Study Group’ study found that “more than a quarter of respondents show at least some support for either a ‘strong leader’ or ‘army rule.’” While terms like “strong leader” can mean different things, and it is important to recognize ambiguity in preferences for a “strong leader,” the study is worrisome nonetheless. As is widespread support for the 45th president even as he becomes more entrenched in authoritarian ways.
I propose clergy must speak out against this rise in autocracy. We are in the position we’re in as Americans—as a democracy—because the vast majority of Trump’s political party has acquiesced to autocracy’s encroachment and has refused to speak out against it as the Trump years plodded on. Out of fear. Out of ambition. Out of self-justification. I deeply admire GOP members who have taken a stand against Trumpism; for example, the folks at The Lincoln Project. Their stand has been challenging and costly.
I was recently reminded of the quote by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I have long taken this challenge to heart. As an adolescent I was horrified by films and stories about the 1930s-era ascent of European authoritarianism and felt simultaneously sure that 1) I would not be silent in the face of encroaching autocracy; and 2) I was fortunate to be in America where such a thing would never happen. It has been alarming over the past five years to see how easily a major American political party fell silent in the face of rising autocracy. People who early in Trump’s candidacy called him out as a racist demagogue fell in step as soon as their personal ambitions were threatened—even joining Trump’s most ardent boosters (Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell immediately spring to mind).
How can we think that people of faith should be neutral or silent in the face of autocracy—especially when white conservative Christians now make up the most intransigent proponents of Trumpism?3 In my view, the question is not whether or not clergy should take a direct stand against autocracy—including that of the Trump administration and the Trumpist movement; the question is how. Surely, we see myriad ways in which people react to and speak up against Trumpism. Many of these ways are demeaning, divisive, and entirely non-empathetic to the struggles of the supporters; these responses are not only unbecoming of clergy but damaging to our fragile national union and thus to democracy. Nonetheless, speaking up—even from the pulpit—is appropriate and called-for in this time. It is part of how we engage our faith to advocate for those most powerless: the people who always suffer most under autocracy.
Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr writes that “2020 has been an unprecedented year, unlike anything I have seen in my 77 years—and we are not out of the woods yet. Where we go from here will write the story of this chapter of history.”4 He goes on to teach that binary thinking (good guys/bad guys, etc.) will not get us out of this situation. Only a unitive consciousness born of contemplation can meet this moment and allow us to heal divisions that make us vulnerable to such encroachments as autocracy, pointing out that healthy religion (re-ligio = to re-ligament or bind together) is key to this effort.
But healthy religion requires religious leaders both spiritually healthy as well as brave and strong enough to speak directly from that spiritual place to the political struggles of our day, in ways that do not blast others, but that offer moral clarity and hope.
So, clergy friends and others, go and speak fearlessly.
1 For more on this, see my essay on the caustic political nature of the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke as one example.
2 I offer as the definition of autocracy, the following definition from Wikipedia: “Autocracy is a system of government in which supreme political power to direct all the activities of the state is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control.”
3 In another essay I propose their support has more to do with whiteness and conservatism than it has to do with Christianity.