President George W. Bush’s speech on Thursday left the political and media world buzzing about his indictment of what has become the quartet of Trumpian “ideas” — nativism, protectionism, isolationism and xenophobia. These are not so much ideas but ill-conceived grievances embodied in slogans and impulses designed to stir white grievance in the United States. In a compelling follow-on document from the Bush Institute entitled “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World,” authors Thomas O. Melia and Peter Wehner build on the objectives Bush identified in his speech — hardening our defense, leading in the world, committing to citizenship and restoring democratic institutions.
I’ll focus on the last — restoring democratic institutions — because of the authors’ candid assessment of religious leaders. Evangelical Christian leaders, who have become the core support for Trump and his bastardized nationalism, should take notice. The authors write that when religion uses politics as a cudgel, religion suffers:
Religious leaders cannot be silent on public matters. After all, many of the greatest advances in justice in American history, including abolishing slavery and ending segregation, were the result in part of religious involvement in politics. But the manner and style of that involvement is key. When religious leaders and institutions use their faith as partisan weapons in our political wars, it undermines the credibility of their core work. Sociologists have found that connecting organized religion to partisan political agendas has led to a rise in the “nones,” meaning individuals answering “none of the above” when asked about their religious preference.
Likewise, when religious leaders become thinly disguised partisans, our democracy suffers:
Representatives of religious institutions who present themselves as authority figures on matters of faith and public life need to be much more careful about allowing themselves to be viewed as political operatives. Religious faith should not be subordinated to partisan loyalties and political power. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. “It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
One cannot help but think that they have in mind the legion of evangelical conservatives who boosted Trump to office and now shield him from criticism, absolve him of all blame for the division he has created and fall silent when he is not honest, truthful, empathetic or kind. They act as political flacks, not religious leaders.
Moreover, Melia and Wehner challenge religious leaders, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did with white Southern clergy in the civil rights era, to “play a more active role within their own communities in championing a more civil and constructive public dialogue.” Their recommendations are sound:
They can do this by their teaching and by modeling how to debate public matters with conviction but also respectfully and without dehumanizing others. They can explain why religious convictions are not at odds with religious toleration, and point out why the latter is in the self-interest of faith communities. In this unusually polarized and fractious time, faith leaders have unique influence with their congregants. They can appeal for reconciliation rather than division and show that principled people can also embody magnanimity and a generosity of spirit.
The damaging influence of misguided clergy who wrap themselves in sanctimony is actually worse than the authors state. Religious leaders have encouraged religious bigotry (see Roy Moore), sought to exploit fear and stereotypes (calling for transgender Americans to be thrown out of the country), demonized the Muslim faith by whipping up fear of sharia law and of refugees from war-torn states, exhorted their flock to lawlessness (e.g. refusing to recognize gay marriage) and cheered exclusion (refusal to provide services to LGBT persons; mass deportation of illegal immigrants, even “dreamers”). As we have discussed, they have become the shock troops in the culture wars, feeding their congregants’ anger and playing to their sense of victimhood.
The document put out by the Bush Institute demonstrates serious and sober reflection. Its tone is elevated and entirely without rancor. No portion is more important than its spotlight on religious leaders’ responsibilities and failings. We hope that these leaders take the opportunity for teshuva, literally “return” in Hebrew, more commonly considered as repentance. They may not have consciously played a destructive role in dividing the United States, but their help in repairing our torn social fabric would be dearly welcomed.