And, at least for now, without an infusion of politics.
Because the cameras don’t follow him into the sanctuary, the broader public doesn’t have the opportunity to observe Biden in prayer or devotion. And so the performative nature of the outing is reduced. Instead, one sees a man walking into a building that at its best is meant to be a place of solace and comfort, enlightenment and introspection. Politics remains outside, where it continues to grind and tear at the soul.
Those pictures of Biden headed to church often show him alone. Certainly there are bystanders cheering from the sidewalks, as well as protesters. This is the nature of the presidency. Biden has a phalanx of security and a trailing brigade of press. But there’s a ring of stillness that surrounds him. He’s not at a constant boil.
Politics has overheated religion. At a time when scripture should be at its most profound and when its grace should shine, religion is scalding. At a time of grave sickness and fear, religion could be a balm for believers and nonbelievers, too. But Instead, it’s just another political hand grenade — one that’s being hurled with special abandon in Georgia.
Political trolls ravaged the Facebook page of Ebenezer Baptist Church because its senior minister, Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, is running for one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, both of which are in play. His victory could tip the balance of power to his party. People coming to Ebenezer’s virtual home are greeted with a warning and a call to endure: “You may have noticed an increase in malicious comments on our social media platforms. Individuals holding hate in their hearts for our Church are coming into our digital spaces and leaving disparaging and often blatantly racist comments, many of which, unfortunately, are directed at our Church’s Senior Pastor,” the post reads. “The next few weeks may be intense, but with God’s grace and a little extra vigilance, we will get through.”
Ebenezer was the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose name is regularly invoked by anyone and everyone as a kind of get-out-of-being-called-a-racist card. To express admiration for King, to quote him or paraphrase him or just mention that a generation ago a second cousin once heard him speak in person is a declaration of a pure heart. And yet, the Atlanta church that essentially gave birth to the civil rights icon is not spared a verbal political assault.
Religion was in the crossfire during the recent debate between Warnock and the Republican incumbent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler. She accused him of using the Bible to justify abortion and to demean the military. The two tangled over the meaning of Matthew 6:24, which warns, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Warnock rebuffed Loeffler’s interpretation of his words by explaining: “It was a sermon about a moral foundation for everything that we do and that when you have everything in order, that actually makes you a better soldier.”
Their argument wasn’t so much about theology as it was about using the Bible as a brick to hurl at an opponent. After all, social and fiscal conservatives use the Bible to justify all sorts of cultural dogma, from opposing same-sex marriage to loosing their inner robber baron. Interpretation of scripture has become a matter of political philosophy.
Religion has become distracting, ear-piercing, discordant noise. Some supporters of President Trump ignore the election math, disregard the laws and adhere to the belief that God wants Trump to stay in office — when, in fact, Nov. 3 might have been God’s way of saying it was time for Trump to go. Some Americans shrug off wearing a mask and socially distancing because they believe God will protect them from the coronavirus — when, in fact, these measures may be what God is offering up as our best defense. For all the arguing about freedom and God’s will, perhaps this is a test of our collective humanity.
So much of the verbiage is self-serving: the idea that God just happens to want precisely what you want, the notion that God sides with conservatives or has chosen you simply because you’d like to be chosen. If nothing else, shouldn’t one tread carefully when claiming to know what the good Lord wants? Doesn’t the Lord move in mysterious ways?
Trump has gone to church. He went on Christmas and Easter. He went on his Inauguration Day and to campaign for reelection. He has walked from the White House to St. John’s Church to stand in front of the historic church to have his picture taken — not as a man who has extended grace but as one who has wielded force.
The politicking is loud. Religion has become a grudge match between neighbors. One man’s salvation is another’s doom.
Biden goes to church. Quietly. Calmly. The politics is outside. Peace, Lord willing, resides within.