On court prophets, pop preachers, and presidents

by Andrew Gerns

When Pastor Robert Jeffress pronounced his blessing on a possible US first strike against North Korea, he was standing in an ancient biblical tradition. A very dangerous one.

Rosalind Hughes (also of the Cafe) writes in Religion Dispatches:

Christians have always had mixed feelings about political authority. Paul, himself a citizen of the Roman empire, was often critical of the authorities who arrested him and executed many of his Christian colleagues. And it was, after all, a representative of the Roman government who gave the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. To be fair, Jesus did tell Pilate that he only had that authority because it had been handed down to him by a higher power—but that is not the same as saying that he was using that authority properly.

It was not the ordained role of the religious adviser, even before the separation of church and state, to grease every decision of a ruler with the oil of divine approval—and to claim that those who have political power are always acting on behalf of God’s good judgement is arrant nonsense.

Jeffress does Trump no favors by pretending that when it comes to North Korea, the president can do no wrong.

Anyone who has ever picked up a bible knows that the kings of ancient Israel were by no means unequivocally righteous in their judgement and execution of power. The biblical prophets of Israel and Judah were employed by God to rail against the authorities, to provide a conscience that could stand against those advisors who told them only what they wanted to hear: “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says the LORD.’“ (Jeremiah 23:30-31)

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Helen Kromm
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Helen Kromm

The title of this post is accurate. Jeffress is certainly a court prophet and pop preacher. He is also, and certainly in step with Trump, an opportunist and carnival barker.

It's imperative for both Trump and Jeffress that their followers remain in a fearful state. Fear is useful, and fear produces results. The more that their rabid base can be stirred up and left in a state of fear and outrage the better.

There's an element to this that's almost comical. Trump, the draft dodger who proclaimed that venereal disease and fear of contracting it was his own personal Vietnam now using military terms like "locked and loaded". It doesn't matter that those outside of his base regard this as clownish, and it certainly doesn't matter that the world at large views the buffoon as weak and inept. None of that matters. It's the base and loyal followers that matter. To them, buffoonery and loud words equal strength and resolve even though it is neither.

Jeffress is a cheerleader and enthusiast. There's the practical matter that he has to be. Simply put, it works. He'll stand behind Trump and proclaim him to be divine and a symbol of strength because his followers have done that. It's about avarice and influence, and has nothing to do with either the Gospels or Jesus.

That brings us to Korea. Korea obtained nuclear capability long ago. If they don't already have it, they will soon have a long range delivery system for those weapons. Nothing is likely to inhibit that or change that, and certainly not Donald Trump. He will search for some sort of victory in all of that when it comes to pass, and lame and as outrageous as it will be, his followers will believe him.

The problem here will be what can be used to keep the faithful in a state of fear. Fear directed at any one issue grows tiresome and old. Trump will direct that fear elsewhere, and Jeffress will reliably and enthusiastically herald it.

Who knows, maybe the Episcopal Church can climb yet again on that band wagon, and find cause to once again turn over the lectern at our National Cathedral to Jeffress. I suppose there are degrees of allowing yourself to get dirty and wallow in the mud with the pop preachers. In the calculus of such things, I guess that you get less filthy when you simply agree to the venue, versus agreement with the words spoken. That is a lesson that is ingrained in the DNA of someone like Jeffress. Never take a principled stand that might cause controversy and recalcitrance among any to throw their dollars in your direction. That presumably is the lesson that was followed in allowing Jeffress to speak in our Cathedral. It's a matter of degrees. A middle way all its own.

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Kenneth Knapp
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Kenneth Knapp

My guess is that DT is giving roughly equal weight to the opinions of Robert Jeffress and the NCC.

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Perhaps he hears from the National Council of Churches, but so far I haven't seen any evidence.

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