The Church and Trumpism: We Are the Choices We’ve Made

Some of my fondest memories growing up in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana, revolve around the occasional long trips to visit extended family members in the rural villages. The only affordable transportation connecting cities and these far-flung villages were the lumbering wooden lorries that always lived up to their “bone shaker” moniker. A constant of this traveling experience was the ever-present traditional medicine hawkers. They took turns perched strategically at the front of the “buses”, always facing the passengers and parroting their routines with the cadence and smoothness of expert auctioneers. Their concoctions, usually packaged in small homemade containers, always had that one essential ingredient: they cured all ailments. But to be successful at this trade, a “bone shaker” hawker must also be a tall-story teller and natural comedian. The result of this admixture, of comedic talent and yarn spinning about the inexhaustible efficacy of whatever they sold, was that these vendors never lacked for paying customers.

Two years ago during a visit to Ghana, I repeated this experience by boarding one of these vehicles to visit a relative in the village. To my nostalgic surprise, nothing seemed to have changed appreciably in the many intervening years between my childhood recollections and present experience. Though wood framing had surrendered to metal, these bulky lorries were similarly designed and retained the same bone shaking DNA as their wooden progenitors. Snaking past the medicine vender, I felt the warmth of his generous affecting smile which also exposed assorted, misaligned and heavily tobacco-stained teeth strewn across his gum line. He pointed to a pile of small red boxes in his waresbag while calling out: “There is Florida in it! There is Florida in it!” The rhythmic song-like repetition had a mesmerizing effect on the captive passengers as it seemed to heighten their interest in the mysterious “Florida” in his powerful “medicine”. The seller initially couched his product narrowly as a cure for dental cavities, but the passengers inquired about other unrelated personal ailments – back pain, heartache, constipation, malaria. So he adroitly expanded its efficacy, and soon it cured everything. And with those reassuring “Florida in it” refrains, the passengers scrambled to buy.

On closer examination I saw that what he was selling to the mostly illiterate village passengers were small travel toothpaste tubes clearly labeled “Made in China”. The magical “Florida” ingredient was the young salesman’s attempt at pronouncing the word fluoride. I shook my head and chuckled. Said nothing. Did nothing. I later rationalized that if anyone chose to buy dental supplies from a salesman displaying such poor oral hygiene, they alone bore the blame. What that encounter taught me is that humans have a high accommodative capacity for cognitive dissonance. And even more, an insatiable appetite for self-deception.

We recognize our aspiring entrepreneur for who he is: a low-end hustler and con artist. Yes, we chuckle uncomfortably at the ingenuous lengths such people go to defraud the poor illiterates. And while we take a dim view of their behavior, we don’t usually make a federal case against them. Instead, the community occasionally tamps down their entrepreneurial exuberance by confronting or exposing, but rarely prosecuting them. Society calculates, maybe wrongly, that their dishonesty is not “harmful” enough to add them to an already bulging prison population. So we characterize their actions as exploitative, and catalog it under petty thievery. Then we ignore them as tolerable public “nuisances”.

The dismissive attitude we take when first confronted with “harmless” wrongs that initially don’t seem to affect us personally seems to me analogous, if imprecisely, to our current Donald Trump conundrum: the many injurious actions and policies he has pursued since taking office. From the moment he launched his presidential campaign with race-baiting accusations that Mexico was exporting drug pushers and rapists to the US, this original troll, known for championing the Obama birther conspiracy, served notice that he will say and do anything to “win”.

Many in his target audience excused the hurtful generalization of that first salvo, because they did not identify with the maligned. Thus when allowed an inch he would then seek to take a mile, and continued upping the ante, attaching disparaging epithets that denigrated not only individuals but whole groups. Soon many became immune to and normalized these excesses. All along, his “handlers” fed us the trope that much of what he was saying was campaign-season theatrics, and once elected he would pivot to the center and surround himself with competent “adults” who would help him govern sensibly and inclusively, for all Americans. There was good reason not to believe this but enough people, especially Christian conservatives in enough states, bought it. And it got him elected.

But as president, instead of governing from the center, he seems to have interpreted the victory as justification to accelerate his parochialism. Racial/ethnic stoking for political gain has remained a cornerstone policy that manufactured such outrages as the Muslim ban, fencing off America from its southern (but not northern) neighbors, and consigning African and Caribbean nations to sewage habitations. While busy picking off the unfavored for castigation, many outside these groups were lulled by their apparent favored status and held firm their support. History teaches that for such people there is always another broader group to vilify in attempts to stoke fear. So when he turned from single-group concerns to attacking broader targets, his core constituents and other politically disinterested Americans did not notice the progression or a connection to the trend.

Through all this, none of the few institutions with check-and-balance powers or moral fortitude: senators in his party, Republican-leaning justices at the Supreme Court or the larger Christian community, would rein him in. They have held their collective peace, and maybe noses as well. But not without compensation. The Congressional and Senatorial Republicans got their One Trillion-dollar tax cut for their constituent moneyed class, while assuring the average citizen, once again, that trickle-down economics would benefit them. But why has the 5-4 Conservative Supreme Court majority not been swayed from risking their judicial reputations to align with such divisive policies? We will await history’s verdict, but Republican-appointed justices seem to show more loyalty to the president’s excessive positions than to the Constitution, and often in very disturbing ways. For this reason, upholding Trump’s Muslim ban by this court will be one of its most enduring legacies: certain to be compared to the Dred Scott Civil War era decision that denied citizenship to freed slaves in free states.

I am arguing in this piece that the seeds for the mismanagement of this pandemic were sown by the President when he went down that escalator four plus years ago, and now our predicament has been worsened by the accommodative responses to him. In this sense, we the people have become the choices we’ve made or allowed.

So why should any of this be a Christian concern? Why should this seemingly secular political affair be the subject of an Adventist Christian publication? Ordinarily it wouldn’t, but the times are different now. And the consequences of actions taken or not taken by political leaders during a pandemic have equal bearing on both secular and faith communities. We use the phrase be not of this world in Christians circles as admonition against worldliness, but it shouldn’t be construed as a call to passivity. The full statement, a reference to 1 John 2:15-17, also recognizes the reality of our being in the world. Consequently, there are times in the church/state separation conversation when mutual anxieties converge and boundaries between the two blur. During a pandemic, when death is plentiful, indiscriminate, unsparing and fear robs us of resolve, we should not be hesitant to speak with moral clarity.

And there are specific religious reasons for critiquing the President’s failings. Christian leaders, specifically from the Evangelical Right, of which many Adventists are loosely associated with philosophically, have wittingly or through apathy given this president the moral cover to espouse hateful rhetoric and advocate causes inconsistent with general Christian principles. He equivocated on support for white supremacy. He formulated and executed an oppressive child separation policy at the southern border. He continues robust legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act which disproportionately harms the poor and vulnerable among us. Conservative evangelical church leaders should have protested these actions, but they looked on. And, like my inaction toward the swindling toothpaste huckster, did nothing.

Having let him off on weightier matters – discrimination, misogyny, bigotry, racism – early in their relationship with the President, these faith leaders are realizing too late that they have no moral sway over him in a time of crisis. Consider truth telling. It is upsetting to acknowledge that the President lies. Repeatedly. The most distressing thing about his truth aversion is the vehemence with which he defends his lies – big or small – even denying that he said what a video recording definitively shows. Much of this is based on his impulse. But in a crisis impulsivity can lead to misinformation, which ordinarily would be acknowledged and corrected. Yet the President never says or does anything that isn’t “perfect”. Thus he ends up denying the undeniable or defending the indefensible.This has created a needless credibility problem with the public and raises questions about whether it is safe to believe him, especially when he is contradicted by knowledgeable professionals.

Should we, for example, take the president’s “gut feeling” advice that hydroxychloroquine, a drug approved primarily for malaria, is efficacious for COVID-19, in contradiction to expert opinion, since the drug has major side effects even when used for malaria? He also expressed a “feeling”, early in the virus’ spread, that “we have it completely under control”, and it will disappear, “like magic”, by April. Knowing where such irresponsible optimism has taken us, we should be deeply concerned about what the President tells the public. We shouldn’t be put in this quandary because his statements, if naively believed, have life and death implications. Truth telling, whether to the powerful or the plebeian class, should come naturally to our faith leaders. But because they have reneged on this basic social contract in their dealings with the President, they have now squandered societal trust.

The church has perennially promoted the social graces – etiquette, decorum, decency, fair play – as appropriate and expected public behavior by authority figures like presidents. Public leaders command extraordinary influence for good or ill. Likewise, church leaders have failed the public for not calling the President out for his bad example – as they did when Clinton was president. It is not an exaggeration that no past president in living memory has been as openly vulgar or embraced pettiness towards his adversaries as President Trump has. The diatribes against his perceived enemies have coarsened public discourse. And because he has the uncritical support of many religious leaders, their silence has created the appearance of endorsement. During this crisis the president should be appropriately sober in tone and content, not resorting to such pettiness as berating governors and calling them names during press conferences for not being “nice” to him. His is governance where nastiness reigns. And we have sadly become accustomed to it. But it is not normal. That he continues this when thousands are dying daily reflects badly on him, but also on the conservative evangelical community, his staunchest support base, who look on and do nothing.

We should not shrink from discussing the President’s politics on a Christian platform because he frequently co-opts religion and drapes himself in Christian imagery when it serves his purposes. It is not by accident that initially he set Easter as his target date for “opening America” back for business. For a whole week, when death was in full display and medical experts were advising us to maintain social distancing and shelter in place, the President pushed his plan to get us to return to business as usual. Because “America was not made to be shut down”, he said. But was anyone fooled that the true reason for wanting to rush us back to work was actually connected with the losses on Wall Street and the potential adverse effects on his re-election? Throughout the pandemic, the president has clearly prioritized the economy over people’s health. The public however, seems to disagree, correctly intuiting that they can recover monetary losses or crawl out of a recession. But not if they’re dead.

Under Trump, much of the conservative part of American Christianity has completely vacated its moral influence which past leaders, silently but effectively, wielded as a corrective against aspiring autocrats. But the harm done by these present leaders to Church and society is incalculable, and will negatively impact Christian witness for years to come. We in the church community have much praying to do as we seek God’s better direction. Because it seems many church leaders have found another god.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10359
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I’m a lifelong Democrat and this is an article that sadly falls into the trap of most articles about Trumpism and that is the utter lack of specificity. It starts with the vivid example of the con artist in Ghana but doesn’t give any facts about Trump other than a vague reference to Trump’s reference to hydroxychloroquine with nothing specific about the side effects and snippets of a word or two of a speech.

This is the kind of piece that the author seems to have thought to write and just wrote it up without doing the factual research and presenting the kind of argument that is necessary to move the needle. It’s preaching to the choir and sadly won’t sway people toward Biden who is now “the choice” albeit an unfortunate alternative.

Come on. Do better.

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I find it disappointing when this web site seems used for divisive partisan political presentations. Deciding between bad and worse candidates is complicated. The establishment two party system is a sad joke of artificial divisions on several issues that keep the masses energized and divided.

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I don’t read Spectrum for partisan Christian commentary. I look here for stimulating information and exchange and a hiatus from divisive politics. This article would be well received among politically progressive liberal outlets such as CNN or MSNBC, but I hope not here. In the interest of being respectful and choosing not to get drawn into a pointless debate, I choose to complement the author for making some good points, but will do what I have learned to do to limit the toxicity of much of the media these days, and let it go, walk away. I think I’ll go play my ukulele.

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And yet Trump has debased himself like no other president, and Christians should be prepared to discuss the merits or otherwise of a person in power. Where else should such a discussion occur? Or should we be silent or supportive of Trump like those Christian leaders that have no moral backbone, or have their own agendas, and are prepared to use whatever methods that are available to achieve them.

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Snark about Trump’s demeanor and style is really just a form of snobbery, and doesn’t translate into a substantive complaint about his leadership. In 2016, Trump was alone in his own party (not to mention the Democrats) on the issues of border security and the catastrophic trade imbalance with China. The Covid-19 epidemic has proven him right on both issues. If you don’t have a border, you have no defense against disease coming across it. And China, wow, it is hard even to know where to start, but here’s a terrifying fact: China makes over 95% of our antibiotics. How did the so called “elites” who’ve been running this country for the last 30 years, and outsourcing all of our manufacturing to China (and thereby destroying our own working class), not comprehend that that was a national security issue of the most serious order???

Trump was more right than he knew in 2015 when he rode down the escalator, and it is absolutely providential that he was elected. God still has his hand over this nation.

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This is a brilliant article, and the comments are mean and snide. Overseas, not from watching the media, but watching Trump himself, we find ourselves scratching our heads that Americans can be so fooled by a narcissistic bully. Well done Matthew!

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This is not a brilliant article. The comments are straight forward and mostly on point. Please stay overseas and we will proceed in the US with those who have been duly elected. Calling someone a narcissistic bully is hardly objective. Beyond poorly done Matthew. TU David Reed.

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DAVID READ
I have to endorse your critique of Matthew Quartey’s article.

As a black man, albeit not American born, Matthew has to have known, that prior to this current economic collapse ( due to Chinese malfeasance )
the unemployment rate for blacks in the US was at an all time historic low. Thanks to Trump’s unprecedented ECONOMIC BOOM !

How can this be “ racist “ ??

What better benefit to the black minority than to have roaring employment opportunities.? Also the salaries for the working class / lower income groups were in an upward trajectory, growing faster than the salaries for the middle class.

Trump’s 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act, targeted economically challenged neighborhoods ( mostly inner city black ) as OPPORTUNITY ZONES,
for development and improvement. Was this RACIST that he targeted black neighborhoods for improvement ??

The Democrats, controlling the major big city governments for the multiple past decades, have allowed these black ghettos to fester and decay !

Obama, though black himself, never envisioned opportunity zones !

On December 19, 2019 , Trump restored funding for BLACK colleges — was this deemed “ racist “ because he singled out these black schools for financial help ??

Was it “ racist “ that the unemployment rates for Hispanics was also at an all time historic low? Also for the Asian minority demographic.

Trump’s border control policies ( now being adopted throughout the European Union due to virus fears ) have been validated — who wants foreigners with who knows what health issues, to be crossing our borders unvetted?

And the diminution in undocumented workers has been one of the factors in the high employment statistics for our minority groups, because floods of illegals, willing to work for less, undercut the job market for the existing US American poor.

The Mexican criminal cartels totally controlled our southern border, prior to Trump, flooding our country with drugs, underage sex trafficking and charging desperate potential illegal immigrants extortionate fees for assistance across the border,

The Democrats turned a blind eye to all of this.

In December 2018, Trump signed the FIRST STEP ACT, a reform to prison sentencing which had disproportionately and adversely affected the African American community. Does Quartey deem this “ racist “ ?

As to the handling of the pandemic, I think that Trump has done as well or better than Italy, Spain, and France.

I own a second home in France, and know that the pandemic was equally not foreseen nor prepared for by President Macron.

The governors of our fifty states, the mayors of our large cities, also have responsibilities to ensure the well being of their citizenry.

Preparedness should not have been the sole responsibility of the federal government — and clearly Obama / Biden dropped the ball after stocks were depleted following the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic.

This deplorable RANT against Trump is ill founded and obscene.

I hope for a landslide victory for Trump in November., and have no doubt that many in the African American community will acknowledge Trump’s multiple benefits to them, and vote him four more profitable years

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Thank you for your contribution to the conversation. Far from lacking facts or specifics, you simply summarize what is part of the general knowledge base, and probably does not need to be established yet again. The conversation has been more difficult that it should be for the very reasons you mention in the article, and should time last long enough, we will look back on this chapter with the same misgivings as we do about the civil rights era when then church also had a difficult time finding its voice and its way.

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McMurphy,

I corrected my post to state that it was the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic ( not the SARS epidemic ) which depleted supplies which Obama / Biden never re- filled.

As to the OPPORTUNITIES ACT, the Democrats for decades allowed inner city ghettos to fester, never creatively using tax dollars, nor any other financial inducements to improve them.

Trump at least was creative by inducing financial investors to improve these hell holes of poverty and neglect.

What is better, to do nothing, as the Democrats did for years, or to offer tax inducements to investors to improve the situation ??

And Trump nailed it when he portrayed the inner cities as “ wastelands, ravaged by crime and homelessness and infested with rats “

I may be 84 but I have travelled widely and seen the decay and rot in Chicago, Baltimore, DC , Detroit, — all cities controlled by Democrats and over ridden with rodents! Trump was apt and astutely appropriate in applying these befitting adjectives to our decaying inner cities.

And please do not quote me articles from the Washington Post, the NYT — both mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Both of whom misled us for three years about Trump’s “ collusion “ with Russia.
These fake news publications forever destroyed their credibility with these lies.

Now the UGLY TRUTH is increasingly emerging that it was the Democrats who
colluded with Russia —-Hillary Clinton paying millions to a foreign operative, Christopher Steele,
to gather Russian misinformation — lies — about Trump!

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From someone who also lives overseas, I think this is a very polite and fair description of this particular world leader. Those who don’t see him this way are entitled to their opinion, but in my view, being ‘brainwashed’ does not appear to be a good companion of common sense.

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I wonder why some people are protesting against this article, one that did nothing but enlist all the facts about Trump that we see daily in the news. Nothing about CNN or MSNBC, as someone wrote. It’s all about what we see Trump saying and doing. Trying to involve the reporting media is nothing but a distraction.

The whole thing about Trump’s response to the COVID-19 is embarrassing, a true fiasco. The sequence of FACTS is public knowledge, we don’t have to discuss about him saying that, for example, “the President has total power,” and other absurdities. we heard in the past few weeks, and months.

A King on Monday, then on Tuesday, well… “The States have to do it.” And on, and on, and on. Just embarrassing!

I hope he will be voted out soon - provided there will actually be general elections in November. This we still have to see… I hope he will be voted out because I am tired of this disgraceful cloud of mess and confusion this man brought over our heads. I am also tired of seeing people defending his insanity. Tired of this Trumpandemic plaguing and tormenting our Country for so long!

And make no mistake: If Trump loses the election, we will face an horrible problem of transfer of power. He won’t agree to let it go. It will be crazy, he will go berserk! How can a “stable genius” lose? That’s not possible, especially having the Russians working hard again for him.

Stay tuned!!!

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Hi Raewyn, good seeing you around again.
Just in case, it’s [Malignant] Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Though there appear to be a secondary and a tertiary conditions as well. It’s pretty severe… Mental Health professionals are pretty much on the same page on that.

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As a Christian we are told to use discernment and that you will know them by their fruits.

The author here is rightly calling out the words, deeds and demeanor of the President and his impact on the US and the world at large. Some have so invested there personal identity and emotions with the President they are apparently no longer able to rightly judge the fruits of character and discern right conduct from wrong.

Like the 5 virgins they posses no oil, but do not see any danger of their current state. They mock those who point out the President in wrongdoing and instead extol his behaviour and deeds as commendable. They express pride in their association and heap praises on his deeds which if done by anyone else they would condemn. The call of the Spirit to discern what they are witnessing is all but lost on them and daily that voice is diminished as a result.

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I smiled when I saw the topic, why, because I can read the future!!! Trump is savior! Predicted that before even reading the comments. Many of the comments continue to prove the point, and studied, just Google, that the more facts are given they only serve to reenforce in the mind of the ‘true believer’, that they are right and all else is wrong. The truth is not out there and don’t let anyone tell you any different!! Blindness in christianity is very hard to overcome, maybe impossible. Truly a shame, never, ever let the facts get in the way of ones own reality, which ever world they may be in.

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Well, let’s be fair here. Facts can always be replaced by “alternative facts.” Remember this episode? That’s when I sold them my “alternative bridge!” :wink: :innocent:

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I was so glad to read this article from such a highly educated intellectual with such wonderful progressive thoughts regarding the President of the United States. Your sense of righteousness exceeds my every expectation. I was so pleased to read the condescending comments from so many of the other elite minds on this topic. You have made my day complete in every way and so glad that you are open to other opinions without denigrating people to the lowest level of intelligence. How could anyone possibly vote for a man like Trump? I’m sure God is pleased with you all. I need to puke now but thank all of you great intellectuals for enlightening me beyond measure. You remind me of what is truly wrong in America. Well done.

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People can be so reactionary and read everything with political lenses. The message I take from this article as a Christian is that the words that are spoken by the leader of the free world and the attitudes expressed towards other human beings (including different gender, nationalities, and ethnic groups, etc) are not in accord with scripture and are quite at variance with Kingdom principles. And Christian leaders seem to have ignored the rhetoric.
The gospels appear to portray Jesus as very concerned about the marginalized, poor, rejected ethnic groups, the hungry, the repressed, the incarceated, the homeless, etc.
At the end of the day (Matt 25) we are asked how we partnered with Him in ministering to these people, not what party we voted for. We need to get back to unselfish ministry and not be expending our energies on promoting our political agendas.

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Christians should not pursue “political agendas.” But they surely should be clear about where they stand on dichotomies like right/wrong, good/bad. truth/lie, decency/indecency, respect/disrespect, morality/immorality etc. This is where they are failing regarding Trump, including (too) many SDAs.

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