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The “State of Confession” for Christians in the November Election

— A Review of Paul C. McGlasson’s Choose You This Day: The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Politics of Trumpism (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019) —

ON THE CUSP OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION in these United States since the eve of the Civil War, a sobering fact is that our own history has eerily caught up with us, just as our history caught up with the Nazis of Germany between the First and Second World Wars.

During the 1930s, four deeply dark North American realities served as “models” for Adolf Hitler’s infamous Nuremburg Laws that “forbade citizenship to Jews . . . and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans” (McGlasson, 26–27).

The following historical actualities appeared like haunting ghosts rising from their tombs as Hitler appropriated their perennial powers to his own sinister purposes, for having studied these grave matters in detail.

(1) The horrific treatment visited upon non-white indigenous people by Euro-American settlers who drove Native Americans from their homelands “whether by broken treaties, or simple forced and violent expulsion” during the eighteenth and nineteenth century westward geographic expansion of white power.

(2) The 1924 Immigration Act that imposed restrictions “blatantly racist along the lines of white supremacy,” deliberately “designed to allow into the United States Northern Europeans, and to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, and certainly Asians.”

(3) The oppressive post-Civil War Jim Crow system that “rested on the perpetual threat of lynching to remain in force.”

(4) Not least, the “countless examples of laws on the books preventing ‘miscegenation’ between whites and blacks,” a vivid example being the Maryland statute declaring that “All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent, to the third generation . . . are forever prohibited, and shall be void; and any person violating the provision of this Section shall be deemed guilty of an infamous crime and be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary.”

And now, generations later––the twenty-first century continues to unfold with a reality show of its own that plays like a shadowy silent movie upon the screen of consciousness of the American electorate. It is as if scenes from a grim dystopian melodrama had suddenly boomeranged from the bowels of Nazi Germany: Donald Trump’s ICE squads, fortified by the Republican Party’s tacit consent, forcibly separate immigrant children from their parents and families at the border, restraining them like wild animals in wire cages.

Errant Evangelicalism on Opposite Sides of the Atlantic

It is precisely within this Machiavellian milieu of malicious Trumpism that theologian Paul McGlasson presents the compelling case for why Christians and Christian churches at this very juncture of history once again have arrived at a crossroad, summoned to be in a “state of confession”—in statu confessionis — wherein “standing by the truth in a time of desperate trial is not grounded in stubbornness, but in discipleship” (xi). Which is to say, as Jesus asserts in the Gospel of Matthew (10:32): “Whoever therefore shall confess me before others, those will I confess also before my Father who is in heaven” (McGlasson, xi).

Within the succinct and convincing scope of 128 pages of exposition, divided into two parts consisting of two chapters apiece, McGlasson instructs the mindful Christian in the important historical, political, and theological parallels between “the German Church Struggle” preceding and during World War II, and “Our Church Struggle” today as we walk toward the voting booth. Thus the title of the book, “Choose You This Day,” taken from the Hebrew text of Joshua 24:15: “Choose you this day whom you will serve . . .”

Of course, a currently self-described “evangelical” devotee of Donald Trump might swiftly cite this very passage of scripture as a call to cast a vote for Trump. Just so, the ballot would fall into the comparable, worldly-spiritualized vogue that characterized the fervor of the “German Christians” who wrested words from the books of the Torah and the mouths of the prophets, and in some instances rid themselves of them altogether, in order to repurpose scripture for service in the hallowed precincts of Herr Hitler.

The Lutheran pastor and anti-Semite, Siegfried Leffler, a founder of the German Christian Church Movement and director of the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, fashioned his own Aryan creed. He did so in abject betrayal of the Christ of the Gospels. With theologically blind eyes he wrote: “In the person of the Führer we see the one God has sent, who sets Germany before the Lord of history. . . . [W]hoever wanted to live into the future had to align with him. One God, One People!” (12).

It was exactly such “evangelical apostacy,” comprised of a thoroughly secularized theology of domination, dedicated to German racism, nationalism, and dictatorship, which promulgated the heretical dogmas of millions of post-Weimar German evangelical Protestants who raised their arms in the “Heil Hitler” salute.

Compare such unrepentant idolatry with the analogous apostacy of those evangelicals who believe that God sent Donald Trump as a modern-day Cyrus the Persian to act as “Christian America’s” flesh-and-blood savior. McGlasson poses the piercing question: “What provides the most prominent background, which helps to explain why evangelicalism so completely and absolutely embraced Trump and his political philosophy?” (Laugh if you think Trump could articulate any philosophy.) McGlasson concludes that “the answer is not difficult. It was the election of the first black man as president of the United States, Barack Obama” (61). Trump’s philosophy? Rancid racism, not to mention nihilistic, amoral, and willfully dishonest, bullying buccaneering.

Idolatry, Trump-Style

The Trumpian triumphalism of 2020 has raw, homegrown antecedents. McGlasson elucidates: “Evangelical leaders launched a series of vicious attacks on Obama in the run-up to 2008, and predicted that if elected he would bring unmitigated disaster to — or rather upon — the United States. Boy Scouts of America would cease to exist; private Christian schools would be closed, and Christian teachers would be fired from public schools; there would be no hospital access for people over eighty; Iran would detonate a nuclear bomb in Tel Aviv; conservative radio talk shows would be shut down by the government, while Bush government officials would be imprisoned. These were among the predictions openly circulating among evangelicals, outdoing even Trump’s vivid and paranoid imagination” (62-63).

This Trump-as-savior syndrome, a collectively extremist dream-state that has become the nation’s present nightmare, is bathed in apocalyptic syrup. It is predicated upon a conjectured illusion.

In contrast to the “theology of orders” (likewise, illusory) that informed the 1930s German Protestant Evangelical churches’ embrace of Hitler, with its look “backward, behind the Bible to a creation theology given in human experience by which the Bible and indeed all reality must be interpreted,” the current American “evangelicalism looks in the opposite direction, to the endtime, ahead of the Bible. For [the Trump-ready] evangelicalism, prophetic experience of the endtime gives true insight not only into the genuine teachings of the Bible, but also into the true shape of current events, especially political events” (64). That “true shape” takes the form, convolutedly, of an untruthful, unrepentant Trump being touted — somehow, anyhow — as the (rehabilitated) “redeemer” that evangelicals long awaited, having drooled at the mouth, as it were, for the likes of him to do their hard-core political bidding. Power can always muscle its way through the putrid swamp. Hold your noses, evangelicals!

But be sufficiently displeased, if you will, reader, to nevermind the political silences and avoidances of the Trump entourage that stultify the corruption always lying (!) beneath the surface. —That is, if you have not yourself already swallowed the endtime bait along with hook, line, and sinker! For such extra-biblical whimsy of interpolation, pronounced by evangelicals as fated prediction come true (meaning now), constitutes a prostitution of scripture. Ancient texts are not vessels of soothsaying, like some genie in a bottle suddenly popped out, pointing to Donald Trump and shouting remotely from the distance of a few thousand years, “I told you so!”

McGlasson’s Rock-solid interpretation of Christian orthodoxy stands, thankfully, in stark contrast to the idolatrous gymnastics that befit the circles of ecclesiastical clowns who surround Trump with their butter-him-up brand of biblicism that flatters their proximity to the presidential seat of power about as much as flies do when squatting on an elephant’s rump. In this instance, the Republican rump: “Can we go any lower?”

Mainstream Christian orthodoxy, on the other hand, adheres to a faithful biblical witness, insisting that “the images of the apocalypse are to be understood in the light of the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, and not the reverse” (64-65).

What this comes down to is a conclusion, as McGlasson describes it. “Evangelicalism has, from its inception in the nineteenth century, reversed the inner logic of Scripture. Rather than understanding apocalyptic images and language in the light of Jesus Christ, it has sought to lay out a precise timeline of the endtime based on the books of Daniel and Revelation (and portions of other books of the Bible), to be sure, fitting Christ into the unfolding picture, but nonetheless mostly absorbed by the detailed timeline itself. Christ becomes just one more item in the evangelical version of the endtime, not the Lord of time who alone interprets all time,” as the New Testament gospels and epistles envisage him (65–66).

What possible need, then, do idol-seeking evangelicals have for Jesus Christ as Lord, especially when as Lord of all time he judges Trump’s politics (and the veneration of Trump’s politics) to be idolatrous, and the fawning spiritualisms of Trump’s evangelical “advisors” to be the antics of fulminating false prophets? Perhaps their timely need is for a radical confession of sin that leads to a radical dispossession of idols.

“Evangelicalism and the Politics of Trumpism”

 At the time, in 1934, when the Reformed church theologian Karl Barth gave birth to the Theological Declaration of Barmen as public witness of the “Confessing Church,” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among others joined Barth in flat-out rejection of the idolatries of Nazism, “Anti-Semitism in Germany was a traditional moral value, and Hitler proudly embraced and endorsed it” (24).

Alongside Germany’s pervasive anti-Semitism there arose among the German Christians “the Galilean hypothesis.” Its argument was that Jesus was not Jewish at all, since by virtue of his being a Galilean from Nazareth he must therefore be a Gentile. This reconstruction of Jesus’s origin and identity made him instantly “relevant to the new German Christianity for one simple reason: ‘he had not a drop of real Jewish blood in his veins’” (25). Consequently, as McGlasson forthrightly observes of such obvious contortion, “Racism does not spare the learned” (26).

Case in point. The author of the “Original Guidelines for the German Christian Movement,” Joachim Hossenfelder, had sought in 1932 to justify the Aryan cause as the way forward for Hitler’s and Germany’s nationalistic aspirations. “Based on its experience,” Hossenfelder wrote, “the German Foreign Mission has long admonished the German people: ‘Keep your race pure!’” Moreover, “faith in Christ does not destroy race, but rather deepens and sanctifies it” (9).

The faithful remnant, comprising the minority Confessing Church, cried foul. They knew instinctively and on solid theological ground that the majority German Christians’ wilderness pact with the Devil, stripping the Jewish Jesus from “German Christianity,” meant one sure thing. It meant that to be faithful to the Jesus of the New Testament one must be “in a state of confession” which, as those first, second, third, and fourth generation Christians knew all too well, meant breaking ranks with the lordship of Caesar. At the heart of such inward and outward confession, McGlasson notes, “God’s Word, the gospel, is God’s free grace. We are not put right with God because we are German, or any race or nation or ethnicity. . . . Only God’s grace alone puts us right with God” (54).

So, why then, in a vein similar to the enthusiastic coalescence of German Christians with the Nazi Party of the 1930s, is it true that, in the United States of 2020, “virtually all evangelical predictions dovetail rather exactly with the politics of the Republican Party” (66)?

In the zero-sum game of those partisan evangelical apocalypticists, for whom to be against Trump is, in their minds, to be decidedly on the side of evil, why is the “strongman’s” politics idolized? Why so, in vivid contrast to the veritable weakness of the man Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), and who was crucified as he was on a Roman cross? For, without doubt, Jesus indisputably identified in both life and death with the victims of oppression, not with their oppressors. And Trump is an oppressor, to the disgrace of his Bible-toting, theologically hack, backers.

The “Confessing Church” — Yet Again in 2020

Is it that the espousers of a virulent evangelicalism possess a doctrine of sin that admits to no principle weakness, most especially when it takes the form of an idolatrous apostasy? For, as with the authoritarian, demagogic Trump, weakness is perceived as mortal sin. In a Trumpian universe, falsely projected strengths masquerade the underlying moral defects and imperfections. As for the man who proudly parades his “Make America Great Again” redcap upon his orange toupee, “He is strength, and those who agree with him are the strong. All who oppose him in any way are weak. All other defining characteristics are irrelevant” (58). Concomitantly, the Christ “whose power is made perfect in weakness” (I Cor. 12:9), according to Caesar’s playbook, remains an operational failure and political anathema.

“The secular apocalypse of evangelicalism — now no longer attached to the person of Christ in any meaningful way, but rather an open-ended political and cultural vision of world battle between good and evil — was looking for a leader to fight by its side, and Donald Trump, alone of the GOP candidates in 2016, offered battle” (70). And the religious right, sensing their moment of victory, immediately succumbed to his immoral opportunism and crass incompetency. The operative idiom for such idiocy is “might always makes Right.”

And so, a “confessional moment” is incumbent upon the rest of us. Within the context of the widespread embrace of Trump by his evangelical base, no matter how “base” its acquiescence to his racist, brutalist politics, the clarion call to us is to be “in a state of confession” which necessitates a counter-witness. A “Confessing Church,” as in Nazi Germany, willingly refuses to bow the knee to the Führer and the furor of this present darkness.

For “confessing Christians” the way of Christ is that nightmare-shattering Light by which to live. He is not the false Christ repurposed to the lies and deceptions of fuming emperors and decaying empires. Rather, he is the true Christ manifest in the face of Jesus who, calling upon the prophet Isaiah, declares to all of God’s people everywhere — including stranger, immigrant, disinherited and disenfranchised alike: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18–19).

Indeed, “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” applies in some manner of speaking to all of us, including those evangelicals among us who frequent the pagan shrines of Trump Tower and America First, which in Trump’s world always mean Trump first.

Paul McGlasson has yet much more to say to us Confessors if we wish to wade further into the historical and contemporary theological and biblical substance of “Choose You This Day.” For the time being, we have been blessed, even sanctified, by the heart of it.

For Christians, to “choose this day whom you will serve” is to choose, not the errant and self-aggrandizing ways of Trump, but instead the loving, just, and servant ways of God-in-Christ as we walk into the voting booth. Those two ways of being and doing are anything but synonymous, and about as far apart as Caesar’s imperial sword is from being laid down upon the holy ground before Christ’s feet hanging from Christ’s cross. For there is where it becomes life-saving and life-giving to be “in a state of confession.”

Christian, remember that, cherish that, and live that, from this day forward.

 

 This essay review was published in Vox Populi on Sunday, October 25, 2020

© 2020 Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone, Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).