Don Follis | The truly faithful have nothing to fear

Don Follis | The truly faithful have nothing to fear

President Donald Trump hosted a White House dinner for 100 evangelical leaders in late August. When the President entertained the church leaders aligned with his Republican base, I thought back to a summer visit to Plains, Ga., the hometown of President Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. At the old Plains High School, now a museum featuring the Carter’s lives, I saw the book “Living Faith” that Carter wrote back in 1996.

I had read Living Faith 20 years ago and remembered Carter recalling a particular White House encounter: “A high official of the Southern Baptist Convention came into the Oval Office to visit me when I was president. As he and his wife were leaving, he said, ‘We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.’ This was a shock to me. I didn’t know what he meant. I am still not sure.” Carter goes on to mention in the book that in his 1976 run for the White House, “the evangelist Jerry Falwell condemned me because I ‘claimed’ to be a Christian.”

Now 40 years later, among the Christian leaders at the White House dinner were Jerry Falwell Jr. and J.D. Greer, president of the SBC. They joined the likes of James Dobson, Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed. They all came to pay a very different visit to the White House, spending an evening with a president whose politics they support, but whose bullying, lying and lifestyle they mostly overlook.

Many of those attending the dinner were white baby boomers about 70 years old. The guests presented the president with a Bible many had signed. Its inscription reads: “History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.” (Greear, the SBC president later released a statement defending his decision to attend the dinner but assuring his flock that he did not sign the Bible presented to President Trump.)

In the Sept. 4 Baptist News Global magazine, Bill Leonard reflected on the White House dinner. “American presidents have often led religious leaders down the political primrose path, perhaps none more public than the late Billy Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon. The White House dinner guests might contemplate Graham’s own assessment of his political encounters, reflected in a 2011 Christianity Today interview: “I ... would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

Put Billy Graham’s words alongside President Trump’s private remarks caught on tape the evening of the dinner. Clearly, the President wanted more than a nice inscription in a Bible. He wanted a quid pro quo and said to some of his guests, “I just ask you to go out and make sure all you people vote. Because if they don’t we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election – you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”

Michael Horton, writing in Christianity Today, was aghast. “…the church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate then. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel.”

Back in the 1980s British theologian Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregations in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced.”

Newbigin believed the local church was the hope of humanity. He thought the church should lean into society, critiquing culture and addressing politics but realizing that political or religious activity cannot establish God’s Kingdom. We must carry our deepest beliefs into the public square, all the while remembering that it is Jesus who ushers in the kingdom — “Your Kingdom Come” — not our political wheeling and dealing.

As the November election looms, the faithful, including the 100 evangelicals who attended the late August White House dinner, will do well to remember that it is an unshakable trust in Christ’s final return that frees them from the anxiety that having the wrong person in the White House will destroy everything. Michael Horton in Christianity Today was succinct: “Anyone who thinks that evangelical Christians are ‘one election away from losing everything,’ has forgotten how to sing the psalmist’s warning: ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.’” (Psalm 146:3)

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion