Before he took the oath to become the 45th President of the USA, Donald Trump went to church. There he heard a sermon by Rev Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist minister. Leaving aside the facts that I am not American and I did not campaign for Mr Trump while Rev Jeffress did, the sermon struck me as an exercise in sycophancy.
I have been privileged to preach or speak at a number of civic occasions where there are assembled those who are elected to serve their fellow citizens. I have never been asked to do so at such a level as this. Nevertheless, having followed the American election campaigns and the transition period, I wondered what I would have said had I been given such a task.
What follows is an unpolished draft of what I might have preached should I have been at that church service.
I don’t expect Mr Trump to read it. I doubt many will read it. I have written it to share with my congregation, and as an exercise in considering what swearing on the Bible at one’s inauguration to high office (or low) might mean if one took its content seriously.
Mr President Elect, I am honoured to deliver this sermon today just moments before your inauguration as the 45th President of the United States of America.
You will shortly make your oath, I understand, with your hand upon the Bible. This is a tradition going back, as far as I know, to George Washington who selected the nearest Bible to hand. Others, since, have chosen, during their swearing in, to lay their hands upon Bibles which have an import or message beyond the fact of their religious significance.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his family’s Dutch language Bible. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the White House, chose a Douay Bible, a translation foundational to his denomination. When the second inauguration of your predecessor, President Obama, fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he chose a Bible that belonged to the civil rights leader.
For this momentous occasion for you and your nation you have chosen two Bibles, one that your mother gave you on your graduation from Presbyterian Sunday school in 1955, the other being the Bible President Abraham Lincoln used at his inauguration.
Your choices are deeply symbolic, I am sure, for you, and perhaps you sense something at least of what I see as their significance. The first of those Bibles points to the importance of nurture from family and the wider community. It reminds us of the responsibilities we have as families and communities to help create the conditions in which all our children and young people can grow and develop to their fullest potential. Whenever I am privileged to baptise a child, I remind parents and the wider community of what I believe to be an African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Your first Bible is a reminder of that sacred duty that falls upon us all parents, neighbours and presidents alike.
Your second choice of Bible points to the importance of shared tradition and identity, of a nation’s story, and of its understanding of what it is. It reminds us that we stand always on the shoulders of those who came before us. It reminds us that whatever we build in our time is always built on the foundations laid by others before us. It reminds us that any story we tell cannot be read apart from the chapters that precede it. It reminds us, also, that we have a responsibility to those who come after us, and not only to the traditions handed down to us by our predecessors, or to those who share this moment with us. We write today what will be read and lived tomorrow.
Further to the characteristics peculiar to your choice of which Bibles on which to swear your oath today, is the fact that you have chosen a Bible, and not some other book or object. It is to that I wish now to turn.
I understand that you don’t have much time to read, although perhaps I might encourage you, as we Methodist ministers are encouraged, to carve out some time for both the pleasure and the enlightenment that may be had from immersion in good literature.
This book, this collection of books, which is the Bible, and on which today you will make your oath, is a powerful one. It is inspirational, and it is also dangerous. You are, I know, Mr President Elect, an avid user of Twitter, with its messages restricted to a maximum of 140 characters. The limitations of that medium are evident in the way some use the Bible. With texts used out of context or without understanding of or accounting for the historical setting of the text or its nature as a piece of writing, the Bible can be, and has been, used to justify just about any manner of thought and action.
There is, however, Mr President Elect, a golden thread which runs throughout the Bible, evident in both testaments; a theme which is referred to again and again. It is the theme of love, love for God and love for neighbour, outworked always in the most practical of ways.
Now, Mr President Elect, I have listened to you on a campaign trail which has led you across and through the United States of America, through a wide variety of communities, rich and poor, hopeful and hopeless, through the melting pot that has welcomed over the decades the huddled masses, the tired, the poor and the wretched, that is home to those peoples native to this land long before people sharing your origins or mine made it their home, that is home to those who are testimony to the American Dream and to those who are far from making it a reality. Two slogans stand out from that campaign as repeated themes of yours: “Make America Great Again,” and “America First.” I commend them, and trust that you will hold fast to them through the challenges ahead.
Before you go to make your oath on those Bibles, let me remind you of that golden thread, of which I spoke earlier, and how it might inform what you plan to build, that might help you add substance to those two slogans.
That golden thread is woven through the fabric of scripture from the jubilee release of slaves and the forgiveness of debt, to the limitation on wealth that is the requirement not to take all from field or vineyard but to leave some for the poor and the foreigner. It is woven through the fabric of scripture from the recognition of the contribution of the poorest in the story of the widow’s mite, to the understanding in the story of the Good Samaritan that God is served in attention to the needy. It is woven through the fabric of scripture from the demand of the prophet that justice “roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”; to the command of Jesus to love, to love our neighbours, to love even our enemies.
That thread in all these ways and many more calls us each and every one, high or low, to engage in loving service, informed by compassion and built on a justice that recognises and celebrates an understanding that each and every human being carries within them the mark of God.
To place your hand upon this book, Mr President Elect, unless that act be mere adherence to tradition, is to give assent to its content. It is to say that that same golden thread that is woven through that book will be woven through your policies, through your actions. Let me say to you, sir, that here is the key to the success of your promise to make America great. Let that thread weave not only through the pages of scripture but also through presidential words and actions, the legislation of government, the deeds of the nation under your leadership and, I promise you, sir, that America will be great. America will be great, because it is has heard and heeded and acted upon that divine call to compassion and justice. I commend you to your stated task: Make America Great.
Now to your second campaign slogan: America First. Again, I commend it. Yes, put America First. Where people hunger, let America be first to feed them. Where strangers need a home, let America be first to invite them in. Where people are naked, let America be first to clothe them. Where people are sick, let America be first to heal them. Where people are imprisoned, let America be first to work for their freedom. Home or abroad, near or far, the God of all humanity makes no distinction, where there is need, where there is opportunity to do good, where there is opportunity to build justice, let America be first to respond. America First; sir, I commend you to that task also.
In conclusion, Sir, I shall pray for you and your family; your administration and, too, those whose task it will be to challenge you and hold you to account.
Mr soon-to-be President Trump, may God bless you with wisdom and compassion and all you need to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God.