Preaching in the Age of Trump (O. Wesley Allen, Jr.) -- A Review
PREACHING IN THE ERAOF TRUMP. By O. Wesley Allen, Jr. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. 117 pages.
Talking politics from the pulpit is always a risky proposition. Many Mainline (Mainstream/Historic) Protestant preachers likely face congregations made up of people who are Republican, Democrat, Independent, and any number of other possibilities. The safest thing to do is to be silent on anything that might be considered political in nature. Preachers are supposed to focus on spiritual things, and not meddle in things outside their expertise. But, what happens when the Gospel collides with the events of the day? While I am a firm believer in the principle of not endorsing candidates from the pulpit, I also know that the Gospel speaks to issues that have significant political implications. What happens when the country elects a President whose behavior and policies seem so far outside the mainstream, do we remain silent and focus only on the spiritual and ignore the political? As we ponder that question, without equating the current President with Hitler, we know happened in Germany when the churches failed to speak out against a movement that was evil incarnate.
I have voted in every Presidential Election since 1976. Sometimes my candidate won. Sometimes they lost. Even when I had strong feelings about a newly-elected President, I have assumed that no matter what they did during their term, the nation would endure. The 2016 election had a different spirit about it. Neither candidate was popular with the electorate, though for different reasons. The candidate who was declared the winner, lost the popular vote by a wide margin, but received a majority of the electoral college votes (and that’s what counts in the United States). The person who won the election promised to break the mold, and he has fulfilled the promise (and more). The question is, what should we, who are preachers, do? What advice is out there that can help us navigate this most unusual situation?
One who took up the challenge is Wesley Allen, a homiletics professor at Perkins School of Theology and President of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also an ordained United Methodist minister. Soon after the election, colleagues encouraged him to take up the mantle and offer a response to the question of the hour. How should the church respond? How should preachers respond? This book is the result of those early conversations. The book went to the printer not long after the inauguration, and so this book was written prior to Donald Trump taking office. It was written based on Trump’s campaign promises and speeches, along with the way he had comported himself in the past. While many hoped that the Oval Office might tame those inclinations, a year later, as I write this review, the Office did not change Donald Trump, but he has changed the way the office functions. Whether this is permanent or not we will have to wait and see.
As for the author, he is upfront about his political inclinations. He is a Democrat. He’s a political liberal. He voted for Hillary Clinton. So, you could say that he’s not objective, but who can be objective about situations like we find ourselves in. Nonetheless, this is about more than politics. This is about being faithful to the Gospel and pursuing justice and mercy and kindness. It’s about standing up for those who are being persecuted and treated inappropriately. This is about welcoming the stranger. Yes, this is about more than politics. This isn’t merely about a President being unpopular or even being unfit to serve as President. This isn’t about being Republican or Democrat. There are people of good faith in both political parties. We may disagree with each other on policy and what is good for America, but this has to do with the moral fabric of the nation, and the role the church plays in forming it. So, what do we do?
Allen divides the book into two parts. Part One lays out the basic issues of the day. In these opening chapters, Allen helps us get a lay of the land. He notes the shock that the election provoked in the hearts and minds of many. He speaks to what might be the first “postmodern presidency.” For some time, there has been a recognition that the old Enlightenment vision of reality no longer worked. The idea that truth is always absolute and universal began to give way in recent decades to the view that truth night not be so absolute. In fact, truth might be culturally relative. This new vantage point has its positive side. It allows us to view the world through different sets of lenses. Unfortunately, it has also given rise to what Stephen Colbert has dubbed “truthiness.” Donald Trump has been the poster child of the “post-truth” era, where one can lie with impunity and get away with it. He also addresses the elephant in the room, that is, the reality that our congregations are not of one mind politically. This makes it more difficult to address critical issues. There is also the “us” versus “them” challenge. Obviously, we are all different, and so there if there is an us there is likely a them. The problem emerges when the “them” is demonized.” He reminds us that if we are to embrace the slogan that emerged in the Democratic Convent that “love trumps hate,” then that means loving Donald Trump. That is not easy, and yet if love is to trump hate, then it will require such a perspective. After all, Jesus did call on his followers to love their enemies. Enemies remain enemies, but we need not hate them. The challenge for preachers is finding a way for the church to become great again. This begins not by telling the church what it ought to be, but declaring what it is. It is defining the church missionally and eschatologically.
Part two offers pulpit strategies that address specific issues raised by Trump's candidacy and election, and now presidency. These include race, gender, LGBT Issues, and Islam. These are only a few of the big issues of the day, but in each case specific people are affected. With race, consider the reemergence of white supremacy and the immigration crisis, including DACA. There has been a major turn toward male dominance once again. While Trump claimed to be the LGBT community's best friend, nothing he has done has demonstrated that to be true. In fact, many protections have been rolled back. Then there is attack on Islam that has given support to Islamophobia. There are many other issues, but these are key. They offer Allen the opportunity to lay out strategies to address them from the pulpit in a way that is constructive. In each chapter, Allen describes the challenge and then provides guidance on how to address the issues homiletically.
During the 1960s the churches, which had grown numerically in the 1950s during a post war economic boom, generally failed to address the issues of the day, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and move of women into the broader work force. It held on to the old ways, and we have suffered as a result. The church appeared irrelevant as it sustained the status quo. Will we do the same today? Allen wrote this book immediately after the election. Unfortunately, it remains as relevant today as it did year ago. LGBT rights are under threat. Religious freedom has become a cause célèbre for conservative Christians, at the expense of Muslims and other religious minorities. As the first African American President left office, the chant of “making American great again” took on racial overtones, and in the shadow of a Supreme Court decision that enabled LGBT people to get married, LGBT rights are once again under threat (often in the guise of religious freedom).
Allen’s book provides those of us who preach some wisdom for addressing the issues of the day. He names them and helps us formulate a way forward. He closes the book on a hopeful note: “I pray that the era of Trump leads to a revival of preaching related to social justice themes of God’s good news that essentially makes the era of Trump null and void in reshaping the diverse landscape of American society” (p. 111). Only time will tell. In the meantime, we who preach must remain vigilant and deeply rooted in the Gospel so that our preaching might be faithful to the call. It won’t end with the close of the Trump era, for each era has its own challenges and will require its own word of wisdom. For now, Wesley Allen offers us a word to take hold of. regarding "preaching in the Era of Trump."