By H. Lillian Vogl
This must have been a difficult year for you, as I presume you felt deep moral ambivalence about boosting Donald Trump these past few months, subtly or not-so-subtly. You were well aware of his three marriages and his unapologetic playboy lifestyle. I’m pretty sure you were aware that he never spoke a pro-life word or had anything to do with Christian believers until he began his campaign for president. I assume you knew the reputation of his name being synonymous with extreme opulence and avarice, as well as petty insult feuds with assorted (mostly female) celebrities. I charitably assume you didn’t support him during the primary season; at least you gave no indication from the pulpit that you did.
But then Justice Scalia died unexpectedly, and you got scared. You feared that recently-decided 5–4 cases in favor of religious liberty might be overturned. You feared that Obergefell would somehow be extended to take away your tax exemption if you didn’t perform gay marriages. You feared Little Sisters of the Poor would be shut down by the HHS mandate (and the press releases about their latest decision were too confusing to consider it a victory, despite Scalia’s absence). You had been hoping and praying that when Justice Ginsburg shuffles off this mortal coil, or at least off the bench, that the holy grail of a 5th pro-life Justice could be confirmed and Roe v. Wade could finally be reversed, and now these hopes were dashed. So you resolved that at all costs, a President who might appoint Justices committed to ending abortion and protecting religious liberty needed to be elected, and you would do everything in your power toward that end.
So for several months, you have been trying to steer your flock into voting for Donald Trump. You preached on the evil of abortion and the sanctity of marriage over and over. You had to make the issues simple, so that no one in your flock would be confused about which candidate your words pointed toward. There could be no mention of cultural or economic influences that drive women to choose abortions, especially lack of health insurance or paid maternity leave. Obamacare had to be presented as pure oppression faith-based organizations (never mind that part was a regulatory afterthought), a source of evil death panels (never mind private insurance companies make the same kinds of denial-of-care decisions), and crushing expense to families (ignore all the sick ones who finally got access to health insurance for the first time). Keep it simple stupid.
You had to steer far clear of topics under which Trump could be indicted for fundamental moral failing. “Sanctity of marriage” means keeping gays out, it doesn’t mean keeping wandering heterosexual spouses in. For months you never dared speak a word about our obligations to treat others with kindness and mercy, to share of our time and treasure with those in need, or to try to see the image of God in every person, including immigrants and those with different religious beliefs, and act with charity toward all. You definitely could never preach against the deadly sin of pride.
You carefully vetted the materials that were promoted in the bulletin. As a Catholic priest, you ignored the deep and complex “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” — you just didn’t think your parishioners could handle such big ideas as “solidarity” and “subsidiarity,” so you distributed flyers from groups like Priests for Life or Catholic Answers instead. (You couldn’t have anticipated that these would end up being repudiated by their bishops within a week of the election.) As an Evangelical pastor, you picked Jerry Falwell Jr. over Michael Farris, the Graham family over Russell Moore, for their witness on this election. You cringed when some women in your congregation came out against Trump with their stories of sexual assault, but fortunately they aren’t allowed in the pulpit, so their voices could only go as far as their social media circle would take them. And many fellow women parishioners dutifully counter-attacked the ones who dared to come out against Trump.
You spoke of the coming persecutions. Get ready to suffer, you warned. Your examples were bakeries shut down for refusing to “support” gay marriage by baking a cake. You also mentioned martyrs killed by Muslims in other parts of the world, and drew a short line between the two. You never mentioned the remarkable inter-faith displays of solidarity after Fr. Hamel’s killing, or the wave of conversions to Christianity happening among the Syrian and other refugee populations in Europe.
It all worked. Your flock overwhelming voted for Trump, whether whole-heartedly because he would “protect the Christians” or reluctantly “just for the Supreme Court.” He won the election, and the Republicans kept control of the House and Senate. He can nominate a Justice you want in January, and the Senate can probably confirm him, and you can go back to waiting for Ginsburg or Breyer to kick the bucket. Obamacare may well get repealed, and replaced with who knows what, a prospect that is terrifying to a quiet and relatively weak segment of your flock, but very popular with the rest.
So now what? Will you return to preaching about loving your neighbor? Are pride and avarice sins worth mentioning again? Will you make appeals to your flock to donate money to the local domestic violence shelter, or to charitable medical practices, or to English language learner programs, or local food banks? Or will you continue to tell us that Black Lives Matter is what’s wrong with the country today? Will you speak out against a culture of violence that cuts short tens of thousands of lives a year, or will you continue to only speak of the bravery of citizens who carry a weapon for their profession?
I forgive you for suppressing much of God’s Word to us out of fear. It was not commendable but it was understandable. I pray that the Holy Spirit will convict you to once again preach the whole Gospel, with truth and love and without fear. Uncertain days lie ahead, as we discover whether Trump’s promises to you are fulfilled, or whether racism, poverty, and violence increase. We need you to pastor your flock as a faithful hired hand. Do not hold open the gate for the wolf.