On June 3, 2020, I drove from my home in northern Maryland to Washington, DC, about 70 miles, to participate in a prayer vigil at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington had invited faith groups to join her there, and my own Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling had extended that invitation to the clergy of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that federal police forces had extended the no-go zone near the White House so that it reached just beyond St. John’s Church. It had not been that way the day before, and it was not that way the following day. But on the day of the prayer vigil we were prevented from going near St. John’s Church. (You can read about the vigil here.)
St. John’s Church is where the US president staged his bible-thumping photo-op on June 1. The irony of a president who, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, had called for all churches to be reopened now authorizing a militarized police presence that kept clergy from going to a church was hard to swallow for those of us who had arrived for the prayer vigil.
The day of the president’s northern front sortie, Bishop Budde expressed outrage over the president’s actions. He “did not pray,” she said. He proclaimed “a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.” I shared her sentiments; that was partly why I decided to attend the vigil. But then I started to think more about the situation.
For all his tactical belligerence, it is hard to know where the egregiousness of the president’s diversions from the teachings of Jesus rank in comparison to those of his predecessors. I remember, for example, that George W. Bush attended a private service at St. John’s at the height of two disastrous wars, both opposed by many Christians worldwide. (See here.)
In fact, for over two hundred years, St. John’s Church has served as a convenient photo-op background, or whatever the equivalent was before there were photographs, for every president since 1816. The church proudly calls itself the “church of the presidents” and even has a pew row permanently reserved for whoever is in the Oval Office. The congregation has long enjoyed a cozy relationship with men who wield great national and international power. Indeed, the same thing could be said of the Diocese of Washington more broadly. How many times has the Washington National Cathedral allowed itself to be the backdrop of some ceremony or other of civil religion?
No wonder the current officeholder thought he had every reason to use tear gas on peaceful, unarmed protesters. They were blocking the way to his (by virtue of his office, if not by his faith) church.
It does not take a cynic to wonder whether some of the outrage directed at the forty-fifth president should be redirected toward the churches and denominations that have spent decades, or even centuries, fostering the kind of conditions that result in a congregation proclaiming itself the “church of the presidents.”
I say “churches and denominations” because I know full well how United Methodists, and our predecessor denominations, have insinuated ourselves into a similar position as St. John’s and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. We have welcomed with open arms presidents and other figures of great political power, regardless of their moral character or the consistency of the policies with Christian teachings, and we have been sure to let the world see this casual familiarity.
In so doing we have tried to convince ourselves, and others, that we might somehow influence these figures, might redirect their efforts to the benefit of all. Historian John Fea has aptly identified prominent evangelical supporters of the current president “court evangelicals,” but (United) Methodists, Episcopalians, and other mainline denominations could just as easily be called “court Protestants” of presidential administrations in general.
The ineffectiveness, not to say the implicit self-aggrandizing idolatrousness, of this approach should have been laid bare during the W. Bush administration, when United Methodist bishops were denied even an audience with the president to air their concerns about his wars. Nevertheless, it has persisted as part of our identity: we are people who can positively influence American politics through soft-power tactics like opening our church doors, glad-handing with officeholders, and having our clergy slip in a word or two before the men of power return to their duties.
On June 1, therefore, and perhaps also on June 3, what was on display for those with eyes to see was as much the church’s impotency as the president’s impunity. Whether court evangelicals or court Protestants, we have traded the inheritance of the kingdom of God for the mess of potage served around the thrones of worldly powers. Rather than struggling to wrest back control over territory long ceded to those powers, perhaps it is time instead for us to repent of them entirely and instead seek anew the kingdom of Christ that is not of this world.