A few days ago some interesting pictures emerged of a group of evangelical leaders in the White House, who prayed with and for President Trump, with their hands laid upon him. I find it strange that this would take place in the official work environment of the US president, and I find it even stranger that, apparently, lots of evangelicals are positive about this. Although the president’s over-all approval rating has sunk to ever-lower depths, many evangelicals still see him as a leader who shows great moral strength. I read on Facebook (I have forgotten who posted it originally) that the same people who a few years ago called Obama a Muslim now think that Trump is a Christian! It is clear that many Americans, on the other hand, are highly critical about the cozy relationship between som evangelical leaders and the Trump administration, and worry that the American tradition of separation between church and state is in serious jeopardy.
I have never believed in a total separation of church and state. Once upon a time the Dutch Reformed Church was the ‘established’ church in my country and had significant privileges. That is no longer the case, and even the ties between the royal family and this church are not what they have been for centuries. There was hardly any criticism when Maxima (the present queen) decided to remain Roman Catholic when she married Willem Alexander, who is now the Dutch king. And in a multicultural and multi-religious country like the Netherlands it is no longer deemed appropriate that the king would ask for God’s blessings in his speech at the beginning of the parliamentary year.
I appreciate these developments. It is proper that religion and affairs of state are separate, but on the other hand I see no problem in, for instance, accepting government money for denominational schools if certain conditions are met. Why should parents of children in public schools benefit from the taxes we all pay, and should parents of children in private schools not be able to benefit in the same way? And why should churches and religion-based NGO’s–again under clear conditions–not be able to receive government grants for social activities, just like other organization with similar projects? And why should churches not be able to accept tax-exempt donations, just like other charities and cultural institutions. If there are clear rules, it seems to me (and most European Christians, Adventists included) that church and state may legitimately interact in certain domains.
But then, I look at the United States. . . I have never understood what separation of church and state actually means in the US. For Europeans like myself it is hard to understand why the national flag is prominently displayed in American churches. And why virtually every major address by an American politician ends with the words: God bless America! And why would in past decades Billy Graham show up in the Oval Office when the president had to make a decision whether or not to take his country to war? And what to make of presidential prayer breakfasts? All this is difficult enough to understand, but Trump’s unashamed courting of evangelical support makes it even more complex.
I am reading in blogs and Facebook posts that some of my Adventist co-religionists see the intermingling of religion and politics as a clear sign of the end. They expect that religious leaders will so influence politics that eventually the ‘true believers’ will feel the negative consequences. They point in particular to recent statements by pope Frances regarding the need to take global measures and erect global structures to defend basic human values. Well, we must certainly remain alert, but we have seen time and again that it is unwise to make hasty predictions, as trends often come and go. However, for the time being, I am more afraid of the evangelicals who support Trump than of the pope. I do not subscribe to many of the pope’s ideas, but his moral compass seems to be in much better shape than that of many of the religious leaders who hail the American president as a ‘born again’ Christian.