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KEVIN LEININGER: Will politicians ever stop cheapening faith? Not a prayer

Donald Trump showed up at the National Prayer Breakfast last week -- but he seemed to have other things on his mind. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

If there’s anything worse than a sore loser, it’s a sore winner — as President Trump proved last week by invoking God in a vindictive tirade that was simultaneously out of place and out of touch with the faith he professes.

But as they so often do, Trump’s critics made his bizarre behavior seem almost normal through a stunning display of hypocrisy that exposed how both religion and politics can be cheapened by the superficial and self-serving mixing of the two.

Founded in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower at the urging of evangelist Billy Graham, the National Prayer Breakfast is, as ABC News put it, “by custom a respite from bipartisan bickering.” But there was nothing bipartisan or ecumenical about last week’s event, at which a triumphant president incongruously used the occasion to question the faith of those who had just unsuccessfully voted to impeach him.

Harvard University Professor Arthur Brooks had just finished a keynote address in which he echoed Christ’s command to “Love your enemies” when Trump objected.

“I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump replied before offering an apparent rebuttal to Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who said his faith compelled him to support Trump’s removal from office. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said.

“Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you’ when you know that is not so,” he added in an apparent reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Donald Trump dragged the National Prayer Breakfast into his personal gutter this morning, questioning the faith of Sen. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a devout Catholic,” the Daily Beast wrote, no doubt speaking for many of Trump’s critics and even some of his supporters. I may not have agreed with Romney’s vote, for example, but neither would I suggest he should have supported Trump at the expense of his own conscience.

But apart from choosing the wrong time and place there was, unfortunately, nothing particularly unique about what Trump said.

Consider, just for starters, the common argument that no true Christian could ever vote for Trump. No less than Christianity Today magazine, in fact, recently condemned Trump’s “grossly immoral character.” And, of course, business owners who seek to follow their consciences are never given credit for having a conscience — they’re simply bigots practicing discrimination.

Yet the Daily Beast had no trouble labeling Pelosi a “devout” Catholic despite her rejection of many of her church’s central tenets. That’s not just my opinion. Many pro-choice Catholic politicians, including Pelosi, have been admonished by the pope or other church leaders and some have been denied communion.

But in terms of seeking political advantage through religion, no contemporary politician takes a back seat to Democratic presidential candidate “St. Pete” Buttigieg, who has somehow used the Bible to justify same-sex marriage and abortion while questioning the faith of Vice President Mike Pence because, as governor, he supported Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Here you have somebody who not only acts in a way that is not consistent with anything I hear in Scripture in church . . . the hypocrisy is unbelievable,” Buttigieg has said.

Hypocrisy is of course the bipartisan mother’s milk of politics, but people who would use God to hurt their opponents or justify themselves should at least do it on the basis of their own creed. For Christians, that’s the Bible. What does it say about faith, sin, abortion, sexuality, politics? Do any of these politicians know, or even care?

Far from considering themselves perfect, true Christians acknowledge their own sins and need of a savior before criticizing the flaws in others. The fact that they fail to live perfect lives does not automatically make them hypocrites, merely human. But Christians are supposed to struggle against their own worst impulses and to repent their failures, which Trump would have done well to consider before saying he had never sought forgiveness, as he did in 2015.

In terms of action, Trump has defended life and religious freedom — reason enough for Christians to support him, especially given the alternatives available. His words, however, and those of many of his opponents, too often send an incongruous message. Faith shouldn’t be excluded from politics, but neither should it be cynically exploited for the sake of votes.

Church and state need, and deserve, better.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.