Guest post by Sarah Tocco
Today is Ash Wednesday and so begins Lent; this of course being a time for intense internal discourse, one that reconciles our thoughts and actions back to purposeful and prayerful reunion with God. What are we to make of Lent this particular year? Faith has become so entwined with politics, and has shifted, altered, and has been grossly consumed by leaders that have perverted the words of Christ to fit their own agenda. We are contrasting the angry verses and bitter diatribes of a Commander-in-Chief, who shows very little regard for faith, to what we hear in our Gospel readings and we are left with little viable option other than to solidify the two as opposites. The messages we are hearing from the pulpit, especially the past two Sundays, are messages of peace and unity. The Gospel according to Matthew states quite clearly,
“You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”
It is hard to read this gospel today without understanding that when we talk about ISIS, the government creates for us an enemy of all Muslim people, as opposed to an enemy of the radical few who misrepresent the faith. At last evening’s Address to Congress, the President highlighted families that had been harmed by the immoral and awful actions of a few illegal immigrants in this country, as opposed to highlighting a source of positivity or inspiration, effectively re-establishing the idea that immigrants are an enemy of the American people. This is the kind of rhetoric that divides, strips people of their dignity, and calls into question how we should respond as Christian Americans.
We often look to our leaders, both nationally and locally, to present an ideology buoyed with respect for all faiths, all humans, and the right to life – which is often neglected after a pregnancy has culminated in a child. Our President has offered us little when it comes to ways to propel our faith into the world to cultivate good, and instead has provided example after example of immorality, lack of humility, the disinterest in the sacrament of reconciliation, the demonization of minority groups and refugees fleeing harm and seeking safety in our country, and lack of respect for women, the environment, and the poor.
So, we turn from our President and instead seek the counsel of our local representatives. There has been a lot of attention paid to the town hall meetings that plagued Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen as they headed home to meet with their constituents. So far, it appears that not a lot has been accomplished to establish fruitful dialogue between the elected and their angry and frustrated constituents. Being from Virginia’s District 7, in Chesterfield County, my eyes are on Rep. Dave Brat, the Congressman made famous by his historic upset of Eric Cantor in 2014.
Brat, an economist and professor at Randolph-Macon College, also received a Master’s Degree in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary (not to be confused with Princeton University). For the faithful, Brat’s degree in Divinity led to the hope of a more authentic, peaceful representative in congress, and after Cantor, many local constituents rejoiced. It became apparent rather quickly, however, that Brat’s faith views remained ambiguous as well. Brat has referred to himself as an “Orthodox Calvinist,” was raised Presbyterian, and is also a parishioner of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond.
Despite these faith ties, Brat has dramatically fallen in line with President Trump, voting along with him 100% of the time. Brat has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has gotten loud and clear attention from his constituents as they decry his vote and beg him to reconsider. In addition, Brat has proposed several House bills in relation to illegal immigration, such as H.R.5826 (“Detain and Deport Act”) and H.R. 5825 (“Illegal Alien Capture Notification Act”).
How do Brat’s faith ties align with his political stance? All three areas, Princeton Theological Seminary, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Presbyterian Church have all recently spoken out in opposition of those viewpoints. On February 24th, Princeton Theological Seminary put out a written statement of theological conviction in response to current political events, entitled “In Defense of Christian Faith and a Democratic Future,” which was signed by fifty faculty members, professors emeritus, and adjunct faculty, in which they stated in part:
The attitudes fostered by [President Trump’s] nationalism are inconsistent with Christian values of welcoming the stranger as if we are welcoming Christ, of seeking to distinguish truth from deception and conceit, and of believing that no institution or government can demand the kind of loyalty that belongs only to God. …We also believe that the policies and approach embraced by the Trump Administration run counter to democratic values … [his policies] often seek to demonize Islam, foster white supremacy, compromise the rule of law and intimidate judges, undermine the empowerment of women, ignore the destruction of the environment, promote homophobia, unleash unfounded fears of crime and worsen the ‘law and order’ abuses of police and security forces. We reject the pervasive aim of placing the monetary gain of wealthy classes over the welfare of its citizenry by undermining education, quality employment, and health care.
These are pretty strong words coming from Brat’s Alma Mater, which also seems to incorporate him as he has so quickly fallen into the mold of President Trump. As it relates to Islam, Brat has taken sides with the president in supporting his travel ban. The president’s embrace of former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon appears to be the smoking gun in his ties to white supremacy, as well as his delay in denouncing David Duke, his retweeting of white supremacist ideas, and his refusal to state definitively that he is uninterested in securing the endorsement of the white nationalist movement.
But what about Dave Brat? When asked about Bannon’s role in the White House, Brat spoke out, saying that if Bannon’s messages were behind the win of blue states, then he gives him an “A-plus.” Brat may be familiar with winning campaigns with Bannon’s help, however, because despite his claim that God was at the center of historic win back in 2014, it turns out he had some major help from people like Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Steve Bannon himself. Breitbart appeared to have taken a strong interest in Brat’s campaign, and even granted him an interview long before anyone else even suspected he had a chance against Eric Cantor. It turns out that Dave Brat has his own connections to the “alt-right.”
“The women have been up in my grill” are the now-famous words Brat spoke to a limited audience at Hanover Tavern back at the end of January, and marked even another reason for the women in his district to react strongly in their demands to be heard. Since then, Brat has consistently gone on radio shows and written articles disparaging the women he had originally insulted. While his comments certainly do not undermine women in the extreme way that then-candidate Donald Trump’s did in his leaked audio tape, they still seek to “otherize” the women who seek his political ear, and his embrace of President Trump on all fronts has validated the president’s verbal abuse of women, fat-shaming, and sexually-demeaning behavior.
Brat has also voted to repeal the stream protection rule and the rule requiring companies to reduce waste and emissions, votes which are clearly against the teachings of the Pope, who has been an outspoken advocate for the environment. Back in November, the Pope implored world leaders not to postpone the implementation of global environmental pacts, which could easily have been in response to Donald Trump’s vows to end the U.S.’s role in combating climate change.
The Pope has also pleaded with the world not to turn their backs on refugees, denouncing “the populist rhetoric that is closing the doors in their faces,” as was reported by the Associated Press. At a gathering of Jesuit schools in Europe, the Pope encouraged the hospitality of refugees, stating that their welcome is the “greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.” He went on to state that each refugee “has a name, a face and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future.”
For Catholics who believe that Pope Francis is far too liberal, listen instead to a 2007 homily by Pope Benedict XVI, where he stated that “loving the enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution” and that nonviolence “does not consist in surrendering to evil – as claims a false interpretation of ‘turn the other cheek’- but in responding to evil with good, and thus breaking the chain of injustice.”
Along with the statement from Princeton Theological Seminary and the teachings of the Pope, Presbyterian Church USA’s Synod of the Northeast in Stoney Point, NY, hosted a training on sanctuary practices which was attended by over 80 ministers and faith leaders. In a recent article by Sojourners which discussed this meeting, it stated that faith “leaders from around the country are alarmed by President Trump’s rhetoric and draconian immigration policies” and met to discern how they could counteract these harmful laws that create much suffering. Joseph Paparone, who spoke at the event, stated that “churches are ideally situated to engage in the sanctuary movement; it’s rooted in our deep moral and ethical values of hospitality and welcoming the stranger.” Dave Brat’s political stances seem to run counter to all that he claims he has learned from.
Perhaps his most shocking misalignment with faith, however, came in an interview with American Family Radio back in January 2016, Brat told Sandy Rios that, “our side, the conservative side, needs to reeducate it’s people that we OWN the entire [Christian] tradition,” going on to say that conservatives need to take back the Bible. This was in response to then-President Obama as he called refugees widows and orphans, invoking his own Christian faith as a response to the crisis in Syria. What Brat seems to miss is that the Christian faith is not a political party, and no one side “owns” the faith. Christ lived and died, not solely for the Christian Right, nor even for Americans, but for the world – the whole of it. To state that any one group owns this tradition, this faith, this gift from God, is immoral in the highest manner.
As we head to our respective churches this evening to receive the ashes of humility upon our heads, we have the deep burden to combat the political kidnapping of our faith. As we contemplate the words of Christ this Lenten season, let them not be tainted with a political ideology which He would be so fervently against. When seeking Christ in our political leaders, we must step back and conscientiously decipher whether the words they speak, or their actions, mimic the love of Christ. There are prayers in multitude for the sake of our nation, and our world, this year, and we must learn to separate our faith from our politics in a way that is fruitful and moral for everyone. This year, we need to give to Christ what is His, and view our politics through the lens of His sacrifice.
“Beloved: Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false witness to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of the righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”