“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”
These words were spoken by President Donald Trump at his inaugural address on January 20, 2017 as he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. In looking at the whole of his speech, Trump was trying to help the people of the United States feel connected to the new political authority by reminding them that America, once downtrodden and in disarray, was now a country for the people and by the people. His rhetorical effort was driven towards the idea of “Making America great again.”
In his book, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values, Nick Spencer highlights how rhetoric shapes U.S. politics, especially in combination with Biblicism sprinkled throughout. The book is a collection of essays designed to help the reader understand how Christianity helped to shape the values system of the Western world, starting with Europe and extending into the United States. Spencer works with great material we’ve been reading lately, like Noll and Taylor, but what caught my interest most was his final chapter on “mere” rhetoric.
We know how powerful rhetoric can be; we hear it in the spoken word (“I have a Dream”, “Ask not what your country can do for you”, “I’m not throwin’ away my shot!”) and in our colloquialisms (“A picture is worth a thousand words”), and Spencer highlights this well. He reminds us that language, “If delivered in the right way or by the right person or on the right occasion, could transform the material content of a situation.” But we see that the Bible is consistently being used on both sides of an argument, and often, it’s being used to give authority or blessing to what U.S. politicians are saying. It’s also consistently used to define standards of moral authority and judgement on the people. This is evident in the inaugural address by President Trump. Trump is using the idea of “God’s protection” as a moral authority for total allegiance to the United States and its people. This idea of morality being defined in this way, moves rhetoric away from the spoken word into the lived experience of the people.
So what do we do when the lived experience don’t match the rhetoric that is spoken? Quite frankly, I see this all the time. I think this is why young adults have such a hard time with the Church – the words of the Church and the actions of the Church don’t match up anymore. The rhetoric has lost the ability to influence or even be considered in the lived experience of the people. We’re now seeing on a national stage how the rhetoric of the man who encouraged us to dwelled in unity with each other might actually be in contrast his divisive and potentially harmful actions.
While I may not have a national stage, the words I say go beyond “mere rhetoric.” In my home, I have a set of seven and four-year-old eyes watching me and ears listening to make sure that my words and my actions are in alignment. I feel the responsibility to remind them that the words of Jesus weren’t just words, but his actions matched his rhetoric, in all things, and that the Church, while not perfect, is God’s plan A to demonstrate in word and deed the redemptive love of God. Our ultimate “bedrock” is not a total allegiance to the United States, but to God in all things. Those are some words I can get behind.
 “Full Text: 2017 Donald Trump Inaguration Speech Transcript” Politico.com, September 20, 2017: https://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/full-text-donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript-233907
 Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), Loc. 153.
 Ibid., Loc. 3086.
 Ibid., Loc. 3183.
 “Six Reasons Young People Leave the Church”, Barna Group, Sept. 27, 2011: https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/