On the delusion of clergy access to the royal throne

The religious leader types who get access to the White House are mainly useful idiots.

Left, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, W.Va., on May 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Chris Tilley.
Right, Russell Moore leads a June 9, 2014, panel discussion. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Wall Street Journal reports that Southern Baptist bigwig Russell Moore is in trouble with some powerful constituents because of his very public opposition to Donald Trump during the campaign. One major concern is that when the new president gathers his trusted counselors around him, Russell Moore will not be invited.

Shed no tears over this great loss, Southern Baptists.

Russell Moore, if you keep him, will be of more value to you away from the throne rather than next to it.

That’s because clergy access to the royal throne has always been a snare and a delusion.

Christian leaders who are granted access to emperors, kings, and presidents believe that their presence will give them the opportunity to wield influence to advance their religious or moral agenda. When the ruler is deciding what to do about something, the Christian leader right next to the throne will be able to whisper in the ruler’s ear and help determine the outcome.

Perhaps this does sometimes occur. Perhaps it did so especially back in the days of Christendom, when church and state were formally aligned.

But recent instances are relatively rare.

Some of us were once granted access to circles around President Obama. We were invited to special phone calls, got listed on advisory councils, got invited to the Democratic National Convention, even schlepped over to a White House Christmas party or three, hoping for a handshake or a selfie.

How many of us can say that a single policy decision was ever affected by these dribs and drabs of “access”? Isn’t it a fairer description to say that our purported access was about the president gaining our loyalty and some access to the constituencies we represented? For progressive evangelicals like myself, isn’t it more the case that we helped Barack Obama win a few states like North Carolina and Ohio in 2008 because we maybe helped shave a few percentage points off of the white evangelical GOP vote?

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, and had constituted a council of religious advisers as President Obama did, how much influence would these advisers have had on her actual policy decisions?

Maybe Hillary was too honest. (Laugh if you will.) Maybe her abysmal religious outreach operation reflected the level of influence she really would have wanted religious advisers to play in a Hillary White House. So she never really pretended to reach out. Score one for honesty? But then Donald Trump got 81 percent of the white evangelical vote.

Perhaps it’s different on the Republican side. Perhaps one can expect that religious advisers around a Republican president will have real rather than illusory influence.

I wonder. Do you think Richard Nixon called up Billy Graham and asked him what he should do about China policy — or whether to break into the Democratic headquarters? Did Ronald Reagan call Jerry Falwell for counsel on tax cuts? Will Donald Trump text Franklin Graham and ask for his wisdom on regulatory reform?

Probably the most that can be said even on the GOP side is that a deal has been struck with constituencies related to a culture wars issue or two. Donald Trump says: Without ever saying I actually agree with you on abortion, I will give you Supreme Court judges who might roll back Roe v. Wade, and you deliver me the white evangelical constituency in November 2016 and every day of my presidency. I wonder who is the bigger winner in that exchange?

So if the Southern Baptists were hoping that a more compliant ethics agency head would have been able to snuggle up to President Trump and offer him advice that he would heed, they were undoubtedly delusional.

The religious leader types who may get a Christmas party invitation or two to the White House (or will it be the Tower?) or will get to offer a prayer at a meeting or two are mainly useful idiots — useful because they are being used, idiots because they won’t know they are being used.

Perhaps Southern Baptists might like an ethics agency head who is not a useful idiot. Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, some of us are trying to wean ourselves off of the politics addiction and trying to remember Who it is exactly that Christian clerics are called to serve.

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