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Trump’s narrow circle of faith advisers tells him only what he wants to hear

One of the president’s most dangerous leadership failures is his systematic siphoning of the voices of faith he hears to a narrow echo chamber consisting exclusively of conservative Christian evangelicals, says the Rev. Katharine R. Henderson.

Evangelical supporters place hands on and pray with President Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Moore

(RNS) — As president of a seminary dedicated to helping faith leaders effect social change, I’ve found watching the daily missteps of President Trump to be a torturous exercise.

If he wants to lead our nation, the president might take a page out of leadership guru Peter Drucker’s book and start by managing himself.

One of Trump’s most dangerous leadership failures is his systematic siphoning of the voices of faith he hears to a narrow echo chamber consisting exclusively of conservative Christian evangelicals. They represent a branch of faith that is declining as a percentage of the population, but which Trump believes represents his dwindling base.

Our two most recent presidents — one Republican, one Democrat — opened the aperture of knowledge and awareness of the vast and changing complexity of religious life in America and around the world by creating formal platforms such as the President’s Advisory Council of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and an Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department — which have been made impotent by the Trump administration.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama realized the good that faith can do, as well as the peril inherent in its extreme manifestations. They opened themselves to the full range of religious viewpoints and traditions that represent the breadth of spiritual life in America. By contrast, Trump and his Cabinet and advisers bend their ears only to the voices of his evangelical advisory board and rely on casual relationships with faith leaders who will tell them only what they want to hear.

Trump is effectively creating a state religion by establishing a hierarchy that privileges white evangelical Christian voices over other traditions. This is dangerous, regressive and out of step with the way our country and world are moving. State religions fuel the worst behaviors and extreme practices of people who are fearful of difference and change. They place “e pluribus unum” even further from our grasp.

True leadership in this moment would embrace and nurture the future story of America told every day through the lives of its people. It is a vision of a world where difference is celebrated, abundance is shared and people are hopeful because they are working for a future that is better than today. It is a world in which people of all faiths and spirituality — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and spirit-filled folk — are working together across difference to make the promise of America a reality.

Leadership happens when rabbis protest a Muslim ban, when Muslims repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries and when leaders and people of all faith traditions stand and work together to find solutions to the pressing challenges that face our nation in health care, economic inequality, racism and immigration.

Author Arundhati Roy says: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Those of us who are birthing the multifaith America know that this world is possible. We hear this new world breathing — not only on quiet days but also loud ones — amid the chaos and confusion that has come to define Trump’s presidency.

We will not win the day with a clenched fist and closed ears toward the wide range of religious traditions calling out for a just and compassionate America. Instead, awakened hearts, curious minds, listening ears, extended hands and bended knees will lead us to the America for which we long.

(The Rev. Katharine R. Henderson is president of Auburn Seminary in New York City. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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