(RNS) — There’s a story in the Old Testament about the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, who hosted a dinner for his religious leaders and royal elites. The blindingly arrogant king, surrounded by adoring sycophants, hauled out the holy articles stolen from the temple in Jerusalem to swank up his party.
The lesson of Belshazzar is that co-opting the things of God for the purpose of arrogant power is dangerous business. God showed up in a puzzling display of divine judgement — a great hand appeared and began to write on the wall.
On Monday night (August 27), the White House hosted something like a state dinner to honor the leadership of American evangelicals. Many cabinet members were present, along with the president, the first lady and dozens of members of the group of informal evangelical advisers who enjoy unique access to President Trump.
It’s the latest puzzling contradiction raised by evangelicals working in the service of a president whose character and so many of his policies stand in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus.
As evangelicals not invited to the party — and not likely to be anytime soon — we are astonished that none of these leaders seem to have brought before the president and his cabinet the justice issues so pressing in our day.
Speaking to David Brody on the Christian Broadcasting Network prior to the dinner, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, declared the real reason for the event, saying the White House is “cognizant of the fact that the midterms are coming up. And they’re facing the possibility of a Democrat Congress that, if they take control of the legislature, are going to either impeach this president from office or at least paralyze him while he’s in office. ... He knows he’s got to have his evangelical base behind him.”
Jeffress isn’t even hiding the partisan political role he is actively playing. Instead of showing up on God’s terms he’s all about the midterms!
What is the cost of this wholesale evangelical sellout? Among other concerns is the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities around the world, who have been all but abandoned by the president’s near shutdown of the long-standing U.S. refugee resettlement program.
The numbers are stark. Over the past decade, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the U.S. welcomed more than 280,000 persecuted Christians to enjoy religious freedom and rebuild their lives. Some 42,000 Christians found refuge here in 2016 alone.
Since coming into office, the Trump administration has dramatically slashed the number of refugees entering the U.S. through a combination of executive orders, historically low ceilings on refugee admissions and intentional slowdowns of processing overseas.
Christians have been harmed alongside Muslims and others. With just one month left in the current fiscal year, the U.S. is on track to receive fewer than 14,700 Christian refugees and fewer than 22,000 total.
Many of those admitted in recent years have been persecuted particularly for their Christian faith, fleeing brutal governments that have no respect for religious liberty in countries such as Myanmar, Iran and North Korea and terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria. Were these fellow Christians mentioned at the White House?
Resettlement of persecuted Christians from Iran and Iraq – which together accounted for about 60,000 Christian refugees over the past decade – are down by roughly 99 percent: Just 46 Christian refugees have been allowed to arrive this fiscal year from these two countries, among those where advocacy group Open Doors says that Christians face the “most extreme” persecution in the world.
Other religious minorities have been kept out as well: just one Jewish refugee has been allowed in from Iran (compared to more than 70 in 2016), and only five Yazidis from Iraq (compared to hundreds in 2016). Any mention of these needy people of faith Monday night?
We’re not only concerned about the plight of Christians or other religious minorities: We’re equally troubled by the decline in resettlement of Muslim refugees, whose arrival numbers are down to fewer than 3,000 thus far this fiscal year, on track for a decline of more than 90 percent compared to two years ago. As Christians, we believe that Muslims are among the “neighbors” whom Jesus explicitly commands his followers to love.
After all, when Jesus responded to the clarifying question “who is my neighbor?” he told the story of a man — the Good Samaritan — who provided help to someone of a different religious tradition who was in desperate need. Where was the advocacy for our Muslim friends?
To be honest, we’re not surprised that most of the president’s evangelical supporters are not lobbying on behalf of Muslim refugees. Some of them were calling for a Muslim ban before Donald Trump did. Fully three-quarters of white evangelicals supported the president’s initial executive order barring refugees and Muslims from entering the country.
But we had hoped that the White House's guests would show concern about the plight of fellow Christians, as even the president seemed to be as he entered office: In an interview recorded the day he signed his first executive order barring refugees Trump said he would be doing more to help persecuted Christians fleeing Syria. “We are going to help them,” the president pledged in a CBN interview. “They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States?”
It’s true that the share of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016 was small, but at least 120 Syrian Christians were admitted that year. In the past eight months, only nine Syrian Christian refugees have been able to come to the U.S., on track for an annual decline of about 90 percent. Were the traumas of Syria spoken of on Monday evening?
There are evangelical Christians concerned about this dynamic. A letter released earlier this month by the leaders of several influential evangelical organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, World Relief, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, urged the administration to consider an annual ceiling of at least 75,000 refugees for the upcoming year, consistent with historical norms. We were proud to add our names to the letter.
We wonder if the invited evangelical “advisers,” while mingling with the president and his cabinet, considered these numbers worth mentioning. We genuinely hoped that these leaders would advocate for them behind the scenes, even if few have spoken publicly. Did they take these concerns to the president in secret?
If Trump further reduces the refugee numbers next month as expected, we'll know the true price of a White House dinner.
At the end of the biblical story, Daniel, the faithful servant of God, was summoned to decipher the writing on the wall:
Oh King, your days are numbered
You’ve been weighed and found wanting
Your kingdom will be divided and given to your enemies
If we take the lessons of the biblical prophet Daniel seriously, what came true for King Belshazzar threatens this president too.
(Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and co-founder of Red Letter Christians. Don Golden is executive director of Red Letter Christians and a former executive at World Vision and World Relief. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)