Opinion

Pompeo’s ‘Christian leader’ speech goes only as far as Trump allows

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(RNS) — I’m not so different from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. We are both devout Christians who hail from Wichita, Kansas — I by birth, he by relocation — and, if his words at his address Friday (Oct. 11) to the American Association of Christian Counselors are accurate, we both once harbored pipe dreams of playing for the NBA.

But while my vocational desires and meager basketball skills took me into ordained ministry, Pompeo’s took him into politics, and an office from which he has executed President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. In Pompeo’s speech in Nashville, Tennessee — which has been posted to the State Department’s website — he explained how he goes about “Being a Christian Leader.”

To hear Pompeo describe it, service as a Christian leader comes down to three d-words: disposition, dialogue and decisions. Pompeo buttresses these three characteristics with sprinklings of Scripture and amusing anecdotes, but in so doing, he boxes up Christianity and its teachings in a way that insulates him from applying Christian ethics any further than he absolutely must.

But this is precisely the difficulty with Pompeo publicly styling himself as a leader who takes his cues from the New Testament. It takes a strong sense of compartmentalization to square Christianity’s ethical demands for truth-telling, integrity and human rights with the Trump White House’s elastic relationship with the truth, comfortableness with corruption and cavalier attitude toward human rights.

President Donald Trump, right, talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, on July 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Take Pompeo’s invocation in his speech of the saying from the letter to the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious.” Does Trump always, or even often, let his speech be gracious? How does a Christian leader comport his own speech with a president who refers to nonindustrialized countries as “s***holes”?

I am not saying that there is no way for a Christian to serve as a leader in this administration: There is, and Pompeo is exhibiting it.

The first of the three traits Pompeo discussed, disposition, might be the hardest to pin down. He defines it in his speech as how “one carries oneself in the world.” In Christian terms one might be expected to carry oneself forthrightly and bravely. Yet after dissembling for weeks, Pompeo belatedly acknowledged that he had in fact been in on the now infamous July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Whether or not you believe the conversation’s dealmaking to be an impeachable office, Pompeo’s lack of candor doesn’t speak for his disposition.

Dialogue, the next of Pompeo’s big three, also clashes with Pompeo’s refusal to cooperate with the House’s impeachment probe. In his remarks, Pompeo framed dialogue as the art of listening: “Everyone should be quick to listen, and slow to speak,” he noted, citing the Book of James, and he advised “not rushing to judgment before you hear every side of a particular fact set.”

But in a nation increasingly fractured under the president Pompeo serves, we’re more in need of hearing the truth from his side. “Truth-telling isn’t just a matter of private conversations for me,” said the secretary. “It’s what I try to do publicly as we lay down President Trump’s foreign policy to keep Americans safe and secure.” That’s the kind of dialogue we’re looking for.

Lastly, there has not been much evidence of Christian decisionmaking in the administration’s foreign policy, particularly in the recent defenestration of the Syrian Kurdish fighters and the population they protect.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers closing remarks with Ambassador Brownback at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 26, 2018, at the U.S. Department of State, in Washington. Photo by State Department/Creative Commons

Pompeo, along with his department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (and our fellow Kansan) Sam Brownback, has frequently highlighted the persecution of Christian populations around the world. In his Nashville speech, Pompeo condemns how “Christian areas in northern Iraq that I’ve had the privilege to visit have been ravaged by ISIS, part of a greater trend of Christian persecution all across the Middle East.”

But no doubt he is aware that these Iraqi Christians are little different from the Syrian Kurds who identify as Christians, who are among those who bravely fought alongside American troops against the twin threats of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet Pompeo’s president green-lit the ravaging of this significant Christian population, this time by Turkey.

Setting aside American strategic interests (and the administration’s particular faith interests), the Turkish invasion of Syria promises to be a human catastrophe, and a sin that Christian leaders ought to be compelled to speak out against. If a “pro-life” ethic covers abortion but not ethnic cleansing, that ethic is not pro-life.

Curiously, Pompeo didn’t talk much in Nashville about the decisions he faces as a peacemaker. “I want to talk about how it is we make decisions, individual decisions in our personal lives, in our family lives and other decisions as well,” he said. He went on to talk largely about decisions relating to human dignity, which he related to not spending U.S. funds on international abortions and intervening in individual cases of human trafficking. 

But when Jesus preached “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Sermon on the Mount, I do not believe that he was speaking only in the capacity of our individual relationships. And given the opportunity to serve as a maker of peace, Pompeo has supported a president who has become a maker of war.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, nominated to be the next secretary of state, pauses while speaking during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on April 12, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Pompeo knows he could choose to emulate the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the disciples of the New Testament church and speak truth to power by publicly disapproving of violence and disregard for human rights. He could even follow the more recent example of resigning in protest, as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis did. In doing so, Pompeo may surrender some temporary political power, but he would exhibit a greater allegiance to the truth-telling he says he tries to do.

Instead, Pompeo represents a kind of Christian leadership that has become symptomatic of (mostly white) American Christianity: an eagerness to put political allegiance ahead of theological allegiance, meanwhile extolling virtues that are ever more at odds with the political ends being pursued. 

In his address, Pompeo (perhaps facetiously) suggested that being from Kansas demands we “be straight up” with those we address. From one Kansan to another, Secretary Pompeo, permit me to be straight up with you: Do not substitute your government service for the righteousness that God as revealed by Jesus Christ expects.

Jesus tells us that, like the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed. And to find such a divine blessing, I believe you will need to offer to God far more integrity and concern for human rights than either you or the president are currently exhibiting.

(The Rev. Eric Atcheson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the author of “Oregon Trail Theology: The Frontier Millennial Christians Face — And How We’re Ready.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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