On 22 August, five days after the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia; President Trump spoke to a large crowd of supporters in Phoenix, Arizona. His speech was a mixture of political and patriotic exhortation, and the denunciation of those working against his vision, especially the liberal media. He reasserted previous statements of condemnation of white supremacists and the KKK.
As part of the build-up to the speech he chose two well-known religious figures to open with unapologetic Christian prayers: Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Dr Elvida King (Niece of Martin Luther King Jnr). Revd Graham’s prayer emphasised American exceptionalism and the danger of current social trends which overlook the poor, disregard equality and promote a personal ethic of greed and self-assurance. Dr King prayed for the right to life, a renewal of Christian virtue and a closing committal prayer to a One Almighty God.
President Trump was fulsome in his praise of those who had prayed and reasserted that America was a nation of faith. His speech then built upon an assumption of values which were inclusive and welcoming. The tenor of his speech was, thereafter, in parts polemical, wistful and condemnatory. The condemnation was particularly directed at those he regards as expressing a pernicious insouciance to the present and future state of America. The central part of the speech was a denunciation of the mainstream media, particularly CNN. Though this admonition was central to his speech and garnered much vocal approval from the audience, others factors were significant: President Trump referred to his love of all Americans and his desire for unity and cooperation. His demeanour throughout the speech was demotic and declamatory. This is a President who is realistic to his core supporters and not unaware of the ambiguities of his detractors, which he sees as their weakness.
From a religious perspective what were the main points of reference of his speech? The prevailing assumptions underlying his oratory were that of American supremacy in the world and the importance of rallying the overlooked electorate to a renewed vision of an America under God which sets a standard for world polity. There were references to historical failures, the triumph of American greatness over adversity and a belief in the destiny of America to lead the world by example and persuasion.
The event had a religious atmosphere – the feeling of a 19th century revivalist meeting – where all are included though not everyone belongs. There is a dissonance of this theology. Those who follow a path of inclusivity and universalism and believe in a God who is greater than any one nation, creed or character would hear phrases which challenge their view of an inclusive God. Martin Luther King Junior once said:
“I’m not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age, but the God who has been our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, our shelter in the time of storm and our eternal home… Storms may come and go; our great edifices will come and go. This is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance”.
If his niece, and Franklin Graham, had referred to this vision it may have elevated the Phoenix speech to a higher level of oratory. As it stands, their contribution and President Trump’s speech are an expression of a set of political passions which play to a section of the American public but leave many more apprehensive and excepted. If we are to assess Mr Trump’s presidency by its religious tenor, we can either acquiesce to his vision of religio-patriotic ascendency or pray that another “still small voce” penetrates the fascination of this populist, militant credo.
Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Council, Westminster, London, September 2017