The Health of our Nation

Seeking the Health of our Nation

We are experiencing one of the more difficult periods in our nation’s history. As I write this piece, our federal government is in a partial shutdown, with no end in sight. With Republicans in charge of the White House and the Senate, and the Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the next two years and beyond suggest that the gridlock in Congress will get worse, not better. The cultural wars, racism, sexism, and poverty are just some of our national ills. I write this analysis in an attempt to contribute positively to the great moral and political challenges of our times. I do this quite aware of my finiteness and limitations. I also recognize that we are all subject to hypocrisy. I am also aware that some readers will disagree vigorously with some of my comments.  Nevertheless, I feel that I must speak out from the many decades God has given me to be an active observer and participant in civic life. I will write from the perspective of a follower of Jesus, but I hope that my comments might be appreciated in a wider circle. Four practical doctrines from the Bible undergird my thinking.

Salt of the Earth

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). These metaphors are very rich and deserve deeper study. However, at the very least, they imply that followers of Jesus should contribute to the moral wellbeing and health of their countries.[1]

We are not good salt and light if we merely parrot one side of an issue. We must examine “all things”, including all major perspectives of the issues.[2] In practical terms, this means we need to avail ourselves of various sources of information. I intentionally force myself to get information from both “conservative” and “liberal” social media.[3] I set a personal goal of being able to understand and articulate both sides so clearly that they each would feel that they were fairly represented.

Benefactors (Doers of Good)?

What was the position of Jesus regarding earthly authorities? In a very important, yet infrequently utilized, passage Jesus talks about rulers.

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-26)

                The older I get, the more I believe in the fallenness of humanity. Although all people are made in the image of God with the potential to do good, we are all impaired by our personal and collective sin. Public officials are no exception. Jesus claimed that human rulers tended to lord it over their subjects, while at the same time claiming to be benefactors (those who do good). If rulers in previous times tried to convince their subjects that they were benefiting them, much more does this take place in contemporary democracies. In order to win over voters, candidates and officials try to persuade voters of all the good work that they have done or will do for their people.

                This gap between what officials say and what they actually do requires that people of faith exercise great discernment in sifting truth from falsehood. This is a call to “holy suspicion”. We should not be naïve when we hear campaign promises or “accomplishments” by officials. To the contrary, we must vigilantly exercise the practice of “trust but verify”.[4] We should relentlessly pursue truth (the big Truth about God and the universe, but also the smaller, daily truths of information that correspond to reality).

                The belief in the universal fallenness of humanity led to the establishment of “checks and balances” in our Constitution.  The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government have the responsibility to rein in the power of the other branches when they overstep their boundaries. Even the gridlock that exists within Congress (currently a Republican controlled Senate and a Democrat governed House of Representatives) has the benefit of pushing both chambers to work towards consensus if they want any legislation approved.

Governments are Called to be Servants

What does God want human authorities to do? Romans 13 has frequently been used by political and religious leaders to urge citizens to blindly obey the government. “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4a). I suggest that this passage is not primarily descriptive as if human authorities always seek the good of their people. In fact, this passage is prescriptive, where Paul lays out the main responsibility of government officials: they are called to be servants (diakonoi) of God for the benefit of humanity. Nevertheless, human history is full of examples where governments have failed in their calling. The existence of Hitler and other ruthless tyrants shows that many authorities do not faithfully represent God. When such officials tell citizens to commit evil, the more appropriate Biblical teaching is “We must obey God, rather than humans”. (Acts 5:29) [5]

As followers of Jesus who live in contemporary democracies, we need to take more seriously the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address. We live in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.  To a certain degree, we have the government that we deserve, the government that we have tolerated. In democracies we the citizens need to hold officials accountable for their actions.

Prayer

                We are commanded to pray for all people, especially for those in authority.[6] However, even prayer can become hypocritical and used to cover up our unjust actions. As a consequence, such prayers are rejected by God.[7] It is common for politicians of various ideologies to end their speeches with the phrase “…and God bless the United States of America”. We all need God’s blessing, but all too often, this prayer is uttered to make the audience feel good as if to say that God will bless us because of the goodness of our actions. Prayer in the Scriptures usually asks that our actions be changed to conform to God’s will and not the other way around. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to ask that God’s Kingdom come, and that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We must pray, but we must also live more justly.

Followers of Jesus in the United States in relationship to President Trump

Students have frequently asked me for my opinion of President Trump. In the classroom, I have frequently kept silence in order to provide an environment where students who might disagree with me would feel free to speak up in class. However, because I have great respect for the office of the presidency, I believe that those individuals who serve in that office need to be evaluated in the light of God’s teaching. I urge that we make this evaluation with “truth and grace”, that is, that our comments be accurate, measured and fair. We should point out good actions where they exist, but also indicate the failures, together with suggestions for better alternatives.

                I will first mention some positive attributes of President Trump, followed by some character flaws. In the last section, I explore some of the most important national policies including the economy, immigration and health care in light of the fact that all humans are made in God’s image.

Positive Qualities of Trump

  • Active at his age – I just turned 67 years old. I am impressed when people a decade older than I am are still involved in public life. I applaud Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many others who are my “elders” for their active participation in society.
  • Willing to think outside the box – Because he comes from a business background, and not a lifetime in politics, he is willing to do things that are not traditional, such as communicating with the U.S. people via Twitter or to sit down and talk with the political leaders of North Korea. (This does not mean that I applaud the content of all these breaks with tradition).
  • His criticism of NAFTA – During his campaign, Trump criticized NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) because it did not protect U.S. workers. The lengthy process of renegotiating the agreement is in its final steps, but it still needs to be approved by the governing bodies in the three countries.[8]
  • His opposition to the war in Iraq – Because he is an “isolationist” in international relations, Trump, during his campaign, claimed that he opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning.[9] according to Just War Theory, this war was quite immoral. Even those who originally supported the war now recognize that it failed to meet JWT criteria on several counts. It resulted in the tragic deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, as well as soldiers on both sides.[10]

Repugnant characteristics of Trump

                Although he has some positive character traits, there are other flaws in Trump’s character that are totally disgusting. Although many conservative people of faith appreciate and defend some of Trump’s actions (tax breaks, Supreme Court appointments), they should make a clean break with the following moral failures. If they don’t distance themselves from these repugnant actions, their own moral credibility is in question.

  • Trump is a pathological liar – I do not make this criticism lightly. The veracity of some of his comments might be true, but because he has lied so frequently on objectively verifiable information, people tend to take all his statements with justifiable suspicion. For example, early on he claimed that he had “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan”.  The truth is that since Reagan, only George W. Bush had smaller electoral college victories than Trump (Trump 56.9%, Bush 50.4% in 2000 and 53.4% in 2004).[11] His claim of a larger crowd at his inauguration was also shown to be a lie, including the creation of “doctored” photographs. During his campaign, he claimed that a “wall” would be built, and that Mexico would pay for it and that they would make a “one-time payment of 5-10 billion dollars”. Now he denies ever making that assertion.[12]
  • Trump is a misogynist– Donald Trump has made many comments that greatly disrespect women. Whether the claims of sexual assault by dozens of women are all true or not, he should at least be judged by his own words. In the Access Hollywood tape from 2005 he stated, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the p..ssy. You can do anything.”
  • He is a bully – Trump exhibits many characteristics of classical bullying, such as aggression, shaming others, and name calling. During the primary campaign, he stooped to name calling with even his fellow Republican presidential candidates: “Lyin´ Ted Cruz”, ¨Little Mario¨ Rubio, and even insulting Carly Fiorina for her “ugly face”!
  • Some of his comments are racist – Trump kicked off his presidential campaign with racist remarks about Mexicans. The Mexican immigrants are “… bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”[13] He made even more vulgar, racist affirmations about Haiti and African countries.[14]
  • He is arrogant – At times, he has made statements that border on idolatry. He frequently claimed, “I am the only one that can solve our nation’s problems.” On July 21, 2016 at the Republican National Convention, in his acceptance speech, he proclaimed “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.
  • He doesn´t always think before he speaks – Trump is (in)famous for his early morning tweets, but frequently they are, at best, not appropriate, and often, they are false and offensive. This forces his staff to help him ¨walk them back¨. For example, in December, the president announced that he would quickly be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria (“they are all coming back, and they are coming back now”). This led to the resignation of James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, in protest, as well as criticisms by many leading Republican leaders.  National Security Adviser Bolton had to massage Trump´s announcement by saying the pullout would be postponed for months or years until certain conditions were met.
  • He thinks he is above the law – Trump has frequently made statements that suggest he believes he is above the law. Early in the campaign, he boasted “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” More recently he claimed, “You can’t impeach somebody that is doing a great job” even if that person has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

Policies

In the following section, I will make some modest suggestions regarding the tough issues facing our nation.  I don’t claim that these are the final word on the topic, but I do offer them with the goal of more fruitful discussions and the improved health of our nation.

  • The Government Shutdown – As I write this piece, we are in the midst of a government shutdown. When Democrats, Republicans, and the president cannot agree on certain issues, they choose to not approve the federal budget, thereby shutting down the government, except for essential employees. On December 19, 2018, the Senate approved a short-term funding continuing resolution that would give all parties involved an extra few months to reach a consensus on the budget. The Senate voted unanimously in favor of this resolution, because the senators had been given assurances by Vice President Pence that Trump would sign the legislation. Nevertheless, when the clean bill was forwarded to the House of Representatives, Trump said he would not sign the bill unless it contained over five billion dollars towards the construction of a wall along the southern border with Mexico.[15] So, the House approved a very different bill that the Senate would not approve. Without a stopgap spending bill, the government is shut down. Trump refuses to sign a bill unless it has the money for the wall. The Democrats refuse to allot the funding for the construction of the wall. Both sides are playing the blame game, but on this issue, the Democrats have the stronger argument. Three weeks ago, Trump publicly stated that he would “own” the shutdown and would not blame the Democrats, although he has repeatedly blamed them for the shutdown. It is doubtful that either side will back down, unless a Solomonic mediator can find a way for Trump to accept the language of border security (without mentioning a wall). Another option is to make the deal more palatable for both sides by reaching agreement on a broad immigration reform plan that would include a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers and some funds for a wall. If accepted, each side could claim some victory and not “lose face”. Trump is also considering a declaration of a “national emergency” so that he can move other funds toward the construction of the wall. All these options have serious downsides.
  • The Economy – The economy is chugging along fairly well, and President Trump can take some (but not all) of the credit. He has continued the growth that happened in the Obama administration. Many factors are included in the health of an economy, but let’s look at job creation. During the last two years of the Obama presidency, new job growth averaged 212,500 per month and during the first two years of the Trump administration, new job growth averaged 196,000 jobs per month.[16]

The stock market saw unprecedented growth during the first year of the Trump administration. Of course, Trump took credit for this achievement. However, during December 2018 much of this gain evaporated as the stock market had its worse slump since the Great Depression. The president blamed others but took no responsibility for its decline (ex. failure to reach a trade agreement with China, government shutdown, etc.).

Hardly anyone likes to pay taxes. As a result, almost everyone liked the tax cut that Trump implemented back in 2017.  Nevertheless, the benefits greatly favored the wealthiest among us, not the ones most in need.[17]

Part of the growth in our economy is due to the elimination of environmental regulations. When companies are free to pollute creation, their short-term profits increase, but if that profit is at the expense of the health and wellbeing of future generations, we must identify that deregulation as sinful.  Out of love for our (future) neighbors, appropriate regulations are needed to curb our greed.

  • Immigration[18] – Almost everyone agrees that our immigration policies are not working. There are about 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. There are three main options regarding what can be done regarding them.
  • Continue to do nothing. Due to the gridlock in Congress, there has not been any significant immigration legislation for the last three decades. Undocumented immigrants are either paid low wages under the table which benefits the employers, or they use fake documents which means they pay income taxes and social security taxes. In this scenario, they will not receive any benefits. In other words, they are subsidizing me and the rest of us. If we do nothing, these immigrants will have to stay in the shadows and not become full participants of our society. For example, they might be afraid to go to parent/teacher meetings at their children’s school, which means their daughters and sons will suffer.
  • Arrest and deport all undocumented immigrants. This is physically impossible to implement, due to the number of ICE and judicial personnel that would be necessary. In addition, our economy would greatly suffer because these immigrants are performing jobs that are essential.  This policy would also be inhumane because most of these immigrants have lived here for many years and have put down social and economic roots in our society. For example, if their children have been born here, they are citizens. Deporting the parents, and separating them from their children, would be incongruent with the values of the Gospel.
  • Enact immigration legislation that is similar to the Reagan immigration bill of 1986. This would permit a pathway to citizenship after paying a fine, demonstrating that they have employment and no felony crime record. This would permit immigrants to come out of the shadows and become active participants in society. Such a bill could satisfy both the justice and compassion components of the Gospel.

Urgent attention should be given to the Dreamers (DACA). These people were brought into the country illegally by their parents when they were children. President Obama, through executive order, provided legal protection for them while they served in the military or attended college, and later, a pathway to citizenship. President Trump has expressed sympathy for these Dreamers and their lives. He and the Congress should move forward on legislation to make this action permanent.

  • Health Care – Under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), most U.S. citizens have access to health care and insurance. Although some portions can and should be improved, other aspects of the ACA have been shown to be very popular with most people (such as the ability for young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until they are 26). Given that every other major industrialized country provides their citizens with access to adequate health care at a reasonable cost, our nation should also be able to do so.
  • Foreign Relations – President Trump has chosen an isolationist foreign policy. Isolationism is not new. In the years before World War II, the United States largely had an isolationist posture until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, Trump has pushed the limits. He has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accords on global warming and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other international agreements. He has insulted our traditional allies and does not show much support for the international rule of law as expressed through the United Nations, the International Court of Justice (World Court) or the Organization of American States.

Where possible, we should strive to have better relations with countries that have been our traditional enemies, like Russia, China and North Korea. But that does not mean we should ignore or minimize gross atrocities that our friends or foes commit against their own citizens (ex. Saudi Arabia’s brutal and planned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi received no effective condemnation from the White House, because economic gain is more important than ethics).

The Next Steps

At this present time, I find the Trump presidency very troubling for our country. At a personal level, he is not a good role model for our people, especially for our children. As a result of his actions and those of other politicians, we are seeing a serious decline in the health of our nation. There are also problems at the level of policies. I have tried to show that the values behind most of his policies are not worthy of Christian support.

Although some Democrats are recommending impeachment, I think we should await the Mueller report, which should be completed in the next few months. (Recent revelations about Paul Manafort’s dealings with Russian operatives, even while he was directing the Trump election campaign, if true, are clear indications of collusion). After Mueller’s report is released, we will have a better idea of whether Trump is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors” or not. Impeachment is a very difficult process for a country, but under certain circumstances (as in the Nixon era), it is necessary.

Although the Bible teaches that leaders greatly affect (positively and negatively) the health of their nations, Jesus also proclaimed the civic responsibility of his followers. In all the areas where we have influence, let’s strive to be full of salt and light.[19]


[1] Any serious commentary will mention the primary interpretations of this passage. For example, John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount; revised edition, InterVarsity Press, 1993. This seeking of the health of a nation appears throughout the Scriptures. The prophet Jeremiah (29:7) urged Jewish believers to seek the shalom of the “pagan” city and kingdom of Babylon.

[2] Part of our country’s illness comes from the fact that many people receive their news from only one source. Those who swear by Fox News refuse to watch CNN and vice versa. In the “good old days” of my youth, there were only three main channels (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and, as a consequence, most citizens had a common pool of information from which healthy discussion could take place. Given our current polarized political environment, we must work harder to find common ground about truth.

[3] To avoid “national blind spots”, I also recommend that we obtain a perspective from outside the United States. For those who can read in a modern language other than English, there are many reputable media sources online. For others, I find that the BBC provides good coverage in English. It can be accessed at https://www.bbc.com/.

[4] This is an old Russian proverb made popular in the United States by President Ronald Reagan regarding his relationship with leaders of the Soviet Union.

[5] For another Biblical example of civil disobedience, see the incident where the Wise Men disobeyed Herod the Great because of his deceit. (Matthew 2:12)

[6] 1 Timothy 2:1-2.

[7] See Isaiah 58 for a sobering passage where God rejects the prayers and fasting of the people of Israel. The Lord calls his people to change their ways, by loosening the chains of injustice, and God, in turn, will restore shalom to their personal and national lives.

[8] Back in the late 1980s, the publishing house that I founded published a book that evaluated NAFTA from a Christian perspective that was written by Mexican economist Jesus Camargo. Our major criticism of NAFTA was that it gave big profits to investors, but by taking advantage of workers in both countries. It also permitted the degradation of the environment (God’s good creation which we are called to care for).

[9] There is other evidence that, in fact, Trump favored the war and has flipflopped on his stance. For a researched analysis of his changing position on the war in Iraq, see https://www.factcheck.org/2016/02/donald-trump-and-the-iraq-war/.

[10] See Chapter Two of our book, C. Rene Padilla and Lindy Scott, Terrorism and the War in Iraq: A Christian Word from Latin America. Ediciones Kairos, 2005, for evidence on how the war failed to meet the necessary criteria of Just War Theory (JWT). Of course, Christians who are pacifists opposed the war, but those who believe in JWT should also have opposed the war.

[11] The Washington Post has identified over seven thousand lies or misleading claims. These can be found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.0a59d5e0df0c.

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/us/politics/trump-mexico-pay-wall.html.

[13] This was widely covered by the social media. Among others, see https://www.foxnews.com/politics/trumps-border-wall-a-look-at-the-numbers. Some of his comments are even more racist.  He referred to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries”, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/11/politics/immigrants-shithole-countries-trump/index.html.

[14] See https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-referred-haiti-african-countries-shithole-nations-n836946.

[15] Trump changed his position after being persuaded by conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and others that he would lose his base if he didn’t follow through on his campaign promise to build a wall (although during the election campaign, he always promised that Mexico would pay for the wall).

[16] Bureau of Labor Statistics as quoted by Meg Kelly “The ‘Trump Economy’ vs the ‘Obama Economy’” in The Washington Post, September 18, 2018. Given that new job growth becomes more difficult as you get closer to full employment, the numbers suggest that under both administrations, growth was roughly equal. See this entire article at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/09/18/trump-economy-versus-obama-economy/?utm_term=.5d1dcd452261 to see comparisons between the two administrations in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), unemployment rates, wage growth, the stock market, and poverty.

[17] For example, individual tax cuts (which favor the middle and lower classes) are scheduled to be phased out in 2025, whereas corporate tax cuts which favor the wealthier sectors of our society have been made permanent.

[18] There are several excellent books on immigration from a Biblical point of view. See Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate, revised edition. InterVarsity Press, 2018 and M. Daniel Carroll (Wheaton College Professor), Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church & the Bible, 2nd edition. Brazos Press, 2013.

[19] There are many more areas that need to be changed in order to improve our national health (such as gerrymandering, campaign financing, McConnell’s refusal to bring up certain legislation in the Senate, etc.). I will leave those for a future article.

4 thoughts on “The Health of our Nation

  1. As always, you prove to be a reliable and fair conversation partner when discussing hard issues. This one is no exception. I hope to share it with my friends. In conflicted times, perspective is paramount, and you have provided several. Regards, Bob

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  2. Lindy, What a clear and powerful message you make. Kudos to you in finding positive attributes about this guy. I’m pretty sure the pathological liar and the doesn’t think before he speaks are tied in togetherr with his arrogance. Since he,s never wrong, everything he says is true, no matter how mutually exclusive it is to what he said in the past. I was glad to have you as a pastor in my early years of the faith , and look forward to seeing more of these posts.

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  3. Obama has terrible qualities as well. So does Hillary Clinton. I don’t identify with the resistance and I don’t like the Democratic Party. Ruining churches by making them a headquarters for the deep state and the Democratic Party is just as bad as the Moral Majority of the 80s.

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    1. We are called to be salt and light, to applaud good actions of the governing authorities and to point out their significant unjust policies. I have tried to do that ever since Nixon was president. Obama had his flaws and I pointed those out as well, especially his high rate of deportation of immigrants. I do not have a hatred of Trump. I have tried to be honest and accurate in my observations of his conduct and policies.

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