(RNS) — Participating in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations at Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, Mich., and another at Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., last week got us to thinking about the role President Trump’s unofficial religious advisory council plays in his administration.
Does it serve as a moral justification for his or their agenda? Or, do its members serve as a moral conscience to push the president to contemplate the impact his policies have on the most vulnerable members of our nation and world — as did the churches that participated in the civil rights movement and later the anti-war movement of King’s day?
Roughly 55 years ago, King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he called on religious persons and all of good will to push political leaders to enact policies that respect the dignity of all, as all persons, as children of God, are worthy of such.
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who served with King in the anti-war group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, recognized that religious leaders are themselves fallible. He nonetheless urged them to push their congregants and others to contemplate God’s will in protecting human freedom and increasing social-economic opportunities for all.
Clergy should take such stances, he argued, even when doing so is against the law and at odds with the nation’s interest — as did he and King when protesting racial oppression and the Vietnam War.
King and Coffin argued that to be moral guides, religious leaders must be willing to serve as a check on state power. To do so, religious leaders must, like Jesus, who resisted Satan’s temptation to rule over all nations, remain on the outside of power.
King and Coffin makes us think more deeply about the ethical role of Trump’s religious advisers, most of whom are white evangelical Protestant men. In September, it first appeared that the council would take a moral stand on behalf of undocumented migrants. Members argued that their insider status within the Trump administration would allow them to more effectively express their concerns about dismantling DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
However, that’s not what we heard from these advisers following Trump’s recent remarks on the matter.
Trump held a Jan. 11 meeting with key congressional Democrats and Republicans to strike a deal over protecting DACA recipients in exchange for support of a multibillion-dollar wall to keep undocumented Mexicans out of our nation. In that meeting, Trump expressed his displeasure with U.S. programs that admitted Haitians and Africans. Few of Trump’s religious advisers had anything to say about the president’s views; and, some that did speak up offered tacit support for the president’s sentiments. Some argued that “his language may not have been acceptable but that his views are.”
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Trump’s unofficial religious advisory council seems unwilling to embrace the message King made clear in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, in which he juxtaposes the ethics of funding of war with cuts to anti-poverty programs. One could imagine that if King and Coffin were with us today, they would similarly juxtapose the ethics of funding a multibillion-dollar wall with the recent tax bill, which disproportionately benefits wealthy Americans; reduced funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and the continuing effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
If we put aside the ethical problems that followers of King and Coffin may have with this council, we’re left with the fact that this group is largely out of step with the groups they claim to represent, religious Americans in general and evangelicals more specifically.
Every major religious group, including the National Association of Evangelicals, has passed a resolution and/or issued an official statement on race that decries the sins of racism. Every major religious group that has passed resolutions and/or issued statements on immigration calls for immigration policies that balance respect for immigrants with national security.
Along these lines, over half of evangelical church leaders report their churches providing a ministry and/or service dedicated to immigrants and refugees, which is similar to that of nonevangelical congregations. Six in 10 Americans, according to the 2016 National Politics Study, support religious congregations playing this role in their local communities.
Churches such as Central United Methodist Church in Detroit and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, which risk Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids by providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, probably go further in aiding immigrants than most Americans would support. Their immigration ministry more closely follows the tradition of King and Coffin, who prioritized the most vulnerable. It’s a tradition that Trump’s religious advisory council has so far declined to follow.
So, what role does Trump’s advisory council play for this nation? It’s tough to say, but it doesn’t seem to push Trump or the citizenry to contemplate righteousness for righteousness’ sake, as advocated by King, Cofflin, Jesus and other religious figures. And the council’s members don’t seem to reflect the will of most religious Americans. Happy Belated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
R. Khari Brown is an associate professor in the sociology department of Wayne State University. Ronald E. Brown is an associate professor in the department of political science of Wayne State University. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or the Baptist Standard.