Recently, watching an old movie about a trial in a small American town, I noted the wooden panel displaying the Ten Commandments placed on the back wall of the courtroom. Visible, just for the moment when the protagonist walked across the room to address the jury, the image lodged in my subconscious.
Hanging on the wall where truth was sought and justice dispensed, the sign was a relic of an earlier era of our national life when we were less attentive to the religious diversity of our citizenry. Nonetheless, those biblical commandments — conceived as a fitting movie prop because they are so familiar — have caused me to consider their relevance to our self-identified “law and order” president, Donald J. Trump, and those who admire him — ironically often people who believe we ought to have the Ten Commandments posted in every schoolhouse and courtroom.
Here’s a look at how Trump and Trumpism stacks up in observance of the Ten Commandments.
1. You shall have no other gods before me. Matthew Henry, the 18th century Welsh minister most famous for his six-volume Commentary on the Whole Bible, explains that this first commandment forbids “giving the glory and honor to any creature which are due to God only. Pride makes a god of self, covetousness makes a god of the belly; whatever is esteemed or loved, feared or served, delighted in or depended on, more than God, that (whatever it is) we do in effect make a god of.”
Trump’s narcissism is well-documented. He is egocentric and acts always to promote and protect his own interests. Most egregiously, for Christians, Trump has relished in the idolatrous praise of some sycophants that he is “the chosen one,” “the king of Israel,” “the second coming of God,” or the “savior.” When asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump answered that he wasn’t sure he had, stating: “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
With these words, the president puts himself in the place of God.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol. I first heard “Plastic Jesus” when I was a student at Mississippi College in the mid-1960s. In my immaturity, I heard it as just a joke. Now I believe that the substitution of persons, objects or experiences for the Living God is an insidious idolatry.
The words of the 1962 song recorded by The Goldcoast Singers have been updated by Billy Idol: “I don’t care if it rains or freezes long as I’ve got my Plastic Jesus ridin’ on the dashboard of my car. ’Cause through my trials and tribulations and my travels through the nation, with my Plastic Jesus I’ll go far.”
“We are guilty of idolatry when we seek to control God, making him the means to achieving our own purposes.”
As Roy Honeycutt, Old Testament scholar, noted about the second commandment, “We are guilty of idolatry when we seek to control God, making him the means to achieving our own purposes, rather than casting ourselves into the full expression of his will for us.” Trump uses orchestrated photo ops of conservative Christians gathered around praying for him in the Oval Office, or his holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., as ploys to control God and manipulate God’s people.
But it is the lifelong commitments he has to the pleasures of money, sex and power that are his real idols. It seems clear that, while embracing “the world, the flesh and the devil,” he is using God like a Plastic Deity to give him cover on crowded Pennsylvania Avenue.
3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. This command is not simply a prohibition against profanity or swearing falsely; rather, as Honeycutt explains, it is “to take a lighthearted, flippant attitude toward the revelation of God which empties or robs it of its absolute significance.”
I contend that Trump’s whole approach to life — conceived as getting instead of giving — demonstrates his flippant taking of the name of the Giving God in vain. But this observation is not a caveat discounting Trump’s frequent profane speech. He created tremendous backlash, for example, at the 2017 national Boy Scout Jamboree with his cursing and crass attacks against his political foes, turning what should have been a celebration of the boys’ scouting successes into what one critic called a “Nazi youth rally.
And when he denigrates women, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Haitians, people from African countries, Democrats, news reporters, scientists and fallen soldiers with despicable words, he is breaking this commandment by denying the image of God in all of these people.
4. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. The sabbath was made for humanity as a gift from God, to give relief from labor that is often difficult and demanding. The problem with this president is not that he works too hard, but not hard enough.
A 2019 Business Insider political report revealed that Trump spends as much as 60% of his working day in discretionary “executive time,” which aides are powerless to shorten or schedule. He typically tweets while watching Fox News before appearing in the West Wing about 11:00 a.m. Daily, he receives a summary of glowing press reports compiled by three staffers in the Republican National Committee “war room.” On many weekends, he travels either to his golf club in Sterling, Va., to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., or Camp David in Frederick County, Md., for golf games and entertaining guests. At the time of this article, he had reportedly visited his golf clubs 166 times during his presidency. By February 2020, his golfing outings had cost taxpayers $133.8 million.
So, it seems clear that Trump is getting enough rest from his labors; but is he keeping the sabbath holy? According to Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, the sabbath is not about doing nothing, but rather the day provides an opportunity for remembering and re-creating. Sabbath enables one to recall who God is and what God has provided. Is this kind of humble gratitude for divine help an emotion the president is capable of feeling?
5. Honor your father and mother. While the president refers to his father, Fred, as his “hero, role model, and best friend,” Trump’s relationship with his father was not healthy. In a book titled Nobody Hates Trump More than Trump: An Intervention, author David Shields claims the president “hates himself because his father treated him as a vector on the grid of capitalism.” He quotes Steve Hasson, American mental health counselor and cult expert, who explains that cult leaders tend to “have a feeling of insecure attachment to their mother and father. For their entire lives, they’re compensating for that lack of sense of self by getting praise and kudos from the outside world. In Trump’s case, he was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, where doubt was considered evil.”
So, Trump maintains a façade of self-confidence and superiority, treating his wives, children and siblings — as well as those who disappoint or displease him — as targets for his anger. Mary Trump, the president’s niece, has exposed the dysfunction in the Trump family with her recent book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. Could it be that the family dynamic, where honor was not given freely, shaped in Donald the vindictive tendencies so visible today? Is that why the door to the West Wing is a revolving one, where 178 staff members have been dismissed or have felt forced to resign?
Perhaps it is correct to say that because he was not honored by his father, he has no capacity to honor those in his own larger “family.”
6. You shall not murder. We are not excused from breaking this commandment by claiming that “it doesn’t really mean kill; it means murder.” Hauerwas and Willimon assert that “we do well to admit that (this sixth commandment) probably refers to any act of violence against someone under a wide range of circumstances, intentional and otherwise.”
“Trump has not ‘murdered’ anyone, as far as we know, but his decisions have made him complicit in murders.”
Trump has not “murdered” anyone, as far as we know, but his decisions have made him complicit in murders. He protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against accusations that his agents assassinated Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. He has remained oddly unwilling to confront Vladimir Putin about reports that Russia paid the Taliban bounties for murdered American soldiers in Afghanistan, a claim Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirms but the president calls a “hoax.”
Closer to home, Trump has committed negligent homicide by downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, which now has caused the deaths of 200,000 Americans. A Columbia University Medical School report declares that if Trump had acted one week sooner, 31,000 lives could have been saved, while 50,000 deaths could have been avoided if he had acted to stop the virus two weeks earlier.
Finally, against the defense that Trump protects life in the womb, rather than “murdering” it, a true “pro-life” stance includes protecting human beings after birth — children separated from their immigrant parents and put in cages, people of color killed because of police brutality or families losing their homes and lives due to ignoring the threats of climate change.
7. You shall not commit adultery. The president is proud of his libido. It is common knowledge that he has cheated on his three wives numerous times — with Playmate models, porn stars and others. Nineteen women have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender contends that such behaviors show that an adulterer fails to protect the well-being of community members. He writes that “adultery, which breaks a promise solemnly made, is not just sexual sin; it has its roots in selfish desire. An adulterer now ignores those legitimate claims and treats both his spouse and the neighbor unjustly.” And as is so often the case, sexual harassment and assault are about the exercise of power rather than the pursuit of pleasure. This may help to explain why a power-hungry person like Trump is also a serial adulterer.
8. You shall not steal. The verdict is in on Donald Trump’s penchant for stealing. He notoriously fails to pay creditors and those who have contracted with him for building projects. He has historically cheated on his taxes and swindled his real estate tenants through fraudulent schemes. He had to pay back $2 million to eight charities after he misused funds raised through the Donald J. Trump Foundation to support his campaign and pay off business debts. A federal judge ordered Trump to pay $25 million in damages to students duped by the bogus Trump University. In the wake of his campaign rallies, he leaves behind numerous unreimbursed charges for law enforcement costs.
More worrisome now is the possibility that his dishonest maneuvers — including gerrymandering, voter suppression and damaging the U.S. postal service will enable him to steal the 2020 election.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Meilaender muses that “no community can sustain itself indefinitely if its members cannot rely on each other to speak straightforwardly and truthfully; that is simply a necessity built into the nature of life in community.” We are having a hard time in America sustaining ourselves in the face of repeated, constant lying from Donald Trump.
“We are having a hard time in America sustaining ourselves in the face of repeated, constant lying from Donald Trump.”
As recently as Sept. 15, in an ABC town hall meeting with undecided voters, the president leaned comfortably into his custom of misrepresenting the truth on issues as diverse as COVID-19, health care, race relations, police brutality, and his election opponent, Joe Biden.
While the total number is contested, it is reported that Trump has lied more than 20,000 times during his presidency. For Trump to ignore this ancient law of honesty is a betrayal of both truth and trust — the truth expected in civil discourse and the trust Americans want to place in our president.
10. You shall not covet. Donald Trump has an insatiable need to be perceived as more knowledgeable, popular, talented and in control than everyone else. Hauerwas and Willimon explain that “the Hebrew word used for ‘covet’ also entails ‘lust,’ which is helpful and honest because that is how our enviousness usually feels, as a lustful desire for something that is another’s.”
The targets of Trump’s lustful covetousness are easy to identify: Barack Obama, John McCain, even Greta Thunberg. More mystifying is his envy of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, dictators whose absolute power Trump covets.
Interestingly, Martin Luther pointed to the essential connection between this last commandment and the first. In Treatise on Good Works, he wrote: “A man is generous because he trusts God and never doubts that he will always have enough. In contrast a man is covetous and anxious because he does not trust God.”
The president breaks all 10 commandments regularly and with impunity. For that reason, it is time for people who revere the divine commandments to speak truth to power — a concept developed and practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, Bayard Russell, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Noam Chomsky, philosopher, historian and author of more than 100 books, does not think “speaking truth to power” is effective. He says that “power knows the truth already and is busy concealing it.”
It is observable fact that immediately following a criticism from a prominent opponent, Trump posts multiple midnight tweets or misdirects his boisterous rally crowd by ridiculing his critic or the charge. These reactions from the president validate the point that power knows the truth and is busy concealing it. That’s why Chomsky insists that it is the victims and not the victimizers who need to hear the truth.
The Ten Commandments do not belong in the courtrooms and schoolhouses of a pluralistic society like America, for there are moral codes and laws in the texts of the multiple religions and ideologies that guide the lives of our citizens. But when Donald Trump and his supporters claim that he cares about this very basic, beloved list of divine commands, yet his behavior so starkly contradicts that assertion, it is time that truth be heard and justice dispensed.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.