Pastors, of all people, should recognize this deflection for what it is. It’s a dirty trick they suffer from all the time.
The pastor gets up the courage to speak actual truth about some situation — most likely a sermon on or sometimes even just a mere reading of a biblical text that challenges the political or social views of some in the congregation. Maybe it’s a sermon on racial equality; maybe it’s merely reading a few sentences from the Hebrew prophets. Maybe it’s quoting the words of Jesus himself. Maybe it’s that “love your neighbor as yourself” business or the part about money being the root of all evil.
Whatever the text, the pastor speaks an observable truth and is met with the trump card of confrontation: “Pastor, you’re being divisive.”
This is the same thing that happened during the Civil Rights Movement when a white pastor dared to preach against segregation and white supremacy: “Pastor, you’re being divisive.”
It’s the same thing that happens with pastors when they preach for inclusion of children and families who aren’t as well-heeled as the rest of the congregation: “Pastor, you’re being divisive.”
And it’s the same thing that happens when a pastor dares to preach that truth itself matters: “Pastor, you’re being divisive.”
“They want to keep the peace in the congregation by maintaining the status quo that favors their own sense of security.”
The problem is not that the pastor is being divisive, but that those who are complaining don’t want to be called out for their bigotry, racism, sexism or classism. They want to keep the peace in the congregation by maintaining the status quo that favors their own sense of security.
A variation on this “you’re being divisive” diversion is this favorite: “Now is not the time to talk about this.” Of course, that’s the line that gets trotted out after every mass shooting where children are left dead in classrooms and someone tries to talk about the insanity of calling semiautomatic weapons necessary for hunting. Politicians and the NRA love this line: “Now is not the time to talk about this.” Their goal is for it never to be the time to talk about this.
Both these lines are diversionary tactics. They are intended to call attention away from the actual truth that’s staring everyone in the face. When you can’t refute the truth of a statement, you try to shoot the messenger.
Which is exactly what happened immediately after — and even telepathically before — President Joe Biden’s address to the nation Sept. 1. Biden had the unmitigated gall to declare that Donald Trump and his MAGA minions are an actual threat to truth, justice and democracy and must be stopped — stopped not just in a partisan play by Democrats but in a unifying movement that includes independents and truth-loving Republicans. This is not a battle between political parties as we have known them, he suggested. Rather, it is a battle between truth and lies.
One of the most apoplectic responses to Biden’s speech came from Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a far-right political action committee masquerading as caring about Christianity.
“Last night, President Biden gave the most politically divisive address this country has ever heard.”
Head declared: “Last night, President Biden gave the most politically divisive address this country has ever heard. The accusation that more than 74 million Americans are enemies of the republic is outrageous and, candidly, terrifying. This partisan tirade wasn’t just an attack against President Biden’s former opponent, it was an attack on half of this nation. Under the guise of promoting unity, the Biden regime’s narrow-mindedness was on full display. Don’t be mistaken: the threat to democracy lies solely with the Radical Left’s unrelenting pursuit of control, not the American citizens suffering under the Biden administration’s disastrous leadership.”
Now that’s a partisan statement if we ever heard one. And it’s also a lie. Biden did not say all 74 million Americans who voted for Trump are enemies of the Republic. To the contrary, he said this: “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans” who embrace Trump’s “extreme ideology.”
But, you may counter, that’s just some wacky guy from the far-right. Sadly, he was far from alone in this assessment that Biden is the source of division in America. Key Republican leaders said almost exactly the same words.
And then Baptist Press, the official news service of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination, published a story the next day with this headline: “Leaders call Biden speech inflammatory, divisive.”
Who are those “leaders” mentioned in the headline? They are all Republican politicians and one little-known Baptist seminary staff member.
The only SBC leader quoted in the story is Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters. Let us pause here and remember that Richard Land, for whom this center of “cultural engagement” is named, was one of the key figures who tied the knot between the SBC and Republican politics.
“For a president who campaigned on unity and healing the country, he continues to govern in a way that is deeply polarizing.”
Darling opined: “President Biden’s speech to the nation last night was more inflammatory than healing. For a president who campaigned on unity and healing the country, he continues to govern in a way that is deeply polarizing. It was a campaign speech disguised as an official word from the commander-in-chief.”
Apparently, Darling thinks it was divisive for the president of the United States to warn of the greatest threat to democracy we have known since World War II. Apparently he thinks this frank assessment from the commander in chief is divisive: “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
That is not a political statement. It is a verifiable fact confirmed even by Trump’s own former inner circle.
Darling continued: “What America needs in this moment is a president willing to help heal our deep divides, to resist the election-year urge to consider his ideological adversaries as enemies of the state, and to ratchet down the rhetoric coming from the White House. We are at a dangerous moment, where the incentives on all sides are toward demonization, where partisans seem increasingly eager to engage in political violence. Preserving democracy requires cool heads and warm hearts, not cheap campaign rhetoric.
“For Christians, this is a moment of opportunity, to both display courage in advocating for transcendent truths and civility in seeing even those who disagree with us as image-bearers of the Almighty. And should pray for leaders willing to do the same,” he concluded.
I’ve been searching for the stories published by Baptist Press or quoting Darling anywhere else that held Donald Trump to this same standard of “transcendent truths and civility” and avoiding “demonization.” I’ve been looking for a Baptist Press story about how Trump shouldn’t be so divisive. So far, I’ve not found those. Which tells us this complaining is not about a love for truth but about political points.
President Biden spoke the truth Sept. 1 — the unvarnished, documented truth — about Trump and Trumpism. The unhinged former president is a threat not only to American democracy but also to the world order and to the future of the church. And his most devout followers — who mainly claim to be Christians — have shown they are willing to wage physical war to get their way.
As I’ve written before, this is not about old-school Republicans and Democrats disagreeing on how to balance the budget or manage the economy. This is about one major political party being taken over by fantasy and cruelty. It is about enshrining a dictator. It is, in the words of Scripture, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie.”
“We can have an honest debate about anything, so long as the conversation honors truth as a baseline.”
You may not like Biden’s politics or policies on any other number of things, and that’s fine. We can have an honest debate about any issue, so long as the conversation honors truth as a baseline. But Trump wouldn’t know truth if it shot him dead on Fifth Avenue. And his ardent followers have walked so far away from truth that they see the world upside down and inside out.
What I heard Biden say was not divisive, but it was a call to action. He said it is the non-MAGA Republicans who have the opportunity to salvage truth and democracy and actual voting integrity if they stand on principle rather than party and they will cherish democracy more than demagoguery.
You don’t have to vote for Biden or a Democratic candidate. But the truth-loving world needs you to stop holding your nose and voting for Trump and those who enable his lies. Vote your conscience, but do so with a respect for truth.
Non-MAGA pastors — both Republicans and Democrats — also have an opportunity to stand in the gap. What would save America the fastest right now is if truth-loving pastors stood in their pulpits and spoke a biblical word for truth — knowing they are going to be accused of “being divisive.” The Jesus we worship was divisive too, because people did not want his truth to keep marching on.
In America today, the evangelical church too often is the problem rather than the solution. You can call me “divisive” for saying that if you like, but I’ll stand by it as undivided truth.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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