Some of my fondest memories growing up in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana, revolve around the occasional long trips to visit extended family members in the rural villages. The only affordable transportation connecting cities and these far-flung villages were the lumbering wooden lorries that always lived up to their “bone shaker” moniker. A constant of this traveling experience was the ever-present traditional medicine hawkers. They took turns perched strategically at the front of the “buses”, always facing the passengers and parroting their routines with the cadence and smoothness of expert auctioneers. Their concoctions, usually packaged in small homemade containers, always had that one essential ingredient: they cured all ailments. But to be successful at this trade, a “bone shaker” hawker must also be a tall-story teller and natural comedian. The result of this admixture, of comedic talent and yarn spinning about the inexhaustible efficacy of whatever they sold, was that these vendors never lacked for paying customers.
Two years ago during a visit to Ghana, I repeated this experience by boarding one of these vehicles to visit a relative in the village. To my nostalgic surprise, nothing seemed to have changed appreciably in the many intervening years between my childhood recollections and present experience. Though wood framing had surrendered to metal, these bulky lorries were similarly designed and retained the same bone shaking DNA as their wooden progenitors. Snaking past the medicine vender, I felt the warmth of his generous affecting smile which also exposed assorted, misaligned and heavily tobacco-stained teeth strewn across his gum line. He pointed to a pile of small red boxes in his waresbag while calling out: “There is Florida in it! There is Florida in it!” The rhythmic song-like repetition had a mesmerizing effect on the captive passengers as it seemed to heighten their interest in the mysterious “Florida” in his powerful “medicine”. The seller initially couched his product narrowly as a cure for dental cavities, but the passengers inquired about other unrelated personal ailments – back pain, heartache, constipation, malaria. So he adroitly expanded its efficacy, and soon it cured everything. And with those reassuring “Florida in it” refrains, the passengers scrambled to buy.
On closer examination I saw that what he was selling to the mostly illiterate village passengers were small travel toothpaste tubes clearly labeled “Made in China”. The magical “Florida” ingredient was the young salesman’s attempt at pronouncing the word fluoride. I shook my head and chuckled. Said nothing. Did nothing. I later rationalized that if anyone chose to buy dental supplies from a salesman displaying such poor oral hygiene, they alone bore the blame. What that encounter taught me is that humans have a high accommodative capacity for cognitive dissonance. And even more, an insatiable appetite for self-deception.
We recognize our aspiring entrepreneur for who he is: a low-end hustler and con artist. Yes, we chuckle uncomfortably at the ingenuous lengths such people go to defraud the poor illiterates. And while we take a dim view of their behavior, we don’t usually make a federal case against them. Instead, the community occasionally tamps down their entrepreneurial exuberance by confronting or exposing, but rarely prosecuting them. Society calculates, maybe wrongly, that their dishonesty is not “harmful” enough to add them to an already bulging prison population. So we characterize their actions as exploitative, and catalog it under petty thievery. Then we ignore them as tolerable public “nuisances”.
The dismissive attitude we take when first confronted with “harmless” wrongs that initially don’t seem to affect us personally seems to me analogous, if imprecisely, to our current Donald Trump conundrum: the many injurious actions and policies he has pursued since taking office. From the moment he launched his presidential campaign with race-baiting accusations that Mexico was exporting drug pushers and rapists to the US, this original troll, known for championing the Obama birther conspiracy, served notice that he will say and do anything to “win”.
Many in his target audience excused the hurtful generalization of that first salvo, because they did not identify with the maligned. Thus when allowed an inch he would then seek to take a mile, and continued upping the ante, attaching disparaging epithets that denigrated not only individuals but whole groups. Soon many became immune to and normalized these excesses. All along, his “handlers” fed us the trope that much of what he was saying was campaign-season theatrics, and once elected he would pivot to the center and surround himself with competent “adults” who would help him govern sensibly and inclusively, for all Americans. There was good reason not to believe this but enough people, especially Christian conservatives in enough states, bought it. And it got him elected.
But as president, instead of governing from the center, he seems to have interpreted the victory as justification to accelerate his parochialism. Racial/ethnic stoking for political gain has remained a cornerstone policy that manufactured such outrages as the Muslim ban, fencing off America from its southern (but not northern) neighbors, and consigning African and Caribbean nations to sewage habitations. While busy picking off the unfavored for castigation, many outside these groups were lulled by their apparent favored status and held firm their support. History teaches that for such people there is always another broader group to vilify in attempts to stoke fear. So when he turned from single-group concerns to attacking broader targets, his core constituents and other politically disinterested Americans did not notice the progression or a connection to the trend.
Through all this, none of the few institutions with check-and-balance powers or moral fortitude: senators in his party, Republican-leaning justices at the Supreme Court or the larger Christian community, would rein him in. They have held their collective peace, and maybe noses as well. But not without compensation. The Congressional and Senatorial Republicans got their One Trillion-dollar tax cut for their constituent moneyed class, while assuring the average citizen, once again, that trickle-down economics would benefit them. But why has the 5-4 Conservative Supreme Court majority not been swayed from risking their judicial reputations to align with such divisive policies? We will await history’s verdict, but Republican-appointed justices seem to show more loyalty to the president’s excessive positions than to the Constitution, and often in very disturbing ways. For this reason, upholding Trump’s Muslim ban by this court will be one of its most enduring legacies: certain to be compared to the Dred Scott Civil War era decision that denied citizenship to freed slaves in free states.
I am arguing in this piece that the seeds for the mismanagement of this pandemic were sown by the President when he went down that escalator four plus years ago, and now our predicament has been worsened by the accommodative responses to him. In this sense, we the people have become the choices we’ve made or allowed.
So why should any of this be a Christian concern? Why should this seemingly secular political affair be the subject of an Adventist Christian publication? Ordinarily it wouldn’t, but the times are different now. And the consequences of actions taken or not taken by political leaders during a pandemic have equal bearing on both secular and faith communities. We use the phrase be not of this world in Christians circles as admonition against worldliness, but it shouldn’t be construed as a call to passivity. The full statement, a reference to 1 John 2:15-17, also recognizes the reality of our being in the world. Consequently, there are times in the church/state separation conversation when mutual anxieties converge and boundaries between the two blur. During a pandemic, when death is plentiful, indiscriminate, unsparing and fear robs us of resolve, we should not be hesitant to speak with moral clarity.
And there are specific religious reasons for critiquing the President’s failings. Christian leaders, specifically from the Evangelical Right, of which many Adventists are loosely associated with philosophically, have wittingly or through apathy given this president the moral cover to espouse hateful rhetoric and advocate causes inconsistent with general Christian principles. He equivocated on support for white supremacy. He formulated and executed an oppressive child separation policy at the southern border. He continues robust legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act which disproportionately harms the poor and vulnerable among us. Conservative evangelical church leaders should have protested these actions, but they looked on. And, like my inaction toward the swindling toothpaste huckster, did nothing.
Having let him off on weightier matters – discrimination, misogyny, bigotry, racism – early in their relationship with the President, these faith leaders are realizing too late that they have no moral sway over him in a time of crisis. Consider truth telling. It is upsetting to acknowledge that the President lies. Repeatedly. The most distressing thing about his truth aversion is the vehemence with which he defends his lies – big or small – even denying that he said what a video recording definitively shows. Much of this is based on his impulse. But in a crisis impulsivity can lead to misinformation, which ordinarily would be acknowledged and corrected. Yet the President never says or does anything that isn’t “perfect”. Thus he ends up denying the undeniable or defending the indefensible.This has created a needless credibility problem with the public and raises questions about whether it is safe to believe him, especially when he is contradicted by knowledgeable professionals.
Should we, for example, take the president’s “gut feeling” advice that hydroxychloroquine, a drug approved primarily for malaria, is efficacious for COVID-19, in contradiction to expert opinion, since the drug has major side effects even when used for malaria? He also expressed a “feeling”, early in the virus’ spread, that “we have it completely under control”, and it will disappear, “like magic”, by April. Knowing where such irresponsible optimism has taken us, we should be deeply concerned about what the President tells the public. We shouldn’t be put in this quandary because his statements, if naively believed, have life and death implications. Truth telling, whether to the powerful or the plebeian class, should come naturally to our faith leaders. But because they have reneged on this basic social contract in their dealings with the President, they have now squandered societal trust.
The church has perennially promoted the social graces – etiquette, decorum, decency, fair play – as appropriate and expected public behavior by authority figures like presidents. Public leaders command extraordinary influence for good or ill. Likewise, church leaders have failed the public for not calling the President out for his bad example – as they did when Clinton was president. It is not an exaggeration that no past president in living memory has been as openly vulgar or embraced pettiness towards his adversaries as President Trump has. The diatribes against his perceived enemies have coarsened public discourse. And because he has the uncritical support of many religious leaders, their silence has created the appearance of endorsement. During this crisis the president should be appropriately sober in tone and content, not resorting to such pettiness as berating governors and calling them names during press conferences for not being “nice” to him. His is governance where nastiness reigns. And we have sadly become accustomed to it. But it is not normal. That he continues this when thousands are dying daily reflects badly on him, but also on the conservative evangelical community, his staunchest support base, who look on and do nothing.
We should not shrink from discussing the President’s politics on a Christian platform because he frequently co-opts religion and drapes himself in Christian imagery when it serves his purposes. It is not by accident that initially he set Easter as his target date for “opening America” back for business. For a whole week, when death was in full display and medical experts were advising us to maintain social distancing and shelter in place, the President pushed his plan to get us to return to business as usual. Because “America was not made to be shut down”, he said. But was anyone fooled that the true reason for wanting to rush us back to work was actually connected with the losses on Wall Street and the potential adverse effects on his re-election? Throughout the pandemic, the president has clearly prioritized the economy over people’s health. The public however, seems to disagree, correctly intuiting that they can recover monetary losses or crawl out of a recession. But not if they’re dead.
Under Trump, much of the conservative part of American Christianity has completely vacated its moral influence which past leaders, silently but effectively, wielded as a corrective against aspiring autocrats. But the harm done by these present leaders to Church and society is incalculable, and will negatively impact Christian witness for years to come. We in the church community have much praying to do as we seek God’s better direction. Because it seems many church leaders have found another god.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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