Ian Ellis: American church leaders look for the healing of their nation

It has been a turbulent American journey, from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, and the churches have not held back on speaking out in the evolving situation.

By Ian Ellis
Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 4:00 pm
Ex president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Sunday in Orlando, Fla where he gave a true-to-form political appearance. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Ex president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Sunday in Orlando, Fla where he gave a true-to-form political appearance. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

To go back to January 8, that is two days after the violent storming of the Capitol in Washington, church leaders in the United States on that day called for action to remove then President Trump from office, in the absence of his immediate resignation, on account of his “actions and words” which they wrote had “endangered the security of the country and its institutions of government by inciting a violent, deadly, seditious mob attack at the US Capitol”.

The call came in an open letter from the US National Council of Churches (NCC) distributed to then Vice-President Mike Pence, members of the Congress and the Cabinet.

The church leaders described the “desecration” of the Capitol building as disgraceful and reprehensible, adding: “We grieve for our country at this difficult time and continue to pray for the safety and security, and ultimately the healing of our nation.”

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Among the signatories was the presiding bishop of the US Episcopal Church, which is in communion with the Church of Ireland, the Most Rev Michael Curry, along with Methodist, Presbyterian, Orthodox and other denominational leaders.

Separately, in a denominational call to prayer for the nation, Bishop Curry, who was the preacher at the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, described the now infamous Capitol events as having represented a coup attempt.

The Roman Catholic church is not a member-church of the NCC, but Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement on January 6, declaring: “The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of this great nation. In this troubling moment, we must recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our democracy and come together as one nation under God.”

The refusal of Donald Trump either to extend the traditional courtesies to Joe Biden ahead of the presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20 or to attend the event was indeed a sorry break with a much-valued tradition.

A leading American Methodist, the Rev Susan Henry-Crowe, who leads the US United Methodist Board of Church and Society, described the peaceful transition of power as “a pillar of representative democracy”.

It is also noteworthy that President Biden has re-established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, a move which Religion News Service has reported as “undoing former President Donald Trump’s efforts to reshape an agency that went largely unstaffed for most of his tenure”.

There is surely no doubt that as a result of post-2020 election events the standing of the US in global opinion has suffered a considerable blow.

Indeed, already in September 2020 the highly regarded Washington-based Pew Research Centre highlighted how just 41%of those surveyed in the UK expressed a favourable opinion of the US, with the French and the Germans even more negative in their views at 31 and 26% respectively.

That was even before the election and its aftermath, including the impeachment process.

Yet the manner in which President Biden in his inauguration address appealed to the American people for the spirit of unity to overcome divisions and challenges was surely strikingly hopeful.

He alluded to St Augustine’s definition in ‘City of God’ of a people as “a multitude of rational beings joined together by common agreement on the objects of their love”; he spoke of the power of example, as opposed to the example of power; and he pointed to the uplifting assertion in Psalm 30, that “weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning”.

The new president now carries great burdens on his shoulders but from beyond American shores it is surely good to see him committed to the rebuilding of alliances and the renewal of the American spirit.

Thus, with President Biden’s inaugural sentiments the roller-coaster seemed to have reached more even ground, the new president having stirred hope that there will be an end to what he described as an “uncivil war”.

Now, following Mr Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial and his true to form political reappearance at the February 28 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, it is to be hoped that, going forward, he will nonetheless lead his many followers in a much more cautious manner than has been the case especially of late.

The historian, Paul Johnson, in his substantial ‘History of the American People’, sums up the characteristics of America which he points out were beginning to take shape already by the end of the Civil War (1861-65): “huge and teeming, endlessly varied, multicoloured and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy”.

Certainly the truth is recognisable in those words that ultimately here is a nation that is so vibrant that it must surely always be able to find a new lease of life.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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