When President Trump gave his inaugural speech on Friday, certain things might appear strange to a British person, not least the inclusion of God and a quotation from the Bible. When the President said, ‘we are protected by God’, it sent a slight shiver down my spine, as though God was a piece of military hardware, or a new found friend lining up with Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage. God seemed to be belittled.
However in America, it would be as unthinkable for a president not to declare a religious faith, just as it would be unthinkable for a British prime minister to proclaim one. When Tony Blair was asked in an interview about his religious faith, Alastair campbell his press secretary interjected ‘we don’t do God.’ His advisers prevented him from ending his address to the nation on the beginning of the Iraq war, with ‘God bless you.’ Trump had no such qualms in ending his address with the invocation, 'God bless you', and with the obligatory ‘God bless America.’
The text he chose was from Psalm 133, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’ The Psalm continues ‘It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.’ Unity is depicted as a soothing balm, smoothing over problems.
President Trump will not find it easy to unite Americans under his leadership, and he is not a unifying character. There were protests at his inauguration, but it is remarkable how smooth is the transition of power in the United States. Similarly in this country, though the opinion of the country is divided over Brexit, the actual result of the referendum is respected.
We are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian Unity. All over the world, Christians are praying together, as they should. We have come a long way with regard to unity among Christians. In this town, much has been achieved by Churches Together in King’s Lynn, not least the setting up of the Food Bank. Years ago, the denominations were much more isolated and hostile towards each other, it would have been unthinkable for a Catholic bishop to come to speak in a Methodist Chapel, as he will today. Thankfully now, we appreciate that there is more that unites us than divides us.
People on the outside do not understand the differences between the churches, to them we are just Christians just as we might not understand the differences within our faiths.
On Tuesday, Fr Robert and I took part in a Faith and Beliefs Event for World Religion Day, setting up a stall at the College of West Anglia, to inform the students about the Church of England, alongside other churches and faiths. It was good to be there and great to be invited though we weren’t exactly deluged with enquirers. At one point there was no one in our half of the hall except the faith-representatives, all the students were on the other side of the hall drinking coffee and eating chips. It was interesting that when I enquired at the diocese about material about the Christian faith to have on display, how little there was and how poor it was.
Jesus told the fishermen that he would make them fishers of men. Any fisherman, knows the importance of having good bait. You won’t catch any fish if you have no bait on the hook. Our Christian faith has to be attractive, it has to attract people. It’s not that we are trying to catch them, to hook them and reel them in. We don’t set out to do that, because that is not what the Master did. He didn’t catch people, he set them free from whatever it was that entrapped them and held them back. For those who repented of their sins, he offered the prospect of new life. Jesus, the light of the world had brought that light to the people who walked in darkness. We simply want to share this experience of renewed life.
President Trump, has promised to make America great again. He also said, ‘when you open your heart to patriotism there is no room for prejudice.’ The connection between the two is not clear. It is good to be patriotic, to love our country, but surely we must see that our country is part of the family of nations in this world. Our Christian faith transcends our national identity. For the Christian, it must be Jesus first.
When the Queen spoke to the nation and the Commonwealth on Christmas Day, her tone was rather different to that of President Trump. Neither was there any atheist press secretary warning her not to 'do God'. She declared her faith in a manner more in tune with the spirit of the master:
“Billions of people now follow [the teaching of Jesus] and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love…..love begins small but always grows.”
May God bless America, and may God save the Queen.