At around the same time police officers outside the White House were spraying tear gas into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in order for the president to limp pugnaciously to a 200-year-old church and pose for a photo holding a Bible like a bowling trophy — or, as someone on my Twitter feed said, “a slab of meat” — I happened to be talking to the Reverend James Forbes on the phone. At 84, Dr. Forbes is among the most, possibly the most, eminent preachers in the land. An expert on the homiletical style of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he took the helm of Riverside Church in northern Manhattan in 1989, making the congregation into one of the most vibrant, racially diverse, politically progressive, and activist groups of churchgoers in America. His charismatic preaching is of the “prophetic” variety; he takes his inspiration from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible who warned of apocalypse, should righteousness and justice not prevail.
At this moment, Forbes is in retirement in North Carolina, where he was born and where he remains ruefully mindful of his historic status as “three-fifths of a man.” He spends his days, he told me, writing poetry and finishing a book on Eric Garner, a man who, like George Floyd, died at the hands of police, begging for his life and saying “I can’t breathe.” Forbes is thinking a lot about plagues right now, and the kind of testing a people must endure before true liberation of those the Bible calls “the least of these” is achieved. As a religious leader and a believer in God, Forbes focuses beyond the everyday. “People are worried about the knee of the policeman on George Floyd’s head. Or the butts of the other policemen sitting on his body. I am more worried about the rump of the elephant that has been sitting on vulnerable people since 400 years ago when we were brought here and turned into chattel property,” he said.
According to the Bible, God punished the slaveholders in Egypt with ten plagues before the Israelites were free, and Forbes believes that America, in a similar moment, has seen at least three. The Trump administration is the first, he says. Then the virus. And now on top of that, a civil unrest he finds far scarier and more threatening than any police officers he saw during any marches in his past. “How many plagues are necessary before a new America can rise?” he asks.
The stunt in front of St. John’s Church was “shameful,” Forbes told me in a later call. “I think it’s blasphemous. I think it is the continuation of the pattern of using everything — even God, God’s symbols and sacred space — as an instrument of his own designs.” But it is also consistent with Trump’s previous performances. The president “has viewed himself as being the chosen vessel of God to bring about the greatness of America, and his narcissism has brought into his being God’s vice-regent on earth. If in fact he is not the presiding prelate, then that would clearly be a psychosis. But I think his base can extract from these gestures a picture that reinforces the theology of his being the semi-sovereign on the earth.”
So much has been written about the white Evangelicals to whom Trump is pandering with his hunting-trophy Bible pose — 75 percent of whom, as recently as March, said they agreed with the president on many or all issues. One of those issues is race. White Evangelicals have a long, shameful history of racism — the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed slavery and Jim Crow laws; the KKK is a pseudo-religious organization — and even today, despite formal repudiations, 72 percent of white Evangelicals prefer to believe that the killing of African-American men by police are “isolated incidents” rather than the result of systemic racial oppression. It is a particular magic trick by Trump to be able to command the allegiance of these Christians with some clumsy authoritarian posturing — a pose, a church, some tear gas, a Bible — when they doubtless know that Bible (and its commandments about loving the least of these) far better than he does.
But it is a relief (to me, at least) to remember that whole segments of the religious world do not bow when the Pharaoh commands them to, but revolt instead against his blasphemy. Dr. Forbes is an elder in a broad network of black church leaders who see it as their job to speak truth to power — a role that is not for them novel or incidental but fundamental, crucial, and historic. Otis Moss is the pastor of Trinity UCC Church in Chicago, where Barack Obama discovered God and community organizing at the same time. Moss is 50 years old — more than a generation younger than Forbes — but his father was a pastor, too, and over the weekend Moss spent some time with members of his congregation, sweeping up glass and debris at the Dollar Store near the church that had been burned and looted during protests. “The store was obliterated, completely obliterated,” Moss said to me. “We were already in a food-insecure neighborhood. We are now in a food desert. The pharmacy has been destroyed. The CVS, the Walgreens, the grocery stores are gone. We’re trying to figure out how to get medication to seniors who are shut in because of COVID.”
Moss has been preaching along the same lines as Forbes, talking about “COVID -1619,” the racism virus that only revolution can cure. “There has to be a revolution and a moral revival,” he told me; he spoke about “the deep tragedy of a federal leadership with no moral compass.” And then he brightened when he mentioned his son, a freshman at Morehouse who has been protesting in Chicago alongside his friends: “people of different cultures, Latino friends, his friends who are queer, who are white, who are Asian. They feel the anguish. They also are sick and tired, and they recognize that the current leadership is so inept, and they want to be a part of it.” And though Moss is a more even-keeled and updated kind of pastor than Forbes, he acknowledges his debt to the prophetic-black-church tradition that is his inheritance.
Last week, Moss retweeted a video clip of his predecessor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, preaching the famous sermon that forced Wright’s most famous congregant, Barack Obama, to renounce him and to give his brilliant and unforgettable speech on race. In the clip, Wright preaches to a crescendo, checking off the boxes of African-American degradation — slavery, inferior schooling, substandard housing, low-paying jobs, unequal protection under the law, locking them “into positions of hopelessness and helplessness.” America “wants us to sing “God Bless America”? No, no, no! Not God bless America! God damn America for killing innocent people. For treating its citizens as less than human.” The man who posted the clip, Freddy Haynes, is another African-American preacher. “This nation owes it to itself to listen to Dr. Wright AND repent for how he was demonized!!”
James Martin, a Catholic priest and editor at America magazine, who appears occasionally on TV with Stephen Colbert, was also appalled. “Let me be clear,” he wrote on Twitter after the president’s appearance at St. John’s. “This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything.” After the president visited a second religious site on Tuesday, Martin retweeted a message from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. “I find it baffling and reprehensible,” Gregory wrote, “that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree.” This is an unusually strongly worded statement from a Catholic prelate.
There are white clergy on the left as well who are infuriated by the Christian dog-whistling from Trump, and insistent on separating themselves from his inexplicable followers. Not least among these is Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., who told the Washington Post that she was not informed that the president would visit one of the churches in her diocese for a photo op. “I am outraged,” she said, and added that she “was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop.” She went on to say that Trump is a divisive force lacking in moral leadership while the Bible he wields in the photo asserts that “God is love.”
Down in North Carolina, Forbes has been spending a lot of time driving around in his car, and is noticing things he didn’t notice before. The American democracy is so much more fragile than it was when he marched in the 1960s. “These beautiful countrysides, these white, beautiful mansions. How does a God of the universe accept as normal all these mansions of white people and black people being despiritualized and not having places to live? Why is it okay for white people to have beautiful places of residence while black people are being dispersed into places where you can hardly tell where they are? Why is it okay? Why is it we don’t think we’re going to hell about that? It’s not all right, is it?”
Forbes believes that the U.S. may be headed for a bloody rupture, and also that it’s not his job to be reassuring about it. “My sister,” he said, “you and I may live to see a national civil war. The tanks around the White House, the advice of governors to dominate the protesters: We may be in more trouble than we imagine. There may be a plan to create such havoc that it may make sense to call off the election. That’s what I’m thinking. It feels like an alarm of the most intense dimensions.” The job of the prophets was not to be kind or palliative; it was to shake people into action by telling them truths they could not bear.