After more than a year of campaigning, Democratic primary voters are finally winnowing the field for the 2020 presidential election. After just two contests, we have only five major candidates left.
Compared to previous election cycles, Democratic contenders have connected their policies to religious values and reached out to communities of faith. In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders spoke profoundly about how his Jewish faith shapes his world view. In Iowa, Joe Biden spent time with Catholic nuns who serve undocumented immigrants. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have both cited the Gospel of Matthew as inspiration for their commitment to supporting marginalized people.
As a pastor, a progressive, and the head of a network of 50,000 faith leaders, I find this encouraging. But every candidate needs to speak with greater moral force about this dark moment of history. President Trump has inflamed and harnessed hate more effectively than any president in U.S. history. If you think these are remotely normal times, visit a synagogue or a mosque, or a church that serves undocumented immigrants. People fear for their lives, for very good reason.
It’s been clear for a long time that President Trump’s hateful rhetoric, cruel policies, personal corruption and abuse of power represent a steady advance of tyranny. But February might turn out to be the darkest month of his presidency. On February 22nd, the recently announced expansion of the Muslim Ban is scheduled to take effect, barring immigration from six additional countries, including Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa. His newly released federal budget proposal cuts Medicaid by $844 billion. Mr. Trump is accelerating the cruelty of his policies following his impeachment, not restraining himself or playing it safe. The impact of his agenda will be measured in lives lost and families torn apart.
And he’s explicitly attacking the religion of political leaders who dare to oppose him. At the National Prayer Breakfast last week following the conclusion of his Senate trial for abuse of power, he disparaged the faith of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Mitt Romney, both of whom had the moral courage to hold him accountable for attacking our democracy. He mocked the very notion of praying for political rivals.
Because tyrants seek to be the arbiters of truth and dominate every aspect of a nation’s life, they try to co-opt religion. They cannot abide the existence of an authority higher than their own. And if they can’t co-opt faith, they marginalize it and stamp it out. This is as true today as it was in Stalin’s Soviet Union and the Holy Land under Roman rule.
Inspired by the prophets who condemned greed and oppression in ancient Israel, people of faith today raise a moral cry to deliver this nation from tyranny. People of all faiths have rallied to defeat the Muslim ban, both in the courts and in the streets. Dozens of pastors, including me, were arrested the first time President Trump tried to take people’s health care away, and we’re ready to do it again. Rabbis, pastors, and everyday people of faith have put our bodies in the way of Border Patrol and ICE agents. We shelter undocumented immigrants in our congregations to shield them from deportation.
I don’t expect the 2020 Democratic candidates to put their bodies on the line during the primary, but they need to ratchet up their moral urgency and tap into the power of sacred stories. The Bible is a handbook for resisting tyranny, from Moses’s defiance of Pharaoh to Jesus reframing the law to outmaneuver those who oppressed the sick and poor.
As President Trump aspires to be a modern Pharaoh, I hear campaigns respond to the rise of tyranny with messages about policy, or focused-grouped platitudes about a brighter future. It brings to mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “They dress the wounds of my people as if they were not serious. Peace, peace, they say when there is no peace.”
You cannot defeat evil with a stump speech. The darkness of this moment requires a brighter light. As people, pastors and prophets do the work of justice, we need political leaders to show us that they understand the stakes and will not shy away from telling the whole truth.
(This piece originally appeared at Patheos.)