Donald Trump

It’s time to focus on Trump and his administration’s issues.

In recent polls, Donald Trump’s approval ratings hover around 35%. Yet, if you listen to certain media outlets, you can still hear epithets hurled at Hillary Clinton. “She lied.” “She’s treasonous.” “She deleted emails from her private server.”

The problem is that months after the inauguration, the personal and political failings of his opponent should be old news.

It’s time to focus on Trump and his administration’s issues, perhaps the foremost among which are the ethics that serve as a model to the rest of the country and as a beacon to the world. Here should be the focus for the President – and the country.

Almost 500 years ago, in 1536, John Calvin, widely considered the founding father of Presbyterianism, the denomination President Trump claims, published his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In its first line, Calvin states, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin’s brilliant insight says humanity truly does not know itself until it knows itself in relation to God.

Calvin’s concept is widely accepted by all Christians, evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Even the various forms of the New Calvinism, popular among American evangelicals, acknowledge that the truest way a human knows him or herself is in relation to God.

The dynamic of knowing ourselves in relation to God can be jarring. In my theology classes, I sometimes begin an exercise by asking students if they consider themselves good people. Answers vary from “yes” (sometimes) to “no” (very infrequently) and “sometimes” (occasionally). But when I follow up with the question, “How do you know that?,” the answer inevitably morphs into, “Well, I’m better than the thief, or the murderer, or the cheater.” Then I clarify. “What if you compare yourself to God?” Virtually everyone’s answer becomes: “Well, then I’m not a good person.”

That was Calvin’s point. If we’re able to identify someone worse, we consider ourselves morally fine. Most of us don’t know murderers and thieves, or even minor criminals, but we believe we’re good people because we’re not like them. Calvin points out that there is an absolute standard of pure goodness against which we are measured – and that is God.

The Roman politician Cicero sought the same goal of an absolute standard in politics when he told the myth of the ring of Gyges. The ring of Gyges was magic; it granted invisibility to anyone who wore it. The power of the ring raised the question – is a person moral if no one knows he had been immoral? Cicero’s answer was that the truly moral person makes every decision as if people are watching. He cherishes both his reputation and his intrinsic character.

These insights about the necessity of ethical standards matter in politics, and they should be heeded by the Trump Administration.

The administration's conduct should be judged against a set of absolute standards. Whether these are the commands of the God Donald Trump claims to worship, or simply a wise effort to maintain the reputation of the office of the president and the character of all who work there, the issue is to meet an absolute standard, rather than the relative measure of being better than Hillary Clinton (or anyone else).

The White House and the presidency stand as a symbol of American values in the U.S. and beyond. Donald Trump is the president of the United States. With the office come standards that his administration has failed to meet.

The Trump administration must address its issue with truth and integrity. As Americans, we have become perhaps too cynical about political speech. But there is a difference between coloring the facts to make one’s point and pure falsehood. When President Trump proclaimed there were more attendees at his inauguration than at any other, he lied. When Sean Spicer repeated the assertion, it did not become true. Likewise, when the president pronounced repeatedly that he would have won the popular vote if three to five million illegal votes had not been cast for Hillary Clinton, against evidence from every state election commission, he lied again.

Additionally, Team Trump must begin to treat people, even those with whom they disagree, with decorum and respect – for two reasons. As a Christian, Trump should remember that all people are created in the image of God. As a citizen, he should realize that the Declaration of Independence proclaims all are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.

The effort to treat people graciously (if there has been an effort) has been an abject failure. As a candidate, Donald Trump ridiculed a handicapped reporter, used pejorative names for his opponents, and encouraged his supporters to beat up a protester at one of his rallies. His newly appointed communications director used language with a reporter that could not be printed

Some proclaimed, wrongly, that President Trump would become more presidential upon assuming office, forgetting that a man of 70 should have developed civility decades ago. Such is not the case.

Throughout his time in office, the president, like his predecessors, has been dogged by reporters asking about issues he’d prefer not to address. Instead of finding a punching bag to absorb his ire, the president chooses Twitter and constantly attacks those who disagree as he pivots to the claim of “fake news.” The Russia story – fake news. The accusation that he fired FBI Director James Comey because he wouldn’t halt the Russia investigation – a lie, until he said it was true.

If anything, the president’s personal attacks on those with whom he disagrees have escalated. On Twitter, he said MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski was “Low-I.Q. Crazy Mika, bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she visited Mar-a-Lago. He was supported by his staff of enablers. Then Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, replying to a question about whether this was appropriate, said “absolutely,” since far worse had been said about her boss. (It is true that Brzezinski has called Trump “unhinged.” But she did not descend to talking about his personal appearance, assail his native intelligence.)

The White House appears to have learned the lesson of the Ring of Gyges, only in reverse. It seems to believe it can do anything it chooses, and cover it up, because it has power. This model of thought is revealed in the constant anger of President Trump about leaks from his staff. His embarrassment stems not from the faults that were caught, but from the leaks.

The theologian Kathryn Tanner noted that the choices we make change us. She wrote of the malleability of humans, and asserted that humans, “take their identities from the uses to which they put themselves, like vessels that gain their character from whatever they are made to carry. Earthenware or pure gold, what goes into them for certain purposes establishes what they are; whatever their fundamental constitution as vessels, when full of s#$t (for example) they can only be s#$t pots.”[1]

Tanner makes her point scatologically, but she’s right. When Trump treats personal and professional ethics as he does, he coarsens himself and the office. He makes it impossible for Americans or foreign leaders to believe anything from his administration. The White House seems to accept the idea that our allies and our enemies will not trust our word because there is no integrity to stand as its guarantor.

Just as Trump’s charade of honor stains the character of everyone in the administration, it also sets an example for Americans. Our presidents have always had an enormous influence on American culture. The Trump administration’s model of unethical behavior will have incalculable negative effects on the integrity, truthfulness and morality of the nation.

Donald Trump’s six months have been tumultuous. He conforms neither to Cicero’s admonition to live life as if always under scrutiny, nor Calvin’s ideal of an absolute standard of holiness against which one cannot measure up, but must try. Instead, the Trump White House has damaged itself and its ability to govern, while contributing to the degradation of American civil discourse and culture. How does that make America great again?

[1] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, 44-45.

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