The President’s Men and the Emperor’s Clothes

by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis

The UN Climate Change Conference taking place this week in Bonn, Germany, is once again revealing how unrestrained exceptionalism is digging our country only deeper into global isolationism. As an American citizen, I am often confronted with the U.S. announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement at the COP21 meeting two years ago. America, the sole country deciding to abstain from the agreement, is alone in the world at this critical moment. But is President Trump alone in emboldening this disturbing dissociation?

Whether in public affairs or church politics, there is a tendency to criticize leaders and those with prominence and privilege. In Australia, we call it “tall poppy syndrome.” Over time, it can prove a moderate social leveler; but so often, because it results in nothing, it constitutes a meaningless personal catharsis and denigration. And while it may be a temptation to lay blame solely at the feet of leaders, it can frequently lead to a distraction of concern and deflection of accountability. In my modest experience with men of power, and particularly men in black, I have learned that it is sometimes futile to concentrate exclusively on those at the top and generally more fruitful to observe the loyalist admirers on the coattails and the uncritical adherents at the base. This may not always be a foolproof litmus test, but it is certainly a compelling indicator.

Let me flesh this out a little. It is, for instance, painless to denounce the ludicrous actions and scandalous attitudes of someone like Donald Trump. After all, it may be pointless to imagine he can either appreciate or accept any responsibility for ways and means he has brazenly espoused over an entire lifetime, for doings and dealings that have served him well as he exploited the world for his own interests. Instead, it is worthwhile looking at those basking in the shadows of Trump’s myopic and mercenary “greatness” – those who originally fashioned and slavishly idolize the “golden calf in the desert.” It is at this level that “all the president’s men” appear on the scene to pretend about “the emperor’s clothes.”

Regrettably, this differs little from much of my experience in the church. Here, too, complacency habitually spirals into complicity, and collusion only compounds corruption. It happens, of course, in every institution. Yet what is surely far worse than a morally destitute leader is invariably an entourage that flagrantly prostitutes fundamental values. Dwight Eisenhower once observed: “A people that values privileges above principles soon loses both.”

What, then, do we make of conservative and corporate leaders that encircle an oblivious and obnoxious leader? For all the blame leveled at someone like the president, the light of responsibility and accountability should in fact be shined at the president’s men, at all those who ardently embrace and avidly endorse his leadership for political or personal gain, even when they are no longer part of the official government entourage. I concur that people “would not have embraced someone like Trump in the first place – an indecent man with a record of multiple bankruptcies, unpaid bills and alleged sexual harassments who lies as he breathes” – unless “they cynically decided to take a ride” on his back in order “to exploit it for any number of different agendas.” (New York Times, May 18, 2017)

What is still more contemptible is observing individuals of high standing and in leadership positions – whether in the community or the church – naively assuming that the present administration somehow offers glimpses of hope and potential either from some vaguely partisan or obscure religious perspective. I have seen people revel in party superiority – despite the brazen breach of party principles. And I have seen people gloat in nationalistic supremacy, both American and Greek – despite the hollow shell of cultural promises. After all, who is it that reflects Reagan’s legacy? Bannon or Pence? And who is it that reflects the triumph of Hellenism? Priebus or Papadopoulos?

One of the casualties of an exceptionally-White House is the environment – the most vulnerable and inaudible beneficiary of our greedy and uncharitable ways. Indeed, “what will we have to say for ourselves if we do not speak for the trees?” It is plainly futile to address climate change with someone that has a severely myopic and narcissistic worldview, surrounding himself with toady cabinet appointees at the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. But should we expect more from the distinguished leaders and faith defenders, who encircle such a self-serving ruler?

And it is not just creation care. Notwithstanding pockets of resistance, I have watched Christians passively acquiescing or patently applauding the presidential orders and actions on immigration, taxation and foreign aid. Others appear content with the trade-off of a pro-life, anti-gay administration for issues of healthcare and taxation reform. But will religious conservatives recall the teachings of Christ about indiscriminate compassion when such teachings do not either conveniently or comfortably align with the politics of discrimination and disinterest toward the poor or displaced? Will corporate America stand up for the vulnerable and marginalized? And will a divided congress stand up for equality and justice for all?

When it comes to espousing or renouncing Trump, it might be more effective to look at all those who stood beside him for the wrong reasons – religious or political, social or national. In order to understand what might be wrong with the White House, just observe its staff with its corporate leaders with their profitable ambitions, its religious leaders with their messianic expectations, and its partisan leaders with their drive for positions. When the noise of scandal subsides, it will be intriguing to remember who showed up for the photo-ops. And it will be illuminating to recall the common denominator between those inclined to defend him and those impatient to deny him.

Separation of church and state notwithstanding, if we are true to ourselves and honest to God, we should examine to what degree our political convictions are genuinely inspired or influenced by Christ’s commandments? Could the opposite at times hold true? Might someone’s personal perspectives or social parameters mold – even determine – one’s religious creed? A revered friend used to say there is no comfortable way of sitting on the cross; and if we find one, he would add, we are probably not on the cross. It may be tempting to choose – superficially or simplistically – between opposites. But that is neither “the narrow way” nor even “the scandal of the cross,” both of which involve – perhaps even invite – unresolved tension and ongoing struggle for peace within ourselves and justice in the world.

The COP23 meeting in Bonn will affirm and advance the Paris Accord of 2016, while the United States will continue to remain on the sidelines, in spite of the administration’s recent Climate Change Assessment report cited “no convincing alternative explanation [to climate change than human influence as] the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” (Climate Science Special Report, 11/3/2017) Since there are no repercussions for them, the president’s men will ignore this science and persist in saying that the emperor’s clothes are the most handsome in all the kingdom.

The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Orthodox Church.

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.