How might a pastor interpret President Donald Trump's address to the Joint Session of Congress on February 28, 2017? Certainly not like pundits, journalists, or vested interests. As a pastor concerned about sin and grace in human lives, I want to get at the big lie that Americans tell themselves about what pulls us together. The big lie is this: the death of the soldier is a sacrifice for American freedom. What makes this lie so powerful is that we all believe it. Both Republicans and Democrats together believe it. The only people who do not believe this lie are the parents of William Ryan Owens.
In advance of the address, the president leaked that he would call for unity, unity between Republicans and Democrats. How might he pull this off? With conciliatory compromise? No, of course not. His method was one adopted by Ronald Reagan and repeated by presidents during many State of the Union speeches since. The method is to create a sacred moment, a moment of secular spirituality, a moment so holy that no one dare even hint at criticism. The sacred for all Americans whether atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Spiritual-But-Not-Religions is the sacrificial death of the soldier. By unconsciously stealing the Christian symbol of the sacrificial death of God's Son and applying it to the U.S. soldier, the symbol explodes with irresistible unifying power.
Let's remind ourselves of just how our president's rhetoric pulled this off. Near the end of the address, President Trump drew our attention to Carryn Owens, the widow of an American soldier slain in battle in Yemen. Whether her husband, William Ryan Owens, was shot by the enemy or by friendly fire has yet to be determined. Regardless, he is a hero. But, this is not the point. The point is this: how can the president unify Republicans and Democrats? Answer: by turning the dead soldier into a scapegoat, a scapegoat sacrificed for the sake of national unity. Here' is how the trick was pulled off. Listen to the president's words again [http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/28/politics/donald-trump-speech-transcript-full-text]/.]
"We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William 'Ryan' Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation.... Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- we will never forget him."
The president has cleverly stolen the Christian symbol of atonement and applied it to the soldier whose sacrifice not only exhibits divine love but, most importantly, is salvific for our nation. The soldier saves.
At this most holy of moments, all in the room stood for three successive standing ovations. No matter how distasteful Democrats find their Republican president, they stood in exuberant respect, solemnity, and virtual worship of their soldier savior. This readied the audience for the crescendo conclusion: "We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God."
Please note that there are two kinds of scapegoats, the visible and the invisible. During his campaign, President Trump attempted to create national unity by identifying visible scapegoats: Mexican immigrants, radical Islamic terrorists, Obamacare advocates, and the media. The visible scapegoat is the purported enemy. Far more effective, of course, is the invisible scapegoat. The invisible scapegoat is one of us, not an enemy. The sacrificed soldier is one of us, is us. This is why the scapegoat mechanism must remain concealed, hidden though in plain view.
As a pastor, I simply want to point out sin when I see it. Sin here takes the form of national unity bought with blood and sacrifice, either figuratively or literally. In reality, there is no metaphysical mechanism whereby blood and sacrifice accrues to the benefit of a nation, unless that nation be a conqueror, robber, or pillager. Scapegoating the soldier is a lie. But, it is a very effective lie. It prompted a moment of ecstatic national unity.