Why I Won’t Be Reviewing Fire and Fury

Fire and FuryThere has been a flurry of coverage this week about Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which, from what I gather, is a largely uncomplimentary portrait of our current president. Questions have been raised about how the author gained such access, and the reliability of some sources. There has been a huge falling out between the president and a former adviser, who has had to step down from his leadership of Breitbart News. There was a “cease and desist” order which the publisher has ignored, selling out their first run of the book. [By the way, I think this is an unconstitutional attempt to abridge First Amendment press freedoms, to which the president, like all other citizens, is subject.]

While I fully support the right to publish this book, I won’t be reviewing it. Here’s why:

  1. Fundamentally,  I have to make choices about what I think is worth reviewing for the purposes of this blog, which is about what promotes the good, the true, and the beautiful. There are so many good books I want to read and review (some waiting to be read), and I honestly don’t think I have time for this “take down” book, whether accurate or not, which I will leave to others to debate.
  2. This is the kind of book, no matter what I write about it, that will confirm the views of those who oppose the president and arouse the ire of those who support him. It’s not a book that will change minds. Frankly, I don’t want to host an argument about the book on this blog.
  3. I think the more important discussions right now have to do with how we make this country work for all of its citizens, “red” or “blue.” I want to pay attention to voices articulating a bigger vision for our country. That’s why in the past year I’ve reviewed books by John Kasich and Ben Sasse, as well as by activists like Matthew Desmond and Bryan Stevenson.
  4. I suspect that many people who care about this book are already reading it, long before it would be possible for me, and you already have your opinions and don’t need mine.
  5. Finally, I don’t think this book will be part of our national discussion for very long. I have a sense that by the time I get to reviewing it (because of books already in my review queue), it will start turning up in the bargain bins at second hand stores.

For now at least, I’ve done all the reviewing of books on this president that I want to do in the one book I’ve reviewed bearing his name, Choosing Donald Trump. I like this book’s call for people of faith to exercise “prophetic distance” with this and all presidents. That’s different from unquestioning allegiance or hidebound opposition and calls us to a greater and more generous vision of our country and for our world. Those are the conversations I want to uphold.

Review: Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents.

I think it is safe to say that the United States has never seen a president like Donald J. Trump. That may be the one thing both those who support him and those who oppose him agree upon. When I came across Mansfield’s book, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter. However, I had read his fascinating narrative (reviewed here) of the Guinness family and the beer that bears their name, and so I thought I would take a chance on this book. There are several reasons I’m glad I did.

But first for an overview of the book. Mansfield begins with the unlikely rise of Trump, and the puzzling phenomenon of his defeat of a huge Republican field, with many candidates of accomplishment, character and religious faith, and then his defeat of a Democratic candidate who had probably spoken of her own religious faith more extensively and thoughtfully than most candidates. Though apparently religiously illiterate while claiming faith, known for sharp business practices, serial marriages, and sexually crude language about women and allegations of sexual impropriety, he managed to get elected with 81 percent of whites identifying as “evangelical” voting for him. Mansfield explores his background, and particularly the profound influence his father had upon his boy, who he nicknamed both “King” and “Killer,” raising a young man who always believed he must win, and for whom ruthlessness toward that end was warranted. Both military academy and early business associations with lawyer Roy Cohn deepened the killer instinct of this man who thought he must be king.

Oddly, this utterly secular, ruthless young man nevertheless had religious influences. The pastor who most influenced him was Norman Vincent Peale, with his theology of positive thought. For a young man relentlessly driven to pursue success to win the father approval he never knew, this was the ideal “theology,” one that brooked no possibility of failure or defeat, but believed that you could eventually do what you dream. Peale’s death left a religious vacuum in his life filled by evangelical prosperity televangelist Paula White, who Trump first met around 2000, who helped gather a group of pastors to pray for him in 2011, as he was grappling with a decision to run, counseling him that the time was not yet, and who now chairs his evangelical advisory council. She prayed at his inauguration, vigorously defends him as a born-again Christian, and has helped gather support of key evangelical leaders.

In the third part of the book, Mansfield turns from the formative influences in Trump’s life, past and present, to the factors, that propelled Trump into the White House. He speaks of the growing concern of evangelical leaders of Obama administration decisions that both violated moral convictions and policies that were encroaching on religious liberties. A pivotal point for Trump was when he realized the role the Johnson Amendment played in silencing evangelicals in the pulpit who wanted to speak out against these policies and support those who opposed them. He made overturning this amendment his rallying cry in support of religious liberty. He also offered an alternative to a candidate on one hand far more religious, and yet one whose statements about gay rights, in support of Planned Parenthood, and lack of engagement with evangelicals suggest to these evangelical leaders that things would only get worse in her administration. The result was support of Trump, likened to King Cyrus, a pagan king who yet accomplishes God’s purposes in liberating the Jews from exile. Finally, Mansfield briefly discusses how Trump proclaimed himself the “voice” of white working-class people struggling in the Obama economy, saying things people only felt free to say at dinner tables and working class bars.

The last part of the book discusses the relationship of religious leaders around the presidency and advocates a stance Mansfield calls “prophetic distance.” He describes how in the early years Billy Graham was seduced by presidential access and the decisions he later made:

Graham’s conclusion about his ministry was telling. After all of his years of friendships with presidents and being asked to comment on politics, he finally realized, ‘I have one message” — the gospel. He decided in his later years that he could have done more good by speaking his truth to presidents and politicians than by allowing himself to be pulled into their orbits, thus dissipating his message” (p. 137).

He then highlights the example of Paul Marc Goulet’s International Church of Las Vegas, and his Latino co-pastor Pasqual Urrabazo, who met Trump at a meeting at Trump Tower and told Trump of how offended he was about the things said of Hispanics and how wrong he was on immigration policy. Trump asked to meet his people and attend his church. Goulet did not give him the pulpit but allowed him to visit the church’s school, where he met former Vegas gang members. Goulet later said, “I won’t endorse candidates. But I will give them a chance to hear truth and see it in action. I will show them a picture of what, with God’s help, they might be.” This is what Mansfield believes the religious leaders who have gained access to Trump must do, or they will pay a great price.

As I mentioned, I liked this book for several reasons. One was that it was neither a hagiography or a screed, but a nuanced treatment of Trump, although I would have appreciated a stronger treatment of the element of racism in Trump’s appeal. The background of Trump’s life helped me realize this is both an extraordinarily driven, and yet wounded individual, that even at his father’s funeral had to talk about what his father would have thought of him. I also appreciated the chapters on the religious influences in his life. In particular, I had not appreciated the role Paula White has and continues to play in his life (see this recent story in the Washington Post). Finally, his advocacy of a role of “prophetic distance” for religious leaders who have access to the president is one I think important.

What the book doesn’t answer is whether those around the president have the breadth of vision that addresses the prophetic concerns of the Old Testament prophets for the poor, the stranger, and the marginalized of all ethnicities, and warns against the idolatry and materialism of the rich as well as advocating for a pro-life ethic and other concerns most popular among conservative evangelicals, including concerns for sexual morality in word and action.  What those who do enjoy this access to the president must consider, as Mansfield notes, is that they will face a great reckoning for how they have used this access. For the rest of us, whatever we think of the evangelical advisers around the president, it suggests they are worthy of our prayers, and perhaps our own prophetic engagement as their brothers and sisters.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like


President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes I’ve questioned friends of mine who are people of faith who constantly criticized the current president in social media, whether his last name was Bush or Obama. I’ve asked whether they prayed for their president as much as they posted against him. For any who claim to be attempting to live a biblically informed life, the Apostle Paul writes:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

I find myself a bit in the place of the friends I’ve chided. While I don’t make a habit of endless posts on political matters on Twitter or Facebook, which I just think is tiresome and disproportionate to the realities of life, I have to admit that this is not the president I wanted. That person never made it out of the primaries (yes, I’m going to leave you guessing!). But there is no wiggle room, at least for me, out of Paul’s injunction. And so here’s how I will pray for our incoming president.

O God, you rule over all things, and so even though I can’t make sense of it, this man will preside over our nation. Have mercy on him, and on us! He needs your mercy. He has been entrusted with and will answer for much as he presides over one of the great nations of the world. He can do great good or great harm, and one way or another will give account for his stewardship of this trust.

Grant him a humble heart as he comes to grips with the huge task before him, greater, really, than any single person can handle. May it drive him to his knees in the most fervent prayers of his lifetime, and take him to a new place of recognizing his need for the good will and aid of all the people he serves.

He will need wisdom beyond all the experience he has acquired. Grant him to cherish this more than gold or silver. Give him wise counselors who will not be an echo chamber of his own thoughts but will have the courage to say the hard thing. Grant him the greatness of soul that listens to the hard word for what can be learned, no matter who is speaking it.

I am fearful, Lord, when I hear we are in a “post truth” era. O God who sees into and discerns the heart, give our president the awareness that every word is spoken before one who is Truth, and who sees the things that are concealed. Grant him to grow in integrity and be led by truth in this office, that he would see the horror of deceiving those he serves.

I long for a society where “liberty and justice for all” is not just a pledge but the daily pursuit of our president and all our public servants. Grant our president as one who has come from the place of privilege and power to set an example of using these, and when necessary, laying them aside to lift up those without place or power. Grant him and all our public servants, and especially those who administer justice, to be impartial toward friend and enemy alike, in the righting of wrongs.

I do long for a peaceful and quiet life, not only for myself but for all people. Grant our president to pursue the things that make for peace, between parties, between peoples of different ethnicities, between our social classes, our religious groups, between men and women. Grant the greatness of soul that uses the gentle answer to turn away wrath and to plant a life giving tree in desert lands.

Grant our president a courage that is not rashness and a resolve that is not bravado in the service of justice and the proper defense of our land. At the same time, grant him a generous heart both for our people, and for the peoples of the world who share our humanity.

Finally, guard our president from dangers physical and spiritual. Protect his marriage from the estrangements that pressure can bring and his family from the dangers of the public spotlight and the temptations to undue influence.

O Lord, it strikes me that it would be a hypocrisy to pray these high and noble aspirations for our president, but to excuse myself from these same things. Grant the grace, power and courage to all who seek you to live up to these things, both for your glory, and the good of humankind. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I apologize if this is more “religious” than is to your taste. I like what Jim Wallis, the founder and president of Sojourners has said, that “faith is always personal but never private.” Authentic faith, it seems to me always has both public implications and public consequences. At very least, putting this prayer out to you, I hope will have the consequence of committing me to pray it, or prayers like it for our president. I hope you will hold me to that, and if you share my convictions about a biblically informed faith, join me in those prayers. Our president, our nation, and our world needs them.

[In response to comments on this post, I wrote a follow-up titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like“]