In Helsinki, Trump's behavior — taking Russia's side over the country he was elected to lead and the intelligence agencies that report to him — has been called indefensible, by many of America's defense and intelligence veterans and a handful of Republicans — mostly those not running for re-election.
Since then, Trump has been playing with words. The president's transparently insincere "clarification" that he meant to say "I don't see why it wouldn't be [Russia]," rather than "I don't see why it would be," was contradicted both by his own off-script asides ("There's a lot of other people out there") and in his response to press questions ("No," to whether the Russians are still trying to meddle in U.S. elections), later interpreted by press secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders that he had just meant for the press to leave the room.
That, of course, is directly counter to what Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said Monday about "warning lights...blinking red" over Russian plans to disrupt the 2018 midterm elections this year.
This is a cowardly and selfish way to think and operate, especially in a time like this. Unfortunately, in all my years working in Washington, I probably don't need two hands to count the number of politicians, in either party, who are willing to take actions that they know will cause them to lose the next election, unless they are already planning to leave office.
And that means that, for now, we are stuck with a strongman running and undermining our democracy.
Make no mistake: A strongman is what Trump has always been, and now desires to be as president of the United States. His admiration for autocrats is by no means confined to Vladimir Putin, as he has seemed to reserve much of his praise in public and private comments for autocratic leaders like President Erdogan of Turkey and Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and much of his criticism for allies leading European democracies. He finds the checks and balances of the American system inconvenient, and he clearly wishes that even the modest checks he has had to contend with so far weren't there.
Given Republican refusal to hold him accountable for any of his actions or statements, he faces less and less accountability going forward.
So, let's go back to reclaiming Jesus. Where does this leave us, as Christians? What can we do? And why should even the Christian voters who agree with some of Trump's policies and Supreme Court appointments still be deeply troubled by his admiration for strongman leadership, his disdain for accountability, and especially his regular undermining of the truth?
The answer has everything to do with the one whom Christians everywhere claim to follow — Jesus Christ.
As we made clear in our Reclaiming Jesus declaration, Jesus did not embody or endorse the strongman style of leadership. On the contrary, Jesus taught, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." (Matt. 20:25-26)
As the elders said in our Reclaiming Jesus declaration:
"We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God...
Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority...
We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger threatening democracy and the common good—and we will resist it."
In that light, the president's constant self-contradictions and outright lies this week, and every week, is also something we need to continue to mark and contrast it with what Jesus taught. A commitment to speaking truth, to "not bear false witness," is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32). And regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation's highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children.
Donald Trump's behavior in Helsinki was not just shameful and disastrous. It was also, on a deeper level, clarifying. Trump has always acted as a "strongman" in his bullying leadership style, and he got away with it in his world of real estate, reality TV, and beauty queen pageants. But now he is the president of the United States. Trump has been a liar his whole life — a word that the media commentators are only slowly getting comfortable using to describe a president.
But Trump is more than a liar. He has always tried to change what people believe about the truth — suggesting that there actually is not really any truth, and people should just believe whatever Trump says. Listen to him, and hear him in any situation trying to change the truth to whatever he says it is. This goes all the way back to day one of his presidency, his inauguration day, when Trump said the sun was shining though it was continually raining. It has been raining on democracy ever since.
The false strongman whose strength is based upon the undermining of the truth will get stronger in coming days, unless there is courageous political opposition against him.
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, in another time of crisis, "We've got some difficult days ahead."
We can't control all the politics, but we can decide what we will do.
It is time for Christians lift up the truth over falsehood, as a way of life. To defend public service over political tyranny. And to always protect the increasingly vulnerable.
It is time to reclaim Jesus.