How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made …
— George Herbert, “Love (I)”
I sometimes meditate on a poem by George Herbert in my morning prayers, assisted by Helen Wilcox’s marvelous annotations [i] (the poet’s 17th-century idioms can be obscure for the contemporary reader). And although “Love (I)” is not one of Herbert’s best poems, these lines jumped out at me when I read them today, for the debasement of the divine Name by American extremists has been very much on my mind.
For example: Last week on Newsmax, a far-right cable channel, Eric Bolling (fired by Fox News in 2017 for sexual harassment) was interviewing conspiracy fabulist Lara Logan (“dumped”—her words—by Fox six months ago). Their subject was immigration at the southern border, which Logan said was a plot “to dilute the pool of patriots” in the United States.
Bolling: “How does it end?”
Logan: “… this is a spiritual battle. I am a firm and solid and immovable believer in God and I believe that God wins.… and if you fight for god, god will fight for you.”
Bolling: “I have to ask you, because my audience is very god-fearing, god-loving, etc. Final thought, please, just a couple seconds: Is god ok with a closed border?”
Logan: “… God believes in sovereignty and national identity and the sanctity of families and all the things that we’ve lived with since the beginning of time, and he knows that the open border is Satan’s way of taking control of the world through all of these people who are his stooges and his servants … the ones who want us eating insects, cockroaches and that while they dine on the blood of children.”
Bolling (nervously): “Ha, ha, yeah.” [ii]
A day later, the opening prayer at the “ReAwaken America” tour in East Hempfield Township, Pennsylvania, went like this:
“Father god, we come to you in the name of Jesus. We’re asking you to open the eyes of president Trump’s understanding, that he will know the time of divine intervention, that he will know how to implement divine intervention, and you will surround him, father, with none of this Deep-State trash, none of this RINO trash. You will surround him with people that you pick with your own mighty hand. In the name of Jesus.”
The crowd, including Eric Trump, Michael Flynn (his father’s disgraced national security adviser), and the current Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, repeated this evil prayer phrase by phrase.
White “Christian” nationalism is on the rise in America. It’s a toxic mixture of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, resentment and rage, thinly dressed in pious nostalgia, theological ignorance, and historical lies. For the increasingly extreme right, these are features, not bugs: 61% of Republicans—and 78% of Republican evangelicals—believe the United States should be declared “a Christian nation.” [iii]
I shudder to imagine what they have in mind, but I’m sure it has more to do with reactionary tribal identity and fear of the “other” than with the gospel, or love, or justice, or caring for the vulnerable, or welcoming the stranger, or healing God’s creation. And it’s not just a disgruntled and deluded mob that wants a more theocratic and less inclusive America. The defilement of both democracy and religion extends to the highest levels of government.
I have written previously about the Supreme Court rushing in where angels fear to tread, substituting highly contested theological assertions for legal reasoning. If Republicans have their way in upcoming elections, it will only get worse. In a carefully argued response to the Dobbs decision on abortion, legal scholar Laurence Tribe warns,
“… as the Court continues on the path of replacing long-settled individual rights with religiously inspired mandates, the odds would increase that the rules under which we live will reflect the preferences of ever smaller minorities.” [iv]
Gilead, here we come.
In the January 6 insurrection, the rallying cry was “God! Guns! Trump!” The mob carried signs and shouted slogans proclaiming the will of God and the will of Trump to be identical. One attacker later told the Wall Street Journal how he sought divine guidance before storming the Capitol:
“Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. “I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’” [v]
It is distressing to hear the word “god” on the lips of the wicked. But not shocking. Taking God’s name in vain is an ancient sin, from the Crusaders and Inquisitors of the past to the terrorists and extremists (including elected officials!) of our own day. Whether they sincerely believe that ultimate reality is backing them up, or cynically employ the word to authorize their own seething id, “god” on their lips becomes drained of meaningful content. It refers to nothing outside themselves. To borrow Herbert’s image, they have “parcel’d” out the divine Name, cut it into tiny pieces and tossed it into the trash.[vi]
Of course, “God” has never been a proper name. It’s more of a nickname, enabling us to talk to or talk about the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) or the “Love who loves us” (my personal favorite[vii]) without thinking we have reduced the Real to the dimensions of language. The Holy One has many such nicknames: Kyrie, Deus, Abba, Creator, Deliverer, Father, Mother, Spirit, and countless others. In Herbert’s poem, the “glorious name” is “Immortal Love.” If “love” had been invoked instead of “god” by the mob at the Capitol, might it have tempered their violence or extinguished their rage? Or would Love, too, have been thrown so carelessly into the dust?
Seventy years ago, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a moving defense of the problematic necessity of “God” language in human discourse. I first heard this passage read aloud in a theology class by one of my great mentors, the saintly Robert McAfee Brown. It touched my heart then, and has remained with me through the years:
“‘God’ is the most heavy-laden of human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger-marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! … We may not give the word ‘God’ up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about the ‘last things’ for a time in order that misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.” [viii]
[i] Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Each poem is accompanied by extensive notes and a survey of modern critical views.
[ii] I have not capitalized “god” in these kinds of statements, since they speak of something quite other than God. https://twitter.com/JasonSCampbell/status/1583069972267696134?s=20&t=KwdkjkDH7hvg0GSnYm79NA
[iv] Laurence Tribe, “Deconstructing Dobbs,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 22, 2022, p. 81.
[v] Michael M. Phillips, Jennifer Levitz, and Jim Oberman, One Trump Fan’s Descent Into the Capitol Mob, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/one-trump-fans-descent-into-the-u-s- capitol-mob-11610311660 I found it in Andrew L. Seidel, “Attack on the Capitol: Evidence of the Role of White Christian Nationalism,” which contains many such examples. Seidel’s article is Part VI of a highly recommended report and analysis, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection”: https://bjconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Christian_Nationalism_and_the_Jan6_Insurrection-2-9-22.pdf
[vi] Herbert’s poem was contrasting the immensity of divine love with the trivializing reductions and diminishments of love we creatures of dust make when we apply it to the wrong object. But as I say at the outset, his lines seem a perfect match for the misuses we make of “God” in our political life.
[vii] From Terence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life (2011).
[viii] Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God (1952), 8-9.