Utah-based artist Jon McNaughton is known for his grandiose artworks that blend religious and political ideology. Last year, he donated one of his paintings, titled National Emergency, to be auctioned on behalf of the Arizona Republican Party.
The work itself depicts a reverent and concerned Donald Trump, his hands clasped together and head bowed as if in prayer, somberly examining a baby doll that lays on the ground. Trailing from the background to the foreground is the U.S.-Mexico border, weaving through the dark and stormy landscape. Trump’s Democrat political rivals are to his left, defiantly standing on a desecrated and torn star-spangled banner, while proudly holding the Mexican flag. McNaughton’s paintings often forego subtlety in place of a direct message — a message that God’s humble servant, President Trump, is the last thing standing between America and her enemies, critics and strangers that wish to intrude.
But God himself has a lot to say about our treatment of strangers. In Matthew, for example, we read the famous words, “I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” It seems a little contradictory to a policy of mass-deportation, doesn’t it? In fact, Trump’s policies at the border have been so abhorrent that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement condemning the systematic separation of families occurring on our southern border.
I don’t find myself disturbed by McNaughton’s paintings solely due to my criticism of Trump, but because, in propagandistic portrayals that would make North Korea proud, McNaughton has effectively combined his affection for American exceptionalism with what he perceives to be the approval of God.
While we may separate church and state in writing, in culture, they seem inescapably intertwined. And how could they not be? According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans are Christian, with 85% of those who identify as conservative being Christian.
This phenomenon extends beyond a general glance at republicans. In fact, the majority of liberal-leaning citizens in the U.S. are Christians as well. For many, it is an uncomfortable realization that the Obama administration was also in favor of ruthlessly detaining and deporting millions of immigrants and complicit in separating families. Data from 2015 estimates that the Obama administration had, in the span of a year, put about 100,000 children through migration-related detention. So even if you agree with the Democratic Party’s current criticism toward Trump’s immigration policies, it still seems to come from the place of an unbelievable double-standard.
A further investigation of U.S. history would reveal what most disgruntled Americans already know — that our current two-party system is really just two sides of the same coin; a morally gray and inconsistent world power engaging in endless wars, surveillance and self-serving financial protections. We discover that for a country supposedly founded on Christian principles, with practically every single president in U.S. history identifying as Christian, it lacks Christian characteristics.
An honest look at our country’s shortcomings reveals that the status quo cannot truly be in line with our Christian values. Then why do we as Christians fall so easily into the trap of thumping our chests in nationalistic pride? Why do we seem to be trapped in a culture where criticizing the president, the country or the fundamental way things are, feels not only un-American but un-Christian? Are we violating some “Manifest Destiny” by questioning why the CIA violated international law to torture prisoners? Are we trampling on some divine law by examining evidence that the U.S. did not have to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan?
As Noam Chomsky once said concerning the arena of political debate in the U.S., “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
As Christians, we need to be unafraid to be radical, to glance outside of that spectrum and demand something deeper and better. And who better to turn to than arguably the most subversive figure of all time, Jesus Christ.
Jesus, as a manger-born, working-class carpenter who often wandered homeless, challenged all authority, whether it was religious or the political state. He died not only for our sins but as a martyr against rulers. He challenged the authority of our egos. He told us to deny ourselves, to lose ourselves, to take up our cross and follow Him. His disciples endured house arrest, beatings and executions.
As sinners, we will never be able to live up to what is fully demanded of us. I know I won’t. It is only through the grace of Christ that we can find solace and peace in our shortcomings, a knowledge that we are unconditionally loved and saved, which is in and of itself, a radical idea. From His revolutionary teachings to healing those who harmed Him, Jesus truly was a radical.
My purpose here is not to pander and preach about my specific policy proposals or political ideals, but to challenge myself and those around me as Christians to embrace a rejection of the status quo, something that has always characterized Jesus himself. A rejection of the status quo does not just mean to be “in the world but not of the world” in our personal journeys, but to outwardly seek to help the world itself.
A prime example of this was a radical Christian named Martin Luther King Jr., who always taught that following Christ meant striving for transformative justice on a larger scale.
Dr. King, a year before he was assassinated, at Riverside Church in New York City, remarked, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth … and say ‘This is not just.'”
Christ has every possible virtue we would ever want to emulate. I know that I personally have a long way to go and a lot more to understand, but together, may we all try a little harder to embrace one characteristic that is often overlooked — His radicalism.
Or, instead, you could go buy one of McNaughton’s prints that are available on his website for $29.00, plus shipping.