I come neither to praise President Donald Trump, nor to bury him and his followers with unjustified attacks. This is instead a layperson’s exegesis of this moment, relying on parts of The Bible neither the evangelical Right nor mainline Protestants seem too familiar with anymore. That is the literature of exile, hidden in plain sight, deeply embedded in the founding texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition and neglected at our own risk.
We begin with Exodus.
Who reads Exodus anymore? The evil warden of “The Shawshank Redemption” did not, or else he would have discovered Dufresne’s rock hammer long before the prison break. Andy knew he could count on Warden Norton to hold the Good Book, but never open it. These days, stick a $20 bill in a pew Bible at Exodus 20 (The Ten Commandments) and it’ll stay there until Jesus comes back.
The Exodus story is child’s play, or a children’s play, we think: bad guy Pharaoh, good guy Moses, plagues and miracles, escape, a couple of tablets, some slow parts here and there, Promised Land.
But the story is far more complex than that, with lessons for today that even unbelievers might acknowledge — and believers should never have forgotten.
God and Moses go on for nearly 12 chapters up on Mount Sinai after the Commandments while discussing the ground rules for Judaism — all the way down to the bells on his brother Aaron’s chief-priest vestments.
Meanwhile, the Israelites down below get restless. Bored, distracted. Their ship had not come in yet. So they go to Aaron with a request: let’s make our own gods! All-in, Aaron calls for their gold and they create a molten, golden calf.
You might remember that part. But what happens next in the story?
God is pissed. As in, wipe-them-off-the-map angry. The First and Second Commandments, flagrantly violated before Moses even made it back down the mountain! This anger didn’t end with Noah and the rainbow, although that’s the implication from feel-good Christianity these days. In Exodus 32:10, God’s plan is for everyone at the foot of the mountain to be erased from the spiritual scorecard, a massive mulligan, followed by a do-over starting with Moses.
Moses talks God out of it, but just barely. The consequences are still severe: the Levites among them kill off thousands of the idolaters, a plague is sent, and God’s countenance is hidden from the “stiff-necked people.” One punishment is literally bitter: the calf is ground to gold dust by Moses, stirred into the water, and the Israelites are forced to drink it (Exodus 32:20). Forty years in the wilderness await them — exile, punishment for disobedience.
Whether this is a fairy tale or Scripture to you, the arc of the story is this: laws; stupefying, fundamental rejection of them; bitter consequences; and exile. We half-learn this ancient story at our Santayanan peril.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
“We are a government of laws and not of men,” wrote John Adams in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. But no President has challenged this notion at the federal level so fiercely as candidate, President-elect, and now President Trump. Just ask former FBI director James Comey, who was asked by Trump for personal loyalty rather than loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, and paid for his refusal with his job. Trump has successfully tapped into the impatience and discontent of a frustrated electorate to promise a focus on self, on wealth, on America first. It is hardly a coincidence that the symbol of the financial world of Trump is, indeed, a golden bull-calf, following Exodus 32 to the letter.
The point: a compelling case can be made for Donald Trump as a golden calf, an American idol slaying most of the Ten Commandments while glorifying most of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Trump’s orange glow is a nearly novelistic detail in this context, a fallen and bruised fool’s gold. Only Satan, not modern chemistry, could make gold rust.
This should not cause us to stammer in disbelief, however. This story is as old as, well, Moses. People of faith should realize that American exceptionalism, as interpreted to mean that the USA is exempt from failure, is just another form of hubris; even the Founding Fathers’s wisdom and our system of checks and balances could not protect us indefinitely. It is not ironic but perhaps inevitable that the assault on our system and on bedrock values would be head-on, applied directly to the fountainhead of our republic: white Christianity. The temptation to rebel blindly, to look out for Number One while voting for number two, is not subtle. None of us is immune.
What will happen now? Our political pundits provide no more persuasive guidance than this story does, namely:
Downfall of the Idol: Calves, golden or orange, are unsteady on their feet, as is Trump. Those more sure-footed in the law, whether they be special counsels or spiritual challengers, will make the necessary sacrifice.
Purging of the Faithful: The idol was composed of the Israelites’ wealth. Ultimately, they drank their wealth — whether to render them ill with toxicity and ready for Levite slaughter, or to punish them, or as a purification ritual, or all three, is not known. The biologically inescapable conclusion, however, is that the Israelites literally pissed away their riches. So it will be for those who fell for Trump’s aura and created the Trump phenomenon; they will be in worse shape than when they went astray. As Republican consultant Rick Wilson has said prophetically, “Everything Trump touches dies.”
Exile and Re-examination: There is no quick return to normalcy. There will be wandering and difficult times. #NotMuchWinning. Lessons learned the hard, long way. Those who nostalgically dream of a reset button to an earlier time are going to be crushed. The Promised Land will not be in sight; nor the Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea.
This is not how the story ends, however. It is what lies immediately before us, I contend. Whether it is God’s judgment on sinners in his angry hands, or simply demosclerosis, the wasting of our secular governmental flesh, will be in the eye of the beholder.