What Does God Need With a Political Starship?
Faith and politics are not strangers in America, but this is coming at it a tad high. Did we as a people learn nothing from Star Trek V?
With the President’s fortunes in the election, in court, and just about everywhere else going poorly, there has been an upswell in his supporters making appeals to a higher authority to try change the tides of fate.
“We seriously, sincerely cry out to you,” former Congresswoman & presidential candidate Michele Bachmann prayed on a tweeted video: “We ask you, O God, for deliverance, that our country may continue to know freedom. Would you deliver these races in Georgia, O Father? Would you deliver various local and state races, Father … and O God, I personally ask, for myself, Michele Bachmann, Lord, would you allow Donald Trump to have a second term as president of the United States?”
Faith and politics are not strangers in America, but this is coming at it a tad high. Fearing that many of those who heard his words of reconciliation in his second inaugural address would not heed them, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them”. He was proven right, although he wouldn’t live to see it. And apparently, the more things change the more they, apparently, stay the same.
God always answers prayers, Ms. Rule taught us in Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean you will like the answer, or even recognize it, or even know he has… if all you are looking for is the answer you want. Ego is such a part of dealing with the divine that every major faith addresses it. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, mankind’s first notable act was to demonstrate he thought he knew better than God and thus ruin the whole plan right from the start.
Good going, Adam.
So, it is better — in my humble but accurate opinion — to deal with matters of faith by coming at them with a whole heaping bunch of humility, even more personal honesty, and a fair amount of admitting what you do and don’t know and can and can’t control. Or, as Henry Ward Beecher put it, “It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.”
This deep and profound struggle between the ego of man and accurately reading the divine was addressed by noted Canadian thespian William Shatner in his 1989 theological magnum opus — in which he both wrote the story for, starred in, and directed — Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Shatner’s original idea for the movie that is now widely-panned and infamous as the worst of the 13-and-counting Star Trek films, was for Kirk and crew to battle not God, but Satan pretending to be God. This plot was inspired by the televangelists of the ’80s that were, even by 2020 standards, a hot mess and readymade villains regardless of planet.
Criticized both for being too religious for a Trek film and bearing too many similarities to the not-well-received Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this outing saw the Enterprise forcibly commandeered by Spock’s long-lost half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckenbill), to undertake a literal quest for God. While some of the comedy bits and the relationships between the characters drew praise, most dismissed the film as a mess that tried to answer a question that no one asked, “What does God need with a starship?”
Ahead of Shatner’s new book Live Long And… What I Might Have Learned Along The Way hitting shelves, the website Trek Movie has offered up some tidbits gleaned from its pages. Among them is a recollection that when producers rejected Shatner’s original idea (which was inspired by televangelists, and would have revealed “God” as actually being the devil), they offered him a deal: compromise on the script and he could still sit in the director’s chair. Shatner now believes that his willingness to alter the story “doomed the picture from the beginning.”
While whether or not keeping the original idea of having Kirk square off with Satan in order to rescue Bones and Spock from Hell would have saved the film from infamy is debatable, at least Shatner now acknowledges that he bears some responsibility for an entry that almost killed the franchise.
I must disagree: “What does God need with a starship?” is a pressing matter of the day. It gets to the core of faith in a higher power: if God is indeed all-powerful and ruling over the affairs of humankind to one degree or another, then God does not need humans to be so, or else God is not God at all. It turns out Shatner was just ahead of his time, because here we are in the Year of Our Lord 2020 and here come the Sybokians on a quest to find God at the new center of the (political) universe: Georgia.
A group of evangelical Christians plans a barnstorming tour of Georgia this weekend to press for “biblical citizenship” and “restoration of biblical values and constitutional principles” ahead of the state’s runoff election for its two U.S. Senate seats.
“Georgia has become the center of the political universe,” said the tour’s website, “and the body of Christ has the opportunity to protect our God given freedoms for generations to come.”
The tour is headlined by Rick Green, founder of the Christian nationalist Patriot Academy; conservative Christian author and activist David Barton; and his son Tim, a minister who runs the activist group WallBuilders with his father.
Other featured speakers include actor and activist Kirk Cameron; Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.); former congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.); Charlie Kirk, conservative activist and co-founder of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center; and conservative comedian Brad Stine.
God needs the starship of the American system of governance, you see, according to this group. His will on Earth can only be accomplished through the application of raw political force to exert influence for American political parties, and make sure you really show your faith by donating to our various 501C3s, they will say. This is a good dividing line that needs to be discerned between folks of faith and good will, and others who scheme and plot for their own devices under cloak and gimmick of religion. Those who need God for their spiritual needs, and those who need you to need God to need a spaceship so political things can get done. All this unbridled talk of God and politics in the aftermath of an election that saw plenty of…
Actually, hold that thought. Let’s back up…
It is 1999, in the way way back, the before times, prior to social media, smartphones, and when Amazon still mostly sold books. The governor of Texas caused a sensation with a comment he made in Iowa:
The Washington Post took note of this development back then:
For evangelicals, who make up the nation’s most active religious voting bloc, Bush’s answer was something of a coming out: In their circles, Bush is legendary for his spontaneous outbursts about the impact of Christ on his life, but this was the first time the nation got a chance to hear one.
“I was watching the debate with my wife and daughter in the room, neither of whom are political junkies,” said Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. “And when they heard that answer they both stopped what they were doing, looked at me and said ‘Wow’.”
But others were more skeptical. “To see Christ as a political philosopher is to lose sight of what we believe,” said Rich Cizik, spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals. “It seems more like a political statement, and there is always a temptation to use religious faith for partisan purposes.”
Whatever his intentions on the Iowa stage, Bush is pioneering a more personal religious style in his courtship of evangelical votes. Rather than agreeing to a checklist of religious right issues such as abortion and gay rights, Bush seeks to connect to his fellow born-again Christians “from the heart,” as he likes to say. On the stump, he regularly tells evangelical audiences the story of his own religious conversion, substituting style for substantive policy concessions.
“He talks their language,” said Land. “Most evangelicals who heard that question probably thought ‘That’s exactly the way I would have answered that.’ “
This makes Bush unusual in the field. The Republican candidates who are running as religious conservatives — Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes — have mostly consented to the usual list of evangelical policy demands, such as agreeing to pick a running mate and judges who oppose abortion, and staying tough on China.
Ah, we were so young then, so naive…
Fast forward 20-odd years, and we have come a very long way down the road of faith in the political sphere, so far that a discussion of whether or not George W. Bush meant what he said about Jesus seems almost laughably quaint and innocent. The apron of Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland is not an especially well-known spot for theological dissertations, but such is life in 2020 and such was the theology of the 2020 Presidential Election. This time, it was a New Yorker who had become president by grabbing the evangelical base by the Bible belt, telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, and using winning to cover a multitude of sins.
“(Biden is) following the radical left agenda,” President Donald Trump explained, “Take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible, hurt God…He’s against God, he’s against guns. He’s against energy, our kind of energy.”
These are not unfamiliar themes to political discourse in America. Recall the discourse-dominating kerfuffle that then-Senator Barack Obama stirred up when he remarked in Pennsylvania that folks from hard-hit working class areas “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The remarks fit nicely into criticism from the right, particularly the religious right, that the Obama family’s faith was not to their liking. The church they had been members of in Chicago was held up for scrutiny, while piece after piece was written about President Obama’s lack of church attendance once he won the White House.
Given the already-formed narrative, the “bitter clingers” remarks were cast as a peek into the future President’s true feelings on faith and God. “I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America,” remarked one opponent of the president who was aghast at his comments. “His remarks are elitist and out of touch…I’m not bitter.” That darn right wing just pounces on ev… oh, wait, that was Hillary Clinton who said that. It was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue her 2008 campaign that the upstart Obama ultimately conquered. You would think she would have learned from that, but eight years later, her own “basket of deplorables” remark haunted her second run for the president and launched a merchandizing line for the MAGA folks. She, of course, attended church as First Lady with her husband before, during, and after his own scandals and trials as president. His panel of spiritual advisors and oversized Bible in the pictures of him leaving church brought plenty of comments, as his church attendance while running to reclaim the governorship of Arkansas had a decade before that.
President Clinton’s successor, the aforementioned George W. Bush, was very open as president about his personal faith, regularly attending church and invoking his faith including famously during that debate in Iowa. Bush 43 made no bones about his faith, or his conversion, or the role faith played in turning his life around. That was a departure from his father, Clinton’s presidential predecessor George H.W. Bush, who continued the great WASP-ish tradition of which he was practically a poster child by maintaining his Episcopalian bearing and not talking of his personal religion much in public. Bush 41’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, is revered only below the saints themselves by many Christians on the American right, despite the fact he hardly ever went to church at all. Jimmy Carter, a man of unimpeachable personal faith, whom Reagan displaced after one term in office, still taught Sunday school until COVID-19 finally halted the long-running tradition. America has swung between presidents for whom their faith was open and political and those for whom it was personal and private.
But few have attempted to harness the political power of invoking God as much as President Trump does (while having an inverse ratio of actually knowing anything about religion at all). From Two Corinthians, to holding a Bible in the cleared-out street in front of St John’s, to insinuating that Biden will “Hurt the Bible, hurt God…He’s against God” President Trump has been on the cutting edge of wielding God as a rhetorical weapon. The sword of the Lord and Trumpism, or something.
As with everything in his Presidency, of course, this debate over faith-based rhetorical warfare has often been more about his opponents than himself. In the weeks leading into November, we had a long and loud back-and-forth about the faith (or lack thereof to those who opposed him) of one Joseph Biden:
“This is a now party that embraces faith and people of faith,” gushed Jennifer Rubin in her Washington Post column on that same Joe Biden’s acceptance speech at the conclusion of the DNC: “a far cry from previous years in which Democrats too often avoided anything that smacked of religion.”
“I’m all about rubbing it in GOPs face that our nominee actually goes to church,” tweeted Markos Moulitsas about the Democratic Parties posture coming out of their convention. “Ours is now objectively the party of faith, family values, and national defense.”
“In watching some of the Democratic National Convention on television this week,” Franklin Graham posted on Facebook;, “it has been interesting to see the absence of God. I don’t believe America’s finest hours will be in front of us if we take God out of government and public life. It is God who set the standards we are to live by.”
And as always, the President was always happy to hit the front lines of the Culture War as the campaign got down to the nitty gritty:
If God be for us, who can Tweet against us, or something. All Aboard the USS (United States Starship) Deus Vult, destination second star to the right and straight on ’til the first quarter FEC filing deadline. In 20 short years, we’ve gone from being surprised that W would utter the words Jesus Christ in admiration during a political debate to the point where declaring your opponent to be a godless heretic has become a prerequisite for proving your political ideological bone fides.
The problem of both sides claiming that God is on their team, at least back here on Earth, is that somebody has to be wrong. This has been the case throughout human history, of course. But, in American politics, this particular strain of politicized religiosity has found a fertile field that is now ready for harvest. During the Civil War, where both sides openly declared God to be on their side, there was a debated quote from Abraham Lincoln that addressed this mess. The inspiration poster version goes something along the lines of “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” But that isn’t exactly how it went down, and the context of why he said it — and who he said it too — changes things quite a bit.
We tracked down Abraham Lincoln’s words on God’s will. The original source appears to be a book titled Six Months in the White House with Abraham Lincoln , written by Francis B. Carpenter and published in 1867, not long after Lincoln’s death. The following is from Page 282 of Carpenter’s account:
“No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of a ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped ‘the Lord was on our side.’
“‘I am not at all concerned about that,’ replied Mr. Lincoln, ‘for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.’”
Our government and country, this nation as the greatest experiment in a free people self-governing, is still ostensibly under our control and mostly what we make of it. God is not under our control. And while each one of us is free to pursue or not pursue issues of faith and spirituality, folks insisting that it is we who steer the Eternal are telling you that they lack any purpose other than thinking everyone must agree with them. To use nomenclature like “biblical citizenship” and “restoration of biblical values and constitutional principles” for a nation as diverse in people and beliefs as America — where many take those terms multiple ways if believing in them at all — it begs the question of “What does God need with a starship?” Even, maybe especially, if that starship is the ship of state.
The answer for you, me, America, and Captain Kirk is all the same: If one is truly God, then there is no need for a starship, political or otherwise, made of human hands to affect the purposes of the divine.
That’s no fun of course. Folks want to be important. They want to be the straw that stirs the supernatural drink. The service of God is all well and good. But to be the serving of God upon others is much more gratifying. And when they don’t get their way, the aggrieved want someone much more powerful than they to do the smiting of the enemies, to get Old Testament on their unbelieving opponents. But that isn’t very godly at all; it’s just more of the same old bareknuckle human politics dressed in a religious vestment to try and make it more righteous. “Restoration of biblical values and constitutional principles in America” has a better ring it than the more accurate “Me First and the Gimme Gimme and the government should make it so” of what such folks are actually asking for. Someone should let these folks know that a government empowered to give you everything your faith wants, is a government empowered to take away everything that your faith has on this side of eternity.
So, you get what we have now in Georgia. Having convinced themselves God wants Donald Trump to be president, heaven and earth must be moved to make it so. Because God cannot be wrong and the President’s faithful of the faithful know exactly what God wants. Anything else is unpossible, and therefore clearly of the devil, or at least the globalist, and definitely the Deep State, and probably (for the sake of brevity, just insert your personal favorite dark evil force here and let’s move on).
Lincoln understood just how hard such sentiments were to bore through in helming the nation through its darkest hour and tried to balance the inspiration he sought from above with the brutality of the humans alongside and often directed by or at him. His now-revered Second Inaugural Address heavily borrowed on religious symbolism, quoting or paraphrasing a half-dozen Scriptures, and using the themes of Divine Purpose to beg a torn country to start thinking towards reconciliation and healing. But at the time, with the war raging on even with the outcome clear, many didn’t want to hear that message. “Thank you for yours on my little notification speech, and on the recent Inaugural Address. I expect the latter to wear as well as-perhaps better than-anything I have produced,” Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed eleven days after the inauguration. “But I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”
That offensive truth Lincoln felt compelled to tell, of “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” drew stark contrast against a Confederacy that bore the motto ‘Deo vindice’ on its seal. As if a just God would vindicate their treason and declared first freedom of slavery. A God that would vindicate such wickedness could not be a god at all, any more than a god that needs a starship to escape the center of the universe or the valiant acting of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok laboring through bad plot and dialogue.
It turns out folks were wrong back in 1989: the question “what does God need with a starship” actually does need to be asked. And wrestled with. And tested. Arrogant as it may have been for Shatner to pit himself in character against “God, “inside the structure of the plot it makes perfect sense to ask what Spock termed “a valid question” of why does God need a starship. And it makes even more sense to challenge, like Sybok, “why is God angry” and shooting lightning at the honest, earnest questioner.
Throughout our history, and now again in Georgia, there will be a cohort of folks gathering under a banner of faith, declaring that their cause is God’s own work. And if you ask them why God needs a political starship, they will start with an explainer filled with the buzzwords and nomenclature of modern Evangelical thought. But push further, and you will get the anger. And when they don’t get their way in overturning the election, they will quickly change gears from “dues volt” and God wills it, to “deo vindice” and God will vindicate. Neither will be true, but that isn’t the point. The point is they need God to need that starship to rescue them from things outside their control. Otherwise, they might have to admit they weren’t really in God’s will in the first place. The faith of Bush in 1999 of Christ changing your heart is fine and all, but imagine what you can do with an army of folks convinced their candidate is the very anointed of God. Strength in numbers pledging devotion to a man who is open about not being one of their own to make their worldly wants a reality is not faith; it is wishing upon a starship to beam you up out of your troubles.
But Sybok was onto something with one thing. “Each man hides a secret pain,” he would pitch to his perspective acolytes. “It must be exposed and reckoned with. It must be dragged from the darkness and forced into the light.” That can be useful in spiritual matters. That can be a path to forgiveness and redemption and turning a life around. It would be a fine thing for someone to do with their faith and their God in an effort to better understand both.
It’s just too bad that folks turn to politics for that instead of the spiritual, frankensteining the ideals of spiritual faith with the instant gratification of groupthink and worldly gain. Working out your faith the old-fashioned way, with purpose and resolve and a lifetime of effort and little to show for it from a world that doesn’t understand it except a life well-lived is just so hard.
For some, it just takes too much faith.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on December 6, 2020.