The pastor came with questions. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, minutes after arriving and me handing him a glass of red wine, “what religion do you practice, where were you raised?”
The pastor was measured in his speech. He swirled his wine, and waited.
“Catholic as a kid,” I said. “But I don’t practice anything now. I grew up in a small Missouri town. You’ve probably never heard of it. Cape Girardeau?”
His eyes caught light. “Sure, Rush Limbaugh’s hometown!” He smiled for the first time.
It was January 2015, and I’d had to shovel a snowy path so my neighbors could make it to my front door. I’d lived in rural Kentucky all of a week. My house was still basically empty — I had a bed, a sofa, and a crock pot — but I’d emailed the neighbors up and down the road and invited them for chili and wine. I felt alone. I needed to meet some folks. About 25 people showed up, all bearing gifts, all a little wary of the stranger, the new non-Kentuckian, on their road.
“I don’t claim Rush,” I said to the pastor, though by now we’d drawn a crowd of men. “It’s a shame Rush is all that Cape is known for, though, to be fair, I don’t care for anyone, on the right or the left, screaming at me, telling me what to think.”
The other men went quiet. The pastor set his wine glass down with purpose, then he let Rush go and went on to tell me he’d recently retired but he’d had two big churches and would be happy to point me in either of those directions. End of conversation.
I thought about the pastor this past Saturday, as Sgt. La David Johnson was laid to rest in Florida. All as President Trump, who had been picking at this poor family’s wounds all week, spent his pre-golf minutes on Twitter hawking Pastor Jeffress book, “A Place Called Heaven.”
I wondered about the president’s pastors, the crowd of men and women we see so often in photo ops, the ones who supposedly advise him when he’s fake-fighting with Congress or calling people childish names or threatening the free press.
Where were his pastors as he called this new, young war widow, a liar?
A few weeks back, Pastor Paula White described the president as a true Christian, “a person of repentance.” Maybe she could start small and teach the president how to apologize.
Here in small town Kentucky, where we voted 70+% for Donald J. Trump, where are the questions of the president’s leadership? Wouldn’t a Christian president have made it right with Mrs. Johnson by now, made a public showing of his condolences, possibly even gone to the funeral and said a few words of comfort to the family, to the community, to the country?
In the words of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Mr. Trump is all hat, no cattle.
He has only been in office nine months, yet it is already hard to imagine having a president who is man enough to stop tweeting about patriotism in the NFL, long enough to show what true patriotism looks like by attending the funeral of a fallen, young soldier.
There is a scene in Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres: “Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction.”
Like Daddy, our president spends Sunday mornings roaring his feelings on Twitter before his tee time. Do his voters notice? Would they ask the president, as the pastor asked me, “what religion are you practicing?”
This past weekend — with Sgt. Johnson’s funeral, the 5 former living presidents raising more than $30M for hurricane relief, Congress preparing for the budget and tax reform, and 82% of Puerto Rico still without power — President Trump was painstakingly busy.
Busy tweeting and playing golf.
I used to play golf. Not all that long ago I was a 10 or 11 handicap and once won the Women’s Club Championship. I’ve met many Mr. Trumps on the first tee. He’s the guy who, within minutes of introducing himself, tells you he’s a scratch golfer, and then spends the entire round taking mulligans, dropping balls without penalty, and picking up 10 foot gimme putts while saying, “This is good, right?”
And what I know as fact is that no golfer, Trump supporter or not, takes Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent, gushing tweet, “President Trump shot a 73 in windy and wet conditions!” seriously.
Why the need for Sen. Graham’s desperate lie? And why, if the president is as devout as his Oval Office pastors claim, is he never seen going to church on a Sunday with his family?
Photo ops aside, Mr. Trump’s religious devotion seems about as real as that 73.
And yet, his supporters do not waver. The president and his staff of devoted propagandists, like my very own Rush Limbaugh, with their distracting attacks on kneeling NFL players and “the war on Christmas” make sure of that. They’ve got my own father terrified that Sharia Law is coming to his small Missouri town, my niece worrying that her Christian way of life is under attack, and my Trump-voting baby brother fighting “the Muslims” in Afghanistan.
Here in Kentucky, we’ve got Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell assuring us he trusts the president. That regardless of Mr. Trump’s tweet-tantrums and golf schedule (1 for every 5 days he’s been president), he is working hard for real Americans.
I sat by the pastor a few weeks ago at a neighborhood campfire. I asked after his wife, and he asked what I’ve been up to. When I said I’d been writing for the local paper, that maybe he’d read me there, he said, “Oh, I don’t get any of that. I get enough news on the radio and TV.”
This time, it was me who came with the questions. I wanted to know what he thought about President Trump and his circle of pastors. I wanted to know if he thought the president was working hard, as McConnell said, for real Americans.
But when I asked, “Who are you watching, listening to, these days?” the pastor said something about not needing so much misinformation and turned to talk to someone else.
It’s Sunday morning in America. Where is our president? He’s on Twitter, calling his colleagues hateful names, threatening war with North Korea, and shaming young war widows before heading off for his weekly tee time.
I hope the president’s pastors are informed, rigorous, and open. I hope they can be honest with the president. But I have my doubts.
And I have a serious question for Trump voters: what religion is this that your president practices?