Dr. Harold Bornstein. All snotty comments about his appearance aside … that guy. Right?
The president’s doctor before he was president. The stock medical character in a mashup of The Little Shop of Horrors and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In December 2015, Dr. Harold Bornstein vouched for Donald Trump’s health as unparalleled in the history of human existence. "Trump has the strength of 100 men and the stamina of a herd of dromedaries. His eyes cast the light of a thousand suns, his smile absorbs whole planetary systems. His mesmerizing virility … well, what’s left to say? Young maidens cover themselves in fear when he enters a dressing room."
There isn’t enough digital capacity in cyberspace to contain the chronicle of his virtues.
Yeah, that Dr. Harold Bornstein. The expert who claimed that if you could magically suck the health out of ten Olympic athletes, it would still never fill the Grand Canyon-sized reservoir that fuels Donald Trump’s genetically superior engine of life. He said that. Well, something approximating it in tone, anyway. Then he stamped it with the gold foil seal of his professional credibility.
But, it turns out, Dr. Bornstein didn’t actually say those things; Donald Trump dictated that glowing health report about himself. So that’s fun.
It’s nice to have your idiosyncratic version of reality affirmed by those considered expert in their field. You get what you want to hear, covered in a patina of credentialed authority and without all the niggling scrutiny over whether or not it’s, you know, true.
Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, tried the same belief-endorsement two-step when he asked for the resignation of House chaplain, Fr. Patrick Conroy. In November 2017, Fr. Conroy prayed a prayer in the context of a major tax cut debate, asking that those who would vote remain mindful of that portion of the population that hasn’t flourished in our economy.*
Fr. Conroy’s prayer was deemed too political by Paul Ryan. But “too political” on the lips of Paul Ryan in this case has a funny way of sounding like “advancing politics I don’t like.” Put perhaps more pointedly, Ryan’s message to Fr. Conroy was: “Apparently, you don’t understand your job. You were hired to make us feel good about the things we’re doing, not to taint the sacred halls of power with all that socialist Jesus stuff you’ve been popping off about.”
That Fr. Conroy’s rescinded resignation has been accepted, allowing him to retain his position as chaplain, is beside the point I want to make—which has less to do with hearing what God might want than with appropriating God’s ostensive approval for things the people in power want.
The phenomenon of state sanctioned priests and prophets has a long history (see for example, Amaziah (Amos 8) and Hananiah (Jeremiah 28)). The Hebrew Scriptures tell of court “chaplains,” who were given positions of influence. The tradeoff for that influence required, what amounted to, a divine endorsement of royal policies. The king wanted to do “this,” and the royal chaplain said, “Amazing! ‘This’ is exactly what God wants done! You’re brilliant! A spiritual savant! The angels swell with jealousy whenever you speak.”
The true prophets, on the other hand, got into trouble by poking their noses into this cozy little arrangement, claiming that God didn’t have any yes-men on retainer. In other words, the people in power don’t get to dictate idiot policies with God’s apparent endorsement, and then hide under the soothing shade of the divine umbrella from criticism … and judgment.
The prophets sent by God annoyed the ruling authorities because they refused to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of the bigwigs whose actions betrayed the fact that they didn’t give a damn about what God actually wanted. Instead, the powerful surrounded themselves with court chaplains, whose job it was to gild self-serving royal policies with a layer of divine approbation.
But the problem then, as now, centers on the question of how to tell the difference between a true prophet and a court chaplain. I have a couple of thoughts.
- If you spend more time worrying about what Paul Ryan (or anybody else, for that matter) will think of your prayer than what God thinks, you’re a court chaplain.
Suck it up, Sunshine. If you speak for God, you’ve got work to do … and keeping the folks in charge happy is #1,378 on the list.
- If your theology and politics is shaped more by Ayn Rand than the Jesus of the Gospels, you’re a false prophet. Full stop.
That is to say, anyone who consistently affirms the selfishness of the well-off and shames the poor by saying that both are where they are because of the choices they make and the industry (or its lack) they demonstrate is doing it wrong. Painfully, disastrously, godawfully wrong.
- If your general posture is bent over with your lips surgically attached to the backside of anyone who promotes policies that exacerbate the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, you’re a useful idiot with a seminary degree.
I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the actual prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures were clear about who God desired to protect. (Hint: It wasn’t the people driving Lexuses and trying to figure out ways to shield their offshore accounts from the IRS.)
While there’s no useful AI algorithm, it’s safe to say that anyone who claims to be speaking for God but only manages to tell the folks at the top that their political farts smell like eau de toilette is a hack.
Look, here’s the thing: Nobody who cares about medicine wants Dr. Harold Bornstein for their doctor. And nobody who cares about God should want the opposite of Fr. Patrick Conroy for their chaplain.
*I'm not taking a jab at all chaplains, who do some extraordinarily important work. Political chaplains, on the other hand, I'm not a big fan of. But if you're bound and determined to have one, you should at least have someone who cares more about being faithful than being liked.