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Public Theology: Lutheran Bishop Protests Donald Trump Speech at Lenoir-Rhyne University
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Lutheran Bishop Protests Donald Trump Speech at Lenoir-Rhyne University
Since Lenoir-Rhyne is a Lutheran university Bishop Timothy Marcus Smith did not want anyone to get the impression Lutherans endorsed Donald Trump.

By Ed Knudson

On his Facebook page, Timothy Marcus Smith, bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which he was elected bishop last May, explains why he led a protest against a speech at a university in his jurisdiction by controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump.

I applaud Bishop Smith for his courage and faithfulness in taking this action.

The protest can be viewed at this Facebook video.

The following are the bishop's Facebook entries:


The disclaimer: I have never posted anything about a political candidate on FB before. I feel compelled to now.

The news: Donald Trump is scheduled to speak at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC on Monday at 10 a.m. L-R is a liberal arts institution begun by and affiliated with the NC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which I was elected bishop last May.

Fact check: Many, if not most, liberal arts institutions issue all candidates for president who make it to the televised debate level an open invitation to speak at their university. Usually Duke or Wake gets the nod in NC, but the Trump campaign said yes to L-R. All candidates were invited.

Other ELCA-affiliated colleges in other synods issued similar invitations. L-R's administration was just contacted late this morning by Trump's campaign to say they were accepting the invitation, and it was announced this afternoon. It's spring break at L-R next week, so students won't be around.

The stakes: A liberal arts institution, especially in a democracy and even affiliated with the Church, exists for the free exchange of ideas. No matter how viscerally distasteful any particular candidate might be to any individual or even to what the Church itself stands for, to deny any particular candidate (and especially the Republican front-runner) the opportunity to speak is to fall prey to the very principle that outrages us, i.e, "denying basic human rights to others." Free speech, particularly in a presidential election year, is a most basic democratic right.

My position: This candidate, in my opinion not only as a private citizen but as a bishop in this Church, is a farce, an embarrassment, and a danger to nearly everything I hold dear. That he this late in the game is still leading one of our major political parties with his rhetoric fueled by fear and anger is diametrically opposed to any reckoning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I can imagine. Even leading "Evangelicals" have said as much.

My plan: Assuming he indeed shows up, I plan to be there, clerical collar and bishop's cross on, to protest NOT the fact that he's there but his platform that would deny refugees access, that would invoke violence at every turn, and that would stir up bigotry and hatred. I could go on, but you get the point. I would be deeply honored to be the one escorted out or even punched out as the heckler that Trump so condescendingly points out at each rally.

But I won't try to drive out hate with more hate and anger. I will stand there, pray, sing, march, chant, wave signs, whatever I need to do and with whatever consequence to say, "This is not who we are, America. This is not who we are, North Carolina. This is not who we are, Church." And I hope the reporters and the cameras are there, and I hope they might care what I/we have to say in the name of Jesus.

So what?: Stay tuned for more details if you might like to stand with me, Republicans, Democrats, Christian, other faiths, and unaffiliated, either in Spirit or in person on Monday morning.


Apparently, according to Trump's website and confirmed by L-R administration this evening, this event IS happening at L-R at 10 a.m. Monday. Tickets are available on that website,, under "Schedule."

After consultation with many, many people, I am for sure not going into the auditorium, nor would I suggest anyone go in as a heckler/protester which could precipitate violent reactions which we do NOT want, but rather that those interested join us in lifting up an alternative platform around themes (signs?) of Love, Justice, Welcome, and Peace as close to PE Monroe as the police and Secret Service will let us get.

Some, perhaps many, will wear pink shirts as a sign of Inclusion. Faculty who are peacefully protesting are going to try to gather in front of Grace Chapel beginning at 7 a.m. on Monday. I will be there by 8 a.m. I suggest most clergy invite ecumenical friends and we will remain outside of the main venue of PE Monroe praying and singing and holding signs about what we are FOR, e.g., "The Least of These," "Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly With God," etc. instead of what we are AGAINST. If you plan to have a sign, you'll need to bring/make your own. At 11:30, we will gather for a Service of Healing in Grace Chapel. Come, Lord Jesus.\


Allow me to catch you up on Trump's visit to Lenoir-Rhyne (ELCA) University in Hickory, NC yesterday. We had about 100 clergy and at least that many more lay people from as far away as Atlanta and Nashville who came to join us. It was less a "protest," really not a protest at all, and more of a "demonstration," a demonstration of the love and peace of Christ.

There were about 5,000 people lined up to get into the auditorium which seats only 1400, and Trump was almost 2 hours late due to fog. In addition to ELCA groups, there were groups of students (it was spring break on campus), a faculty demonstration group, a Latino group waving Mexican flags, and a large African American group that for unknown reasons was denied entrance to the auditorium even though they had tickets. The Lutheran group, by choice, did not try to go inside the rally.

Because we got there about 8 a.m. and Trump didn't speak until almost noon, there was a 4-hour period with thousands of people standing together. The Lutherans sang hymns constantly, and at one point when one group of protesters and a pod of Trump supporters started screaming, shouting obscenities, and making obscene gestures and finally rushing toward each other, spontaneously the Lutheran clergy linked arms and got between the screaming groups and sang "Jesus Loves Me...second verse, "Jesus loves you." It was a sight to behold. Clearly, our presence, at least in that moment, kept things civil. One reporter near me who was running with a camera to film the altercation was clearly disappointed. Thwarted violence and "Jesus Loves Me" are not news. I'm pretty sure she was miffed that we had spoiled her "scoop" sensationalist story.

There are, understandably and justifiably in a "separation of church and state" perspective, many who are upset with me for speaking out. So why did I do this? Given that on Friday it was announced that he was coming, a done deal, and L-R is our synod's affiliated institution, suddenly ignoring the event or the candidate's controversial platform didn't seem an option to me any longer, or at least the less desirable of the options. To say nothing would have been interpreted by the public as assent to Trump's candidacy or, even worse, endorsement. (This is what happened at Liberty University when Trump attended and Falwell, Jr. endorsed him.)

My initial FB post, which surprisingly went viral with over 1500 shares, was admittedly more scathing and personally attacking of the person than befits this office, and for that I apologized both in my second FB post and at the event Monday. I also invited people who wanted to "protest" at L-R to join me not in attacking a candidate or even a platform but in lifting up the values that we believe are the core values of living as disciples of Jesus in response to God's grace: peace, love, justice, welcoming the stranger, non-violence, and so on. That is what we did.

At the end, we gathered in Grace Chapel for worship, prayer, laying at the foot of the cross the deep polarizations that seem to have a grip on our country, our culture, and our church. We prayed that we might be vessels of the values to which the Gospel calls us: that same peace, love, justice, welcome. I was extremely moved by the number of people who came and how they provided a peaceful, calming witness to the love of Jesus to and for all.

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Date Added: 3/16/2016 Date Revised: 3/16/2016 12:23:43 PM

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