Separation of Trump and state: Blocking Republicans’ evangelical election strategy
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits St. John's Church across from the White House at Lafayette Park, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Though Trump has never been known as a man of faith, Christian nationalists rally around him with fervor; he, of course, is happy to use them for his own electoral purposes. | Patrick Semansky / AP

On Monday, June 1, President Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., awkwardly clutching a Bible. Moments earlier, military police had forcibly cleared peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Park with pepper spray, flash and smoke grenades, truncheons, and rubber bullets.

Outraged religious leaders across denominations immediately condemned Trump for his photo op stunt. “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us,” said Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Greeting the king: Supporters ask President Donald Trump to sign their Bibles at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Ala., March 8, 2019. | Carolyn Kaster / AP

However, right-wing religious leaders were jubilant. They hailed both the crackdown on lawlessness and the imposition of “godly order on a disordered country,” coldly ignoring the systemic racism and police violence that underlay the most significant wave of protests in at least 50 years.

“To Trump, the Bible and the church are not symbols of faith; they are weapons of a culture war. And to many of his Christian supporters watching at home, the pandering wasn’t an act of inauthenticity; it was a sign of allegiance—and shared dominance,” wrote McKay Coppins in The Atlantic.

Trump’s re-election strategy: Turn out Christian nationalists

Trump’s performance had one purpose: getting re-elected in November. The Trump strategy is two-part: turn out his loyal base of white supporters through racism (repeated in every speech and tweet) and conduct massive voter suppression of Democratic voters, particularly African-American and Latinx voters.

The more Trump sinks in the polls, the more desperate, inflammatory, and wild the pursuit of this strategy becomes.

Trump is not attempting to expand his base. He seeks to increase his core supporters’ turnout, even including those who may disapprove of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racist police violence.

So Trump aimed his Bible photo-op at right-wing white religious voters, mainly white fundamentalist evangelicals or Christian nationalists (used here interchangeably). These same voters were critical to his primary victory in 2016 and made up 26% of the electorate in the general election (despite being only 15% of the population). Eighty-one percent of white fundamentalist evangelicals voted for Trump.

Besides evangelicals, right-wing Christian voters include mostly white Catholics and Protestants who have been moving toward fundamentalism on many issues. Racism, patriarchy, anti-abortion and anti-reproductive rights, private and religious school vouchers, anti-Semitism (and at the same time militant defense of the Israeli settlers), Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia are all uniting factors.

The conservative churches, allied issue organizations, and the network of conservative religious radio and television stations and social media platforms mobilize these voters. Organizations like United in Purpose use sophisticated data-mining operations to identify and turn out dormant right-wing religious voters.

Religious nationalism: Staple of U.S. history

While many early immigrants saw colonial America as a haven for religious liberty, only a minority of Christians challenged the genocide and colonization of Indigenous peoples that predominated in the initial European settlement of North America. Evangelicalism became the dominant religion in the U.S. during the 1800s, and every dominant evangelical tradition split over the issue of human bondage.

“Since plantation owners paid preachers in the early 19th century to defend slavery against the clear moral arguments of abolitionists, American Christianity has been infected by slaveholder religion,” write William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. “This false religion has not only propped up political powers that hurt poor people of all colors; it has also diminished the souls of those who inhabit its hypocritical contradictions.”

Christian nationalism, or the belief the United States was founded as a Christian nation, represents the intersection of capitalism, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and national chauvinism. Sociologist Andrew Whitehead says, “It’s about identity, enforcing hierarchy, and order.”

Christian nationalism is about power, white patriarchal power, making it an ideology of “nascent fascism,” and a racially-coded dog whistle. Its “prosperity gospel” theology holds that those who are wealthy must be favored by God—the corollary being, of course, that if you’re not wealthy, it’s your own fault.

Christian nationalists were central to the extreme right coalition, led by a reactionary sector of the U.S. ruling capitalist class that arose in a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and gains for women’s equality of the 1960s. This movement grouped around the Republican Party, ascending to leadership with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The right-wing white evangelical vote was mobilized again in 2016 as a backlash to the nation’s first African-American president, advances in women’s and LGBTQ equality, demographic shifts, and the growth of the influence of science and secularism.

Christian nationalists and the Trump administration

According to Rev. Robert Schenck, president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, Trump entered into a Faustian bargain with right-wing evangelicals in 2016. A man with no manifest interest in religion or affiliation with any faith tradition, Trump gained religious cover, and in exchange, they got whatever they wanted from his administration.

Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as vice president consummated the alliance. He has fulfilled his promise by stacking the courts with judges who support elimination of racial and gender equity and oppose abortion, LGBTQ rights, and separation of church and state. He has promised to repeal, or at least not enforce, the Johnson Amendment (named for LBJ when he was in Congress), which prohibits political endorsements from the pulpit.

“This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. Today’s Christian nationalist movement is authoritarian, paranoid, and patriarchal at its core,” wrote Katherine Stewart almost two years ago in the New York Times. “And in Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause but satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership.”

They see in Trump a messiah, a king, but also a divine instrument. And their worship and allegiance, in turn, feed his narcissism. For Christian nationalists, kings like Trump don’t have to follow the rules: They are the law.

“In Trump, they see a champion who will restore them to their rightful place at the center of American life while using his terrible swift sword to punish their enemies,” wrote McKay Coppins. It gives meaning to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

That once-dominant society is under siege. For Christian nationalists, Trump represents the last hope of stopping and reversing social transformations that have created an ideological crisis for white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy—transformations such as demographic change, secularization, and particularly the loss of a white Christian majority. Young people, generally more broadminded on social issues, are rejecting their parents’ theology as irrelevant to their generation and values.

According to Christian nationalists, the more significant the social change, the greater urgency to stop and reverse it. Pence, Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and other Rapture Christians adhere to a form of biblical literalism and an historical framework of interpreting scripture called “dispensationalism”: This is a Biblical moment, normative protocols of civil society must be dispensed with, and authoritarian rule is justified.

“End times” Christians

“The great unwritten story of Trump’s presidency is the extent to which it’s dominated by End-Times Christians (or dispensationalists),” Rolling Stone’s Bob Moser argues. At least ten cabinet officials have participated in a weekly Bible study group led by evangelical Minister Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries. Drollinger is a proponent of the “End of Times” or a Rapture theological worldview.

To Rapture Christians, the world will end in an apocalyptic war, Jesus will return, and true Christians will ascend to heaven. The rest of Earth’s inhabitants will suffer eternal punishment. The apocalypse begins when all of Jerusalem is returned to the Jewish people, explaining evangelical support for Israel’s extreme-right Netanyahu government and their prominence in the ceremony moving the U.S. embassy.

Historically, Christian nationalism has been anti-government and anti-science, including opposing evolution and supporting the “purification” of the country through deportations. It supports a brand of irrationalism, one ingredient of fascist ideology.

Not surprisingly, Trump put Pence, a dispensationalist and notoriously anti-science politician, in charge of the nation’s COVID-19 response. The rejection of science severely crippled the fight against the pandemic, as it has the climate crisis. Christian nationalists see the climate crisis as part of the apocalypse and humanity’s “dominion” over creation.

Right-wing evangelical churches have fought all the measures necessary to stop the pandemic. They advocate reopening the economy at all costs, including sacrificing older people and ensuring Trump’s re-election, à la cult leader Jim Jones. For the committed faithful, death simply has no sting, for they feel assured of their place in heaven.

In a speech at the University of Notre Dame in October 2019, Attorney General Barr reflected on the coming together of right-wing evangelicals and Catholics while arguing for a theocracy. In the framers’ view, he speciously claimed, “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people,” who drew their guidance from God.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, left, accompanied by Rev. Dr William Barber II, march outside of the U.S. Capitol during a Poor People’s Campaign rally at The National Mall, June 23, 2018, in Washington. Progressive people of faith are challenging the far-right’s hold on Christianity and its message. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

“Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” said Barr. He went on to charge “militant secularists” (progressives, socialists, communists) with trying to destroy the “traditional moral order” and impose a “collectivist” agenda to create a society of “dependents”—a notion freighted with racism. He bemoaned abortion, marriage equality, and any effort to limit religious instruction in schools.

Christian nationalism reflects how the right wing has co-opted religion for political purposes by adopting a relatively new theological world view. This mutation insists on a theocratic, fascist state that uses up all of Earth’s resources and identifies white Americans as the chosen tribe of Israel waiting to be magically transported to a place in the sky.

But this last great push by the Christian nationalists around Trump is a rearguard action; fundamentalism is in a deep crisis and increasingly out of step with a U.S. working class and people moving toward a multi-racial democracy. The American Baptist Convention reports 13 straight years of declining membership, and young people are “leaving evangelical churches in droves.”

The pushback from progressive religious traditions

Moreover, the movement of progressive people of faith and left evangelicals is growing. Those like Sojourners editor Jim Wallis and Rev. William Barber III of the New Poor People’s Campaign assert evangelicalism has been hijacked by corporations and the extreme right and become a political ideology and movement in disguise. They seek to rescue it as with a gospel of social justice and inclusion.

On June 20, the Poor People’s Campaign held the virtual Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, D.C., with tens of thousands united around progressive moral values fighting poverty, racism, sexism, climate crisis, and militarism.

“Religious hypocrisy is not new,” Barber pointed out. “Yes, there is a circle of evangelicals for Trump who speak loudly about values they have long tried to associate with scripture. But that circle pales in comparison to the great cloud of moral witnesses that stretches from Moses and Miriam to Micah and Elijah; from Jesus and the disciples to Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott; from Ella Baker and Martin Luther King to the moral movements for justice and equity in our world today.”

The progressive Christian movements that draw on traditions of righteous struggle are at the leading edge of the pushback against the reactionary assaults of the fundamentalists in the Trump administration. They are working to prevent Christian nationalists’ regressive measures in Congress and state legislatures across the country. If the image of the Christian faith is to be saved from its tarnished association with Trump and the extreme right, it will be groups like these that will do the saving.

And they’re not waiting around. The Mass Poor People’s Assembly has called for a massive voter turnout on November 3 to win the separation of Trump and state.

Hank Millstein, Dan Wright, and Eric Gordon contributed to this article.

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.