President Donald Trump’s election allowed the Christian right to achieve a new level of domination in the US government. Since the 1960s, the Christian right has become the loudest voice in the Republican Party, moving their message from the revival tents and into the political arena. Continuing this tradition, Erik Dean Prince, founder of the private security services firm Blackwater, embodies the values of a heavily financed movement in American politics, combining elements of corporate greed, pro-war fanaticism, and religious fundamentalism. Prince has been eyeing a run for political office, which would enable him to help legislate his proposals and build momentum for his fellow travelers to achieve the same in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
A Son is Born
Erik Dean Prince was born in Holland, Michigan, on June 6, 1969, the youngest child and only son of Edgar and Elsa Prince, who also had daughters Betsy, Emilie, and Eileen. As documented by author Suzanne Simons in her 2009 book Master of War: Blackwater USA’s Erik Prince and the Business of War, Prince grew up in a religious household and attended Christian schools; the Princes were members of the Reformed Church in America, a conservative Christian sect that follows the philosophical template of theologian John Calvin.
Edgar Prince worked as a die caster and then chief engineer for the die cast machine manufacturing outfit Buss Machine Works after serving in the US Air Force. In 1965 he and two co-workers struck out on their own to establish Prince Manufacturing. By the 1970s the company expanded its operations and became financially successful, as did the Prince family. Edgar Prince died of heart failure in 1995, and the company was sold to Johnson Controls for over $1 billion.
Surrounded by those who share their belief in Christian-based politics, the Prince family has used its fortune to help build the conservative Christian movement. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Richard Nixon’s disgraced former special counsel Charles Colson (who became a born-again Christian after serving seven months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal) were family friends. Edgar and Elsa Prince were major contributors to the Family Research Council and founded the nonprofit Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation in 1979, substantial funds from which have gone toward the effort to abolish the legal wall separating church and state. The Prince family also has deep ties to the Council for National Policy (CNP) which, according to its vision statement, supports “a united conservative movement to assure, by 2020, policy leadership and governance that restores religious and economic freedom, a strong national defense, and Judeo-Christian values under the Constitution.”
From Reverend Billy Graham’s “spiritual counsel” to twelve US presidents, to Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement of the 1970s and ’80s, to Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson’s Christian Coalition (now the Christian Coalition of America), the movement to push a fundamentalist “Judeo-Christian” agenda into the public sphere has been an ongoing crusade. Keeping with family tradition, Erik Prince’s sister Betsy married fellow Christian right figure Dick DeVos, whose father is the founder of Amway and the past president of the CNP from 1990-1993. Betsy DeVos served as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and now serves as US Secretary of Education under Donald Trump. The DeVos dynasty, labelled a “family of extremists” by the Center for American Progress, is undoubtedly having an influence on the Trump White House.
As many readers of this publication likely know, the Christian right calls for: mandatory prayer in school, the abolition of reproductive rights and bans on same-sex marriage, persecution of minority groups, and funding of pseudoscientific studies (such as those that deny climate change and promote intelligent design). Recently, Secretary DeVos instructed her office to remove guidelines protecting the civil rights of transgender students. This is only one of many ways that she and her Trumpian cohorts are ignoring the will of the majority in favor of the theocratic tyranny of the few. By contrast, DeVos’s brother Erik, characterized by critics as a “mercenary” and “war profiteer,” made his mark on US policy through his controversial outfit Blackwater.
The Age of American Mercenaries
Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik Prince became a US Navy SEAL and earned the rank of lieutenant. Prince founded Blackwater in 1997, serving as the company’s CEO in 2009 and as chairman in 2010 before finally selling the enterprise that year. When Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services in 2009 and then to Academi two years later, it was assumed to be in response to the bad publicity and public outcry against company practices during Prince’s time at the helm. Courtesy of the election of born-again Christian George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Prince’s company would reap the benefits of Bush-era policies.
Just as with Donald Trump, Bush’s electoral victories were achieved in part due to the political wrangling of evangelical supporters. Known for their effectiveness in galvanizing the religious right, reverends Robertson and Falwell called upon their loyal minions to draw support from Christian voters to help elect Bush. Groups like Focus on the Family and the Council for National Policy were among the well-funded groups to rally evangelicals to their call. Bush’s campaigns helped pave an enduring path for the Christian right to obtain power, and his presidency helped create the model for the likes of Prince.
As we all know, the Bush administration used the attacks of September 11, 2001, and faulty intelligence claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction to launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) described Blackwater as “an arm of the administration and its policies,” according to journalist Jeremy Scahill in his groundbreaking exposé Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007). According to a congressional report, by 2007 Blackwater had secured $1 billion worth of contracts to run “protection operations” in Iraq at the behest of the US State Department.
One of the darkest days of the war was marked by the Nisour Square massacre committed by Blackwater mercenaries on September 16, 2007 (known as “Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday”). On this date, four armored Blackwater vehicles equipped with mounted machine guns entered the Mansour district of Iraq’s capital city and opened fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians, wounding twenty and killing seventeen others. “Though Blackwater’s forces had been at the center of some of the bloodiest moments of the war, they had largely operated in the shadows,” notes Scahill. “Four years after Blackwater’s first boots hit the ground in Iraq, it was yanked out of the darkness. Nisour Square would propel Erik Prince down the path of international infamy.”
The controversy surrounding Prince continued when two former Blackwater employees claimed he was possessed by his own vision of a “holy war.” As reported by the Economist in 2009, an affidavit by one of the former employees in question said Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from around the globe.”
After leaving Blackwater, Prince divided his time between Virginia and Abu Dhabi, founding a new company called Frontier Services Group. FGS is described on its website as “a leading provider of integrated security, logistics, and insurance services for clients operating in frontier markets.” Prince also co-authored Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror (2013) with journalist Davin Coburn to counter critical narratives of his role with Blackwater. In the book’s closing passage Prince states: “It remains to be seen what my future might hold. Tomorrow is one less day than I’ve got now, and only God knows how many more I’ll have.”
Theocratic Mercenary for Public Office?
In the fall of 2017 Prince’s name reappeared in news headlines with the announcement that he was considering running to unseat John Barrasso, the incumbent Republican senator from Wyoming. Ruling out the idea to run for office in his home state of Michigan, Prince met the residency rules having owned a home in Wyoming for over twenty-five years.
Prince’s candidacy, which never materialized, was championed by Breitbart News co-founder and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Since leaving the Trump administration, Bannon has been campaigning with theocratic Christian groups and European nationalist groups to help elect far-right candidates into office. One such effort was the US Senate candidacy of Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who cited the Ten Commandments as “the moral foundation of our law.” Moore’s campaign was of course marred by sexual misconduct scandals that ended with his electoral defeat, but Bannon still hopes to replace “moderate” Republicans and Democratic incumbents with candidates who profess his right-wing populist views for 2018 and 2020. For all intents and purposes, Prince fits the bill.
Although Prince has never served in public office, he has been a faithful donor to the Republican Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Prince has been a contributor to Republican groups and politicians across the country for nearly three decades. He’s also been a devout supporter and adviser to Trump, both during the campaign and since he entered the White House. In May the New York Times reported that Prince met with Donald Trump Jr. and representatives from several Gulf states in August of 2016, contradicting Prince’s November testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about his involvement with the campaign.
The possibility of Prince’s bid for public office has echoes of the failed senatorial campaign of Colonel Oliver North, whose name is forever linked to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Despite his infamy, North’s Fox News program War Stories with Oliver North aired from 2001 to 2016. After his tenure in the Reagan White House, North ran for a US Senate seat in Virginia in 1994. Televangelist (and 1988 GOP presidential candidate) Pat Robertson was one of the most vocal champions of North’s campaign. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in 1994, “His support is potent among cultural conservatives and evangelical Christians.”
Despite a continuing association with Blackwater and a possible perjury charge, Prince seems undeterred. As reported last year by journalists Keri Geiger and Jonathan Allen for NBC News, Prince is “intriguing to a wing of the GOP that isn’t afraid to back candidates who have baggage.”
What the Future Holds
A March survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 75 percent of white evangelicals hold a “favorable view” of President Trump, with only 22 percent holding an unfavorable view. The survey also found that Trump’s support among this section of the voting population continues to hold strong as the 2018 mid-term elections get underway and 2020 creeps up on voters.
“Notably,” says PRRI founding CEO Robert P. Jones,
Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals never reached 50 percent during the 2016 primary season. By the early fall of 2016, however, his favorability among white evangelicals had jumped to 61 percent. By the inauguration it increased to 68 percent, and shortly after the inauguration in February 2017 it jumped again to 74 percent. Over the course of 2017, there were minor fluctuations, but Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals never dipped below 65 percent during this time.
Trump is continuing to nominate high-profile Christian conservatives to join his administration. On April 26 the US Senate approved Trump’s nomination of former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the seventieth Secretary of State in a vote of 57–42. In addition to his credentials as a war hawk, Pompeo has opposed LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights as well as environmental safety regulations. Pompeo is only the latest member of this Christian right cabal to achieve a top position in Trump’s administration. Voters can only expect this trend to continue as more firebrands are given the keys to the kingdom of unbridled power.
As Senator Barrasso faces reelection this year, along with many other incumbents in Congress, the tide of Christian conservatism (now rightfully “Trumpism”) is growing into a monstrous wave endangering the rights of the American electorate. While some evangelical leaders appear to have grown weary of the president, it’s too early to tell if voters will feel the same way in the voting booth this November. Perhaps Erik Prince is waiting to see before he officially enters the running for a future high-level government job. Humanists and other people of conscience and reason should be ready to expose and oppose him when he does.