Christian Hegemony in the Age of Trump

THE PRAYERS of the religious right appeared to have been answered on Election Day when Donald Trump, who vowed to defend “our Christian heritage,” was elected president of the United States. Emboldened by their electoral victory, Trump and fellow Republicans have since introduced measures that would endanger Americans’ civil liberties on both the federal and local level, including the rights of humanists and other nontheists.

Along with so many progressive individuals and organizations, the American Humanist Association (AHA) is concerned about the direction the country is taking under a Trump presidency. “Beyond church-state separation, if you name almost any issue—education, women’s rights, social justice, climate, militarism—you will see Trump appointments and policy positions that are very much contrary to what we think of as humanist values,” says David Niose, legal director of the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC).

The AHLC was launched in 2006 to provide the “advocacy that humanists need to defend constitutional rights and strengthen the wall of separation between church and state.” Niose, who in 2014 published Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, said one of the most significant misconceptions in the realm of political discourse is the issue of excessive corporate power.

If you’re wondering why we don’t have something more akin to a social democracy in the United States—why we don’t have public policy that primarily focuses on human needs such as health, education, and quality of life—the answer is very simple: corporate interests control the political and governmental apparatus, and they don’t want that kind of public policy.

In addition to the corporate lobby, President Trump and others in the Republican Party stand accused of pandering to the powerful (and well-funded) lobby of the religious right. During his campaign, Trump’s evangelical advisory board included the likes of former GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, attorney Jerry Falwell Jr., and lobbyist Ralph Reed, who have been described by the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State as “some of the biggest names in organized discrimination.”

Also voicing concerns over the Trump administration is the nonprofit Secular Coalition for America (SCA), an advocacy organization founded in 2002 that, with the help of volunteer citizen lobbyists, is “dedicated to amplifying the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.” SCA Communications and Social Media Associate Casey Brescia notes that “throughout the campaign, leaders of the religious right overwhelmingly and unwaveringly supported Donald Trump. Their endorsements paid off during the campaign, as Trump dutifully adopted the religious right’s policy wish list into his platform.”

Niose adds that the Supreme Court will likely see a major shift to the right under Trump, “not to mention what we’ll see in lower federal court appointments all over the country.”

In early March, the Council for National Policy (CNP) signed a letter urging Trump to place his signature on an executive order “protecting the practical exercise of religious freedom,” or what they consider “religious liberty.” (The letter was confirmed by CNP member and conservative pundit Todd Starnes on his own site.) The CNP was founded in 1981 during the heyday of the “Reagan Revolution” and in conjunction with the cultural religious revival that gave birth to groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition (founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. and former minister Pat Robertson, respectively.)

Founded by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye (co-author of the apocalyptic Left Behind series), the Council for National Policy is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has been described by a number of media outlets as a secretive organization. According to the CNP’s 2015 membership directory, which was obtained by the Humanist, the group is comprised of over 150 “business, cultural, defense, educational, religious, and public policy leaders” who envision “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.”

A March 8 Rolling Stone investigative piece by Janet Reitman included the following list of people who have at some point been members of the CNP:

religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tony Perkins; right-wing operatives like Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff; Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation; the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms. More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.

The 2015 membership directory also lists Joshua Duggar, the eldest son of the patriarchal Baptist reality-TV clan, as a member of the CNP’s youth wing, the William F. Buckley Jr. Council. (Incidentally, the TLC show, 19 Kids and Counting, was cancelled that same year after revelations surfaced that Joshua Duggar molested multiple young females, including some of his sisters.) Rich DeVos, father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is another CNP leader.

“It was a clique [of] religious wackos who kept it all behind closed doors because they were afraid that people would see how nuts they were,” Reitman quotes conservative economist Bruce Bartlett saying of the CNP events he attended in the 1990s. Bartlett elaborated:

I was there because I was interested in tax policy and economics. I also had to get the support of the religious kooks, who didn’t give a rat’s ass about economics. And they realized that they had to get our support. It’s about creating the big tent. “Maybe you want theocracy—we don’t give a shit as long as we have our tax cuts.” It’s kind of frightening.

Frightening indeed. For his part, Trump has lived up to many of the promises he made to the religious right, especially with the appointment of Betsy DeVos, who staunchly supports the creation of private school vouchers that would primarily fund religious schools at the expense of taxpayers. And during the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2 in Washington, DC, Trump echoed his campaign promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a statute passed in 1954 prohibiting nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. On this issue, Trump has found a kindred spirit in US Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R-IA). Grassley is a senior Republican currently chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee, which conducts hearings to confirm federal and Supreme Court justices. Reportedly known for his “straight talk,” the senator has come under public scrutiny for serving as a rubber stamp for Trump’s policies.

When Grassley met with constituents during a town hall meeting in Charles City, Iowa, on February 23, he said:

What I want to make sure is that this minister, or any other minister, can’t be jailed just because she makes a political statement—within—from the pulpit. That’s what I think the Johnson Amendment restricts, and it violates freedom of speech and free [sic] of religion…but there is one aspect of it I have not investigated. There was some indication in the press, I don’t know whether it’s the way the Johnson Amendment actually works so give me this leeway, but if it allows the use of church contributions to promote candidates, I think that goes too far.

Had Grassley attended the AHA’s January 31 congressional briefing on the matter he would have known for certain that’s how it works, and that a repeal would turn houses of worship into highly attractive vehicles for political donations given the tax benefits.

The church-state watchdog Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) based in Madison, Wisconsin, took issue with Grassley’s comments. In a letter dated March 2, FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker responded to Grassley (who said “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior” at the same meeting), assuring him the Johnson Amendment “will never lead to a pastor being arrested and does not violate free speech or free exercise.” Repealing the Johnson Amendment, they continued, “would precisely allow use of church contributions to promote candidates, and much more.”

Additionally, Grassley supports the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a misnomer akin to the CNP’s definition of “religious liberty” that, in the SCA’s estimation, “codifies religious privilege at the expense of true religious freedom.” AHLC legal director Niose calls RFRA a mistake, citing it as “well-intended” legislation that had an unexpected negative effect:

When it was proposed back in the early 1990s, major liberal groups generally supported it, obviously not seeing what it would lead to. In fact, RFRA was passed in 1993 almost unanimously through Congress. Despite its name, however, it didn’t really restore religious freedom at all—instead it redefined it in a way that makes religion almost a trump card to exempt people from the law. RFRA imposes a very high “strict scrutiny” standard even on laws that are religiously neutral, if those laws happen to burden someone’s religious beliefs.

“It is important to remember that not too long ago, segregationists attempted to use a perversion of ‘religious freedom’ to resist the advancement of civil rights,” notes SCA Senior Legislative Associate Sarah Levin. “They eventually lost, but the same battle is now being revisited to fight new gains in civil rights. We [cannot] allow religion to become an excuse to disobey laws that apply to everyone, particularly those laws that protect against discrimination or ensure public health and safety.”

Author and violence-prevention educator Paul Kivel sees the Christianization of American history as an instrument of oppression. Kivel calls this phenomenon “Christian Hegemony” and further defines it as: “the everyday, pervasive, and systematic set of Christian values and beliefs, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of our society through the social, political, economic, and cultural power they wield.” Kivel runs the Challenging Christian Hegemony website, which coincides with his 2013 book, Living in the Shadow of the Cross. Working with religious and nonreligious groups, Kivel aims to form a strategic resistance to all types of Christian hegemony.

One form of Christian hegemony is the “Christian nation” myth, in which Republican Congressman Steve King (R-IA), who gave his “full-throated” endorsement to Trump, is a devout believer. King proudly displays a Confederate battle flag on his desk, a gesture made even more peculiar by the fact that Iowa fought on the side of the Union against the Confederacy during the Civil War. King once opposed a memorial plaque honoring the slaves who helped build the US Capitol by alleging it was a plot “by liberals in Congress to scrub references to America’s Christian heritage from our nation’s Capital.”

In his 2012 book, Attack of the Theocrats, former Maine state legislator Sean Faircloth bestowed King with the “Way-Scarier-Than-Stephen-King Award.”

A disciple of the doctrine of states’ rights, King found himself in hotter waters than usual when appearing as a guest on the cable news channel MSNBC. Speaking to Esquire journalist Charles P. Pierce, King defended the lack of diversity at the 2016 Republican National Convention by stating that European Christians contributed more to civilization than any other “subgroup of people,” which is reminiscent of the demagoguery espoused by Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in the 1990s. Said King, “This whole ‘white people’ business does get a little tired, Charles. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where have these contributions been made by three other categories of people you’re talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

MSNBC Host Chris Hayes interjected and allowed King to clarify his statement, to which King responded, “Than…Western civilization itself, that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.” Months later, King defended far-Right Dutch politician Geert Wilders by stating on Twitter that “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Just as Trump and fellow Republican lawmakers have made political bedfellows with religious fundamentalists, they have also flirted with disaster by uncritically accepting support from the far-Right fringe. Trump’s political circus tent was inclusive of white supremacists, members of the Christian Identity Movement, and Neo-Nazi elements. Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard and ex-Republican politico David Duke said, “[O]ur people played a HUGE role in electing Trump.” Meanwhile, hate crimes have been on the rise in alarming numbers since the election. The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has reported more than 1,000 hate incidents within weeks after the results were tallied. Mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship (as well as secular gatherings) are being targeted with threats of violence and vandalism.

Humanist groups and ally organizations understand that the threat posed by Trump and his ilk is nothing new. The climate of anti-intellectualism and the perpetuation of the “Christian nation” in public discourse has created fertile ground for the emergence of a revitalized movement to shift public policies far to the right.

“Secular groups, and especially humanist groups, have historically worked with liberal religious groups on issues such as civil rights, reproductive rights, and others where there is a common goal,” attorney David Niose notes.

These joint efforts to combat what has become known as “Trumpism” have been lauded by the SCA. “[Our] allies in the faith community will be indispensable in our fight to protect separation of church and state,” says Casey Brescia. Annie Laurie Gaylor adds:

We look forward to working with ad hoc coalitions on our own and through the Secular Coalition for America against specific threats. We applaud any movement by interfaith groups to also include atheists and other freethinkers, who make up a quarter of our adult population today and a third of millennials.

The original motto of the United States—“E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one)—appears to have no meaning for President Trump, and frankly probably neither does “In God We Trust.” (Substitute God for TV ratings and you’re getting close to his creed.) However, E pluribus unum is still a powerful motivating idea for secular groups who are working together in the halls of justice, in their chapters and affiliate groups, and through their written words to fight for the rights of all Americans. As Niose says, “With the Trump team now in charge, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of cooperative efforts.”