TRUMP’S MINISTRY OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM*
Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 26", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
On October 11, 2019, two members of the Trump administration — Attorney General Barr and Secretary of State Pompeo — gave speeches to reinforce and attempt to expand Trump’s Christian nationalist base. They endorsed the idea that the United State is, or should be, a Christian nation and Christianity should be recognized as an integral component of governing principles. Speaking in their official capacities, Barr and Pompeo violated the First Amendment.
The next day, October 12, 2019, Mr. Trump spoke to the Value Voters Summit, an organization intent on integrating politics and religious conservatives including evangelicals. The White House posted his remarks on its official website. His speech started out as religiously themed, but was a little hard to follow. I address only the speeches by Barr and Pompeo because Trump’s relentless diatribe was little more than his typical nonsensical rant about, well, nothing and everything. This is the link to Trump’s speech on the Official White House Website.
In this post I leave alone, for the most part, these Trump administration official’s flagrant malfeasance, anathema to principles they claim Christ taught or represents. I also leave alone the widespread human suffering world religions have caused, justified through the hubris of a “divine right” to carry out the will of their anthropomorphized god.
The Founders placed the Religion Clauses at the beginning of the First Amendment. These men juxtaposed the clear prohibition against state-sanctioned or -imposed religious belief, practice or proscription with the individual’s right to hold and practice sincerely held religious beliefs without government interference. As with all constitutional rights, the free exercise is not absolute. Nor is the government’s ability to conduct its business without having some impact on religion.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”
To be clear, I am all in on the First Amendment Religion Clauses. I do not begrudge anyone who chooses to hold and exercise sincere religious beliefs and anyone who does not. Those freedoms under the Free Exercise Clause would be rendered meaningless were the government in the business of favoring one religion over others, religion over non-religion or vice versa.
I am reading The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American by Andrew Seidel. Mr. Seidel meticulously shreds the recent revisionist historical claim that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian, or any religious, principles. He credibly argues that this myth is of recent origin and insults the integrity, intelligence and purpose of the Founders. He also dismantles the claim that morality and purpose do not and cannot exist absent a supernatural law-giver and that people are incapable of behaving “morally” without the influence of an extrinsic god. And he starkly rebuts the claim that self-government in an ordered society will devolve into chaos absent the constraints of religiously influenced moral order.
As for Trump’s Ministry of Christian Nationalism, Seidel explains:
“The single most accurate predictor of whether a person voted for Donald trump in the 2016 election was not religion, wealth, education, or even political party; it was believing the United States is and should be a Christian nation. Researchers studied this connection and were able to control for other characteristics to ensure that Christian nationalism was not simply a proxy for other forms of intolerance or other variables related to vote choice. They concluded, ‘The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.’ . . . Christian nationalism is, at least in this sense more important than religion, political party, or any other factor in American life.”
In lead up to the 2016 election Christian nationalists launched “Project Blitz.” “The goal was to elevate ‘traditional Judeo-Christian values’ and ‘to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.”
“Project Blitz encapsulates the problem Christian nationalism poses. First, it seeks to alter our history, values, and national identity. Then it codifies Christian privilege in the law, favoring Christians above others. Finally, it legally disfavors the nonreligious, non-Christians, and minorities such as the LGTBQ community, by, for instance, permitting discrimination against them in places of public accommodation or in employment.”
On October 11, 2019, Attorney General William Barr spoke at the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. I encourage you to read Barr’s sermon. You will note that the caption identifies Mr. Barr as the Attorney General of the United States. In his prepared remarks he made no effort to limit or qualify the capacity in which he gave his religious discourse. He was invited and spoke because he is the Attorney General of the United States and, not coincidentally, Catholic. Through a convoluted argument about the nature and fall of man, Barr claimed that self-government in a free society can be sustained only by adopting and adhering to “moral values [that] must rest on authority independent of men’s will–they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.” His sermon blatantly advocates Christian nationalism, consistent with the goals of Project Blitz.
As a Washington Post columnist said: “This man who swore to uphold the Constitution has apparently forgotten its prohibition on state establishment of religion. Our nation’s chief law enforcement officer — the person ultimately responsible for ensuring equal treatment under the law — appears to be demonizing anyone who does not share his religious and political values.”
Barr argues that having defeated communism and fascism, the United States now faces “an entirely different kind of challenge.” The challenge to self-government in a free society, according to Barr, is whether people can “handle freedom,” whether “the citizens in such a free society [can] maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.” He contends that without some form of extrinsic restraint, the powerful passions and appetites of men will “ruthlessly rid[e] roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.”
To avoid the tyranny of a “government that is too controlling” on the one hand, and “something equally dangerous–licentiousness–the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good . . . where the individual is enslaved by his appetites” on the other, the “moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will — they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being,” which Barr contends cannot be rationalized away. In other words, morality to keep men in check must derive from an extrinsic supernatural lawgiver.
Barr blames militant secularism for the “grim” “moral upheaval,” “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and the effort to drive it from the public square.” The consequences, he claims, include the deadly drug epidemic, depression, mental illness, suicide, increase in violence, increase in children born out of wedlock, among others.
Evidence may be to the contrary. Seidel explains:
“[S]ociologists and Holocaust scholars, ‘in their studies of heroic altruism during the Holocaust, found that the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews.’ In fact, when any given factor of societal health or well-being is measured, the less religious countries score better. The least religious countries:
• Have the lowest rates of violent crime and homicide
• Are the best places to raise children and be a mother
• Have the lowest rates of corruption
• Have the lowest rates of intolerance against racial and ethnic minorities
• Score highest for women’s rights and gender equality
• Have the greatest protection and enjoyment of political and civil liberties
• Are better at educating their youth in reading, math, and science
• Are the most peaceful
• Are the most prosperous
• Have the highest quality of life.”
Seidel compares and contrasts:
“This pattern also exists within the United States. Those states that are the most religious have more social ills, and tend to:
• Have the highest rates of poverty
• Have the highest rates of obesity
• Have the highest rates of infant mortality
• Have the highest rates of STDs
• Have the highest rates of teen pregnancy
• Have the lowest percentage of college-educated adults
• Have the highest rates of murder and violent crime.”
Seidel acknowledges, “[t]his, of course does not prove that religion causes immoral behavior, but it confirms that religion is not required for people to behave morally,” something the Founders fully recognized and reinforced in the First Amendment Religion Clauses.
Barr is entitled to his personal opinion. He is not entitled to endorse religion, and his religion in particular, in his capacity as Attorney General of the United States. His discourse would have gone with little or no objection had he qualified that he was speaking solely in his personal, individual capacity as a practicing Catholic and not in his capacity as the Attorney General. But then, his words would have had less impact on advancing Trump’s Ministry of Christian Nationalism.
Also on October 11, 2019, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo addressed the American Association of Christian Counselors at its 2019 world conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It was an unabashedly Christ-centered sermon. You will note that the State Department promoted the speech in the Secretary’s official capacity on its taxpayer-funded government website. Once again, I do not begrudge Secretary Pompeo’s sincerely held religious beliefs and how he chooses to practice his religion so long as he does not endorse one religion over other religions, religion over non-religion or vice versa while wearing his Secretary of State hat. I take issue with the official advocacy of the United States State Department and the Secretary himself, in his official capacity, promoting religion, not just any religion but his religion, in clear violation of the Establishment Clause.
The title of his sermon: Being a Christian Leader. He said “my focus . . . to be quite candid, is not just on being a leader. I learned how to lead at whatever level I’m blessed with during my time at West Point and other experiences, but I want to talk today about being a Christian leader. I learned that through a very different experience, an experience with God and my own personal faith in Christ.” Pompeo’s sermon, promoted on the State Department’s official website, used the term “Christ” or “Christian” 17 times. The only other religion Pompeo mentioned, one time, was Islam in his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s detention and abuse of “more than one million Uighur Muslims in internment camps in the Xinjiang. It’s the western region of China. The pages of George Orwell’s 1984 are coming to life there.” Mr. Pompeo failed to mention, however, that the Trump administration has been relentless in its attempts to officially condemn Islam and the hundreds of millions of people who practice that religion.
Pompeo’s words were much more personal than those of Barr. He spoke of scripture study and personal prayer to seek divine guidance. He, of course, tied his faith to his public life, with which I would take no issue.
Pompeo’s discourse also would have gone with little or no objection had he qualified that he was speaking solely in his personal, individual capacity, not on behalf of the United States Government, and the United States Department of State had not glorified and promoted his Christian sermon on its official website. But then, his words would have been less effective in advancing Trump’s Ministry of Christian Nationalism.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard’s list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers