Biden Reclaimed God From the Trumpist Zealots
The inauguration was a reminder that the religious left has long been a force in American politics and society.
For four long years, the most influential public faces of religion have been right-wing extremists who had previously been too wacky for primetime, like prosperity-gospel grifter Paula White, now best known for summoning angels from Africa to ensure a Donald Trump victory.
Meanwhile, less wacky but equally hard-right figures, like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Attorney General William Barr, described themselves as being in a war for the soul of the nation. That war has two sides: the religious and the secular, with the “religious” in question being conservative, and the liberals always being atheistic. On one side: God, Family, and Country, all defined in conservative, nationalistic terms. On the other: the degenerate secular hedonism of (pick your enemy) globalists, coastal elites, Hollywood, the media, Jews, or the pedophile cabal imagined by the QAnon conspiracy.
But as we saw today, that binary is bullshit.
Today’s inauguration began with a (white) Catholic priest, Father Leo O’Donovan, calling for a national confession of sins, and ended with a (Black) preacher, Rev. Silvester Beaman, praying for God’s favor and promising to “befriend the lonely… share our abundance… and give justice to the oppressed.”
That can seem disorienting. As one poster on a QAnon message board said, “None of what anybody said or sung sounded like typical liberal shit… at all.”
But the reality is that the “religious left”—which really ought to be called the religious center, since its adherents include about half of all Americans—has long been a force in American politics and society, uniting the civil rights movement, shifting American opinions about LGBTQ people, and, more recently, resisting Trump’s assaults against human rights.
It’s just been eclipsed for the last few years.
As is well known, white evangelicals (who represent only 15 percent of the population) and conservative Catholics threw their lot in with Trump, despite his serial adultery, vulgarity, dishonesty, and laughable religious illiteracy. Many evangelicals, in particular, came to see Trump as literally chosen by God, rationalizing his many flaws as proof that his ascendance was God’s will, not his own doing.
And they were richly rewarded. The Supreme Court (and the federal bench more broadly) was stacked by judges hand-picked and vetted by a religious ultra-conservative, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, and now has a religious-conservative majority. Federal law and Supreme Court precedent redefined religious liberty as including the “liberty” to discriminate against others, a repudiation of two centuries of jurisprudence. It seems plausible that the constitutional right to privacy, including the right to abortion, will be overturned in the next few years.
But the exchange went both ways. Just as Christian conservatism influenced the Trump administration, so Trumpism changed Christian conservatism, yoking it with extreme nationalism and the toxic brew of lies, violence, and demonization that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Indeed, Christian religious symbols were prominent in the riots, with a giant cross being erected outside the Michigan state capitol, people chanting that “the blood of Jesus [is] covering this place” as rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington.
Conservative Christianity in America will never be the same. Already, its leaders are divided, some, like Franklin Graham, exculpating Trump entirely, while others, including Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, hold him responsible for the unprecedented attack on American democracy.
In light of all of this, today’s display of religious conscience is like a beacon of hope.
Biden himself quoted both the Bible (Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” a perfect prayer for our current national moment) and St. Augustine (“a people [is] a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”).
Rev. Donovan, who had consoled Biden after the death of his son Beau, said that “we confess our past failures to live [up to the] vision of equality, inclusion, and freedom for all,” a notable contrast with the previous president, who never apologized or admitted failure of any kind, and a gesture to the protests against racial injustice that inspired much of the nation last summer.
And Rev. Beamon, who met with Biden in the midst of those protests, promised that “We will seek healing for those who are sick and diseased. We will mourn our dead. We will befriend the lonely, the least, the left out,” expressing more sympathy in a few moments of prayer than Trump managed in a whole year of the pandemic.
And let’s not forget the poetry from 23-year-old Amanda Gorman, echoing the cadences of the Black church: “Scripture tells us to envision/ that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree/ And no one shall make them afraid/ If we’re to live up to our own time/ Then victory won’t lie in the blade/ But in all the bridges we’ve made/…because being American is more than a pride we inherit,/ it’s the past we step into/ and how we repair it.”
Now, I know that such invocations of religion at a national-political event may ring harshly to those who would prefer a higher wall between church and state. Fair enough.
But notice the ways in which religion was invoked by these four speakers. This was not the exclusive fundamentalism that “the only way to Heaven is through Christ.” Nor was it the white Evangelical fetishization of unborn life, at the expense of women’s autonomy and without equal concern for the victims of COVID-19, or capital punishment, or police violence.
This was what scholars call “prophetic religion”: the universalistic calls to justice, the non-sectarian offers of comfort, the inspiration that religion derives not from theological fiat but from its ability to penetrate the chambers of the human heart. It is, of course, the aspect of religion preached by civil rights heroes from Dr. King to Rev. William Barber. And is invoked by such figures precisely because of its ability to call us to account, to force us to reflect on the humanity of the other.
Perhaps most importantly, the sincere religiosity of Biden, Beamon, Gorman, and Donovan offers some pathway to the “unity” that Biden so often invoked. By defying the “religious versus secular” binaries of religious fundamentalists, it offers a context for a large majority of Americans (though, of course, not all) to do the deep work that our country desperately needs. I don’t know if that will be enough, but I pray that it will.