Are cracks appearing in President Trump’s Christian-right firewall?
On Thursday, the soon-to-retire chief editor of Christianity Today, a leading centrist evangelical magazine, called for Trump’s removal, describing his extortion of the Ukrainian government as “not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
Yet Christianity Today does not speak for the large majority of evangelicals who are politically conservative, and around 70 percent of white evangelicals say they approve of Trump’s job performance. It’s hard to see either the CT editorial or Trump’s impeachment moving that needle very much, because, simply put, conservative Christians have far too much at stake.
First, as numerous evangelical and Catholic leaders say, over and over again, the soul of America really is changing rapidly—for the worse, in conservatives’ view. The “Christian Nation,” half-real, half-imagined, that Christian conservatives thought they were living in is rapidly disappearing: The most recent Pew Research Center survey showed that only 65 percent of American adults now identify as Christian, down 12 percentage points in the last decade alone.
Meanwhile, the Pew report showed, “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”
That is a shocking, rapid transformation.
And of course it’s not just affiliation numbers. Social mores on issues like LGBTQ equality are rapidly changing, and multiculturalism is indeed threatening white Christian hegemony, both racially and religiously.
Where conservatives and liberals differ, of course, is in interpretation. To liberals and secularists, America has always changed, and if it is changing for the more multicultural and less religiously homogeneous, the better.
But for conservatives, these trends are signs of, depending on one’s point of view, the approaching end-times (over 75 percent of American evangelicals say they believe the Rapture will take place in the next 50 years); the possession of the United States by demonic entities (Trump’s closest religious adviser believes this); a ‘war on religion’ by secular elites and government; a conspiracy by Hollywood and media moguls; or at the very least, a dangerous loss of our moral center.
If you believed all of that, wouldn’t you look the other way at Trump’s indiscretions? Nothing—not Stormy Daniels, or the Ukraine, or angry tweets, or this administration’s unprecedented criminality (with eight Trump associates already convicted)—is more important than saving the soul of the United States.
If you believed what religious conservatives believe, wouldn’t you do whatever was in your power to somehow save the American moral order from destruction?
Not to mention the human cost. If you really believed that 600,000 human babies were being murdered every year by abortionists, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to save them? Including the defense of a serial adulterer and accused sexual predator who has managed to accumulate 15,000 documented lies in 1,055 days in office.
Indeed, as is now well-known, conservative evangelicals have now rationalized Trump’s many flaws by saying that they only prove that he is God’s chosen messenger.
Clearly this is not someone who attained leadership based on his personal merits; Trump’s sins are proof of Divine Providence in action. Clearly this is someone anointed by God, miraculously placed into the White House when it seemed all hope was lost. And all of us are sinners, after all.
These are not fringe views. They are espoused by around a third of the U.S. population, for one thing. But they are also held by people in power.
Attorney General William Barr, for example, has mystified some onlookers by his fealty to Donald Trump, in flagrant violation of precedent and the constitutional order.
But if you put Barr’s actions in the context of his stated beliefs, they begin to make more sense.
As far back as 1995, Barr was warning that America had strayed dangerously off course. “The American government,” he wrote, “was predicated precisely on [the] Judeo-Christian system.” In particular, citing Catholic Natural Law doctrine, he said that American laws should reflect “a transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that… flows from God’s eternal law.”
Just two months ago, Barr doubled down on these views, and on the religious-conservative narrative that religion is under attack in America. In a speech given at the University of Notre Dame law school, he said:
"I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack. On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism. By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim. Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground."
After citing out-of-wedlock births, suicide rates, and drug overdoses, Barr said “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.”
The key to understanding Bill Barr’s support of Trump isn’t some obscure legal theory of a strong executive branch, or some arcane understanding of the emoluments clause. It’s right there in front of us, in Barr’s own words: he sincerely believes that he is fighting a battle for the soul of America. The stakes couldn’t higher: the very survival of society is at stake, perhaps even the souls of we who live in it.
And Barr’s fight, like that of other religious fundamentalists, has had numerous victories.
It has redefined religious liberty from a shield against government action into a sword wielded against LGBTQ people, women, and others whom conservative Christians wish to discriminate against.
It has erased transgender people from legal existence, banning them from the military, explicitly permitting discrimination against them, and refusing them access to healthcare.
It has filled the federal bench with extreme social conservatives hand-picked by another right-wing religious extremist, the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, who has a far-right Catholic affiliation similar to Barr’s, and who has said many of the same things about American society.
It has empowered non-profit, non-tax-paying religious organizations to engage in unprecedented political activity, almost entirely to the benefit of the Republican party.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Barr’s facts are mostly wrong. There is no “attack” against religion; according to sociologists, religion is declining because its means of social control and cohesion have eroded, its dogmas are increasingly at odds with reality, its institutions (in particular the Catholic Church hierarchy which has shielded hundreds of sexual predators for decades) are corrupt, and many other factors, none of which is a deliberate “attack.”
Ironically, the attacks against LGBTQ people by religious conservatives like Barr are, according to one survey, the single largest factor for millennials leaving the denominations of their birth.
Nor are the ills that Barr recites actually traceable to the decline of religion. The rural opioid crisis, for example, has been most acute among communities that maintain traditional religious and cultural values.
But these facts are secondary to the religious narrative which conservative Catholics and evangelicals have been reciting since the very founding of the republic: ours is a fallen age, it’s five minutes to midnight, and we must do anything in our power to fight the encroaching darkness.
And if the savior is Donald Trump, then praise be to him.