What Would the “Christian America” Trump & Speaker Johnson are Calling for Look Like?
It’s gotten so absurd that a reporter spoke with a woman at a Trump rally sporting a crucifix & tee-shirt that said “Hang Joe Biden For Treason.” She essentially said Jesus would watch the execution…
Monday, in addition to being Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, was National Religious Freedom Day. But what does that mean, and for whom? What would the “Christian America” that Trump and Speaker Mike Johnson are calling for look like?
When I was a kid, my parents and our pastor taught me that Jesus specifically, and religion more generally, was all about peace, love, and people caring for each other. That’s what’s explicitly at the core of Jesus’ most famous and clear teachings at the Sermon On The Mount and in the Parable of the Goats and Sheep.
But the Republican Party, thirsting for more voters in the 1980 Reagan vs Carter election, realized that Southern Baptists had helped give the White House to Carter in 1976 (he’s a Southern Baptist). If they could just peel those voters away from Carter and the Democratic Party, they believed they could win big.
The issue the Reagan campaign decided to use to bring religious voters to Republicans in that election was abortion, a topic Jesus never discussed.
Up until that election, both former Governor Reagan and former CIA Director Bush had been open supporters of a woman’s right to choose; in the run-up to the primaries Reagan became an unabashed foe of abortion, and George H.W. Bush changed his position on the issue when he joined the ticket in 1980.
The legacy of those decisions has brought us Trump, Qanon, and badly damaged large parts of what’s left of Christianity in America (church attendance is collapsing).
It’s turned both religion and politics into armed camps.
At the founding of our Republic, if there was any one topic that the Framers of the Constitution were mostly in agreement about, it was the importance of keeping religion separate from government.
More recently, even uber-Catholic Antonin Scalia wrote, in the 1990 Employment v Smith case rejecting Native Americans’ petition to overrule federal regulations and legally use peyote (an outlawed substance) for religious purposes:
“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes; to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races. The First Amendment's protection of religious liberty does not require this. …
“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Don’t tell today’s Republicans that’s a bad thing, though: Scalia’s list is a good summary of many of the realms they’re currently targeting. The six Catholic extremist Republicans on the Court appear anxious to overturn any final semblance of secular primacy in law, using religion as their excuse.
It’s gotten so absurd and frankly obscene that a reporter recently spoke with a woman at a Trump rally sporting a crucifix and a tee-shirt that said “Hang Joe Biden For Treason”; she was essentially arguing that Jesus would be all in favor of watching Biden’s execution.
Monday was Religious Freedom Day because it commemorated the publication of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That early publication (he was 33) not only asserted that all citizens should be free to practice whatever religion they wanted but, more importantly, that nobody should be persecuted for holding either a religious belief or no religious belief.
Jefferson thought it was more important than his having been a two-term president: when he wrote his own epitaph, he only included his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his founding America’s first free university (University of Virginia), and his Statute for Religious Freedom.
Jefferson and Madison had a philosophical debate over which would be more dangerous: a religious individual who wants to bring religion into government like Christian nationalist Mike Johnson, or the government endorsing or subsidizing any particular religious group or belief like Trump is promising.
Jefferson (a Deist) was worried about religious leaders (a letter of his is *footnoted below) corrupting government; Madison (a Christian) was more worried about government corrupting his beloved religion.
For example, on February 21, 1811, President Madison vetoed a bill passed by Congress that authorized government payments to a church in Washington, DC to help the poor. Faith-based initiatives were a clear violation, Madison believed, of the doctrine of separation of church and state, and could lead to a dangerous transfer of both money and political power to religious leaders.
In Madison’s mind, caring for the poor was a public and civic duty — a function of government — and must not be allowed to become a hole through which churches could reach and seize political power or the taxpayer’s purse.
Funding a church to provide for the poor would establish a “legal agency” — a legal precedent — that would break down the walls of separation the Founders had put between church and state to protect Americans from religious zealots gaining political power.
Thus, Madison said in his veto message to Congress, he was striking down the proposed law:
“Because the bill vests and said incorporated church an also authority to provide for the support of the poor, and the education of poor children of the same;...” which, Madison said, “would be a precedent for giving to religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, flatly rejected government supporting religion in any way whatsoever, noting in a July 10, 1822 letter to Edward Livingston:
“We are teaching the world the great truth, that Governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson: the Religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of Government.”
He added in that same letter:
“I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
Now we see that both were right, although Madison probably had the edge: when the GOP offered evangelicals political power and big money in 1980, it so corrupted many conservative Christian churches that they’ve today put Trump above Jesus.
It’s gotten so bad that fully a third of evangelicals polled said they supported violence to advance political goals, which is quite literally the opposite of Jesus’ telling the Pharisees:
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Not to mention his extensive preaching about nonviolence. He was MLK’s role model, for G-d’s sake.
Instead, Trump’s followers are busily sharing memes of him as their savior, while Speaker Johnson and his fellow travelers on the Supreme Court are working as hard as they can to open the doors (and money) of government to religious leaders.
Religion has a lot to offer people and often fulfills a basic need to stand in awe of creation, to feel at one with everything and everyone. Every culture all the way back to the Neanderthals have engaged in religious rituals, particularly around funerals: no tribe or group has ever been found that entirely lacked what could be described as religious rituals.
But, as our founders pointed out, religion should be separated from government as far as possible. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute says it explicitly:
“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Instead, Republicans are exploiting that religious urge built into us humans to cynically pander for the votes of those people who’ve put religion at the center of their lives.
They’re reinventing America as a country where religion dictates women’s healthcare, specifies who can marry whom, and destroys the lives of people who weren’t born heterosexual.
They’re promoting movies/vids portraying Trump as the incarnation of Jesus, a bizarre sort of Second Coming worthy of North Korean propaganda.
They’re using religion as an excuse for bigotry, a rationale for government tax subsidies of churches that promote Republicans from the pulpit, and a weapon to wield against those they condemn as being insufficiently pious.
In the process, they’re harming both religion and our government.
*Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most outspoken of the Founders who saw religious leaders seizing political power as a naked threat to American democracy. One of his most well known quotes is carved into the stone of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man.”
Modern religious leaders who aspire to political power often cite his reference to “upon the alter of God” as proof that Jefferson was a Bible-thumping Christian.
What’s missing from the Jefferson memorial (and almost all who cite the quote), however, is the context of that statement: the letter and circumstance from which it came.
When Jefferson was Vice President, just two months before the election of 1800 in which he would become President, he wrote to his dear friend, the physician Benjamin Rush, who started out as an orthodox Christian and ended up, later in his life, a Deist and Unitarian.
Here, in a most surprising context, we find the true basis of one of Jefferson’s most famous quotes:
“DEAR SIR, - ... I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten,” Jefferson wrote, noting that he knew to discuss the topic would add fuel to the fires of electoral politics swirling all around him. “I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum [the angry priests] who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.
“The delusion ...on the clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.
“The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the preachers] believe that any portion of power confided to me [such as being elected President], will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion.” [emphasis added]