Religion and the Trump Administration

January 26, 2017

Die Zeit, January 26, 2017

For the best part of the past six decades, U.S. society has been blighted by a sad and often toxic blurring of the distinctions between political views and preferences and religious belief and doctrine. During this period, this country witnessed an astounding rise of the “religious right”—at first mainly neo-conservative evangelical Christians who aligned with the rigid political perspectives of various political theorists and politicians of the day from the 1960s and especially 1970s onwards. The latter decade became one where polarization within U.S. society in general and particularly in politics reached new and extremely divisive levels: Religion became a key ally of those on the political right and religious justification was given for many of the policies and causes adopted, just as religion was used as a recruiting mechanism for further voters, funds, and activists. For example, Ronald Reagan's team deliberately and extensively courted evangelicals.
But such developments did not just take place among evangelicals—other denominations, including Catholicism, gradually witnessed similar trends too. Indeed, after World War II, divisions among denominations in the United States became less important in proportion to how political divisions became increasingly more so. Because of the emergent Cold War and the so-called “crusade” against communism, religion came increasingly to the forefront of U.S. politics. From 1956 onwards the phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted as the country’s motto and began to appear on banknotes (having been on coins since 1864).

Most U.S. presidents in recent times have therefore had to reach out and appeal to communities of faith, and some have been genuinely very committed to their own traditions—Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama in particular. Carter was famously a Sunday school teacher whose presidency has been described as “faith-filled,” while Obama was a community organizer linked to Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago.

But faith has also been employed to polarize in these decades. Under the new Trump regime which began on January 20, this is likely to very much increase. Throughout his campaign, Trump made many controversial statements that fanned the flames of religious division and controversy, from his statements about banning Muslims from entering the country (initially calling, in 2015, “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”) and intrusively monitoring existing U.S. Muslim citizens, to statements about marriage equality and abortion. And while his own professed denomination, Presbyterianism, denounced some of his rhetoric—Gradye Parsons, one its most senior leaders, stating that “Donald Trump’s views are not in keeping with the policies adopted by our church by deliberative process”—clashes over faith have continued to surround the new presidency. According to exit polls, he won a majority of Christian voters in most denominations while Jewish people overwhelmingly voted for Clinton and Catholics only narrowly voted in his favor. This, however, does not tell the full picture, as voter turnout was low at just over 58 percent and an estimated 97 million people eligible to vote did not do so, many feeling unable or unwilling to support either candidate. Therefore, by far the largest grouping in the population opted not to vote—closely followed by those ineligible to vote. Clinton then came next followed by Trump who did, indeed, secure fewer votes than his rival, but who won many more states and so electoral college votes in the antiquated system. It is safe to say that many of those who chose not to vote were people of faith, especially among minority and ethnic groups.

The day before Trump was elected, there were extremist Christians demonstrating outside Washington, D.C.’s mosque bearing offensive banners. Shortly before he was inaugurated, Trump attended the traditional service at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, where the preacher was the controversial Southern Baptist minister Robert Jeffress, who has said very offensive things about Muslims, Catholics, and gay people in the past. On inauguration day, he compared Trump to the biblical figure Nehemiah who helped rebuild Jerusalem—starting with its perimeter walls after the exile—and he told the congregation that God saw nothing wrong in building walls and declared God had chosen Trump to lead the USA. Other controversial leaders from the religious right also took part in the service. At the inauguration itself, leaders from differing churches and a rabbi offered prayers. Some analysts believed Trump’s own speech that day was infused with pseudo-religious rhetoric that pushed an inward-looking nationalist agenda. The day after, there was controversy at the Episcopalian National Cathedral which has traditionally held a service inviting each new president when many of the congregation protested that this tradition should not be extended to such a divisive character.

And while many had hoped that, once elected, Trump’s extremism would calm down, through his appointments and the advisers he has surrounded himself with, not to mention the policies he has introduced already, it is clear that this regime will be as divisive and extreme as his election campaign promised. So many of those appointments and advisers seem clearly to believe in the extreme measures Trump claimed he wanted to introduce during the campaign. And so many of them also claim to be people of faith. These range from Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who is Greek Orthodox (as well as belonging to the Grace Church community too); to Scott Pruitt, chosen to be environmental secretary, who is a Southern Baptist; to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general pick, who is a Methodist; to Betsy DeVos (secretary of education), who belongs to the Reformed Christian tradition; to Ben Carson (housing and urban development), who is a Seventh Day Adventist; to both Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn (national security) and Steve Bannon (chief strategist and senior counselor), who are from Irish Catholic backgrounds. CIA Director Mike Pompeo is a Presbyterian, as is Tom Price (health and human services). The nominee for ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is a Methodist convert from Sikhism, while Steven Mnuchin (treasury) is Jewish, as is Jared Kushner, who is not only Trump’s senior advisor but also his son-in-law (he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York).

Many of these individuals are highly active in their local faith communities and have openly supported controversial positions and policies associated with the religious right, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, or have voiced offensive remarks about Islam (especially Carson and Flynn, as well as Pompeo), or been accused of anti-Semitism (Bannon, which he denies). Some have denied that climate change exists—something also common among some religious right groups.

Trump was advised throughout his campaign by many evangelical leaders on the religious as well as political right and this helped him secure many crucial votes in key states, ensuring his rhetoric appealed to such voters. Trump began to voice many of the policy preferences and controversial views associated with such groups during his campaign. To try and make headway among Catholic voters, Trump also appointed an advisory group of conservative Catholics, including figures such as former presidential candidate Rick Santorum; Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast; and Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza and Ave Maria University.

What such developments indicated was that Trump was deliberately courting right-wing voters who mixed their political and religious views. His nominee as Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was also controversial, with the figure being known for extreme views to the detriment of Palestinians and against a two-state solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. One liberal Jewish leader called him “unfit to serve.”

What all these developments suggest is that an agenda informed and shaped by and pandering to right-wing religious conservative agendas, blended with right-wing political, nationalist, and extremist political agendas will be at the forefront of this presidency and its policies. The views now shared by many key appointments and advisors are ones that are divisive, against equality and inclusion and contrary to the values that a cohesive and flourishing community requires—indeed they run contrary to what the world community today needs most.

What it also suggests is that many of the core social and ethical values that the major world religions share will be absent from this presidency and, therefore, that people of diverse faith communities will be called to action to oppose policies and a regime that run directly counter to the social and ethical values their faith communities aspire to practice.

Such resistance has already begun, as the half a million who descended on Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March on January 21 and the millions more in other places around the globe demonstrated: So many people of faith and faith-linked groups and organizations who were part of that and other gatherings have been vociferous parts of the opposition to Trump and all his campaign, and now what the presidency stands for from the outset (e.g. the global Catholic Women Speak organization was present at many marches around the world). Religious leaders have spoken out against Trump throughout that campaign and now will be called to do so more openly, vociferously, and regularly.

This piece is the original English version of a January 26, 2017, article published in German news magazine Die Zeit. The English version was translated and adapted for publication.
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