Sunday, January 29, 2017

Religious Authority in the Age of Trump

I’ve written several novels now that deal with the varieties of American religious fundamentalism. I come by this preoccupation naturally. Born into a strict Southern Baptist family, I lived for a time on a religious campground run by relatives who saw themselves in the tradition of biblical prophets. In my early twenties, I spent a few years as a Pentecostal before I finally left the church for good. The one key insight I gained through this spiritual journey is that religion’s main selling point is authority. Life itself is hard and often unfair, and its chaos ends, for all of us, at the grave. We seek out an authority to guide us because life is so clearly out of our hands. This is why the world is full of people (professional as well as amateur) claiming to speak for god, claiming to own some small (or large) share of god’s authority on everything from life and death to sex and politics. To put it in stark capitalist terms: religion offers authority and it offers it cheap.

Of course, religious authorities have long sought to extend their influence into the political arena. This is as true in America as anywhere else, yet America has always been notable for its official skepticism of religious authority. “The separation of Church and State” is not a phrase in the Constitution; rather it is a unifying idea that runs through the document, from Article VI to the First Amendment. This separation, it should be noted, was as religious as it was pragmatic. While the framers — most of them believers in one stripe of Christianity or another — feared a government controlled by zealots, they also didn’t want to see their religion reduced to another pig at the public trough. In the political realm, they knew, religious authority is reduced to a commodity, just one of many commodities to be bartered or bought in the circles of influence.

Despite the best efforts of the founders, however, religious political power has always been a factor in American life. It was used to justify the genocide of the Native Americans and helped to condone the bondage of African slaves. It began to ebb in the late 19th century, the first victim of modernity, its authority usurped by science and art. Since marrying itself to the Republican party under Reagan, however, religious political power has been on the rise. Christianity hasn’t always made for the most natural bedfellows with supply side economics and the military industrial complex, but the marriage has been mutually beneficial.
What political value does this religious authority have in the age of Trump? If the recent executive actions taken by the president barring immigrants of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States (including the barring of Syrian refugees indefinitely) are any indication, then the answer appears to be that Christianity’s sad duty in the new order is to aid and comfort white nationalism. Religious authority gives sanction to a philosophy of "us vs. them", and so as walls go up and doors to entry are barred, American Christianity just becomes another guard at the gate. 

This is a tragic turn of events. For years, leaders of the religious right have been major power players in the Republican party. They haven’t always gotten their way, but their power has steadily increased since the 1980s. Nevertheless in 2016 their preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, was trounced in the Republican primaries by a thrice married casino owner with a history of sexual assault and business fraud. In the general election, this same candidate – a man who once bragged that he has never needed to ask for God’s forgiveness — won the votes of religious constituents overwhelmingly. In some ways, this is baffling. Trump’s swagger and his narcissism, to say nothing of his lecherousness and materialism, would seem to make him an anathema to anyone who claims to live by the teachings of Christ.

But, again, religion’s main political selling point is authority, and in an age of authoritarianism, religious authority must rush to catch up. Trump beat them at their own game. He promised to torture prisoners and target innocent civilians in war zones, explicit war crimes; he promised to build walls and bar refugees; he promised to abolish an absolute freedom of religion by banning Muslims from immigrating to America and by forcing all Muslim citizens to register with the government. He leapfrogged religious authoritarians not just by promising to act without the constraint of other, lesser, authorities — like the law, American tradition, and basic common decency—but by also promising to act without the constraint of the softer Christian virtues of humility, mercy, and charity. In short, he promised to act like a man who had never needed to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is for people who make mistakes. Forgiveness is for people who acknowledge a responsibility to others, an authority beyond themselves.

To be sure, there was some opposition to these neofascist proposals, and to Trump himself, from some on the religious right. There were tremors of pushback in the halls of Liberty University and throughout precincts of Mormon America. But it all came to very little in the end, and now that the religious right has largely capitulated to Trumpism in theory, we’re seeing how much resistance it will raise against Trumpism in practice. With Trump’s upsets in the primaries and the election, God-hucksters like Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. polished their brands by attaching themselves to him as publicly as possible. In VP Mike Pence — a stalwart of Christian politics, whose war on reproductive freedom and gay rights as governor of Indiana portends bad things — Trump has someone who can throw red meat to the religious right and speak its language. In all truth, though, it’s unclear how much work the president will have to do to keep the peddlers of religious influence satisfied. They’ve already proven they’re ready to accept the scraps from his table. And for his part, Trump seems to like the temples as long as they’re plated in gold and run by moneychangers.

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