The Question

“Let every adversary against democracy, against freedom, against life, against liberty, against justice, against peace, against righteousness be overturned right now in the name of Jesus.” — Pastor Paula White, January 6th, 2021

When thousands marched to our nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021, it wasn’t only Donald Trump who instigated the riot on that day; he had lots of help. Don Jr., Rudy, Mike Lindell (the pillow guy), and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) were there to help rev up the crowd. There, too, was Paula White, the Florida televangelist, urging the overthrow of the election and the government of the United States “right now.” It was also the founders and members of The Jericho March and other evangelical church leaders who, over previous weeks, had decided to go all in on overthrowing the election of Joe Biden.

During the riot, crosses were being carried, shofars were being blown to bring down the walls of Jericho, otherwise known as the Capitol of the United States of America. There were signs like, “God, Guns, & Guts Made America,” flags saying, “Jesus Saves.” Insurrectionists standing on the rostrum in the Senate chamber where, moments before, Vice-President Pence had been presiding over the counting of the electoral college results, stopped to pray, “in Christ’s holy name,” thanking God for allowing them “to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs.”

Of course, we’ve frequently heard about the other groups who played prominent roles in the insurrection: The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and followers of QAnon were all there, as were sovereign citizen groups, local or state-wide militia groups, White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites (both Holocaust deniers and those who thought the Holocaust didn’t go far enough). Collectively, I’m sure all of them agree that this is “our nation, not theirs.”

Yet, what does “our nation, not theirs” actually mean? What nation are they talking about? Even more, what do the violent Proud Boys and other extremist groups have to do with Christianity? Although I know of no official connection between these groups and religion, it wouldn’t surprise me if most members of these groups say that they are Christians.

So let’s consider a particular group of mostly evangelical pastors who’ve come to be called Christian nationalists. As I understand it, they believe that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, that the Constitution is divinely inspired, that there should be a fusion of this church and the state, with the church and its laws given primacy over the Constitution that is this nation’s founding document. They also seem to assert that this particular America is the “New Israel,” thus implicitly supplanting the old Israel, the Israel of the Jews. They even assert that Trump was sent by God to do his work, no matter his apparent lack of Christian virtues, that he is the “Chosen One”, an appellation he also once claimed for himself (either satirically or not). It also supports either explicitly or implicitly, White supremacy, patriarchy, nativism, and authoritarianism. Theirs is a battle between Good and Evil, with opponents being the spawn of Satan. There is no middle ground in this battle, a battle that is seen as not merely moral or spiritual but explicitly political.

Let me be clear about something: These folks and their congregants are not the majority of Christians, much less evangelicals. But they seem to be large in numbers and constitute the Trumpiest of Trump’s base of followers. No matter his sins, and he has many, they continue to follow him, to believe (I use that word intentionally, that their support is a matter of near religious faith) in him.

From time to time over the past 40 or 50 years, I’ve wondered where all those ministers go who formed the religious justification and support for Jim Crow and segregation, particularly in the South? (When you get to be 80 years-old you can think back over a pretty long period of time). They certainly didn’t become ardent supporters of the civil rights movement, did they? No, they did not. Apparently, they decided to morph into a semi-political movement, using issues like abortion initially as wedge issues into what became to be called the culture wars. Particularly during the Reagan years, they sought to distance the movement from religion, saying abortion was a moral issue and not a religious one. But this was not a non-denominational or secular conflict between Americans. It was a religious war being fought primarily between some Christians who saw the Bible in a light, most particularly the role of religion and the state, and the rest of America, religious and secular. As time has gone on it has become more and more overtly political in its goal of secular power or, perhaps a better way to put it, power over the secular state. In Trump, in this sinner, they apparently found their way to power.

What does Trump actually believe? I have no idea. He is as cynical, calculating and amoral a man as there is. Does he actually have any religious belief or is his promotion of Paula White and others simply politically cunning. Beats me. He is publicly given even more to lying and dissembling than to telling the truth about anything. How is one to know the difference and does the difference even matter? However, there a couple of other ideas I’d like to leave you with.

For those of you with long memories, when JFK visited Dallas in 1963, the extremist John Birch Society (JBS) was plastering the area with flyers saying of the president, “Wanted: For Treason,” along with a list of his supposed crimes. When Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, the assumption by me and many others, was this had been engineered by the JBS. We were wrong; they had nothing to do with the assassination. Robert Welch, its founder, leaned heavily on his interpretation of Christianity in defining the principles of the JBS. Not only were industrialists like Fred Koch, the father of the current Koch brothers, instrumental in underwriting and founding the JBS, but its followers included many clergymen and retired military officers. There are many current extremist groups that can trace their roots back to the JBS. However, in terms of contemporary politics it is useful to remember that according to Roger Stone, Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was an important supporter and funder and claimed Robert Welch as a personal friend. As such, he certainly had access to extremists all over the country. It’s not a far stretch to think that his son, Donald, has long had access to these people. There’s never been a serious question that Donald took on his father’s racial bigotry. Why not his other attitudes as well?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with this. We need to see the former president in a larger context. We need to see him, not simply as a massive narcissist, or the martyr he likes to claim to be, or one who simply has an affinity for authoritarians. Nor should we see him as simply a con man, a tax cheat, or a snake oil salesman. Despite his general intellectual incoherence, an inability or unwillingness to enunciate a coherent political philosophy, it strikes me that he might actually have one. I’d like to suggest that he be viewed as a religious/ethnocentric/nationalist with authoritarian impulses. Seen in this way, it is easy to understand his affinity for people like Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Xi in China (at least pre-Covid), and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un rather than the more democratically, pluralistic nations of the European Union. All of them seem to view their countries in a similar fashion.

None of this is simple or obvious, and it all raises more questions than it answers, including questions about Republican congressmen and what they actually believe, questions that no impeachment trial can ever answer. Above all, we — you and I — are still left with the question we have all been facing for the past four years. It’s the question that we have always had from the very beginning of this nation, a question that is fundamental to the very notion of a democracy. What do we, the we of “We the People,” want this country to be? What do We the People think our country should be?

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.

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