Trump’s Con Artistry Masks the Real Threat

Donald Trump tweets a video of the choir and orchestra of First Baptist Church Dallas (Twitter Screenshot)

Donald Trump tweets a video of the choir and orchestra of First Baptist Church Dallas (Twitter Screenshot)

It’s hardly surprising that the perfect symbol of the democratic crisis created by the Trump “presidency” would be found in one of his tweets, and it’s fitting that the tweet arrived on the Fourth of July, a day dedicated to celebrating our long history of resistance to egomaniacal, self-serving, out-of-touch, petty, petulant tyrants. What is distressing is how unsurprising all of this is. Months of constantly embarrassing, un-presidential, and blatantly dishonest behavior by Donald Trump has so numbed us to the erosion of our national stability that the outcry over this latest horror was decidedly muted.

We ignore or understate the multivalent dangers of this particular tweet, however, at our grave peril. In it, a choir from a fundamentalist Christian mega-church appears at the Kennedy Center to perform a cloying, orchestral recreation of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s tweet can be found here. The jingoistic doggerel that comprises the lyrics can be found here.

It is difficult to know where to begin in listing all of the problems with this tweet. Perhaps the easiest place is the largest target: Donald Trump’s stunning lack of comprehension of how to behave in a presidential manner. Rather than celebrating the Fourth by sharing a rendition of a traditional song from the patriotic canon, one all Americans might find unifying, Donald Trump chose to further hammer our citizens with a divisive campaign slogan. Rather than making the Fourth of July about our ancestors’ sacrifices, Donald Trump made the holiday about himself, and rather than seeking an opportunity to unite, he found one more opportunity to divide. That is his “presidential” modus operandi in a nutshell.

The slogan itself is also deeply problematic. Donald Trump responded to eight years of economic, social, diplomatic, political, environmental, and technological progress by claiming that the past decade was a time when America’s “greatness” had been sacrificed, and that we needed to move in a new direction, undoing that progress, to make America “great” again. One wonders who could look at the Obama legacy of prosperous industries, greater equality and fairness, increased international respect, protection from voter suppression, cleaner air and water, and drives toward freedom from fossil fuels and think, “This is terrible! We need to reverse all of this!”

A quick look at the video Trump gleefully posted provides an answer. In it we see a uniformly white crowd of aging, suburban boomers, some even wearing the pearls they presumably clutch in fear as they are fed a steady diet of unsubstantiated ignorance and unfiltered bigotry. This is hardly surprising considering the demographics of Trump voters, but the tone-deaf enthusiasm with which Trump tweeted an all-white choir chanting his reactionary slogan further underscores the racism and xenophobia underlying his campaign’s message of returning to the “good ol’ days.”

Of course, equally problematic is the fact that this is a church choir singing this Orwellian piece of propaganda, which its creator chose to classify as a hymn. As history consistently teaches us, prostituting the Church in the service of Empire never ends well. More surreal, though, is the fact that any Christian group anywhere would have chosen Donald Trump and his slogan as the inspiration for their song.

Yet the overwhelming support of Donald Trump by fundamentalist Christians is well-documented, and ongoing. On the surface, it makes no sense. Trump, after all, has no grasp of Scripture, is a thrice-divorced misogynist who brags about sexually assaulting women, and a professional con-artist and liar whose egocentric self-promotion and lifestyle of venal over-indulgence are the very opposite of Christian piety. This is the man who wrote in Art of the Comeback, “I believe in an eye for an eye – like the Old Testament says” and “Some of the people who forgot to lift a finger when I needed them, when I was down, they need my help now, and I’m screwing them against the wall.” Trump subsequently cited Exodus again during his political campaign, seemingly unaware of Jesus’ categorical rejection of the concept.

Yet, presumably because of his willingness to deny refuge to the stranger; deny healthcare, food, and educational access to the poor; disenfranchise minorities; and, undermine our stewardship of creation, Christian fundamentalists have flocked to his side. This only makes sense if we recognize that Christian fundamentalism (or “conservative evangelicalism” as its proponents prefer to label the movement, to hide its radical, anti-democratic agenda) has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with advancing a self-serving political ideology of ignorance and bigotry.

The relationship between the ascendency of Trump and the forces of fundamentalism in America, however, is about more than the blind allegiance of pablum-fed, theologically illiterate congregations. Essential to the survival of hucksters and strongmen like Trump is the ability to convince people to ignore the validity of thoughtfully analyzed and sourced information in favor of empty rhetoric. In Trump’s case, the list of confidence games he has perpetuated in the service of his bid for power seems endless.

This is a man who convinced coal miners and factory workers he would bring back jobs that are never coming back (including in manufacturing). This is a billionaire real estate developer who convinced working-class voters he was their ally, and then stocked his cabinet with fellow members of the very class that has been cheating them of their wages for decades, and then said he wouldn’t want a “poor person” in that role. This is a man who convinced voters that the protections that keep their air breathable and their water drinkable were bad for them. This is a President who put in place an Attorney General who wants to make the country “safer” by ignoring decades of evidence-based research on policing. This is a President who claims to love veterans, while cutting the programs that support them. This is a President who ran on helping the middle class, and then “leads” by advocating tax cuts for the wealthy. Every single policy and program of Donald Trump flies in the face of his own rhetoric, logic, and peer-reviewed research – yet tens of millions of Americans are convinced that he is the one to finally make America “great.”

How is this possible? How is it that so many members of the American electorate are willing to ignore facts, research, and logic? How is it that the President of the nation that gave the world the concept of a free press has millions of Americans celebrating when he sends out a video showing himself pummeling a mainstream news organization – a news group so rigorous in its commitment to journalistic integrity that it fired three journalists for an erroneous news story? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans lack the critical thinking and intellectual sophistication to differentiate legitimate journalism from right-wing propaganda? How did we get to the point where tens of millions of Americans cannot tell when a con artist lies, explicitly, to their faces?

As much as it pains me to admit it as a person of faith and a member of the clergy, the answer is: religion. Not all religion, certainly, but specifically the vile, cancerous form of it that is fundamentalism. The very cognitive process that allows fundamentalism to thrive is the same one that gives legitimacy to Donald Trump’s agenda of anti-intellectual fakery.

I will give one hypothetical example as an illustration. An atheist scholar studying the first three chapters of the biblical book of Genesis, lacking any theological imperative and working simply off the extant facts, would likely conclude that they represent two different, regional variants on an older, Babylonian creation myth. A mainstream Christian scholar at a seminary like the one I attended, or – less hypothetically – teaching a Hebrew Bible course like the ones I have taught to undergraduates, would make the exact same observation. As Christians, we would add, however, that the relevance of these two creation myths comes from trying to hear what eternal truths our ancestors in the faith found in each story, separately, such that they saw fit to preserve them.

A fundamentalist Christian “scholar,” on the other hand, would insist that the myths must be read as one, historical account – all literary, anthropological, linguistic, physical, and geological evidence to the contrary. The fundamentalist approach requires that facts, logic, and good sense must be abandoned when they come into conflict with dogma. Consequently, in order to research their pre-ordained conclusions, a fundamentalist must undermine, ridicule, or simply ignore any research based on verifiable or observable data, intellectual rigor, or professional expertise.

Whereas mainstream Christianity and scientific/humanistic scholarship can co-exist without conflict, fundamentalism cannot do the same. Fundamentalism, like its anachronistic followers, cannot live comfortably in the modern world. As a result, fundamentalism must inculcate into its adherents a complete mistrust of all of the expertise and scholarship of educators and researchers, because the conclusions of experts inevitably erode the ear-tickling creeds of fundamentalist religious leaders. Accordingly, fundamentalist congregants are conditioned to rely on the charismatic rhetoric of their clergy, while also being trained to ignore all other sources of information.

This mindset – trusting only those charming speakers who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how incoherent – is the perfect breeding ground for the cult of personality and anti-intellectualism that has driven Donald Trump to power. Trump’s presidency will undoubtedly deal devastating blows to the viability of the United States as a modern, healthy, secular democracy, but he is merely the symptom. The near metastatic threat to our future as a nation is not in the Oval Office, it’s in the pulpits of the fundamentalist mega-churches. Until we can resolve the larger issue of a significant voting block that is immune to critical thinking and scientific research, we will constantly find ourselves pulled back into the medieval superstitions and neo-feudalism of Trump’s policies.

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The GOP and the Destruction of Christianity

The Baptism of Constantine - Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

The Baptism of Constantine – Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

I’ve been fascinated by the critiques of my recent essay on how abundantly clear the obligatory, Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is. Some critics noted that they were glad Jesus didn’t determine our governmental policies. Others noted that “times were different” in Jesus’ era, and we can’t take his words out of context in an attempt to apply them to a modern circumstance.

So, in other words, despite the plain teachings of Jesus (and of the Hebrew Bible, c.f. Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:33-34, and countless other texts about “widows and orphans”), we should ignore the consistent voice of the biblical writers and the tradition because: times are different now, it wouldn’t be safe/practical, and personal religious belief shouldn’t determine public policy. The hypocrisy here surely needs no clarification, but, just to be safe, here goes.

Let’s begin with the idea that times are different now. When the topic is homosexuality, prominent figures within the Republican Party are quick to point out that God’s Word and will are unchanging. Mike Huckabee explains that we have not been given permission to change “God’s standard.” Ben Carson writes that he is not willing, in the interest of “political correctness” to disagree with God’s description of homosexuality as an “abomination.” Marco Rubio, in agreement with the teachings of his Roman Catholic faith, answers directly that homosexuality is a sin. Ted Cruz, strident in his opposition to same-sex marriage, believes its legalization is a threat to religious liberty. Apparently, when it comes to homosexuality, the GOP leadership sees no room whatsoever for considering the possibility that changes in historical context require interpreting biblical texts with nuance.

These same candidates are equally clear when it comes to their view of the relationship between Christianity and the United States government. Mike Huckabee believes that it is essential that the United States function as a “God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.” He also believes that the Supreme Court “cannot overrule God.” Ben Carson talks of a “war” against those trying to turn America away from what he believes is its heritage as a Christian nation. Marco Rubio actually makes the bizarre claim that – unlike other nations where rights come from government and laws – part of America’s uniqueness is that we believe “your rights come from your creator.” Ted Cruz launched his political campaign at a prominent, fundamentalist Christian university with language that makes his run for president sound like a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The leaders of the Republican party are not shy in their rhetoric about America as a Christian nation that is obligated to follow Christian principles.

They stay steadfast in their support of “Christian” political principles, right up to the point where those principles conflict with their right-wing ideology. Mike Huckabee, in what one hopes in not a demonstration of his pastoral understanding of Christian compassion, compares Syrian refugees to “tainted meat.” Ben Carson believes that our “big frontal lobes” should inform us that accepting Syrian refugees is not a good idea. Marco Rubio, demonstrating a significant lack of understanding of the refugee process, said simply that we can’t take more refugees. Ted Cruz actually wants to establish a religious test for potential refugees, accepting the Christians and sending the Muslims elsewhere.

Cruz might want to re-read his Bible. The biblical witness is abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Christians have a moral obligation – even if it means personal risk – to help those who come to us in time of need, even if they do not share our faith. Yet, without irony, the political leaders who shout the loudest that “Christian values” should determine our government’s laws and policies are the same ones who are most eager to slam the door on the refugees hoping to find a safe haven on our shores. Apparently, the GOP leadership believes that we are a Christian nation, whose rights are derived from God’s will and benevolence; and, that we are expected to adhere completely to God’s stated laws as clearly expressed in the Bible; but, none of that applies when it comes to providing shelter for the weak and wounded who have been ravaged by war. How is it possible that the blatant and explicit hypocrisy of that set of beliefs is going unchallenged within the Republican party and among their political base?

The simple answer is that the GOP, along with their public relations arm Fox News, has so fully conscripted, prostituted, and re-invented “Christianity” that – in public perception, even among self-identified Christians – it is inseparable from the fringe-right ideology of the Republican political machine. Far too many people have come to assume, without critical reflection on the actual words of Scripture or the history of biblical interpretation, that whatever the right wing of American politics recommends must be the “Christian” approach. If there was ever any doubt that the “family values” movement was not about families, and that “Christian nation” policies are not about making sure our government acts in a Christian manner, the response of far-right politicians to the Syrian refugee crisis is the unequivocal proof.

Co-opting the Christian banner in this way is hardly surprising when political leaders do it, but the willingness of religious leaders and rank-and-file Christians to follow blindly along is deeply disturbing. The problem is not just that granting fringe-right politicians free reign with the label “Christian” allows them to advance their xenophobic and reactive agenda without scrutiny or critique, although that is certainly a grave threat. Of equal concern for those of us who love the Church is the possibility that the unique and transcendent identity of the gospel will be lost, as Christianity simply becomes a synonym for fundamentalism and right-wing ideology.

If Republican politicians have their way, that is the dark and terrible future of faith in America, one that is – ironically – not unlike the ways in which the Taliban and Daesh use religious rhetoric to gain support for their own regressive policies. The only way to prevent it is for individual citizens to refuse to accept the cognitive dissonance and blatant hypocrisy of politicians’ haphazard use of Scripture to justify whatever agenda serves their purposes. Simply put, when politicians claim they are advocating for “biblical truths” and a “Christian nation,” they are lying, and the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis is the inarguable evidence to that effect. As citizens concerned with the integrity of our political process, and as Christians concerned with the integrity of our faith, we cannot allow that to stand.

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A Simple Question

Why does anyone listen to Fundamentalists?

Seems like a reasonable question...

I was pondering this today, and I decided to put it into a Facebook-friendly graphic.

As someone who teaches World Religions, it seems fairly obvious to me that fundamentalists – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian…doesn’t matter – have a consistent history of always being wrong about everything.  So, with that said, why does anyone give them any credibility when they come out with new pronouncements about whatever it is they oppose in this generation?

In particular, why does the news media pretend like they have a valid perspective that needs to be given equal credibility or air time alongside what non-fundamentalists think?

Fundamentalism is not about faithfulness to a religious system.  The views opposed by fundamentalists of past generations invariably become so culturally normative that even future generations of fundamentalists have to accept them.  Most “creationists” for instance claim to take the Bible literally while still accepting that the Earth is not flat and that it orbits the Sun.

Fundamentalism is about the obdurate defense of ignorance in the face of logic and reason for the purpose of preserving a bigoted and imbalanced social order.  The issues may change, but the fundamentals of fundamentalism never do.

More importantly, everyone always ultimately realizes how wrong the fundamentalists of preceding generations were.  So, why haven’t we figured out yet that we should just ignore them?

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There is no “War on Religion” in the United States


Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople - Gustave Dore (Wikicommons)

With his usual surgical wit, Jon Stewart chastised the “Religious Right” saying, “You’ve confused a ‘War on Religion’ with ‘Not always getting everything you want.’”  He is spot on, but their confusion is not accidental.  The far right in the United States has come to realize that the only way they can justify their anger at being left behind by a culture that has moved into the twenty-first century is to hide their medieval priorities in religious rhetoric.  They know that “War on Stupidity” does not sell as well as “War on Religion,” but it would nevertheless be more apt.

To be clear, thanks to the First Amendment and our pluralistic heritage, you can believe anything you want about the supernatural, your god(s), other people’s god(s), the afterlife, and anything else that falls into the category of religious belief.  Claims about metaphysics are the provenance of religion, and neither the government nor your neighbor is going to force you to stop receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist and start burning incense at a shrine to Ganesh.  No one is challenging your right to believe whatever you will about the Divine.

On the other hand, if you use your religion as an excuse to demand that we teach Babylonian myths instead of actual peer-reviewed research in our science classes – yes, the general public is going to stop you.  This is not because we dislike your religion.  In fact, many of us come from religions that also have those same Babylonian creation myths.  We are fighting back because we do not want you to make our children stupid.  We are not challenging your religion, we are challenging your right to use the schools to teach ignorance and illiteracy – we need an educated electorate and a literate, productive populace to survive as a nation.

Likewise if you want to tell women they do not have the right to choose if  they get pregnant, the vast majority of this country (including adherents of religions that teach contraception as sinful) will push back against your claim to authority over women’s bodies.  Like you, many of us come from traditions that were founded when people believed that women were property.  Thankfully, thousands of years have gone by since then, and we as a society no longer believe the heinous fallacy that the body a person is born in makes them belong to someone else.  In stopping you from pushing your patriarchal agenda, we are not going to battle against your faith, we are standing fast against your disgusting attempt to subdue, oppress, and control half of the population of this country.

Unfortunately, “religion” is not just used as a weapon to challenge the power of the female majority in the United States.  It is also used as an excuse for oppressing minority groups, most obviously in the right wing’s desire to withhold basic civil rights from lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender Americans.  As those of you on the far right have already realized, the ship has sailed and your stereotyped, provincial understanding of sexual orientation is no longer socially acceptable in this country.  If you are an anti-LGBT bigot, you increasingly have to keep your beliefs closeted or face the social stigma of being viewed as a Neanderthal (with apologies to the actual Neanderthals).  This is not the result of a struggle to overcome the influence of your religious beliefs.  This is America – the cradle of the Civil Rights movement – and we are not going to let you use any excuse to make our brothers and sisters second-class citizens.

Trying to paint yourself as the victims of a “War on Religion” may give you the sound bites and comforting rhetoric you need to keep from facing the reality of how socially unacceptable your worldview has become, but no amount of colorful phrasing changes the truth.  You cannot admit this to the press, your parishioners, or even yourself, but the real source of your anger and wounded pride is the realization that your anachronistic worldview makes you irrelevant in the modern world.  The American people are not at war with your faith.  Most of us come from the same faith traditions you do.  We are at war with ignorance, oppression, and bigotry – and until you let these despicable “values” go you will always find yourself at odds with a time and place that values knowledge, freedom, and inclusion.

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Christian Love in Rhode Island

Imagine a nation where schoolchildren gather under a state-sponsored banner imploring their nation’s god to help them grow “morally.”  Then imagine one courageous young woman taking a stand against the authoritarian inculcation of theocracy in that country, only to be labeled an “evil little thing” by its political establishment. Imagine if the same people who want the godlike morality of that banner taught in schools threatened the young woman with beatings and rape. Imagine the kind of medieval dictatorship that would foster this behavior.

Now, stop imagining and think of Rhode Island, the state founded by Roger Williams, a Christian clergyman who hoped to create a place where pluralism and absolute religious freedom would be protected.  It is there that a young woman named Jessica Ahlquist led a successful campaign against a prayer banner in her school. In so doing, she has become a target for the ire of far-right politicians and other self-proclaimed defenders of the faith.

Among Ahlquist’s detractors are Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo, whose political accomplishments include preventing an illicit drive through at a Dunkin Donuts, and introducing an “Arizona-style immigration bill” into the Rhode Island legislature.  Palumbo described Ahlquist as “an evil little thing” who has been “coerced by evil people.”  To be clear, the “evil” Ms. Ahlquist has promulgated is the simple act of petitioning the courts to ensure that a minority group – in this case non-Christians – receive the full protection of the Constitution.

Following on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is not difficult to recognize that what this politician has called “evil” is in fact nothing short of heroic.  Shortly before his death, Dr. King proclaimed, “And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, not polite, not popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”  Standing the tradition of Dr. King, and Roger Williams, a sixteen-year-old young woman has done just that.  She exemplifies what American citizens can be at our very best.

Unfortunately, the “Christian” response to her actions has demonstrated what we can be at our worst.  The screenshots of the social media posts about the District Court’s decision are nothing short of horrifying. One young woman tweeted, with no apparent sense of irony (or grammar), “I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck.  #TeamJesus.”  Many others, in their zeal for the Prince of Peace, discussed the merits of various means of assaulting Ahlquist including a hope that Satan would “rape her” in hell and a more broad suggestion of a “holocaust to all the atheists.”

The tone and content of these posts reveal more than just the abysmal state of public education in America.  They also demonstrate the real nature of a debate that is often framed as one between “Christianity” and its opponents.  Those members of “TeamJesus” who are enthusiastically cheering for the beating, rape, and eternal torment of a young woman are not trying to defend Christianity.  If they were, they would follow the counsel of the Apostle Paul.

Instead, they are acting like crazed fans after their team has lost the Super Bowl.  This is hardly surprising, since the recent manufactured rage from the far right in defense of “Christianity” has nothing to do with preserving and protecting the teachings of Jesus, and everything to do with guaranteeing the privileges – and entrenching the prejudices – of certain powerful social groups.  The fight is not about religion, it is about the traditionally powerful team seeking to hold on to its social and political capital.  Talking about a war on “Christianity,” however, sells a lot better than a war on “our right to limit the freedoms of those who disagree with us.”

The candor of Ahlquist’s opponents offers a glimpse beneath the veneer of religious labels to make this abundantly clear.  Whether the topic is a prayer banner in a high school, adoption rights for same-sex parents, or school curricula based exclusively on science, those who claim the banner of the “Christian” Right are not working for Christian values.  They are fighting to protect their position of power within American political culture.  Jessica Ahlquist had the courage to stand against them, and now she is faced with the predictably vile and brutish responses that bullies have employed throughout history.  It remains for the rest of us to look past their crosses and Bibles to see the clubs and pitchforks hidden beneath them.  When we do, it becomes remarkably easy to see where the real “evil” lies.


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