As Christians celebrate Christmas this week, we remember that rulers who are willing to use religion to cling to power by any means necessary have always been part of our story.
On the eve of his impeachment in the House of Representatives, President Donald Trump released a six-page screed attacking the entire process and everyone who has led it. Though his fate as the third president in U.S. history to be impeached was all but sealed, he wanted to make clear that he considers it an insult — particularly against Christian nationalists who believe he is doing God’s work in the White House. “You are offending Americans of faith, saying ‘I pray for the President,’ when you know this is not true,” Trump wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In an appeal to the offended, he tweeted “say a PRAYER” before the House convened Wednesday morning.
If the president seems especially concerned about religion as he faces impeachment, the reason is clear: Without the support of religious nationalists who have rallied behind him through (nearly) every controversy, he doesn’t have a prayer.
Though Trump knew impeachment in the House was inevitable last week, he took solace in the prayers of a specific bloc of voters. More than 80 percent of Americans who identify as white evangelicals voted for him in 2016, and their support has remained high in every poll, even as half of the country supports his impeachment and removal.
Indeed, when an editorial in Christianity Today magazine, a flagship evangelical publication founded by the prominent global evangelist Billy Graham, came out in support of impeachment on Thursday, Trump was obviously rattled. He attacked the centrist magazine as “far left” and asked his Twitter followers to trust that “no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religious itself!”
For the past 40 years, the Republican Party has coordinated closely with conservative religious leaders and a media network that framed its agenda as “pro-family” and “pro-life.” As investigative journalist Anne Nelson documents in her book “Shadow Network,” their distorted moral narrative was coordinated by preachers, political operatives, conservative mega-donors and right-wing media companies through the Council for National Policy. By cultivating the myth of a Christian America in decline, this network built a movement that was primed for the promise of “Make America Great Again.” They are more than happy to pray for Trump; not because they believe he is perfect, but because they see him as the kind of fighter their decades-long culture war needs.
Trump is right: Christian nationalists are offended by Nancy Pelosi’s prayers. They are offended by the prayers of all people of faith who refuse to believe that the GOP is “God’s Own Party.”
But, as Christianity Today made clear last week, Christian nationalists also do not represent all evangelicals — and certainly not most “Americans of faith.” According to research by sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, only about 1 in 5 Americans fully embrace a Christian nationalist identity. Another 30 percent are sometimes willing to accommodate the narrative, they report. This approach has given Christian nationalists a disproportionate influence in public life. It’s also why an evangelical institution like Christianity Today choosing to take a stand has sparked fear among Trump’s supporters.
While Christian nationalists don’t make up the entirety of Trump’s base, Whitehead and Perry argue that the more someone ascribes to the religious right’s myth that America was or should be a Christian nation, the more likely they are to support Trump. Christian nationalism is more indicative of membership in Trump’s base than political party or religious affiliation. These are the people who the religious right has mobilized for the past 40 years.
But in a nation where more than 75 percent of people say they pray at least once a month, Trump's agenda doesn't have majority support. As he faces an impeachment trial in the Senate and an election in 2020, Trump knows that his only political hope is a radical right that supports him religiously. Trumpism may be a minority faith in America, but it is increasingly clear that the object of its worship is political power, whatever the cost.
A century and a half ago, America’s first Republican president paused during his second inaugural address to acknowledge the obvious tension when people who defy the U.S. Constitution pray for God’s blessing. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces,” President Abraham Lincoln said as he committed to continue a war against Confederates who prayed for God to bless their fight for the right to own other human beings. Both sides were praying to God, and neither was satisfied with results. Lincoln concluded with somber realism: “The prayers of both could not be answered.”
The prayers of America’s Christian nationalists could not be answered last week because their fellow Americans went to the polls in 2018 and elected a House majority that does not believe the myth of Trumpism. That new Democratic majority elected a speaker whose faith compels her both to pray for the president and to challenge his abuse of power.
She is not alone. Many Americans of faith have said prayers of thanksgiving that Trump was finally held accountable for his defiance of democratic norms. As Christians celebrate Christmas this week, we remember that rulers who are willing to use religion to cling to power by any means necessary have always been part of our story. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod said he wanted to worship Jesus. But he ordered the execution of every child under two years old in Bethlehem because the advent of Jesus’ way in the world presented a direct challenge to Herod’s autocratic and self-serving rule.
As Lincoln knew, God’s judgments, whatever they might be, are reserved for a future none of us can claim to fully know. The angels sang “peace on earth, good will to all people,” but the families of Bethlehem still lost their children and wept bitter tears. While it is still not clear what impeachment will mean for those who hope for justice, the debate about faith in public life has helped to clarify that Christian nationalists are not the only people of faith in America. We who pray for truth and justice must do everything in our power to reduce the influence of Christian nationalism in 2020.
- Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina, and is the author of "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion" and "Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good."
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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