The Trump Administration and Religion: In the End, the Same Republican “Small” Government Crusade

My post election conversations with friends, none of whom voted for Trump or would have thought of voting for Trump, were testy. I found myself irritated at talk about finding “common ground” with the other side and, especially, with getting in a contest for who could say the worst things about Hillary Clinton and the way the Democrats ran their campaign. Clinton was accused of being too cautious and not making a strong case for the Democratic Party’s vision and platform. True or not, Trump was so much the worst candidate that I wanted a relentless focus on resisting the values and ideas he was bringing to Washington.

Then I changed my mind. I now strongly believe that Hillary didn’t hit back hard enough, but not on conflicting agendas and policy proposals. She didn’t hit back on Trump’s totally immoral personal attacks on her. As well as unethical, Trump was unpatriotic every time he encouraged supporters in his rallies to chant, “lock her up”, and called her “crooked Hillary”. On at least one occasion he appeared to endorse assassinating her.  The viciousness worked.  The relentless shouting “She’s a crook” worked. The voters thought Hillary was a crook. Every day he said something unacceptable she should have blasted back. The press would have had to carry her response and maybe Trump’s lies and bullying would’ve sunken in with the voters.

Never forget that Trump’s lies and incitements had real consequences. Remember Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria” in Washington DC?  That was the restaurant to which a young father, Edgar Welsh, from South Carolina, drove with a gun to act on the story he got from “fake news” that Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking operation in the back rooms of the pizza parlor. He believed it.  He didn’t kill anyone but he did shoot his gun off in the pizzeria. Alexandra Zapruder  (NYT 12 /11/16) pointed out that the action Welsh took was immoral not only because trying to kill someone is immoral but because propagating fake news is immoral. She said, there is “no justification for accusing Clinton of child trafficking.” She added that whether Republicans will accept that “depends on whether they accept that there is such a thing as truth and that we are morally obligated to defend it. This may be a political problem for our Republican friends but it shouldn’t be a moral one. They should stand up for the truth”

Even if a strategy of “working with the Republicans” doesn’t look likely, it is worth emphasizing that an aura of accepting Trump’s election victory, and “getting past it”, in effect accepts the unethical campaign he just waged. It also “gets past” his qualifications for Presidency. These are, in theory, his success as a businessman in making a lot of money, or, more accurately, his success as a reality show star and brand name hawker. Also in theory, running for the high office of the Presidency with a professional background in business the candidate’s qualifications should include a record of straight dealing and honesty. Trump stiffed his investors and cheated students of promised education at his so-called university. The word “unethical” is rarely used, as of significance. He is only doing what a good businessman does.

In all the many long articles that have appeared in leading journals on “why Trump won” the words “unethical” or “amoral” are almost never used. Now it is too late. We have gotten past any discussion of Trump’s ethics as he criticizes the Republican House for making its first action of the new Congress watering down the independent oversight committee, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Ironies abound. The House members that voted to water down ethical oversight contain a large cadre of the incoming Congress who believe they are called by God to do good. “Good” evidently has little to do with the OCE’s main subject, corruption, but rather with banning abortion and gay marriage.
Trump’s proposed Cabinet and senior advisors have a confusing range of moral and religious concerns, but certainly Vice President elect Mike Pence is not alone in putting his religion as the top priority in his life, and in favoring a constitutional amendment banning abortion, contraception and defining marriage. Trump, on his record, probably doesn’t care much, but will go along with all of these initiatives.  He has said of harsh anti-abortion laws in Texas that, if someone can’t get an abortion they should “leave Texas”.

Pence calls himself a “religious restorationist” and will be on Trump’s Religious Advisory Board. His priority is for Congress to roll back governmental intervention in education, health care, and business and environment regulations. As governor of Indiana he had legislation passed that allowed Indiana businessmen to deny services to LTGB community. Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director, would defund Planned Parenthood. Jeff Sessions, who is up for Attorney General, favors a constitutional ban on gay marriage.  Betsy de Vos, the proposed new Secretary of the Department of Education wants to put education funding into vouchers to encourage parents to put their children into parochial schools. Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior advisor, has cited his adherence to “Church Militant” theology, a Catholic doctrine that has been politicized. The executive producer of ChurchMilitant,com has said, according to a NYT report, that the website  was a defense of patriotism and morality against attacks from liberals, secularists and global elites. Defense against these elites includes anti-abortion, anti-social welfare programs and anti-immigration policies. Bannon has been said to believe that poverty is a “choice” of the individual. On the far outside, the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, believes in creationism, that the world was created in 6 days, and has linked Hillary Clinton to Lucifer.

To return to Alexandra Zapruder: the words “moral “and “ethical” aren’t going to have much to do with truth. In addition, and in another irony, these “small” government crusaders want government coercing compliance with religious dictates  (“sorry, if you want an abortion, you will have to leave Texas”).  This view is of “big” government, in terms of power. These Republicans have a morality of big government. They should be asked to discuss and defend it.
As Trump’s new government pours through the pearly gates of Washington, it won’t be that easy to sort out the variety of religious convictions they will bring with them, despite the prominence of abortion and homosexuality.   To say that Republicans define moral and ethical in relation to human sexuality is too simple an analysis in any event and that is because there is a second religiously dictated creed that most of the new cadre of politicians bringing salvation to Washington share and that is the creed that government must be not so much “small” as limited to certain functions. These functions exclude social welfare functions like education and health and work place conditions.

This is not a new creed, and it is instructive to analyze how important a “born again” President George W. Bush was in legitimizing it. What did George W. Bush mean when he said government can only “write checks” in the social welfare arena? It is clear that he meant that those checks should facilitate face-to-face initiatives but not that the government resources should be used to hire people who are professionally trained to deal with drug addiction or poverty, for example. In Bush’s view, only faith can bring an individual to “responsibility.” Bush was looking for individuals to be saved one at a time.

This small government position is not a pragmatic choice but a moral choice for the Republicans who are now going to be staffing the Trump administration. The government does not belong in the arena of moral action. Problems are excluded from government action because the only moral way to solve them is in the private sphere. A secular community – government – through its taxpayers – cannot express the moral values of their members in their desire to create institutions that make it possible for example that all children should have health insurance. Governments are not bad so much because they are facilitating abortion but because they’re doing anything in this area of social welfare. The Bush value system limited the sphere in which the individual can take non-economic action The rich make a choice to help the poor with their charitable gifts. The rich it turns out, on the small government ideology, get to be richer and feel morally better about themselves at the same time.

Fast forward to the inauguration of Donald Trump. What does the word “good” mean to Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Trump? If Trump is “moral,” “ethical” and “good” doesn’t that mean that the evangelicals are actually saying money is “good”.  Indeed one of the most prominent evangelicals, David Holt, pastor of the Evangelical Word of Life Church in Texas, has said that “capitalism is the most compassionate system; capitalism is the best way to reduce poverty.”

Governments are formed in democracies to express the will of the people in their elected communities dedicated to working for goals that benefit members of the community.  Since that will include citizens who are not members of a religious body it is by definition a secular institution. As long as you are a voter you have no reason to reject membership in that secular community, or to take on bettering people’s lives through actions that members of some religious order believe belong only to the individual – whether the individual must be left to “choose” on not choose poverty, or choose or not choose to help individual’s education, health and welfare.

We cannot allow people to define social welfare initiatives as inappropriate for government on the ground of their religious objections. Action for the good of a community like education, health and decent working conditions is not to be dictated or forbidden by religious entities. The moral and ethical framework behind the small government ideology is almost by definition against any idea that we are on the equal basis with our fellow humans. We must hold fast to our communities and reject this creed. And we must fight to articulate in our communities, laws and norms that reject the violent bullying and incitements of a Donald Trump.

–Elizabeth Spiro Clark

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