An Issue Still Important… Religious Authoritarianism and the Trump Administration

Originally posted March 8, 2017.

Analysts have written endless numbers of commentaries to explain why Trump voters voted for him and why they are continuing to support him. “Trump does what he says he is going to do,” they say. “He is authentic”. “Clinton was a crook.” “My identity is being disrespected while undeserving people are being given handouts by the government.” “We can’t afford a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, maternity leave, healthcare, job protections, public transportation, child day care.” Instead of handouts, they say, government should encourage private enterprise. Trump voters feel they are unfairly disadvantaged economically. They feel their patriotism is not admired. “Money spent on the military is patriotic.” They want to return America to the fifties and the supremacy of white men.

Do these short hand quotes really explain, however, the incredible picture of Trump appointing, almost without exception, incoming heads of departments who vow to destroy both the meaning and the substance of the work of these departments. Even the degree of hatred of anything Obama did is not a powerful enough explanation. After all, the meaning of these departments is to help Americans realize their dreams. To be the American Dream. The best national park system, the best public school system, the best health care, the best public transportation, the safest air, the safest water.   Americans should feel proud of these programs and goals. Instead, on the Trump side, they appear to despise them.

Can the incoming Republican really put as their first priority squashing the homeless, the helpless, the sick, the refugee, the native American trying to preserve his heritage. The answer is: yes, they can. For Republicans, the American Dream is private goods, house, car, vacations, opportunity for my kids. It is not public goods – clean air and water or national parks. Empathy is not part of the American Dream for people who you don’t know or don’t look like you. The Republicans who lack empathy or any sense of community with Americans who are not just like them will not only seem cruel, they will be cruel.

Commentators are missing one large target for explaining the Trump supporter that does not require believing they are all bad people. They need to look at their religious convictions, which the Trump supporters say are guiding their actions and which probably are.

The Trump Cabinet: Anti Democratic Religious Affiliations
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 amendments 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. As governor of Indiana he had passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Act allowed Indiana businessmen to deny services to LTGB community and led several major corporations to cancel plans to expand their businesses into Indiana.

Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director, would defund Planned Parenthood. Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General, favors a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Tom Price the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, when in Congress, led an effort to repeal the federal mandate that required insurers to include birth control in their coverage. 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.

Betsy de Vos, who heads the Department of Education, wants to put education funding into vouchers to encourage parents to put their children into private and parochial schools. Her church, the Mars Hill Bible Church, like many megachurches, fits into a Calvinist tradition that focuses on free will and the free choice for or against God. In that perspective, government programs in the area of social policy get between the individual and God. She laments that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. She and her husband are close friends of the head of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Robert Siroco. The Acton Institute gets funding from the Koch brothers to further its anti-climate change policies, supporting the petrochemical industries. The Acton Institute is essentially against democracy because democracy’s egalitarianism, dependent on political institutions, is counter to God’s will. According to one statement on its website, “we are never to help erect any structure other than one that rests on the foundation laid by God.”

Scott Pruitt now heads the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he sued EPA over its environment regulations nine times. His appointment could be understood as just another move to destroy the federal government, motivated by economic or other policy reasons. However, Pruitt is strongly supported by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. Cornwall’s evangelical declaration (2009) on global warming says that “Earth and its ecosystems — created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.” In other words, there can’t be cataclysmic climate change because God’s design wouldn’t allow it. Laws protecting the environment are not only not needed they are religiously offensive. Cornwell receives funding from the pro oil industry Koch Brothers.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior advisor, has cited his adherence to “Church Militant”theology, a Catholic doctrine which explicitly involves itself in political controversies. 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. Bannon supports US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

There has been recent reporting on a 2014 speech that Bannon gave in Italy at the Institute for Human Dignity. The institute is on the far right of the Catholic spectrum and is critical of Pope Francis. It’s mission statement says that its “goal is to protect and promote human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is born in the image and likeness of God. Our primary aim is to promote this vision of authentic human dignity mainly by supporting Christians in public life, assisting them in presenting effective and coherent responses to increasing efforts to silence the Christian voice in the public square.”

Bannon has said of the migration/refugee crisis in Europe: “It’s not a migration…. It’s really an invasion. I call it the “Camp of the Saints.”  “The Camp of the Saints” is an obscure, overtly racist novel, published in 1973, in which only white Christian Europeans  are portrayed as truly human and are on the brink of destruction because black and brown people are more fertile and more numerous, and because the West has lost a “necessary belief” in its own cultural and racial superiority.

Faith vs. Government Social Welfare Programs: Echoes of George W. Bush
The demonizing of any community not religiously sanctioned and directed is not a new creed in recent American history, and it is instructive to analyze how important a “born again” President George W. Bush was in legitimizing it. George W. Bush said early in his Administration that 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.

In the 2016 election, the rallies were full of leading Republican politicians and cabinet appointees cheering on the Bush “faith only” view. There was a report in the Washington Post (2/10/17) on politics in Idaho that would certainly find echoes in many other Trump supporting states. The Republican governor, Butch Otter, rejected the expansion of federal Medicaid assistance – as did 18 other states. The Medicaid rejection had left a group of the working poor who made too much to be in traditional Medicaid population and too little to purchase their own health insurance – a group that contained as many as 78,000.

The toxic politics in Idaho’s legislature meant that lawmakers didn’t believe the figures on how much better off the state would be if they expanded Medicaid. They looked for personal stories to disprove the figures and found the opposite. One constituent, Clella Steinke, wrote that her daughter in law had died of an asthma attack she would not have had if she had been able to afford to go to a respiratory therapist. Stories like Steinke’s have not been enough to change the law in Idaho and allow an expansion of Medicaid. Otter vowed to come up with a replacement for Obamacare but, after 4 years, has failed. Otter reportedly is standing back and “pausing” to see what the Trump Administration comes up with. Significantly, Idaho’s State Senator Patti Lodge has argued, along with George W. Bush, that when government steps in with social welfare programs it takes responsibility away from churches or friends for helping each other. “Government has no heart. It has no soul. It just cares about numbers. People care about people”.

Capitalism is the Best Way to Reduce Poverty”
What does the word “good” mean to the 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.”

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. In many churches where Trump administration officials are congregants, members are told that it is “between you and God” whether you give money to the poor. Government shouldn’t get in the way of your relationship with God and that is what government does in doling out health and human services programs. It follows that those who receive charity also have no right to that help or support from the government because government is secular and that stands in the way of their realizing that God is all and has no competition from human created institutions unless those institutions are connected to God, getting their legitimization from religious institutions.

In its extreme in the religious anti-government ideology you can’t have a community with non Christians on a basis of common humanity. Relationship with non-Christians must be either to be oppose them or (same thing) convert them so that they are “born again”. You cannot make significant decisions in a community of equals with secularists. From this viewpoint government is not supposed to be created to serve the weak living in the same community with the strong. The early actions of the Trump administration, in fact, seem to reflect a desire to destroy the weak. Its policies seem unexplainably heartless and cruel. To take a small example, it is unfeeling to reject even thinking about the “weak” Dakota Indians appeal to retain sacred lands which lie in the path of an oil pipeline.

These religious small government convictions are just as strong as anti-abortion or anti-homosexual convictions, as it is against God’s will for the weak to be helped by a secular community based on government created human rights. This represents also, and obviously, a fundamentalist attack on the separation of church and state, and, indeed, some of the newly appointed Trump cabinet are explicitly against the separation of church and state.

Money, Religious Authoritarianism and Small Government Ideology
This small government position is thus not a pragmatic choice but a moral choice for the Republicans 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 at all in this area of social welfare.

Some Trump advisors profess the “prosperity gospel,” which holds, despite Jesus’s statements to the contrary, that God wants you to be rich. If God wants you to be rich, and oil makes you rich, then there’s no moral conflict. Money and religious authoritarianism and small government ideology are all of a piece. The Trump voter on the religious right isn’t going to be upset if it is pointed out that corporations in the oil and gas industry fund the religious organizations they support and belong to.

Deference to Authority: The Special Case of the South
Arlie Hochschild in her recently published book, “Strangers in their own Land” analyzes what is motivating the Trump voter, especially the southern Trump voter. She says that the white southerner was raised to defer to the white plantation owner as a way to get ahead and realize the American dream. That attitude of deference to white authority as an entitlement to “move up in line” to achieve the American dream now adjusts easily to deference to oil and gas corporate CEOs. This explains why the white southern Trump voter so resents the federal government, which they feel gives African Americans the ability to get ahead of them “in line” for the America Dream.

In the present climate of religious authoritarianism, “moral” as a word, has really been taken out of the realm of ethics, a belief system in common humanity, kindness decency, honesty, empathy and caring. The words morality and belief have been appropriated by the Christian religious to the point where it is understood that secularist would not even understand what is moral.

As the story of the Dakota Indians shows, it turns out that it is the government not religious entities that are moral and have “heart.”

The Democratic Party: The Party with a Moral and Ethical Message
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.

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 talk about what is moral and ethical 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. Those on the liberal side have a good story to tell and we cannot cede ethical and moral as words belonging to our opponents. 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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