Whenever I’m tempted to simply accept the seemingly innocuous gestures of civil religion here in America, someone or something comes along and reminds me that it simply isn’t safe to do so, that the boundary between church and state is worth defending, and that the potential for compromise on this issue is a well-poisoned well.
Case in point?
This bit of Cheeto-driven drivel, right here!
This pathetic tweet is an artifact of the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s an occasion when the President bows to the authority of political Christians, and vouchasafes their victories in the early days of the cold war. Whatever else this event is, it’s a good reminder that the cold war was always about internal politics as much as confrontation with external enemies. It’s also proof that little has changed under the sun (except perhaps the ratio of black carbon in the atmosphere, which is of course a heresy to the breakfasting prayer-mongers Trump spoke with today). Seriously, this event is the legacy of people who wanted Jesus to roll back the institutions of the New Deal, people who wanted to take away the social safety net and leave us all with nothing but Jesus and our own boot straps to help us in times of need. “In God we trust?” The subtext of that message is that government isn’t going to help you all.
That was always the point.
…which is why this message may be particularly relevant coming from an administration Hell-bent on tearing up every government agency that Americans rely on to keep us safe and prosperous. When the Manchurian Cheeto is done, we may well have nothing more than Jesus to keep poisons out of our water supply, remove the Russians from our computers, and hold the crooks at bay in the multinational cartels we now call banks. Jesus is already what the Republicans had offer the people of Flint and Puerto Rico. It’s what they offered to Southern Californians as a good chunk of the state burned down. It’s all we’ll be left with when the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast see Donald Trump deliver up the national disaster they’ve been praying for all these decades.
For all their flag-waving and Bible-thumping, those behind the National Prayer Breakfast are neither patriots nor Christians, and they certainly aren’t conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. What they want for this country is a disaster, and Donald Trump is delivering that disaster. He is the answer to their prayers.
The hypocrisy orgy known as the National Prayer Breakfast gives us a lot to gripe about. Donald Trump was fully immersed in the spirit of the occasion. He shared a good number of thoughts about the importance of faith in America, and in the American people. All utter crap of course, but he shared it all just the same.
For purposes of brevity, let’s just stick with the tweet, that portion of the wretched breakfast he chose to put into the only literary form the man and his fan base truly appreciate. He makes three points in this tweet, each of which is supposed to tell us something about the importance of God to the United States of America. Each of these points is damned misleading, which I suppose is a step up from the outright falsehoods we normally fall from this fountain of false facts, fake news, and utter foolishness. Still, a moment on each point will go a long way towards illustrating why Donald Trump is wrong about the role of God in America, and why the political Christians who eat this message up are wrong as well.
The first thing to notice is what is not mentioned in this vapid tweet, and that is the U.S. Constitution. It is the U.S. Constitution, and religion clauses of the First Amendment, that make the role of religion in our government such a hotly debated topic. One of the most fascinating things about those who want us to think of America as a Christian nation is just how hard they work to leave the Constitution out of the discussion. That document doesn’t help them, so they have to work around it. They have just one problem. Simply failing to mention the U.S. Constitution is too obvious. It sets up a great big red flag and invites those of us on the secular end too many obvious entry points to push our own point of view. They can’t just not say anything. That won’t work. So, they typically do what Trump does here. They cite the Declaration instead.
Like Jesus sent to atone for the sins the humanity, The Declaration of Independence serves to atone for the silence of the Constitution on the subject of God. (Yes, the Constitution mentions God in the date. If that impresses, you then I have an acre of arctic ice-pack to sell you.) The Constitution simply doesn’t say what Evangelical Christians want it to say. It does not invoke God as the authority for creation of the U.S. Government. (It locates that authority in the people.) It doesn’t say that you have to be Christian to hold office. (In fact, it expressly forbids such a standard.) And of course it contains a clause holding religion at bay right there alongside the right to practice religion. We can debate the proper interpretation of the establishment clause, but its mere existence is an annoyance to those who would clearly rather live in a theocracy. You can read the Constitution all day, but it won’t give you the license to tie Jesus to our politics that Evangelical Christians want out of the document. So, they typically talk about the Declaration of Independence instead.
Just like the Cheeto-in-Chief did today.
Of course those pushing the America-as-a-Christian-nation theme typically misread the Declaration itself, often confusing this reference to a Creator (written by a man widely regarded as a Deist) with a direct reference to Jesus himself and nearly always confusing this piece of propaganda with a clear plan of government. They ignore the clear parallels to logic of Hobbesian thought and other connections to Enlightenment philosophy in order to cast the language of the Declaration in terms closer to those of scripture. Most importantly, they reverse the point of the argument. Jefferson wasn’t using rights to prove the existence of a creator. He was using a reference to the Creator to explain the existence of rights, and no, there is nothing in the relevant passage of the Declaration that suggests the rights will cease to exist if we take the Creator out of the picture. All of this is lost on those consuming messages like that Trump delivered today at the National Prayer Breakfast. When they reference the Declaration, they see it as an argument for belief in God (which they assume means Jesus), but they are dead wrong in more ways than they could possibly count.
Simply put, the Declaration doesn’t mean what Donald Trump pretends it means. Neither does it mean what the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast want it to mean.
I doubt there is much in the Bible that means what they want it to mean either.
Or the Constitution that matter.
The whole shell game is crap! People ought to stop talking about the Declaration when they mean to address questions about the Constitution, and they ought to stop reading either one as though it was the script for the youth pastor in a particularly uneducated part of the country. Most of us are smarter than that, but that doesn’t stop some people from recycling the same old garbage, which is what Trump did today. The whole con has been painfully obvious for decades. That should be as obvious to Christians as it is to the rest of us.
But not to the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast!
As to ‘In God We Trust’? That motto was adopted by the nation in 1956. It was part of the same movement that led to things like the National Prayer Breakfast, which makes it an interesting point for Trump to make. In doing so, he is simultaneously invoking a principle many assume to be a timeless part of American history and also giving a nod to the faithful who know the history of the prayer breakfast, people who understand the aggressiveness of their own political agenda, people who understand how divisive that phrase was always meant to be. It may sound like a nice an unifying message, if that is, you don’t give a damn about those who don’t trust god after all. In effect, the motto says of the rest of us that we aren’t really part of America. We don’t really count.
That is of course precisely the point. Always was.
“One nation, under God?”
Same story. This too was also added in those days shortly after Ike had been reluctantly cajoled into making public professions of faith in the official service of the nation. It too has always served as a clear reminder to the rest of us that we do not really belong. One nation under God? If you don’t believe in God, that little utterance, that bit of prayer stuck into the middle of an oath, gives the lie to the whole charade, it drops you right out of the narrative in the very moment the thoughtless celebrate unity at your expense.
Again, that is the point of the ritual.
So, there we have it, one twisted effort to dodge the Constitution on the subject of church and state, and two tokens of divisiveness wrapped in a cloak of unity. Whether he means it or not, whether Donald Trump is capable of ‘meaning’ anything in the conventional sense of the word, this is the message he offered America’s political Christians today. He endorsed their most aggressive agenda and made a point to isolate their enemies. Small wonder that these folks love him despite his obvious insincerity. Today Donald Trump offered the religious right the power to which they feel entitled, and he did it in precisely the same deceitful tones they have always known and loved. That’s our President; completely without substance, and utterly disingenuous.
The religious right wouldn’t have him any other way!