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26 June 2024

Evangelical Christians’ Trumpian pact

Conservative Christians would use their unlikely champion’s return to office to impose their own regressive values on America.

By Jill Filipovic

At first glance, the elevation of a candidate such as Donald Trump to be the Republicans’ undisputed, all-knowing and all-powerful leader seemed to indicate the decline of the American religious right. Trump has been found responsible by juries for sexual abuse and for falsifying business records after paying off a porn star with whom he cheated on his then postpartum third wife; his storied business career is littered with unpaid debts and accusations that he failed to pay workers. He’s a profoundly immoral character who revels in mocking and demeaning perceived adversaries. His most ardent supporters seem to admire him precisely because he’s not admirable and is instead a vulgar rule-breaker who worships money and power – more Tony Montana than Ned Flanders.

He’s not the sort of person you would imagine enjoying support from religious Christians, let alone overseeing a fierce revival of evangelical power in the US. And yet, through Trump, evangelicals are on the cusp of unprecedented power, which they could use to force their conservative form of Christianity on the whole nation.

Evangelicals have long been committed to imposing their religious views on everyone else. But they’ve been reined in by courts that tend to allow Christians and other religious groups to practise their faith, while preventing them from using government entities to spread that faith to others. Those norms have been eroded, however. Increasingly conservative courts have found ways to allow the use of government resources for explicitly religious purposes.

Some of the biggest recent legal victories have been won by the anti-abortion movement, which is religious but often presented with a veneer of secularism. Beliefs derived from religious faith – for example, that a fertilised egg is a person and should be imbued with the full rights of personhood even before pregnancy is established – have been put into secular language and streamed into the politics of reproductive rights. This strategy has led to several wins for the anti-abortion movement at the Supreme Court, such as the Hobby Lobby case in 2014 which essentially allows the religious beliefs of an owner of a secular company to refuse certain kinds of healthcare coverage for their employees – even if their religious belief is scientifically incorrect (in that case, the false notion that some forms of contraception cause abortion). The fall of Roe vs Wade and the end of abortion rights in the US was a continuation of this push.

Emboldened by their success on abortion, conservative efforts to Christianise America are moving well beyond reproductive rights. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest and most influential evangelical denomination in the country, voted at its annual meeting in June to oppose in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Importantly, the resolution it passed did not simply say that Southern Baptists themselves should forgo IVF and in place of fertility medicine “turn to God, look to Scripture for numerous examples of infertility, and know that their lament is heard by the Lord”. The resolution said that Southern Baptists are called upon “to advocate for the government to restrain” IVF and other procedures this particular sect deems inconsistent with its views.

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Not long after the Southern Baptist vote, the governor of Louisiana signed into law a bill that requires state-school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments. Louisiana routinely ranks as one of the worst states in America for education. To the extent that Louisiana should be displaying any top ten lists in its classrooms, it probably should have started with the Bill of Rights in the US constitution, which explicitly bans government establishment of religion. Instead, it has passed a law that achieves nothing except Christianity’s symbolic domination of its school system. It is a transparent attempt to expand conservative Christian power in public secular spaces, and will no doubt wind up in the courts – at taxpayers’ expense.

The timing of this is odd. Americans are less religious than ever. Trump is about as far from a man of faith as it gets. The religious right has seemingly been on the decline for decades. Yet it’s no fluke that this movement has been resurrected despite having fewer proponents. Christian nationalism has, like most other theocratic movements, always been a demand for minority rule. Fewer adherents to conservative Christianity and an increasingly secular society have only convinced tyrannical Christians that their dominance is necessary – that taking political control is urgent, and that they are justified in using any means necessary to achieve their aims.

Like most theocratic movements, the resurgent religious right is more interested in power than moral righteousness. Their new god, Donald Trump, has the audacity to depict himself as a Christian martyr. His followers revel in blatant idolatry as they also paint him as a Jesus-like figure. As a huckster, he offers them what he promises is the deal of a lifetime: capture of the federal courts, which will allow them to impose their agenda in exchange for the price of their moral compasses. A casual observer might say this looks a lot like selling their souls. Pro-Trump evangelicals seem to believe that America simply must be a Christian nation – even if getting there means making deals with the devil.

[See also: Why we get the wrong leaders]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine