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Reason and Faith in the Age of Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Beliefs Based on Faith

Religion can be a particularly virulent form of ideology. With a stronger and more long lasting influence than Communism or Fascism, or for that matter, democracy, religion can demand the suppression of reason in favor of beliefs based on faith. That is why in the historical incidents where religion gets tied to state power, things almost always go bad. And we are not only talking about Catholics and the Inquisition, or Protestants and the Reformation wars, but also in modern times, the Buddhist regime in Sri Lanka, the Jewish state in Israel, or that so-called champion of Islamic law, Saudi Arabia. The problem of persecution and oppression when religion and state power get together is so ubiquitous that the only way this can go on is faith’s historical ability to conquer reason.

One case in point, manifesting itself in the American democracy, is the efforts of Christian fundamentalists to take local and state power in many parts of the country. When they succeed, it is almost always to the detriment not only of the nation’s status as a constitutional republic separating church and state, but also to the scientific basis of society. They are, to use an appropriate if well-worn term, “hell-bent” on melding political power to faith—their faith.

One strategy in this search for power was to establish an alliance with President Donald Trump. Trump is a totally unethical and immoral man, so that it is natural that he can make bargains with those who have exchanged reason for beliefs based on faith. In exchange for political support and the votes of millions of fundamentalist Christians, Trump has been willing to stack the judiciary with partisan conservative judges, support the outlawing of abortion and gay rights, and back the ambitions of a racist Zionist state. One can understand Trump’s actions in making this deal. He doesn’t care about separation of church and state, he doesn’t care about women’s or minority rights, and he doesn’t care whether the Constitution retains its integrity and place in the country’s ongoing political history.

The use of even a modicum of objective reason tells us that Trump is psychologically disordered and dangerous. But many of those devoted, in this case, to the Christian fundamentalist brand of religious faith, absurdly see something divine in his madness.

The Jericho March

A display of this dangerous brand of faith took place on 3 January 2020 at an event launching “Evangelicals for Trump” in Miami, Florida. On this occasion eight fundamentalist leaders, White, Black, Latino, men and women, representing mega-churches with millions of members, prayed over Trump—calling on God to give this man, who has nearly ruined the nation through his megalomania and incompetency, four more years of political power.

If someone cares to purchase any one of 2,857 “Trump prayer photos” depicting scenes of Christian fundamentalist leaders with their hands on Trump’s back and shoulders, intoning prayers to their God for this guy’s future success, you can do so through Getty images.

Or, if you were in the vicinity of the nation’s capital on 12 December 2020, you could have taken your own pictures at what passed for a Trump revival event. This was the Jericho March. The sponsors of the March, whose website features a portrait of Donald Trump and uses the hashtag “stopthesteal,” describe their effort this way: “The Jericho March is comprised of Judeo-Christians collectively praying to God to intercede, expose a particular darkness, and bring about justice. As a community of believers, we take our petitions to heaven, and we know that our mighty and powerful God answers and can move mountains.” According to one observer, the Jericho March was designed to “mimic the Biblical story of the Israelite army ritually marching around the walled city of Jericho, blowing the shofar, and watching as God demolished the city’s defenses, so the Israelites could conquer. The idea of the Jericho March is that the true believers would circle the corrupt institutions of the US Government, the ones promulgating the hoax that Trump lost the election.”

Noted Exceptions

It is important to note that there are individual exceptions to the frighteningly large number of fundamentalists who think that President Trump is an appointee of their Christian God. The exceptions are those who just can’t accept the absolutist attitude of this proposition—the unreasonable “take it or be damned” implication.

For instance, there is the view expressed by the Christian believer Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative. In an essay entitled What I Saw on the Jericho March, he scorned the marchers’ insistence that the recent election was stolen from Trump. He describes this conviction of the marchers as “an article of faith, not to be doubted. If you doubt, you are a traitor, a coward, in league with the Devil. I’m not exaggerating at all.” The influential Evangelical broadcaster Eric Metaxas who, according to Dreher, “is a religious Zealot who conflates politics with religion,” told the Jericho marchers that “patriots must fight to the last drop of blood to preserve Trump’s presidency, and that those who disagree are the same as Germans who stood by and did nothing to stop Hitler.” Dreher concludes that in this fundamentalist brand of religion, it is belief based on faith that matters, and faith allegedly speaks from the heart, not the mind. Evidence has little or no role in the process.

Another exception is Matt Lewis, a conservative Christian commentator with a column in the Daily Beast. He derides the Jericho marchers for believing that “they can pray God into helping Donald Trump remain in the Oval Office for four more years.” He says that Christians “have a right to be active in politics,” but they do not have a right to “overturn a free and fair election.” He goes on to say that what people like Metaxas are implying is that “to be on the side of Trump is to be on the side of God” and that “the political institutions that want to follow the Constitution and the rule of law are tantamount to the wicked city of Jericho—whose walls came tumbling down.”

The critical attitudes of Dreher and Lewis are important, if only because they point out that it is possible to be a Christian evangelical and approach politics in a rational manner. The problem is that the exceptions are just that—exceptions.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, a growing number of American Christians are comfortable uncritically accepting myths pushed by a religious authority. Science often comes in a poor second: a mere 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only around 42 percent are confident that the big bang theory may explain the origin of the universe. These percentages represent only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lies a fundamentalist reading of the Bible that calls into question more than 3,000 years of human progress. As we will see, the walls of Jericho might stand as a metaphor for this situation.

In your private life you can believe whatever you want. You can believe that God is real and has a specific interest in you, your community, and your nation. You can believe that this deity has a biblically revealed, quirky liking for flawed personalities in seats of power (Trump is often compared to the biblical David). You can believe that all those who disagree with you are bound for hellfire. It is all OK as long as you keep it in the private realm.

Going back to the Jericho March, its aim was to merge the public and private realms—to have the true believers figuratively circle the “corrupt institutions” of the US government, “the ones promulgating the hoax that Trump lost the election,” and cause those structures to collapse. This would allow faith-based belief to prevail over evidence-based reality. But as long as walls (metaphorically the walls of Jericho) between church and state prevail, faith-based irrational beliefs are denied political power.

But, bring those non-rational beliefs into the public realm and we have problems. There are reasons the Constitution calls for a separation of church and state. Those reasons are based on actual historical experiences of religious persecution and wars. Yet now this reality is largely erased from memory, and being forgotten, it is sometimes replaced by belief in religious mythology.  Also, with forgetfulness, the notion that this sort of religiosity is a superior basis for politics comes creeping back.

Let’s keep biblical tales, praying, the laying on of hands, and the sanctification of mentally suspect charlatans like Donald Trump to the private realm. If truth be told, civilization as we know it requires the metaphorical walls of Jericho to stay strong and erect.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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