The Trump administration is trying to go back to the future, to the “God and country” era where God reigned supreme and all American government explicitly endorsed — and privileged — the primacy of faith in all public matters.
Note that current U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, as I explain below, is this dream’s avuncular “poster child.”
In the minds of conservative Christian nationalists, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the mastermind of D-Day and the American hero of World War II, embodies this long-longed-for era of the Christian Right.
Eisenhower explained why he felt this dubious change was essential in a Flag Day speech in 1954, after Congress voted to, arguably unconstitutionally insert the phrase “under God” into the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance that school children recite each day in class:
“In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
In this way, he was saying, the Christian religion — the faith of more than 90 percent of Americans at the time — was the essential element of the nation. It’s now about 70 percent and falling, and a quarter of the populace couldn’t care less about any religion.
Eisenhower apparently forgot or purposely misunderstood that the Founding Fathers, who embedded religious (or irreligious) freedom in the U.S. Constitution, were profoundly fearful of any a particular religious sect imposing a theocracy on the government. They fully understood the horrors that governments fueled by religious sectarianism had unleashed throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages and wanted no part of it for their fledgling nation.
So what this current American administration is clearly trying to launch, this nouveau-theocratic autocracy bridling with white supremacist bigotry is “fundamentally un-American,” in the words of esteemed U.S. documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, The Vietnam War, etc.). Watch his 2016 CNN interview above where he voices fear of the destruction of norms Trumpism is inflicting on American life.
A proponent of American history and promise (and a very rare political commentator), Burns said in a Variety interview way back in 2016 — “Documentarian Ken Burns Warns Donald Trump’s Rise Is ‘Hitler-esque’” — that the dire threat the president then represented compelled him to speak out.
“[President Trump] represents the greatest threat to American democracy since the Second World War,” Burns told Variety. “He is so fundamentally un-American, and not only because he is unqualified, but because he is mentally unsuited. He represents a kind of strongman, narcissistic thing that represents the potential death of the Republic.”
Fortunately, Burns is not alone in his existential worry for the United States that this president inspires.
Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, and Caroline Fredrickson, president emerita of the American Constitution Society, in a December 2019 op-ed in the New York Times doubled down on this notion of an existential threat to the American republic.
In “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell: And he’s on a mission to use the ‘authority’ of the executive branch to stop it,” Stewart and Fredrickson point to Barr as an avatar of the Christianized evolution in 21st-century American conservativism that is “profound and disturbing.”
The piece opens with this important question that I have often asked myself, and which can be applied to many other captains of government service who have allowed their once-sterling reputations to crumble to dust under Trump (Lindsey Graham, et al):
“Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history?
The quote refers to Barr’s improper political insertion of his authority into sentencing decisions for two federally indicted and convicted Trump cronies — Roger Stone and Gen. Michael Flynn. Barr reportedly orchestrated sentences significantly shorter than Department of Justice prosecutors and their superiors initially recommended.
This incident has nothing to do with faith per se, but it has everything to do with the Trump administration’s wanton penchant to ignore judicial process norms, constitutional guardrails and even established laws to further its authoritarian, religio-conservative agenda.
This why vigilance is so important, because it will steamroll on and become more and more normalized if not vigorously challenged.
As I’ve written before about Barr, he is a proponent of expansive executive power, the kind of religious freedom that is allowed to discriminate against “others,” a belief that “an increasingly militant, secular age” is destroying American purity and that it can only be reversed by universally enforcing and privileging the Judeo-Christian tradition throughout society.
I’m not kidding. He’s actually said these things publicly in his official government capacity and in legal journals.
“Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” Barr said in a now-notorious speech last year at Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline. … The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”
That’s not a fact, as isn’t the unproven hypothesis that the Judeo-Christian tradition is superior to all other human social systems. What about humanism? Give it time.
One problem with all this is that Barr’s religio-political theory, as his devout Catholic faith, “has no factual basis,” according to Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Another problem, according to Stewart and Fredrickson, is:
“If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative.
So this is what we’re dealing with, a political juggernaut that is, as Ken Burns views it, “Hitler-esque” — where the ends justify the means.
That’s always dangerous. Always. That religion is involved only makes it more terrifying.