High-ranking members of the Trump administration, as well as the president himself, have gone on a tear lately about how “Christian” this administration is and how they’re defending faith. This is probably not a coincidence, given the current events around the impeachment investigation.
First out of the gate was Attorney General William Barr, who gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame Friday that can only be described as appalling. Barr attacked secular government – the very thing guaranteed to by our Constitution – and argued that “militant secularists” have spawned a host of social ills.
That was bad enough, but consider this line: “In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and manmade law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.”
Barr blithely told millions of Americans who are non-religious that their government does not care about them, indeed that they have no place in this country. It’s an alarming stance for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to take.
Syndicated columnist Catherine Rampell rightly called Barr’s speech “a tacit endorsement of theocracy.” (Bear in mind, Barr is a repeat offender. He gave similar talks bashing secular government when he served as attorney general during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.)
The same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed a gathering of the American Association of Christian Counselors in Nashville. Pompeo’s speech, titled “Being a Christian Leader,” was prominently featured on the State Department’s home page. In the speech, Pompeo openly boasted about making decisions based on his interpretation of Christian principles – an interpretation that millions of Americans, including many who are Christian, disagree with.
As AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it, “Secretary Pompeo’s speech on how being a Christian leader informs his decision-making and the posting of the speech on the State Department website send the clear message that U.S. public policy will be guided by his personal religious beliefs.”
The following day, Trump attended a banquet during the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of the Religious Right in Washington, D.C., during which he defended his administration’s policy in Syria against charges that the U.S. has abandoned our allies the Kurds and the country’s Christian minority and given new life to the terror group ISIS. Trump, who portrayed himself as a great champion of Christian values, was received like a conquering hero.
“Now, powered by those same historic values that have always defined our nation, we will reach new heights, make new breakthroughs and we will strengthen the bonds of love and loyalty that unite us all as citizens, as neighbors, as patriots, as Christians, as people of faith,” Trump said at the conclusion of his speech. “As one people, one nation and one United States of America, we will stand as a light of liberty, a land of courage and a home for proud people of faith. Forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer and the eternal glory of God.”
You don’t have to be a cynic to question the timing of this eruption of God talk. We have an administration that claims to be championing Christian values at a time when news headlines every day expose more rot and corruption within it.
There’s a great irony here. Consider Barr’s speech, during which he quoted a line from John Adams, the second president of the United States. It’s a line Christian nationalists love to cite, although they wrench it from context.
“Our Constitution,” Adams wrote to the militia of Massachusetts in 1798, “was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Note that Adams, a Unitarian who was skeptical of familiar Christian concepts such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, speaks of morality and religion. Perhaps that’s because he knew that claims to religiosity alone were not enough; they had to be backed by actual moral behavior.
Thinking along those lines, there's a passage from the same Adams letter that Christian nationalists never quote but that seems especially relevant today: “Avarice, ambition, and revenge … would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”
In the weeks and months to come, members of this administration may try to break the cords of our Constitution while portraying themselves as pious defenders of the faith. It’s a classic diversionary tactic, and Americans United will be on hand to expose it every time.
“Church-state separation means that government cannot favor one religion over others, or religion over nonreligion,” Laser said. “It means we are governed by our shared secular values, not the privileged religious views of some. Americans United will continue to hold this administration accountable to our country’s promise of religious freedom for all.”
Count on it.
Photo: Attorney General Barr speaking at the University of Notre Dame. Screenshot from The Wall Street Journal