January 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Officials at the American Family Association (AFA), a Christian nationalist group based in Tupelo, Miss., were excited. After a string of courtroom defeats for President Donald Trump and his allies in their effort to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election, the group saw a glimmer of hope on Dec. 7 after Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, filed a lawsuit seeking to stop four states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan – from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race.

Although legal scholars on all points of the political spectrum derided the legal action as an absurd effort that was essentially a political stunt, the AFA’s fake news service OneNewsNow lauded the suit and quoted alleged experts who said they were sure it would succeed.

“I’m very grateful to our attorney general for filing this because he is on the point of the spear as far as being able to get something to the U.S. Supreme Court that they can work with,” OneNewsNow quoted Cathie Adams, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas who now serves as first vice president of Eagle Forum, a Religious Right group.

Another so-called expert, Rob Cham­bers, vice president of AFA’s political arm, AFA Action, said, “I don’t even see how the liberal justices can turn a blind eye to this because it is clear these states have violated the electoral clause within the U.S. Constitution.”

In fact, everyone but the most deluded Trump supporters knew the case was going nowhere because Texas has no legal right to nullify another state’s votes. Sure enough, on Dec. 11, the Supreme Court issued a brief order saying it would not hear the case.

“Texas,” the court observed, “has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections.”

The high court’s move came just days after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court slammed the door on another lawsuit designed to subvert democracy by tossing out hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots, a move that would have essentially awarded the state’s electoral votes to Trump – even though Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. The state was key to Trump’s plan for a second term, and he has refused to come to grips with the fact that he failed to carry it.

Trump also insisted that he really won a host of other swing states, notably Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. In Georgia, which Trump lost by about 12,000 votes, his campaign insisted on two recounts that didn’t change the outcome. In Wisconsin, where Biden prevailed by 20,600 votes, the Trump campaign paid $3 million for a partial recount – only to see Biden’s margin of victory increase by 132 votes.

Trump’s fantasies about the campaign grew increasingly dark and bizarre in the weeks after the election. By late November, he was positing a wide-ranging conspiracy involving state and local election  officials, companies that operate voting machines, the FBI, the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. De­partment of Homeland Security and even federal judges (some of whom were appointed by Trump). On Dec. 2, he released a 46-minute video ranting about how the election was stolen from him. Philip Bump, a reporter for The Washington Post, called the video “the functional equivalent of one of [Trump’s] beloved campaign rallies, both in the sense that it offered the same meandering range and, quite obviously, the same relief for his frustrations.”

The AFA and other Christian nationalist groups, instead of condemning these claims for the threat to democracy that they are, joined Trump in circulating them. On its website, the AFA linked to a conspiracy-laden article from a site called The American Thinker, which asserted – while presenting no evidence – that the election was rigged because the voting machines were all built overseas. The article managed to implicate billionaire George Soros, a frequent target of the far right.

Soros was also singled out by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC). Commenting on the results a few days after the election, Perkins alluded darkly to “radical forces out there who will do whatever it takes to stop Donald Trump.”

Added Perkins, “[B]illionaire George Soros started plotting a sophisticated campaign to subvert the election process. …” Like many on the far right, Perkins has a fervid imagination but lacks one important thing: even a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing.

But that didn’t stop Perkins. In a Nov. 16 column, the FRC head dem­onstrated a tenuous grasp on math, finding it difficult to understand how Trump managed to lose while getting more votes than he did in 2016. (It’s not hard to figure out what happened: Turnout was exceptionally high in 2020, and Biden simply got more votes; he bested Trump by more than seven million ballots.)

“Whether [Trump’s] efforts will be enough to save his presidency, no one knows,” wrote Perkins. “But could they save an election system bogged down by doubts and questions? That, in the long run, may be just as important.”

But the election system is bogged down by “doubts and questions” only in the minds of Trump and his sycophants. Experts made it clear that the 2020 election, despite worries over foreign interference, the coronavirus pandemic and the large number of people voting by mail, was without any widespread, systemic problems.

Shortly after the election, Christopher Krebs, head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, felt compelled to respond to Trump’s baseless charges that there had been widespread election fraud.

Krebs, whose agency worked with state and local officials to ensure the election was safe from hackers, issued a statement through CISA reading, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

The Nov. 12 statement continued, “While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too. When you have questions, turn to election officials as trusted voices as they administer elections.”

Trump fired Krebs via a Nov. 17 tweet. About two weeks later, Krebs, a lifelong Republican, appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and reiterated that the election results are accurate.

“I have confidence in the security of this election because I know the work that we’ve done for four years in support of our state and local partners,” Krebs said. “I know the work that the intelligence community has done, that the Department of Defense has done, that the FBI has done, that my team has done. I know that these systems are more secure. I know based on what we have seen that any attacks on the election were not successful.”

Krebs’ refusal to support Trump’s stolen election line drew a swift response from Joseph diGenova, an attorney for Trump’s campaign. Appearing on a conservative radio show, diGenova called Krebs “a class A moron” and asserted that he should be “drawn and quartered, taken out at dawn and shot.”

Threats like that, unfortunately, were not uncommon. On Dec. 1, Ga­b­­riel Sterling, the voting systems manager for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, held a press conference during which he pleaded with Trump and others to tone down their rhetoric.

“This has to stop,” Sterling, also a lifelong Republican, said. “We need you to step up, and if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some. … Someone is gonna get hurt, someone is gonna get shot, someone is gonna get killed.”

State election officials like Sterling are especially frustrated because they know their systems worked. About two weeks after the election, The New York Times contacted election officials across the country and asked them whether they had any evidence of irregularities. The Times reported that officials in 45 states responded directly, and in four other states the newspaper was able to find public comments from election officials. The results were clear: As The Times put it, “[N]one reported any major voting issues.”

Voter fraud, The Times noted, is very rare in the United States. When it does happen, it tends to be isolated and not widespread. The disputed votes are never enough to change the outcome.

But these are facts – and facts have not slowed down Religious Right groups one iota. Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group led by Mat Staver, issued an email fundraising appeal Nov. 17 with the tagline “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” The “smoke” in this case consisted of the same vague stories and wild claims that Trump began circulating shortly after it became apparent that he had lost the election.

“More election fraud incident reports are being reported,” Staver asserted. He went on to add that a “retired three-star U.S. Air Force Lt. General is claiming he has firsthand knowledge of computer software being used to tamper with election results.” (Not surprisingly this individual was not named, nor did Staver explain why this general failed to take what would be blockbuster evidence to the media.)

A breathless Staver added, “Meanwhile, former U.S. Prosecutor Sidney Powell, who represents Gen. Michael Flynn and now the Trump administration, claims she has proof that Dominion Voting Systems tampered with results on a massive scale. Dominion’s system was used in several of the contested states…”

A few days later Powell’s rantings, which included claims that communists in Cuba and Venezuela had manipulated the U.S. election results and that our country’s elections have been rigged for years, proved too much even for Trump. On Nov. 22, Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis issued a statement saying that Powell, whose behavior grew increasingly unhinged as December came on, was not part of their legal team.

Powell’s “proof” that Dominion Voting Systems had tampered with the results never emerged. In fact, none of the claims made about Dominion have panned out. The firm has become the target for abuse by Trump and his supporters, including Christian nationalist groups, but there is zero evidence that Dominion did anything wrong.

Dominion is a Canadian firm with U.S. offices in Denver. It has no ties to Venezuela. In 2020, Dominion worked with election officials in 28 states, including some won by Trump, and many individual counties.

By buttressing Trump’s false narrative of a stolen election, Christian nationalists do more than prop up his long-shot effort to overturn the results of the election. They are also casting doubt on the very nature of American democracy itself; they are trading in reckless conspiracy theories that could undermine Americans’ trust in free elections.

Some of the allegations made are easy to debunk – but that hasn’t diluted their staying power. For example, Trump and his allies have insisted that there is no way Biden could have won more than 81 million votes. Again, the numbers are not hard to square when one considers that, according to the Pew Forum, there are an excess of 233 million eligible voters in America.

Furthermore, the scope of any conspiracy that aimed to overturn millions of ballots would have to be so vast as to be unthinkable. And, as several observers have pointed out, if a liberal cabal manipulated the election, it kind of made a hash of it: The plotters  failed to deliver the U.S. Senate decisively to the Democrats, allowed the party’s majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to shrink and permitted the GOP to make big gains in many state governments.

The people who work on the front lines to ensure that our elections are safe and secure know how absurd these charges are. In a Nov. 5 column that ran in The Washington Post, Evelyn Smith, who counted votes in Michigan, pointed out that fraud is next to impossible.

“Those claims are totally detached from reality – from the painstaking, tedious process of accounting for and tabulating every ballot,” Smith wrote. “The count involves so many steps, so many layers of double-checking and supervision, that it would be virtually impossible to fake even a single ballot. It’s dangerous to suggest that anyone could fake enough ballots to change the result. From my experience, it’s also totally absurd.”

Concluded Smith, “The past four years have been so discouraging and divisive, and it has made a lot of Americans feel that our country’s institutions are totally broken. But this one, small, crucial thing actual­ly does work. I wish more people could see that.”

So what is really going on here? Do Christian nationalist leaders actually believe that a vast conspiracy that must have involved thousands of people tinkered with millions of votes to deny Trump, who, by the way, was trailing in every poll prior to Election Day, a second term?

Some of the lesser lights may believe such nonsense, but it’s much more likely that the leaders of Religious Right groups (and quite possibly Trump) have another goal in mind: destabilizing Biden’s presidency and eroding Americans’ faith in democratic norms.

A Monmouth University poll taken in late November found that while 60% of all Americans believe Biden won fairly, that number was much lower among Republicans – 77% of them believe Biden somehow cheated. That figure provides an opening for Christian nationalists. By casting doubt on Biden’s legitimacy, these groups and their allies in the GOP create a justification for spurning bipartisanship and thwarting Biden’s legislative agenda. They also pave the way for a second Trump run in 2024. Religious Right groups can also use claims of a stolen election to fire up their membership and raise funds.

Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates and a longtime observer of Christian nationalism, pointed out that since Trump gave the Religious Right so much politically, it’s not surprising to see these groups sticking by him even if that means promoting widely debunked conspiracy theories.

“Conspiracism has long been a feature of the Christian Right, especially since it became an arm of the Republican Party,” Clarkson told Church & State. “Democrats, liberals – and certainly proponents of church-state separation – it is said and widely accepted in their circles, are aligned with Satan, or as Paula White recently put it, regarding alleged election fraud, ‘demonic confederacies.’”

Added Clarkson, “So although they lost the presidency, for the Christian Right, the war for the world neither begins nor ends with elections. That evil won the battle does not mean it won the war. And they will reformulate their strategic resistance to ‘evil’ of the Biden administration, just as they did during the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“Times do change, though,” concluded Clarkson. “And perhaps one major difference is that the most animated parts of the Christian Right are more openly opposed to democracy and its institutions than ever before. If democracy can enable ‘demonic confederacies’ to undermine God’s anointed and seize power in this way, it raises questions about the value of their own investment in electoral politics as the road to victory.”          

Editor’s Note: As this issue of Church & State went to press, members of the Electoral College had met to certify Biden’s victory, but several Republican members of Congress were vowing to contest his win in the House and Senate.