Religiosity in the White House

03/26/2017 10:41 am ET
Ben Garrison, Modern Day Samson

In Modern Day Samson, a cartoon by Trump supporter Ben Garrison that has circulated widely on social media, the president is pictured enveloped in light as he smashes the pillars holding up the New World Order. The columns that crumble from his fury bear the names of familiar news outlets—New York Times and Washington Post, CNN and The Huffington Post. They include organizations such as the United Nations and the CIA, and cheer the collapse of “neoconservatism” and “status quo” alike, both featured as cracking under Trumpian pressure.

Fanciful? Doubtless. Edifying? Certainly—especially after last week’s train wreck over health-care reform. Like so many comparable cartoons by Garrison, whose work has often been featured in Breitbart News, Modern Day Samson represents the president in the style and manner clearly preferred by his admirers: a dogged iconoclast of superhuman strength, willing to smash modern-day variants of the Temple of the Philistines. In comparable images, Trump appears as a Christian knight slaying the dragon of “political correctness”; in New Brooms Sweep Clean, as a stolid everyman ridding the White House and the nation of NAFTA, “globalism,” “corrupt media,” and Obamacare. Beloved by the new Far Right, the cartoons feature the president as not just younger, blonder, and more successful than in real life, but as the nation’s religious savior.

When Melania Trump opened her remarks at the president’s Melbourne, Fla., rally by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and when Rev. Franklin Graham began his benediction at Trump’s inauguration by declaring that rain at the event was a sign of heavenly favor, both were making an effort to paint the president as a friend to evangelicals and, more generally, a protector of the devout. Never mind that Trump actually used his first prayer breakfast (on his second day in office) to attack enemies, settle scores, and pronounce the media his real enemy—a role hitherto occupied by the nation’s intelligence agencies, who are now investigating his campaign’s multiple ties to Russia. Undeterred, Graham, who is president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, called the election outcome providential. “I believe that in this election, no question, God’s hand was in it,” he told Fox News.

In his Joint Address to the House and Senate last month, Trump tried to strengthen the same conviction, telling Congress and the nation: “We all are made by the same God.” He invoked what “the Bible teaches us” when addressing the death of U.S. Navy Seal Ryan Owens in Yemen, and urged “all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit”—one bearing distinct religious overtones.

Trump is not the first American president to grasp or redirect the power of religiosity—fervent public demonstrations of religious belief by elected officials. Tapping widespread evangelical support, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush bolstered an already well-established alliance between the GOP and the Christian Right; Jimmy Carter demonstrated a life-long commitment to his religious faith. By contrast, Trump’s contrived religiosity is best seen alongside Dwight D. Eisenhower’s: both were hastily assembled and tailored to political expediency.

After his own bruising Republican primary in 1952, Eisenhower—showing little interest in religion throughout his Army career—made spiritual conviction a key to healing intraparty division. The billboards of his presidential campaign posed this question to citizens: “Faith in God and country; that’s Eisenhower—how about you?” His convention speech assured Republicans he had been “summoned to lead a great crusade,” a word repeated multiple times in the same speech, and across the coming decade.

Once swept into office, Eisenhower made religiosity a cornerstone to his administration. “Recognition of the Supreme Being” was, he insisted, “the first—the most basic—expression of Americanism.” And “Without God, there would be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life.” As president, Eisenhower publicly backed Operation Pray and held prayer breakfasts on the theme “Government under God.” After just one year in office, he signed a bill to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, at a stroke transforming the very definition of the Republic. Americans would, he said, henceforth daily proclaim the “dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.” Strong words for a president who, before holding office, attended church only sporadically and had no formal tie to any.

Although New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church effectively disowned the current president last year, appalled by the tenor and vitriol of his campaign, Trump claims as his greatest religious influence the success gospel of Norman Vincent Peale, himself a friend and political ally to Eisenhower. Echoing Peale, not least in his protracted, highly personal attacks on Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy, Trump took up another Peale talking point when asserting in January 2016: “Christianity, it’s under siege.” He pledged to “protect” the religion as president and, last month, to repeal the Johnson Amendment—legislation that prevents places of worship from making partisan endorsements and political contributions, a key protection against the nation’s becoming a theocracy.

But unlike Eisenhower’s carefully crafted religiosity, which went to great lengths to appear nondenominational, Trump’s explicitly favors evangelical Christians, has trouble mentioning Judaism in official pronouncements about the Holocaust, and unlawfully targets Muslims in an attempted travel ban against six (previously seven) Muslim-majority countries, struck down now for the second time, though upheld by a federal judge in Virginia. In this selective religious nationalism, the kind favored by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka, American Protestants are under attack and, in Bannon’s words, facing “existential war.”

During his Union League speech in Philadelphia last year, arguably his most detailed expression of this worldview, Trump channeled Eisenhower when making a statement bearing equal parts promise and threat: “We will be one nation, under one God, saluting one flag.” The assurance appealed to religious conservatives and helped silence doubts about Trump’s religious convictions and flamboyant lifestyle. For such a constituency, Brandon Withrow observed last month in The Daily Beast, the president’s “strong authoritarianism makes up for his lack of sanctified spirit”—a warning to those who would dismiss Trump’s stumbling efforts to appear devout. As Withrow continued, noting disturbing parallels between Bannon’s end-of-days worldview and the president’s willingness to embrace a fringe position he may not personally believe, Trump “shares with many conservative white Christians a conviction that the world is inherently evil and chaotic and that only a strong leader can save good people from the perils all around.”

Which brings us to our Modern Day Samson, backlit with purpose and sullen fury, playing a role but also fulfilling a frequently voiced pledge. One of the most important of those—to repeal and replace Obamacare on “Day One,” in concert with House Republicans who had voted more than sixty times to gut the Affordable Care Act—failed spectacularly last week, despite Republican control of the House, Senate, and White House. The scale of the failure, given the endlessly repeated promises to end Obamacare and replace it with something infinitely better, puts in doubt not just the president’s image as a “closer” and “deal-maker,” but also the “success gospel” that Trump’s supporters clearly found so appealing.

What happens when that perception starts to slip? The blame game has already begun, as culprits must be found. But as the damage to Trump’s reputation and credibility mounts, raising the prospect of low-level “civil war” between the president and GOP, it’s worth asking if the “temple” that both wanted to destroy will rain down on all of us or whether the nation has started to rediscover that it quite liked its central columns, after all, and rather hopes they’ll stay in place. The blind, destructive fury of a Samson isn’t so appealing, perhaps, when it threatens the welfare of us all.

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