President Donald Trump, while speaking to his conspiracy-theory-fueled Commission on Election Integrity on Wednesday (44 states have in part rejected its demands to hand over voter information in a search for millions of fraudulent votes; many consider it more a voter-suppression effort), described its work as a “sacred duty.”
As with anytime the president veers towards the religious, the phrase did not convince.
Trump has less spiritual depth than a puddle. And yet, remarkably, his presidency has been characterized by an unusually high pitch of religious rhetoric.
It’s not just the Muslim ban and Islamophobic sentiments, which have driven some Muslim Americans to fear for their safety or view once-welcoming towns as suddenly hostile places.
It’s not just Trump’s sucking up — particularly on abortion and contraception — toward Evangelical Christians, 75 per cent of whom voted for him, and 64 per cent of whom still strongly approved of his presidential performance in April, according to the Pew Research Centre.
The general schism wrought by his leadership (such as it is) between progressives and moderates on one hand, and ultra-conservatives on the other, has revealed a divide within American Christianity, particularly Catholicism.
Pope Francis’ criticisms of Trump began during the campaign, when he disapproved of the Mexican wall, and extended to the presidency with his criticisms of anti-environmentalism policies. Last week, a Vatican-vetted op-ed from a member of the Pope’s inner circle eviscerated what it deemed “evangelical fundamentalism,” condemning its ideology, accusing leaders of twisting biblical teachings, calling out Steve Bannon by name and comparing evangelicals to Daesh, deeming each a “cult of an apocalypse.”
On the weekend, the New York Times ran a front-page article comparing two New York cardinals — the conservative Joseph Tobin and the Francis-appointed progressive Timothy Dolan — as illustrations of a wider breach in the faith that is less about doctrine, and more about modern politics.
And some Pennsylvania American nuns (a group known for progressive activism) have built an outdoor chapel on what they claim is holy land to block a proposed gas pipeline.
When Trump was ramping-up deportations of undocumented immigrants in the spring, it was U.S. Catholic bishops who decried the efforts (though they supported Trump’s reinstatement of a ban on U.S. funding for any international organization which offers abortions).
There is no simple way to slice the divide. In 2013, Pew found that three-quarters of U.S. Catholics approve of birth control and only a third view homosexuality as a sin — clear contradictions of Catholic doctrine. Race plays a role, too: White Catholics were more likely to support abortion rights than Hispanics, the survey found.
As a Catholic myself, however, the divisions make perfect sense. No religion can survive long, or fruitfully, in fundamental conflict with the culture of its time. This is a world, particularly in the West, resolutely and doggedly walking towards greater acceptance of one another and our responsibilities to our planet. Many Catholics are on that path, and it’s not as if the church’s history isn’t strewn with examples of radical lefties committed to Jesus rather than the church hierarchy.
Trump is merely an instigator; a man who’s far less important than what he has revealed about the American public itself.
He is forcing religious progressives to stake claim to their politics, in opposition to his. And complicating Christianity for the rest.