Invocations of the divine have always been part of American public life, going back to the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” from which the United States derived its sovereignty (its “separate and equal station … among the powers of the earth”), he was drawing on tightly interwoven strands of Western political thought rooted in both philosophy and theology. The sovereign power in any state was only sovereign Dei gratia — by the grace of God. Power granted by human beings could be removed by human beings. Sovereignty, as it derived from divine grace, was sempiternal — once established, it could not be done away with.
Secularists often point to the supposed deism of many founders as justification for keeping religion out of the public sphere, but that claim is ahistorical. English-speaking deists in the 18th century did not refer to themselves as deists, but as Christians practicing a brand of Christianity “as Old as the Creation.” Deism is often perceived today as outside the Christian fold, but Jefferson and his compatriots would have scarcely seen it that way. For them, it was simply the next iteration of Christianity, continuing to purify the faith along much the same lines as Luther and Calvin.
Christianity itself has changed significantly since the days of the Continental Congress, as has the role of Christians in American political life. As Robert P. Jones explores in his recent book The End of White Christian America, white evangelicals in particular are grappling with cultural and demographic shifts that have reduced their share of the electorate, and therefore their influence in politics. White evangelicals struggling to reassert their political influence are one of the key groups supporting Donald Trump.
While the Republican Party has long stressed religious values as an essential part of political life, its current presidential nominee’s attempts to appeal to those values have been clumsy at best. To an audience of evangelical Christians at Liberty University earlier this year, Trump touted his 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal as “a deep, deep second to the Bible. The Bible is the best. The Bible blows it away.” Trump’s ranking his own book as “second” to the Bible suggests that either he evaluates the Word of God by the standards of popular nonfiction or that he regards his own writings as comparable to divine revelation. In either case, Trump’s words make it startlingly clear that he views the Bible as a triviality.
In spite of this, Trump has managed to attract steadfast support from older, white evangelicals who view Hillary Clinton as a threat to religious liberty. Those evangelicals recognize that Trump is not one of their own, but, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, they are looking for “a champion, not a saint.” They do not expect Trump to govern as a godly man, but rather to use the presidency to protect them from an increasingly hostile world. By doing so, however, white evangelicals risk irrevocably alienating themselves not only from the country’s increasingly secular youth, but also from black and Hispanic Christians with whom they share common values and — crucially for electoral politics — whose younger generations remain more closely connected to the faith. Backing themselves into Trump’s corner will make it harder for white evangelicals to form majoritarian coalitions capable of winning presidential elections.
Ross Douthat, worried over just such a scenario, recently argued that “America needs a religious right,” but the religious right will need to chart a new path forward if the country is to remember that fact. While Trump both trivializes the faith of his followers and alienates them from potential allies, there are elected officials in this country looking for a different path.
In April of this year, Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee vetoed HB0615, the so-called “Bible bill,” which read simply, “The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.” Haslam justified the veto on the basis of his faith: “In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill,” Haslam wrote, “my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is sacred text.” Had the governor signed the bill into law, the Bible would have become one of Tennessee’s official state symbols, alongside the official state fish (the smallmouth bass) and the official state dance (the square dance).
Legislation like HB0615 is not the product of 2000 years of Christian tradition, but rather of the 20th century’s commercialism and mass media. Except for laws establishing state flags and state seals (both of which are continuations of medieval heraldry), virtually none of the legislation designating official state symbols predates the invention of the automobile. Civic groups and chambers of commerce lobbied for official symbols emphasizing their state’s natural resources and regional culture, which they could then use to promote trade and tourism.
HB0615 implied that the Bible was no different from square dancing or bass fishing, a mere PR tool to bolster the image of the great state of Tennessee. No doubt much of the public support for the bill (67% according to iCitizen) stems from the fact that many Christians feel that they are being increasingly denigrated in public discourse, as when Obama identified religion as one of the many unfortunate things that “bitter” people “cling to.” Unfortunately, as in the case of HB0615, attempts to counteract this trend often employ tactics and rhetoric that trivialize Christian beliefs and lead to further marginalization. Should Trump lose on November 8, evangelicals’ support for his candidacy will go down in history as yet another step along their path toward America’s political fringe.
If Trump loses, where white evangelicals stand on November 9 will determine their place in American political life for generations to come. If they insist that the election was “rigged” and refuse to recognize the new administration, their journey into the political wilderness will be complete. If, on the other hand, they approach the new political landscape willing to find common ground on social and cultural issues with people of faith from denominations that largely rejected Trump, then they stand a far better chance of preserving their voice in American politics in spite of their declining numbers.
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