State of the Union

The Idolatry of the Donald

Azi Paybarah / Flickr
Azi Paybarah / Flickr

“I even brought my Bible—the evangelicals, OK?” Donald Trump whinged at a campaign stop in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. “We love the evangelicals and we’re polling so well.” For good measure, he waved his prop a little more and doubled down, “I really want to win Iowa—and again, the evangelicals, the Tea Party—we’re doing unbelievably, and I think I’m going to win Iowa.”

This sycophantic word vomit was about average as Trump’s public forays into religion go. His transparent attempts to cast himself as a churchgoer have been awkward at best, and more often approach the bizarre if not the heretical. Nevertheless, as the man himself would say, the professing evangelicals—and the “professing” is key here—love him. They really, really do.

But for all the headlines the Trumpvangelicals have snagged, their vehement support is ably matched by the strident opposition to Trump found among millions of American Christians of all stripes, many of them (like me) appalled that such blatant pandering and brash prurience is, well, working on our fellow travelers in the faith. Nearly a year into this misadventure, it is still tempting to ask: How is this happening? How is the heir of the Moral Majority endorsing a twice-divorced former strip club owner? How is Trump so appealing to what is supposed to be a Christian nation?

And it is in precisely that last phrase—“Christian nation”—the answer may be found: America’s entrenched, pseudo-Christian civil religion is the primary culprit here. President Trump is the due result of our theologically vacant imperial cult, which in the guise of orthodoxy worships only the power of the state.

Granted, the connection may not be immediately obvious, particularly in light of the harsh critiques Trump has received from many prominent Christians, as well as his own dime-store costume faith.

These surface obstacles obscure the deeper fit. Trump’s extravagant self-deification, his demands of personal allegiance, and his obsession with unique national and personal greatness all flow naturally out of a civil religion which co-opts Christianity to cast an aura of divine approval on Washington. Indeed, Trump fancies himself a modern Caesar, tinged with divinity and cloaked in gold. Our civil religion gives him just the theological resource he needs.

Consider, first, Trump’s view of himself. As Frank Bruni persuasively argued in the New York Times, the Republican frontrunner comes off not as “someone interested in serving God” so much as “someone interested in being God.” Trump so closely links himself and the divine that he drifts into boasting of his own accomplishments in the very process of explaining why God is important. The candidate feels he is above the need for God’s forgiveness (as it is written, “there is one who is righteous, yea, just one”) and recently named “an eye for an eye” as his favorite Bible verse, an interesting selection given the New Testament’s assignment of vengeance as God’s prerogative.

Of course, Americans might rightly protest that we don’t ascribe divinity to the presidency, but the office is undoubtedly sacralized. Its successes—notably in foreign policy—are attributed to divine blessing. Conventional politicians may be more politic than Trump, but most will happily harness God to tow their pet projects. A classic example is what theologian Michael J. Gorman labels the “divine passive voice,” in which, often in the run-up to war, presidents say things like “We are called…” to subtly invoke a holy authority for their plans. In a Trump White House, the voice would simply become slightly more active.

Beyond this there’s Trump’s demand (and receipt) of intense personal loyalty. One gets the feeling that the provision of a bust of Trumpself for long-distance veneration would not be taken amiss by many of his followers, but usually a simple pledge of allegiance will do.

“I do solemnly swear that I, no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there are hurricanes or whatever, will vote on or before the 12th for Donald J. Trump for President,” he asked Floridian supporters to promise in advance of their state’s primary. This sort of ultimatum is right at home in a civil religion that facilitates unthinking Christian loyalty to the state by means of a clever syncretism: If America is “under God”—if the United States becomes the “city on a hill”—we needn’t worry about obeying God rather than men. It’s all one and the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph is idolatrously mutated into an American tribal deity.

But the most convincing link lies in Trump’s preoccupation with greatness. In the context of American civil religion, Gorman explains, “Greatness is defined especially as financial, political, and/or military strength, and this definition carries with it the conviction that both America and Americans should always enjoy and operate from a position of strength and security.”

“Weakness,” he adds, “is un-American; Americans want to be number one. For many, these kinds of secular strengths are seen as manifestations of power from God.” Gorman wrote that more than five years ago, but Trump couldn’t have said it better himself. His is a perverse patriotism inextricably tied to the notion that God likes America (and the Donald) most. Trump is certainly more explicit in his promises of unparalleled personal (“the greatest jobs president God ever created”) and national (“we will have so much winning”) greatness, but his distinction from our standard-issue civil religion is one of degree, not kind.

We might ask why a Trumpian candidate is only now appearing—and with such success—on our political stage. The civil religion is hardly new, but surely Trump is. The tipping point, I suggest, is primarily about the expansion of power in the executive branch, a process which has been underway for decades but accelerated in recent times. The authority of the White House has expanded to match the sanctity we’ve assigned it. (Not for nothing is it called the imperial presidency.) The modern office “looks nothing like the modest, businesslike, law-governed executive the Framers envisioned,” and if it did, Trump wouldn’t want it.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis recounts a conversation with an elderly clergyman sincerely convinced that his “own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.” “To be sure,” Lewis muses, “this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite.” If mixed with assurance of unique divine favor, he continues, this dangerous nonsense “draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”

In Trump we find such nonsense crystallized into an ass that kicks and bites, and gleefully plans to torture and murder because this is what will make America great again. His gilded self-aggrandizement is the organic fruit of a “Christian” nation that welcomed such theo-nationalism in drabber forms for years. We may not for a while see again so shameless an execution of the temple ceremonies of the American state, but the false transcendence of our civil religion will not die with the Trump campaign.

Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate student at Bethel Seminary, a contributor at The Week, a columnist at Rare, and a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation. Her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. Find her at and @bonniekristian.

Fear and Loathing in Guantanamo Bay

The Guantanamo Bay detention center briefly reasserted its presence in the public consciousness this month with the news that a single Navy nurse refused to participate in the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. Quietly feted by civil liberties advocates, the story quickly slipped off the radar. The Pentagon confirmed that the nurse “has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations”—in other words, the torturous force feedings, instituted in 2006, will continue unabated.

Gitmo currently houses 149 inmates. Fewer than 20 detainees have been charged, and 78 are cleared for release—a status some have held for more than half a decade. About 45 prisoners are scheduled for indefinite detention, never to see a day in court.

The tepid response to the nurse’s moral stand is not surprising. Despite the fervor of outspoken antiwar protesters during the Bush years, the broader public has never cared much about the welfare of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, innocent or no. Support for closing the facility peaked at 51 percent in early 2009. That high corresponded with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, who took office trumpeting his intentions to put an end to Bush-era abuses like Guantanamo, which he labeled a betrayal of American ideals.

A year after the inauguration, the Obama administration’s now-extensive history of Gitmo excuse-making was well underway. “Political opposition” caused the President to break his promise. Temper your expectations, an anonymous White House official suggested, “The president can’t just wave a magic wand and say that Gitmo will be closed.” But of course—of course!—it’s still going to happen.

Come 2011, we found the President admitting that the facility won’t be closed in the near future. “[W]ithout Congress’s cooperation, we can’t do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I stop making the case.” And that narrative—the “I really want to close Guantanamo, but Congress just won’t let me!” line—has persisted ever since, typically with a heavy dose of partisan undertones. As Obama moved an issue he once called vital to the restoration of the United States’ moral authority to the backburner, public opinion followed his cue. By 2010, only 39 percent supported closing the prison. Today, just 27 percent are on board.

What’s fascinating about this unwillingness to close Guantanamo Bay as observed in government and citizens alike is the way it encapsulates the charade of modern American politics: a GOP that abandons its support for limited government out of fear, and a Democratic Party whose civil libertarianism is built more on partisan rancor than ethics.

Let’s look at the Republican opposition first—for those partisan undertones in Obama’s narrative are two-faced but not unfounded. Led by hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), congressional Republicans have indeed worked to keep Gitmo open. Polling suggests they have the full support of their GOP constituents—no less than 81 percent want the detention center to stick around—and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps Graham’s staunchest foreign policy opponent in the Senate, agrees with his South Carolinian colleague on this point.

But what about Gitmo meshes with the small government philosophy Republicans espouse? Each prisoner costs taxpayers $2.7 million annually, a massive failure on the fiscal responsibility front (federal prison, for comparison, spends $26,000 a year per inmate).

Even worse for conservatives should be the prison’s blatant trampling of constitutional rights. Read More…

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Seven Reasons Police Brutality Is Systemic, Not Anecdotal

Darrin Manning’s unprovoked “stop and frisk” encounter with the Philadelphia police left him hospitalized with a ruptured testicle. Neykeyia Parker was violently dragged out of her car and aggressively arrested in front of her young child for “trespassing” at her own apartment complex in Houston. A Georgia toddler was burned when police threw a flash grenade into his playpen during a raid, and the manager of a Chicago tanning salon was confronted by a raiding police officer bellowing that he would kill her and her family, captured on the salon’s surveillance. An elderly man in Ohio was left in need of facial reconstructive surgery after police entered his home without a warrant to sort out a dispute about a trailer.

These stories are a small selection of recent police brutality reports, as police misconduct has become a fixture of the news cycle.

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and the media is inevitably drawn toward tales of conflict. Despite the increasing frequency with which we hear of misbehaving cops, many Americans maintain a default respect for the man in uniform. As an NYPD assistant chief put it, “We don’t want a few bad apples or a few rogue cops damaging” the police’s good name.

This is an attractive proposal, certainly, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Here are seven reasons why police misconduct is a systemic problem, not “a few bad apples”:

1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with family pets. “Police kill family dog” is practically its own subgenre of police brutality reports, and most of these cases—like the story of the Minnesota children who were made to sit, handcuffed, next to their dead and bleeding pet—are all too preventable. Some police departments have begun to train their officers to deal more appropriately with pets, but Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, a police consulting firm, says it’s still extremely rare. In the absence of this training, police are less likely to view violence as a last resort.

2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.

“Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.

3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.

In central New Jersey, for instance, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are never investigated. Nor can that be explained away as stereotypical New Jersey corruption. Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that. In Chicago, the numbers are even more skewed: There were 10,000 abuse complaints filed against the Chicago PD between 2002 and 2004, and just 19 of them ”resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.” On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.

4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.

Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct. Read More…

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