How Donald Trump became the most powerful religious leader on the right

How Donald Trump became the most powerful religious leader on the right
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at Joint Base Andrews Air Force Base Friday July 5, 2019, in Maryland, and depart on Air Force One en route New Jersey. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

As Salon's Kathryn Joyce reported on Friday, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who fashions himself "the new master strategist of the right," is not a man afraid of the spotlight. On the contrary, he's surprisingly candid for a man whose policy ambitions, such as destroying public education as we know it, are deeply unpopular. He loves to brag, on social media and into any microphone you'll put in front of him, of how he cynically concocts baseless moral panics with repeated false claims about everything from "critical race theory" to conspiracy theories about Disney "grooming" children for pedophilia.

But there's one thing that Rufo is surprisingly mum about: Religious faith.

Rufo's agenda is obviously being set by the religious right. He works closely with Hillsdale College, a fundamentalist school that functions as the Christian right's war room. His goals are aligned directly with long-term religious right targets. Searching his Twitter account, however, one swiftly finds that he never talks about his religious beliefs. There's no real mention of God or Jesus or the Bible. When he does speak about Christianity, it's only in the context of pushing conspiracy theories about how white Christians are victims of ethnic oppression by "woke" forces. His conspiracy theories are clearly designed to get Christian conservatives in particular riled up. For instance, he heavily hyped ridiculous claims that children are being taught to pray to Aztec gods in public schools — but he carefully avoids getting theological with it.

It wasn't always this way with the religious right. During the George W. Bush years, Republicans tended to wear their Bible on their sleeves. The God talk was frequent and explicit. Bush himself spoke of being "born again," and frequently did evangelical events thick with fundamentalist jargon that was impenetrable to outsiders. The public school fights weren't over "critical race theory" and false claims that kids were being taught sex acts in kindergarten. Instead, it was over whether schools should replace science with creationism and replace sex ed with abstinence-only texts that had been written by religious organizations. This public piety from Republicans was more muted during the Barack Obama administration, but only slightly. Throughout those years, the difference between a church service and a Republican fundraiser was often undetectable.

Then Donald Trump became president. On paper, Trump appeared to be as much of a supplicant to the relentless Jesus talk on the right as every other Republican. He hit up the same evangelical schools for speeches, waved Bibles around in public, and even did photo-ops where a bunch of grifty ministers prayed over him. But, as far as I can tell, almost no one was actually fooled by this. Trump's ignorance of Christianity was absolute. He wasn't even aware that the central tenet of his supposed faith was a focus on penance and forgiveness. He called Christians "fools" and "schmucks" behind their backs. But no matter how often Trump's evangelical base was reminded that he is not one of them, they stuck by his side. They believed, correctly, that he could deliver them the policy outcomes they desired: A rollback of reproductive and LGBTQ rights, the destruction of public education, and an end to the separation of church and state.

Turns out that Trump is the most powerful religious right leader of all, precisely because he so obviously isn't a believer. He created a "secular" cover that allowed the Christian right to hide in plain sight. Now he's out of office, but the lesson was learned well: The best way to impose theocracy on Americans is to dress it up as a secular movement.

Nowadays, the main public discourse on the right about Christianity is focused on identity, not theology. Fox News pundits like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity talk about Christianity mainly in demographic terms, as part of a larger conception of what it means to be a "real" American. It's less about what you believe, and more about what tribe you belong to. Across the country, Republicans are passing laws that are clearly designed to advance the Christian right agenda, from abortion bans to the "don't say gay" law in Florida. But the Jesus talk has taken a backseat to QAnon-inflected fantasies about pedophilia and litter boxes in schools.

That the QAnon-style conspiracy theories would work better than lots of public praying seems weird at first blush. But it works for one simple reason: The Christian right has terrible branding.

Church ladies waving crosses around are nobody's idea of a good time. A lot of Americans, even Republican-voting Americans, don't go to church very often, if at all. What Trump understood, and the GOP, in general, has glommed onto, is that people want to have fun or at least create the illusion of being fun people. Packaging misogyny and homophobia as religious faith may give it a moral justification, but it's also a drag. Putting those ideas into the mouth of someone like Joe Rogan or Carlson in his current "naughty boy" persona, however, makes it feel transgressive, cool, and exciting.

Trump gave the right permission to stop trying to dress up their ugly views in Christian piety. He pushed calorie-free bigotry. You get the pleasures of being a bully, but you don't have to pay the price of doing boring crap like going to church. Of course, it sells well.

The confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett is a perfect illustration of this shift. Barrett has a long history of public piety in the Bush mold. It's why Trump chose her so that the religious right would feel absolutely secure that she will be the vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. But during her confirmation hearing, when Democrats tried to make hay over Barrett's lengthy record of super public religiosity, Republicans cried foul, pretending that Barrett's beliefs were an entirely private matter that had no impact on her jurisprudence. This bad faith was aided by the fact that Barrett happily stood by Trump's side in public, apparently indifferent to his long history of adultery and repeated divorce. That willingness to be in the same room with Trump, perversely, only helped bolster her image as a "reasonable" person who had no intention of forcing her fundamentalism on the American public. But, of course, that's exactly what she was hired to do.

Right now, the nation is being swept by a tidal wave of theocratic legislation, and the situation only looks like it's getting worse. So far, however, the public mostly doesn't seem to take much notice. The various abortion bans barely make a ripple in the public discourse and the threats to hard-won LGBTQ rights aren't really raising many alarms either. Part of that is due to Democratic complacency after President Joe Biden's 2020 win, of course. But part of it is that people respond, especially in our short-attention-span era, to aesthetics more than substance. The Christian right has stopped looking like the Christian right and instead embraced the secular-seeming vibe that Trump, because he's godless, embodies effortlessly. It's hard to convince the public that fundamentalists are coming for them when the fundamentalists have gotten so good at pretending to be someone else.

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