As Trump’s impeachment fears intensify and the House formalizes its impeachment process, the White House has cranked the religion up to eleven. On Tuesday, twenty-five evangelical megachurch leaders prayed for and with Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in a grand spectacle. So much for Jesus’s condemnation of public prayer as hypocrisy in his Sermon on the Mount.
Then, on Thursday night, the White House announced that one of those preachers, Paula White, a televangelist, is joining the White House staff on the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. Earlier in October, Mike Pompeo and Bill Barr delivered now infamous speeches tying the administration to Christian nationalism.
This religious revival is all about impeachment. The hour-long prayer session included a standing ovation and was widely covered by Fox News and other conservative outlets, who explicitly characterized the prayers as a pushback against impeachment. “We are unwavering in our support for the president,” said one of the preachers. In June, White prayed at a Florida Trump rally and declared, “Let every demonic network that has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus,” and that “Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy from the enemy.” Such revivals are nothing new—for Trump or for other presidents waging a public relations war against impeachment.
Nixon turned to religion as the Watergate wave broke over his administration. His first address to the nation about “the Watergate affair” announced the resignations of three senior staffers and the firing of White House Counsel John Dean. It was the first time a president ended a speech with the phrase “God bless America.” The phrase was not merely an offhand religious remark, but part of an overt appeal to Chrisitans all over the nation, a reminder that Nixon was one of them: “I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency. God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” Nixon also managed to mention “Christmas”—in April—and work in the phrase “God-given rights.”
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Eleven months after the first Watergate/’God Bless America’ address, Nixon’s popularity plummeted and the noose of impeachment tightened, so he set off on a public relations tour to woo southern members of the House committee in charge of that impeachment. His first stop was the Grand Ole Opry, where he closed the evening by playing “God Bless America” on the piano so that the crowd would sing along.
The next two presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, both devout Christians, didn’t ask their god to bless America at the end of their speeches, perhaps because of the Nixonian taint on the phrase. Ronald Reagan resurrected the rhetorical corpse when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1980. Since then, “God bless America” has haunted presidential addresses.
Nixon used religion as a political tool throughout his career. Scholars credit him with bringing evangelicals into the GOP. He and Billy Graham used each other in a toxic relationship of religion, politics, and, as tapes later showed, anti-Semitism. Like Trump, Nixon invited evangelicals into the White House and the halls of power in ways previously unseen in a country that adopted the separation of state and church as a founding principle. However, even with that baseline piety, Nixon’s public displays of religion seemed to get more ostentatious as impeachment heated up.
But why? First, there’s a realpolitik element. Trump, like Nixon, is shoring up his base of evangelical support. “Don’t worry. Your leaders still support me. I even gave one a White House salary,” he seems to be saying. This is both un-American and irreligious. When religion is used as a political weapon, it becomes weakened and tainted. The separation of state and church is regularly used to keep religion out of government. But it’s also meant to allow religion to remain free of the taint of the day-to-day political power struggle. This is why Madison wrote that “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Politicians taint religion by using it as a political tool. Indeed, Madison’s writing is a prescient warning about Donald Trump.
The second reason Trump is cranking up the religion is, as I explain in The Founding Myth, to distract the masses and cloak a criminal in the mantle of religion. Religion can be simple shorthand for tribal allegiance, but it also has the power to distract from important issues that actually affect governance and to serve as a rhetorical substitute for genuine morality.
Americans assume that to be religious is to be a good person. Studies back this up, regularly showing that Americans do not trust nonreligious people. For instance, a 2011 study found that atheists are among our society’s most distrusted groups, ranking below Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists, and Jews—ranking at the bottom, with rapists, as least trustworthy. Other studies show that people are less willing to vote for an atheist candidate for office. (As America becomes less religious, this distrust appears to be eroding.)
Nixon asked people to pray for him and ended with “God bless America” to remind the nation that he was religious and therefore moral, and thus either innocent or deserving of forgiveness. Trump is doing the same with his gaggle of evangelical bootlickers. The only difference is that with Trump, evangelicals seem content to concede that he is not moral, but an “imperfect vessel” doing their god’s will. We’ll have to wait and see, as Trump continues his campaign of religious pandering, whether he’s done enough to earn the “deserving of forgiveness” label. One thing is certain, more public piety is in our future.