A few days after my birthday, my older, very Christian cousin took me to lunch at a place called Eat Pray Love. Turns out it was a Christian restaurant — someone gets baptized every hour. You know, dinner and a show. Now I have nothing against religion, but it just isn’t for me. My cousin and I usually agree to disagree, but somehow we get to talking. I tell her I think it’s great she believes in something so strongly, but I will never be like her. She says, “this is hard for me to live with because you’re going to hell.” I mean as far as birthday wishes go, this line was definitely one of my favorites. Up until this moment, I had no idea my cousin held such a high standing in the Christian community: SHE was the one who determined who went to Hell.
This phenomenon of righteous judgment passed down upon Americans is not limited to my birthday lunch. As Steve Corbin, a professor from the University of Northern Iowa explains on January 8th of 2020, “Tens of thousands of Americans are putting their self-righteousness and moral superiority to judge others as if they were God.” And beyond using religious justification simply at the dinner table (where it belongs) it has increasingly crept its way into the American political landscape, a place our founders explicitly did not want it to be. Using religion as a political weapon is dangerous. The only things that should ever be used as political weapons are school shootings and unborn children. So let’s take a look at why religion has become such a popular weapon for American politicians and how this hurts our nation. Then, we’ll discuss how to disarm politicized religion.
After my cousin told me I was going to hell, at first all I could do was laugh. But then I realized that this was a great opportunity to find out which other family members would be joining me. I asked her if my dad was. She said absolutely. I then asked her if our Jewish grandmother was. She didn’t know. (This is a Public Service Announcement: if you are Jewish, you are safe. Once again, you are the chosen people.)
The first reason behind our nation’s fascination with brandishing Bibles is credibility. Let’s break this down using Donald Trump’s visit to North Korea:
Trump was the first president to ever visit North Korea. Rather than acting as a catalyst for positive change within DPRK, Donald Trump’s visit did something far more dangerous: he granted them legitimacy. A United States president visited North Korea. This does not tell other nations that the United States is a powerful country, rather it tells the rest of the world that the United States takes North Korea seriously, and other nations should as well.
Religion is to Donald Trump as Donald Trump is to North Korea: it gives him credibility and legitimacy. After all, how could Donald Trump possibly be flawed in his actions if he is backed up by the most credible figure ever: God. Place this logic in any other scenario and suddenly you have a nightmare: “Attention passengers, this is your captain speaking. I just wanted to let everyone know that I never actually got my piloting license. But don’t worry, I’m certified by GOD. Now please enjoy your six peanuts in a bag.” Author David Domke calls this The God Strategy. He explains, “beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan, US politicians have employed religion as a partisan weapon, designed to attract voters, identify enemies, and solidify power.” I’ve got to say that is way more organized than the original God Strategy: flood the earth and kill everything you created. In my first world history class in high school, we took a couple of weeks to learn about the Mandate of Heaven. A tool, yes, a tool Chinese Dynasties would use to justify their rule over the nation. It is exactly what it sounds like: an endorsement from God. Last month in an interview with Fox News, former energy secretary Rick Perry praised Trump as “God’s chosen one.” Essentially, the Christan version of the Mandate of Heaven.
And not only is religion being used to recruit voters, but it is being used as the sole justification for oppressive legislation. For example, The Chicago Tribune writes on May 16, 2019, that “Alabama’s governor has invoked God in banning nearly all abortions.” Although God has never appeared on earth, (unless Danny Devito is keeping a really big secret) it seems that many Christians are content with giving divine approval to policies as if they were God.
Not only did Rick Perry claim that Donald Trump was “the chosen one” but also that God is using him as a mouthpiece. Yeah. I really loved it in the Book of Genesis when God said, “Let there be light. And grab them by the pussy.” The consequences of weaponizing religion are bleak: we risk religion becoming synonymous with policy and religious authoritarianism.
First, unlike normal identity politics, politicizing religion can justify the dissolution of law and order in the name of God. Just over three months ago, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the capitol in an attempt to overthrow the Senate. It’s easy to see how many of these rioters view their coup-like attack as justified: because they think they are carrying out the agenda of God. QAnon — far-right fringe conspiracy theorists, and also on the FBI’s list of domestic terrorist groups — had a large presence at the storming of the capitol. Although Q is not directly linked to evangelical Christians, the organization has exploited religious themes and language to further its effort in staking power in the US government. Biblical allusions and grandiose language give the movement an aura of legitimacy for those who preach its falsehoods.
Next, leaders use religion as grounds for authoritarian rule. Surprisingly, the idea of Donald J. Trump being chosen by Jesus is very popular among Republicans — and far-right leaders. Julia Permoser, a fellow at the University of Innsbruck on June 26 of 2020 explains, “Far-right leaders such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Matteo Salvini of Italy have all made similarly instrumental appeals to religion.” Autocratic leaders totally love religion, almost as much as they totally love oppressing their people. As Psychology Today explains on Jan. 8 of 2018, “For authoritarian leaders religion is a wonderful convenience. It allows them to punish people guilt-free since that punishment is on god’s orders. ” Claiming politicians like Donald Trump are ordained by God is not the road to making America great again, it is the road to authoritarianism.
The first step to depoliticizing religion is to recognize the signs early. Phrases such as ordained by God, the chosen one, or any equation of a political leader to a religious martyr are red flags. And, as the sign at the airport best expressed, if you see something, say something. Write letters to your representatives and actively critique your community and religious leaders when politics and religion get too close. We are the ones who give our representatives power, and we can also kill their thunder. Kill is metaphorical of course, but if it gets to that point… who’s gonna stop me from curb-stomping Mitch McConnell’s ass? Definitely not the Capitol police.
Second, just as we need to know when to stand up, we need to know when to stand down. About a week ago an acquaintance from high school slid up on my Snapchat story and said, “Donald Trump did more for this country than every president since Lincoln.” Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to reason with the unreasonable. It is important to keep our expectations sensible because it’s hard to tell someone they are misguided when they think they are backed by God. As ironic as it may sound, we have to accept that some people just can’t be saved.
Overall, morality in politics is never wrong. However, we should not confuse morality with religion, regardless of how funny it would be to hear God look down at his son on the cross and say, “I like people who weren’t captured.” It’s best that religion stay removed from the American political system. But hey, if it doesn’t, at least I’ll have a lot of company in hell.