Matthew Sutton, author of “Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the US During the Second World War” has written a wonderful piece in the Washington Post, “Explaining the Bond Between Trump and White Evangelicals.”
He begins by stating “It’s all about an agenda — and it’s nothing new.” Reviewing presidential history, Sutton compares the Trump administration with the Warren G. Harding presidency of the 1920s. Most of us don’t even remember the Warren G Harding administration, other than he was a president. Perhaps that is why history repeats itself.
To an extent the Trump-evangelism bond is a redoubt of the Harding-evangelism marriage of the 1920s. The fundamentalist evangelist movement emerged in World War I, and the movement was convinced that the death and destruction of the war meant that Armageddon was upon us. There was great urgency that Americans come to salvation before it was too late in the fundamentalist view. With what they considered God’s judgment coming upon all nations, they redoubled their political activism. They needed policy and policymakers who would heed their influence and support their favorite policies because nothing less than salvation was at stake. Therefore, they had total disregard for the First Amendment and separation of church and state. God trumped the Bill of Rights. This nation had to totally convert to their version of Christianity. The Republican Harding was their man to get this done.
Once in office, Harding remained popular among the fundamentalists. They appreciated his repeated invocations of God and the “old-time religion.” Like journalists, academics and intellectuals increasingly scoffed at fundamentalists, the evangelists believed that God had sent Harding at the right moment and had their interests at heart and that he was willing to stand with them and use government power against secularizing forces.
Upon taking office, Harding’s cronies sought to fatten their wallets with taxpayers’ cash. They made the administration one of the most corrupt in American history. Interior Secretary Albert Fall leased oil-rich federal lands in Wyoming to private companies in exchange for large bribes, as just one example of what became commonplace.
Nor did Harding’s private life measure up to fundamentalist standards, although that was overlooked. He had many extramarital affairs, with regular trysts taking place in the White House. His Ohio cronies, appointed to prominent positions, kept his poker table competitive, his back rooms full of cigar smoke and his shelves well-stocked with bootleg whiskey.
Nevertheless, fundamentalists were distraught when Harding died in 1923. Seattle fundamentalist Mark Mathews preached a moving sermon about the “Christian statesman, the Christian gentleman, the Christian husband, and the Christian brother.”
Popular Los Angelus evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson preached a funeral oration on “Harding, the Christian President,” as many other evangelist preachers did likewise.
None of this squared with Harding the carouser who presided over and supported immoral corruption in his administration. But that simply didn’t matter; he was an ally of Christian fundamentalism on issues about which they cared, which meant overlooking his deep-rooted flaws.
Harding and Trump are look-alike administrations in many ways. They are among the most allegedly corrupt presidents in U.S. history. Their teams are appointed not on expertise but on cronyism and religious belief and have been racked with scandal. Like Harding, Trump’s personal morals are the antithesis of what religious Christians profess and demand.
But like Harding, Trump maintains the support of the faithful because of his policies and the constant attention he lavishes on Christian voters and their faith leaders. Not only that but his willingness to use the federal government to proselyte Christian fundamentalism. Line up Harding and Trump, side by side, and you see that both of these presidents sought religion-based immigration bands. They criticized and undermined international organizations, avoided broad alliances and insisted on America first, last and only, and they used the Bible to justify their policy proposals.
So much for the protection of the American public under the First Amendment.
So much for the real meaning of “Religious Freedom.”
Since Armageddon didn’t come in the 1920s, as the fundamentalists believed it would, perhaps this time they are right. However, they are not able to see that it comes not from heaven but from their own hands.
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