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General News    H3'ed 9/28/20

Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, Fixing Our Eyes on American Poverty

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It certainly tells you something about our political moment. Of the two women who were reported to be Donald Trump's leading candidates to jam instantly into the Supreme Court seat of the barely dead Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the first, 48-year-old Appeals Court judge Amy Coney Barrett, is an extreme anti-abortion jurist. She also belongs to the People of Praise, a Catholic cult church that reportedly may have partially inspired Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. How much more "supreme" could you get? The second, Cuban-American Appeals Court judge Barbara Lagoa, just concurred in a Florida court ruling that took the vote away from perhaps 100,000 or more former felons until they pay their often unknown court debts, "a Jim Crow-style gambit to keep returning citizens locked out of the voting booth forever" and perhaps lose Florida for Joe Biden. So Catholic charismatics versus the Latino vote (though Lagoa is reputedly also distinctly anti-abortion)? Tough decision. In the end, Trump chose Barrett.

White evangelical Christians are almost literally part of what might now be considered Trump, Inc. (One of them is, of course, vice president and another the secretary of state.) In a July Pew poll, a staggering 82% of evangelicals, up from 2016, said they would vote for The Donald in the coming election. Though the president has indeed promoted himself as, in essence, a Christian nationalist (and an educational one, too), he is, of course, nothing of the sort. It couldn't be clearer that, in reality, he's a Trump nationalist, a Trump firster, a Trump evangelical, and nothing more.

With this instant Supreme Court nomination of his, we're now all plunged into a world of Republican hypocrisy of a sort that once might have been unimaginable. After all, the same Mitch McConnell trying to rush the new nominee through at warp speed on the eve of election 2020 protested Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination of the exceedingly moderate Merrick Garland in 2016, almost nine months before a presidential election, this way: "The American people are about to weigh in on who is going to be the president. And that's the person, whoever that may be, who ought to be making this appointment."

Now, just over five weeks before the next election, he and his Republican colleagues are hustling to do the very thing he rejected on supposed principle the last time around. Unlike TomDispatch regular and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign Reverend Liz Theoharis, I am, to say the least, no expert on the Bible. Still, I'd put my bottom dollar on the likelihood that it has something to say about the sort of mind-boggling hypocrisy that's now playing out in Washington. It's an ever uglier world out there and, as Theoharis makes clear today, some credit for that ugliness must be given to the rise not just of a presidentially backed version of white supremacy, but to the growth of a Christian nationalist movement in America. Tom

The Rise of Christian Nationalism in America
Or How to Legislate Evil and Punish the Poor
By Liz Theoharis

On August 26th, during the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence closed out his acceptance speech with a biblical sleight of hand. Speaking before a crowd at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, he exclaimed, "Let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let's fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire." In doing so, he essentially rewrote a passage from the New Testament's Book of Hebrews: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross."

There's nothing new, of course, about an American politician melding religion and politics on the campaign trail. Still, Pence's decision to replace Jesus with the Stars and Stripes raised eyebrows across a range of religious and political persuasions. Indeed, the melding of Old Glory and Christ provided the latest evidence of the rising influence of Christian nationalism in the age of Trump.

It's no longer hard to find evidence of just how deeply Christian nationalism influences our politics and policymaking. During the pandemic, the Bible has repeatedly been used (and distorted) to justify Covid-19 denialism and government inaction, not to speak of outright repression. In late March, as cities were locking down and public health officials were recommending strict quarantine measures, one of Donald Trump's first acts was to gather his followers at the White House for what was billed as a "National Day of Prayer" to give Americans the strength to press on through death and difficulty.

Later in the spring, protests against pandemic shutdowns, funded with dark money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, demanded that states reopen for business and social distancing guidelines be loosened. (Forget about masking of any sort.) At them, printed protest signs said things like: "Even Pharaoh Freed Slaves in a Plague" and "Texas will not take the Mark of the Beast." And even as faith communities struggled admirably to adjust to zoom worship services, as well as remote pastoral care and memorials, President Trump continued to fan the flames of religious division, declaring in-person worship "essential," no matter that legal experts questioned his authority to do so.

And speaking of his version of Christian nationalism, no one should forget the June spectacle in Lafayette Square near the White House, when Trump had racial-justice protestors tear-gassed so he could stroll to nearby St. John's Church and pose proudly on its steps displaying a borrowed bible. Though he flashed it to the photographers, who can doubt how little time he's spent within its pages. (Selling those same pages is another matter entirely. After all, a Bible he signed in the wake of that Lafayette Square event is now on sale for nearly $40,000.)

The Battle for the Bible in American History

To understand how power is wielded in America by wealthy politicians and their coteries of extremists in 2020, you have to consider the role of religion in our national life. An epic battle for the Bible is now underway in a country that has been largely ceded to white evangelical Christian nationalists. Through a well-funded network of churches and nonprofits, universities, and think tanks, and with direct lines to the nation's highest political officials, they've had carte-blanche to set the terms of what passes for religious debate in this country and dictate what morality even means in our society.

Under Trump, such religious nationalism has reached a fever pitch as a reactionary movement that includes technocratic billionaires, televangelists, and armed militias has taken root with a simple enough message: God loves white Christian America, favors small government and big business, and rewards individualism and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the poor, people of color, and immigrants are blamed for society's problems even as the rich get richer in what's still the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

The dangers posed by today's Christian nationalists are all too real, but the battle for the Bible itself is not new in America. In the 1700s and 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon and lines from St. Paul's epistles to claim that slavery was ordained by God. They also ripped the pages of Exodus from bibles they gave to the enslaved. During the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, churches and politicians alike preached a "prosperity gospel" that extolled the virtues of industrial capitalism.

Decades later, segregationists continued to use stray biblical verses to rubberstamp Jim Crow practices, while in the late 1970s the Moral Majority helped to mainstream a new generation of Christian extremists into national politics. In my own youth, I remember politicians quoting Thessalonians in the lead up to the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as proof that God believes in work-requirements for public assistance programs.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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