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From St. John's Episcopal Church to pandemic response, Trump co-opts religion to woo the religious right

In his push to open churches, and brandishing a bible during protests, Trump is signaling the religious right that he is their man.
An attendee raises his hands to the sky during a drive-in Easter service amid the coronavirus pandemic at the International Church of Las Vegas on April 12, 2020.Bridget Bennett / AFP - Getty Images file

This week, as protests swelled across the country after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, President Donald Trump had federal law enforcement deploy flash bangs, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear citizens peacefully protesting in Lafayette Square, so that he could have a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Though the moment was condemned by the Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop for the Diocese of Washington, for using “a Bible and a church of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for," it wasn't Budde's parishioners who Trump was signaling. The moment was crafted for people like his ally Robert Jeffress, a pastor who opined that Trump's stance in front of St. John's was about "demonstrating his intent to protect churches from those who would try to destroy them."

Trump has signaled to his religious right supporters that his paeans to "religious freedom" apply only to Christians who continue to support his presidency through every calamitous turn.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has sought not to "protect" liberal churches like St. John's, but to cement support from his evangelical base embittered that stay-at-home orders have prevented them from meeting in person. And in so doing he has signaled to his supporters on the religious right that his paeans to "religious freedom" apply only to Christians who continue to support his presidency through every calamitous turn.

Those include Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union. "Impeach John Roberts, who lied to America when he said he would not play politics or be an activist,” Schlapp tweeted on Saturday. Why? It was one day after the Supreme Court’s chief justice sided with his liberal colleagues in a ruling against a Southern California church that alleged the state’s 25 percent occupancy cap in buildings, imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, violated its religious freedom. “This is a reminder of what is at stake in 2020,” Schlapp’s tweet went on. “No more weak GOP court picks.”

Schlapp’s attack on Roberts was echoed by other leading conservatives like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who tweeted that Roberts “sides with the Left again.” Both are a part of growing backlash among the religious right against pandemic restrictions, one in which Trump has played a starring role. On the Thursday before Memorial Day, Trump spoke to reporters following his 20-minute video visit with thousands of conservative pastors at a round-table discussion convened by the influential religious-right political advocacy group the Family Research Council. “The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” the president complained to the media that day.

Trump’s complaint about disrespect was over restrictions, put in place by governors of both parties, on assemblies in houses of worship and other gatherings of more than 10 people during the pandemic. “I want to get the churches open, and we're going to take a very strong position on that very soon,” Trump said, claiming to have the power to “override” the governors.

Even though the Constitution prevents Trump from actually exercising such vast presidential power, religious right leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Michael Farris, president and CEO of the legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom, nonetheless effusively praised the president’s subsequent declaration that he considered churches “essential.”

Trump’s bombast was potent not because he actually countermanded the governors, but because he loudly articulated the core issue that has long animated the modern religious right: that the government undermines conservative Christians’ religious freedoms, by extending rights to, or making policy to protect, the most vulnerable and marginalized.

“I want to get the churches open, and we're going to take a very strong position on that very soon,” Trump said, claiming to have the power to “override” the governors.

“During this pandemic, we’ve seen disturbing examples of government officials restricting our First Amendment rights,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a close Trump ally, said in a video posted on Twitter May 28. “After all, during the pandemic, liquor stores and abortion clinics were allowed to remain open and churches were ordered to close. That’s wrong, and it’s un-American.”

Grievances of “un-American” mistreatment of churches and conservative Christians at the hands of the government echo the contemporary religious right’s early forays into national politics nearly a half century ago when they began pitting activists against government officials they insisted were infringing on Christians’ rights through initiatives aimed at desegregating schools and creating more inclusive public school curricula. And Ralph Reed’s complaint about open abortion clinics is an oft-used talking point by proponents of allowing churches to re-open during the pandemic. It’s but one example of how another group’s rights, in this case women’s reproductive rights, are portrayed as evidence that the state favors immorality over virtue and is suppressing religious freedom in favor of secular sin. In Trump, the religious right has found its savior, a man who, despite exhibiting no piety himself, has been called “the most pro-religious-freedom president in American history.”

Over the past four decades the Christian Right's central animating principle has been to oppose government actions to protect marginalized or vulnerable citizens.

Although movement leaders have portrayed the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade as the trigger that propelled outraged white evangelicals into national political engagement, and the Christian right has used protecting the “unborn” as its most visible cause, their grievances against the government started well before they organized against abortion. Over the past four decades its central animating principle has been to oppose government actions to protect marginalized or vulnerable citizens — from school desegregation to Obamacare contraception coverage to marriage equality — as unconstitutional attacks on religious freedom.

In the early 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service began warning private schools that they could lose their tax exempt status if they did not move to end racially discriminatory policies. Then the 1976 revocation of the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in South Carolina, over its ban on interracial dating, became an inflection point for leaders in the Christian K-12 school movement, who claimed IRS guidance on how to avoid losing their tax exemptions amounted to an assault on their religious freedom.

To Robert Billings, a Christian school leader, first executive director of the Moral Majority and later an official in the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, the efforts of the IRS were a call to action to Christians against their own government. “As our government increased its crippling pressure on the Christian home, school and church, the need for Christian action becomes increasingly critical,” he said in 1979. “If Christians do not learn to master politics, we will, most certainly, be mastered by those who do.”

In the 21st century the Bob Jones case still resonates for religious right activists: with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, a prominent opponent of marriage equality, in 2017 stoked anxiety in a presentation at the National Religious Broadcasters convention that under a Democratic president, the Internal Revenue Service could revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that oppose marriage equality, or that the government could take away the broadcast licenses of Christian radio stations, thus violating religious freedom. (They didn’t.)

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately decimating the poor, the elderly and people of color, government action that aims to protect these vulnerable groups is once again running up against the powerful religious right. When churches across the country were shuttered, or found their services restricted, in order to curtail coronavirus spread, litigation lawyers trained to wield this concept of religious freedom were ready to leap into action. Ministers and churches, represented by conservative Christian law firms, have sued governors and other public officials not just in California, but also in New Mexico, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Connecticut, Nevada, and Oregon, claiming that stay-at-home orders and safer-at-home restrictions violate their religious freedom rights.

Rather than reject the specious idea that religious freedom could be compromised by protecting the health of the population, the administration and its allies only added kindling to the fire. Attorney General William Barr lent the backing of the Trump administration to these fractious litigants, claiming in an April 14 statement that in health orders of states and localities "[r]eligious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens." And adding, 'The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."

The Justice Department has stepped in to support churches in cases in Mississippi, Illinois, Virginia and Nevada. And in his dissent in the California decision for which the right is castigating the chief justice, Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who flaunted his sympathetic views on religious freedom during his confirmation hearing — wrote that California’s 25 percent occupancy cap, which also applies to secular gatherings, “indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment.”

Trump’s Memorial Day bluster may not have had constitutional foundation, but it complicated efforts to safely resume indoor church services by adding more confusion.

Trump’s Memorial Day bluster may not have had constitutional foundation, but it complicated efforts to safely resume indoor church services by adding more confusion to an already complicated patchwork of state responses, reportedly to appease evangelical allies who continue to contend that reopening plans are restrictive for churches. Two days after Trump’s threat to the governors, the White House quietly altered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on houses of worship, removing recommendations to eliminate or reduce the number of participants singing together, and to avoid sharing cups, hymnals or other ritual objects despite new evidence that such activity put worshippers at greater risk. Instead, the White House emphasized that the CDC guidance “is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment.”

The claim that churches have been somehow targeted for mistreatment while people can buy beer and seek medical care misapprehends both the constitutional power governments have to protect the public during a health crisis, and the unique transmission possibilities in houses of worship. The CDC has documented COVID-19 spread in churches, where groups of people congregate for much longer periods than they would in a liquor store, and in larger numbers than in doctors’ offices, and engage in activities like singing which spreads saliva droplets more widely even than conversation. Indeed, speaking to the Catholic magazine America, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described singing as “really, in some respects, scary” for the amount of infectious droplets a singer produces.

But the dangerous backlash waged by Trump and his allies against his own government, the violent clearing of Lafayette Square to enable Trump's church photo-op, and the wave of litigation bolstered by the Department of Justice, are not a spontaneous reaction to the pandemic crisis. What we are seeing is a new front in a decades-long culture war, retooled for a pandemic and an era of unrest. It is a war on government by religious leaders who oppose the separation of church and state. In this war, Trump is both a battle commander and a savior, defending the rights of his favored constituency, at everyone else’s peril.