by Neil H. Buchanan
I will give Donald Trump credit for being able to find new lows. (Perhaps "credit" is not the right word here, but readers are free to substitute something more fitting.) During the 2016 campaign, as he was being accused of having no sense of humor (or even humanity), he went to the Al Smith Dinner in New York City -- a 71-year tradition where political differences are set aside for a night of self-deprecating humor -- and, per NPR's headline writers, turned a "Friendly Roast Into [a] 3-Alarm Fire."
Now, with three and a half years of added arrogance and the unbridled rage of an adolescent having been scolded ("This impeachment thing is soooo unfair, geez!!"), the blasphemous libertine decided to reward the religious leaders who have blindly backed him (Gotta have those anti-Roe judges!) by defiling the annual national prayer breakfast. Having ruined comedy, why not ruin solemnity, too?
It was especially bizarre -- in a scene that broke the bizarre meter -- that Trump did not merely ignore the keynote speaker's (scripture-based) call to love one's enemies. No, he directly disagreed with the guy, acting as if it was funny to refuse to remember the humanity of people who, to be clear, have never done him or his family any physical or even financial harm. Family members of the victims of Dylann Roof's murderous, racist rampage in 2015 forgave the depraved killer, but Trump cannot even consider saying that he does not hate the people who think that he was wrong to extort an ally that was under military attack. Astonishing, even by his low standards.
Even more bizarrely, Trump did not merely refuse to forgive those who had so grievously wronged his fragile ego. He used his speech at the prayer breakfast not only to attack his enemies in extreme terms but to question their religious sincerity. Whatever else one might say about Mitt Romney, Trump's claim that Romney did something that he knows is wrong and used his religion to justify it is, if nothing else, obviously not true. Romney's beliefs cause him to do many things that I disagree with, but there is no doubt that he believes that what he is doing is morally required.
And bluntly asserting that Nancy Pelosi's saying that she prays for Trump "is not so" is ... what, exactly? Pelosi has long been known as a devout Catholic, and even a cynic could believe that she prays for Trump although (or perhaps because) she disagrees with him. I suspect that quite a few religious people who profoundly disagree with Trump also pray for him. It is utterly unnecessary for the object of such prayers to deny that those prayers are happening.
Trump could have said, for example, "She says she prays for me, and I have no reason to question that she does; but why does she tell the rest of world about her private prayers? She should not use her religion as a political weapon, telling others that someone she disagrees with is so wrong that she thinks he needs God's help. What kind of politician -- what kind of person -- cheapens their religion to score a few political points?"
To be clear, that statement would have been provocative in its own way, especially for the leader of the Republican Party. After all, his most committed supporters weaponize religion as a matter of course. But hypocrisy is no stranger to Trump (or to the Christian Right), and it would have been easy enough for them to rationalize his comments by saying that they use their religion not to score cheap political points but to do God's work. Their views are based on a reading of the Bible that I have always found indefensible, but they do seem to think that supporting Trump is worth the moral tradeoffs.
But the point is that Trump could have disagreed with Pelosi without simply asserting that he knows that she does not pray for him and is lying. Especially at a religious gathering.
Even so, I have no personal stake or even interest in maintaining the solemnity of an event that has always represented an inappropriate mixing of church and state, especially because that breakfast has long since become an unjustifiable political requirement for politicians to attend as a way to reassure people of their religious bona fides. It is a much more toxic version of American flag lapel pins.
Perhaps my reaction is due to my being a minister's son and having been taught that overt religiosity misses the point of religion. My father was always saddened by parishioners who asked for a checklist to determine whether they were living a moral life. This was not simply because morality is not a mere recipe but a commitment of the soul, but also because he saw that the check-list was so often used by members of his flock not to monitor their own behavior but to judge others -- as anti-Christian a purpose as one could imagine.
"Tell me, Reverend Buchanan, how to live a good Christian life," meant, "Please give me a cudgel with which to condemn other people and build myself up by comparison as a paragon of Christlike virtue." (Dana Carvey's Church Lady on SNL years ago captured this perfectly, especially with her "superior dance.")
Although I stopped believing long ago, I still see no reason why anyone -- especially a devout Christian -- needs to run around telling everyone else how religious he or she is. If you think there is a God, God knows. Making a big show of moral superiority is self-negating. The best defense that I have read for being publicly religious is Senator Chris Coons's op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, which pulses with sincerity and decency, but I still think he is wrong.
As an atheist, then, I arguably should not honestly care whether another atheist -- and Trump surely must be one, although he has reasons to say otherwise (See? I can say someone is lying about religion, too!) -- wrecks a religious event, especially one that worries me in its blatant mixing of religion with politics.
Yes, I honestly do doubt the sincerity of many people at such events. The social expectations for politicians are damaging, especially when Democratic politicians decide to prove that they are not the Godless commies that Republicans have made them out to be for so many decades. Coons relates that he spoke at a Senate prayer breakfast in 2011, and one "conservative senator came up to me afterward and said: 'I want you to
forgive me, because when you ran for office, I heard terrible things
about you, and I believed them. I even prayed for you to lose. Having
heard you here, I know better now, and I hope we can work together.'"
Nice, right? Well, I suppose it is always good when hatred softens, but there is something truly wrong when someone says, "There are matters of public policy that I would be willing to try to solve with you, but I'll only do so if I think you're a good Christian." Again, I do not doubt Coons's sincerity, but the very nature of these public announcements of "faith" -- a term that is politically potent precisely for its false universality -- all but begs ambitious cynics to pretend to be what they are not. (See also loyalty oaths, which any disloyal person would obviously not refuse to recite, precisely to advance their disloyal plans.)
All of this might mean, then, that I would be bemused and even pleased by Trump's open ungodliness in front of a group of avowedly pious public figures. Reportedly, "Trump’s prayer breakfast jibes jolted many faith leaders." (Again: "faith leaders"? Really??) What is so bad about jolting them, when Trump's doing so makes it clear how hypocritical so many religious people are being in supporting the shameless infidel?
My discomfort arises, I think, from the certainty that this will not actually create any progress in limiting religion in public life. We once thought that there were some political depredations that were even beyond the tolerance of Senate Republicans, only to learn that they actually have no problem with Trump committing impeachable offenses if it keeps his base happy. The result of his excesses is not a bipartisan public rebuke that shores up our constitutional system but simply another giant step toward abandoning the Constitution entirely.
Trump has been desecrating (note the root of that word in "sacred") everything he touches for his entire life, and certainly during his presidency. Yet the power of religious conservatives has never been stronger, and the Democrats who think that just a little more appeasement will finally see results are still out there making public displays of "faith."
Trump is ruining religion, just as he is ruining politics. Somehow, he has managed to use each to ruin the other. That is not something that either atheists or religionists should applaud.