Katha Pollitt: Right-wing Christianity in the Age of Trump

Here is an edited version of the speech given by Katha Pollitt at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 15. She received FFRF’s first Forward Award. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced her:

We created this new and important award dedicated to freethinkers who are significantly moving society forward. We’re just so delighted that we will be giving this to one of my favorite people. Making a lifelong contribution to moving society forward is a very remarkable woman, Katha Pollitt.

Katha is a poet and an author and the heralded columnist of the “Subject to Debate” column in The Nation, which for so many of us is a biweekly touchstone. The column, which has won numerous awards, has aptly been named the best place to go for “original thinking on the left” by the Washington Post.

Katha, throughout her career, even back when it wasn’t fashionable, has forthrightly volunteered her atheism and defended rationalism and the separation of church and state in her columns and in interviews on national TV. At a time when women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights to choose contraception and abortion, have never been more in jeopardy, we really need Katha Pollitt. [Hands her the Forward Award.] It says “Forward Award 2017, Katha Pollitt, Freedom from Religion Foundation.”

By Katha Pollitt

I’m very grateful for the Forward Award and also for this lovely statue that goes along with it. And she, the statuette, will keep company with my Emperor Has No Clothes award that I received a few years ago, which sits in full naked glory on a table in my living room, and I think they’ll get along very well — even though she’s fully clothed, and she looks very serious. He looks kind of ridiculous. In fact, he looks a lot like a certain president and so it’s a “match made in heaven.” Let’s hope she influences him.

I want to begin with the elephant in the room, any room — Donald Trump. There is so much wrong with him, it’s just hard to know where to start. You know he’s a racist, he’s a know-nothing, he’s a sexual predator, a misogynist, a grifter, a nepotist, a climate change denier, a booster of Nazis and white supremacists. He doesn’t seem to know anything about government, and he doesn’t want to know. He spends his days tweeting and watching “Fox and Friends.”

He makes George W. Bush look like Pericles. We made a lot of fun of Bush for being unintelligent, ignorant and lazy, but that wasn’t quite fair. He read a lot. He had a whole book list. He read all the time. He read history and biography. He had some sense that he needed to get up to speed on being the leader of the free world. He couldn’t just wing it. Trump has read virtually nothing. His favorite book (at least he had the decency not to say it was the bible) is his own The Art of the Deal, and he didn’t even write that. And it isn’t clear he’s even read it cover to cover.

It’s staggering to think how much power he has and how much of it is detached from rationality, information and long-range thinking. He is still litigating the election via Twitter on a daily basis, trying to prove that, although he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, those votes don’t count because they were cast illegally.

This is the man who claimed for years, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that President Obama had not been born in the United States and was therefore an illegitimate president. And this is also the man who, despite mountains of evidence and the consensus of almost every scientist in the world, has yet to grasp the reality of climate change, and that matters when it’s the president.

Trump and religion

There are many angles from which to discuss Donald Trump’s election and its consequences.

It’s such a multi-faceted disaster. I could go on all day and I’m sure so could most of you, but I’d like to look at it from the perspective of Trump’s relationship to right-wing Christianity, because that is truly a match made in hell, unlike my statues.

Evangelical Protestants are all about personal morality, by which they mean sexual morality. That’s all they care about, just sex, sex, sex, and religious faith. They care about that, too, as paramount. And yet they ended up supporting a twice-divorced, thrice-married flagrant philanderer and pussy-grabber who is accused of multiple acts of sexual molestation, who exemplifies everything sinful and worldly. I mean, for heaven’s sakes, the man owned gambling casinos and he boasted to Howard Stern that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1970s while sleeping with as many women as possible was his personal Vietnam. He said, “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

This is the same man who belittled John McCain as a loser because he was a prisoner of war during the real war in Vietnam, which Trump himself avoided. Of course, evangelical Protestants have supported many men who turned out to be not so pure and righteous, including politicians and many pastors. But those men at least had the decency to be hypocritical about it and to apologize, often tearfully, when the truth came out.

The great thing about those denominations is you can always confess your sins, claim to have received forgiveness from a phone call from God, and start the salvation clock all over again. At least men can do this. I’m not sure if women can.

Trump, by contrast, never acknowledged he’d done wrong. In fact, he boasted to an evangelical audience that he’d never ask God for forgiveness, which is the main thing Christians are supposed to do. Moreover, he barely went through the motions of claiming to be Christian. At Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, he referenced the book of the New Testament as “Two Corinthians,” when any churchgoer, and I’m sure everyone in this room, knows it’s Second Corinthians. He also cursed, which you’re not supposed to do. And in deference to the fact that he was speaking on Martin Luther King Day, dedicated the size of his crowd to King, claiming it was the biggest crowd ever at the university.

Here’s the interesting thing, as NPR reported, the loudest applause line came when he promised to defend the Second Amendment and pledged to stop the so-called “war on Christmas” by having stores say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” because, as Jesus always said, “Thou must have a semi-automatic weapon in thy home.”

Trump was not always the favorite candidate of the Christian right. Ted Cruz had a lot of support, and all the candidates toed the Christian-right line. They fell all over themselves trying to outdo each other in opposing abortion. And several were clearly more pious at the personal level, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, for example. You wonder how Christian conservatives chose from such an embarrassment of riches.

An unlikely candidate

Indeed, of all the candidates, you would think Trump was the least likely to get their support. Throughout the primary, and during the campaign itself, the media kept producing stories about evangelicals who doubted and complained and deplored and dithered over whether they could vote for this terrible sinner who said such awful things about women and had led such a depraved life. But, really, the doubt was all in the mind of the media, which, overcompensating for its own perceived secular-liberal-urban-bicoastal bias, which they’re always worried people are going to criticize them for, tend to cast religious Christians in a positive light.

In the end, only a handful of evangelical pastors rejected Trump and he won 80 percent of the white evangelical Protestant vote.

And just the other day, The New York Times reported that over the last five years, white evangelical Protestants went from being the least likely to say that a person could be a good leader despite a faulty private life to being the most likely to say that a faulty private life was no bar to being a good leader. They went from 30 percent five years ago to 71 percent today, and it isn’t hard to figure out what provoked this remarkable change of heart. It was Donald Trump.

I think that part of this had to do with Obama being such a personally virtuous person. He really was “No-drama Obama.” There were no personal scandals, there were no girlfriends, there were no fights between him and his wife on the front page of the National Enquirer. The Obamas were a wonderful ideal family to have in the White House and brought great dignity and charm to it.

And I think that the evangelicals could not vote for Trump unless they had decided that these things don’t matter anymore, because then they would have had to vote for Obama, which they had not done. And they were very dedicated to being against him.

Eyes on the prize

Now, what was this all about? While the Democrats obsessed over purity politics — was Hillary Clinton evil or just very bad? — right-wingers kept their eyes on the prize. In the end, they were the practical ones. Trump made no secret of his commitment to fulfilling right-wing Christian hopes. He said he would throw their theological enemies — Muslims — out of the country. He telegraphed his misogyny on a daily basis. He attacked the so-called liberal media, the “failing” New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, which the Christian right sees as the standard bearers for the wrong side in the culture wars. He attacked universities, those hotbeds of far-left politics and sex.

He said several times he was pro-life, acknowledging that he hadn’t always been so. He promised to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and appoint pro-life justices to the federal bench. He chose as his running mate Mike Pence, a true religious fanatic whose main cause in life is shutting down Planned Parenthood and opposing gay rights. (Mike Pence won’t even have dinner with a woman who is not his wife.

I just think that’s so weird.) This was music to the ears of the anti-abortion movement, which has been frustrated for decades by its inability to ban abortion throughout the land and has had to content itself with chipping away at abortion rights and access, little by little, a strategy that has been remarkably successful in many states, I might add.
Strangely, a surprising number of voters — pro-choice Republican women, for example — did not take Trump’s courting of the Christian right very seriously. There’s some evidence that Trump’s libertinism and vulgarity actually inoculated him.

Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate that one pro-choice woman told a Planned Parenthood focus group that she wasn’t worried about Trump’s anti-abortion statements because he probably paid for a few abortions himself. Many people don’t realize that no matter what a politician really thinks, he can’t just screw over the people who put him in office. A deal’s a deal, as Trump would be the first to acknowledge, and Trump, personally blessed by a bevy of important pastors, cannot so easily dump them now.

Theocracy of dunces

By a curious irony of history, I could never get over this — the least religious president in decades is doing his best to remake America as a theocracy of dunces. How is he doing this? Well, let me count the ways. The total is so much more than the sum of its parts. He has filled his administration with ardent right-wing Christians.

Ben Carson. I always had a soft spot for him. He always looked so kind of nice and lost up there. He’s the secretary of Housing and Urban Development who actually admitted he knows nothing about housing and urban development. Most of these know-nothings don’t do that. He believes that the pyramids were grain silos built by Joseph to prevent famines mentioned in the bible. He believes the Earth was created in six days.

He has tried to connect Hillary Clinton with Lucifer, denies the reality of climate change, which is another continuing theme here, and does not think a Muslim should ever be president because ours is a Christian nation. He also believes, maybe a little bit more relevantly, that government support for poor people makes them lazy and that is a very strange position for the person in charge of public housing to hold.

And then we have Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, who knows nothing about education, and she is so underqualified and was such an unpopular choice that Vice President Pence had to break the tie in the Senate over her confirmation. She’s all for public vouchers for charter schools and religious schools.

And here’s an interesting thing. The Christian right is not just a bunch of people who believe certain things. They’re very connected with big business. It’s very convenient for big business to have them there. And right-wing Christianity is very useful to them. If everybody went to a religious school, you wouldn’t need public schools, right? Then all the priests and nuns could teach them. According to Mother Jones, in the last 15 years, the Dick and Betsy DeVos family foundation has given $100 million dollars in charity. Of that, nearly half has gone to Christian organizations, including the Christian school she and her children attended. And no wonder she has said she wants to advance God’s kingdom through education.

Then we have Rick Perry, the secretary of energy who knows nothing about energy. And he was even surprised, like “Why me? Oh, well, sure I’ll do it.” He is such a devout evangelical that in 2014 he had himself baptized again. “I’ve been called to the ministry” he said in his 2012 stump speech when he was running for the presidential nomination.

“I’ve just been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was going to have. I truly believe that with all my heart God has put me in this place at this time to do his will.” I guess he was wrong about that. He, like most evangelical Christians, is a climate change denier. And in an energy secretary, that matters more than anything.

And Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, he’s a fanatical anti-birth control person and anti-gay. He is also a climate change denier.

Anti-choice fanatics

Anti-choice and anti-birth control ideologues now sit in virtually every relevant position. Here we are in 2017, fighting for birth control with an administration that has stocked government agencies with anti-choice fanatics who see contraception as the enemy and funding it as a con.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price claims, get this, not one woman has struggled to afford birth control. FDA head Scott Gottlieb opposed the birth control provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Title 10 is the government program that funds family planning for low-income people. The head of Title 10 is now a woman named Teresa Manning, who once said that contraception doesn’t work. Katie Tolento, health policy aide to the White House Domestic Policy Council, claims contraception leads to infertility and miscarriages. Charmaine Yoest, who is the former head of Americans for Life, is now an assistant HHS secretary. She thinks the IUD and emergency contraception are abortifacients.

And the latest, as Trump promised early in May, the administration is moving to roll back the ACA birth control provision by allowing any employer to refuse on religious or moral grounds to cover birth control. Here is where you see that things that start out as really little, like the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor. How many people work for them who need birth control anyway? Before you know it, it’s everybody. Before you know it, all you have to do is say, “Oh, I don’t like birth control, I think it’s immoral” and you get the ability to deny it to your workforce. So, these things that start out as little religious exceptions often balloon into much larger things.

The most important, though, is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He’s an open racist who was denied a federal judgeship because of his obvious prejudice, and he’s a Christian extremist who has said that secularists are unfit to work in government. Here’s a quote from a 2014 speech: “Ultimately, freedom of speech is about ascertaining the truth. And if you don’t believe there’s a truth, you don’t believe in truth. If you’re an utter secularist, then how do we operate this government? How do we form a democracy of the kind I think you and I believe in?”

Sessions has claimed that the separation of church and state is an “extraconstitutional doctrine and a recent thing that is unhistorical and unconstitutional.” At his confirmation hearing, he said he wasn’t sure if a secular person understood the truth as well as a religious person. Of course, what’s weird about that is that he, as a good Christian of the sort that he is, also believes that only one religion has the truth. I doubt he would say, “Oh, yeah, Muslims, they have the truth, too. They don’t believe in Jesus, but they have the truth.”

The right to discriminate

No, he only talks about secular people, but it’s bigger than that. We don’t hear much about Christian charity when it comes to ramping up sentencing and civil forfeiture on people who are prisoners. But under the guise of religious liberty, and the Supreme Court case of Masterpiece Cake Shop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, he is throwing the weight of the Justice Department behind an evangelical cake baker’s right to discriminate against gay couples when it comes to making their wedding cake.

And this is such a good example because I know a lot of people say, “Let the baker not make the cake. What’s the big deal? They can go to another cake shop.” But, before you know it, this expands, too. How is that different from saying “Well, OK, let the restaurant not admit gay people. Let them go to another restaurant. Let people at the hotel not let them share a room. Let them go to another hotel.” I mean, these things expand.

It’s like with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who I’m sure were chosen because of their cute name, it sounds so harmless. But it starts with the wedding cake and it ends with civil rights. Although covered by the Colorado civil rights statutes along with race and ethnicity and all the other things that are standard in those statutes, if you can say, “Well, Colorado doesn’t have to obey its own civil rights statute,” then there is nothing to protect another state from saying “Well, OK, fine, we want to let people not make cakes for black people, or not let them into the restaurant, etc.”

This little case can have enormous ramifications. Given all these appointments, it should not surprise us that, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick puts it, “Members of the Trump cabinet are attending bible study with a religious leader who says, ‘God only hears the prayers of leaders and citizens who are upright, who live righteously through faith and faith in Jesus Christ.'”

He shouldn’t be listening to Donald Trump, should he? He’s definitely not living righteously through faith in Jesus Christ. The House Appropriations Committee voted to bolster Trump’s executive order weakening the Johnson Amendment, which is the tax provision that conditions the tax-exempt status of religious and other charitable institutions on not endorsing candidates for public office. People talk about the chaotic White House and the inability of Trump to enact his agenda. But when it comes to the wish list of the Religious Right, he is on the ball and very effective.

It’s like either someone is constantly there telling him what to do before he forgets or, I don’t know why, but the Religious Right is getting a lot out of this presidency and they knew they would. And that’s why they voted for him.

Demographics changing

But here’s the strange thing. Even as the Religious Right flexes its political muscle in the White House and in state legislatures, and Republicans control fully half the states completely, demographers and sociologists tell us Americans are becoming less and less religious.

There was just a major study by PRRI that I’ll just summarize a few things from. White Christians now account for less than half of the public. White evangelical Protestants are in decline along with mainline Protestant and white Catholics. Fewer than one in five Americans, 17 percent, are white evangelical Protestants, and even in 2006, they were nearly one-quarter. That’s quite a remarkable decline. And one reason for it is that young people are moving away from evangelical Christianity.

So, interestingly, no religious group is larger than those who are unaffiliated from religion. Nearly one in four Americans, 24 percent, are now religiously unaffiliated. And this, too, is by a generation where young adults are more than three times as likely as seniors to identify as religiously unaffiliated. In theory, demographics is our friend. In another generation or less, right-wing Christians will be too small a group to maintain their iron grip on politics. And that would be nice, but, unfortunately, it’s more complicated.

While the Democratic Party is increasingly eclectic, with 40 percent calling themselves religiously unaffiliated, white Christians have migrated into the Republican Party, where they now make up around three-quarters of the party’s membership, with more than one-third of the party’s membership being evangelical Protestant, while progressives flirted with the idea of abandoning the Democrats for a third party.

The Religious Right said, “No we’re staying here. We’re going to take over.” Because of geography and the Constitution, which, in a terrible mistake, gives every state two senators — so Idaho, which has the population of, I don’t know, Staten Island, and California each get two senators — and also because of voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, which the Republicans are very good at.

The Republicans are punching well above their weight in the voting booth. And I’d love to believe this state of affairs is only temporary. I would love to believe that all this crazy right-wing stuff we’re seeing is the last gasp of an old order. But when Nazis and white supremacists march in Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” which is, of course, true, I’d like to think this is the death rattle of those who know they’ve been defeated by history.

When evangelical leaders sign a nutty document called the Nashville Statement, which is so anti-gay, anti-trans and anti-gender egalitarian, it even declares that it’s not possible for a Christian to fail to condemn any sex outside of heterosexual monogamous marriage. No forgiveness, no “we love you,” no “love the sinner, hate the sin.” You have to just hate the whole thing! It’s all so extreme and narrow that even some conservative evangelicals are upset about it and, of course, people are pointing out that several of the signatories have close ties to Donald Trump.

When Trump said during the campaign to ban abortion as murder with punishment for women and doctors, all the evangelicals, all the anti-abortion people said, “Oh, that’s terrible, we’d never do that.” In fact, they were already advocating it. And in countries where they can, they do do that. But they all said they wouldn’t. But now there is a petition for a referendum in California explicitly calling for this. I would like to believe that all this is a desperate rear-guard action by people who know they’ve lost the battles over sexual freedom, women’s autonomy, the patriarchal family, and general patriarchy, but I’m not so sure.

Does the arc of the universe bend toward justice, or is that just another religious belief? What is the evidence? In my optimistic youth, I believed in the secularization theory, which held that as the world became more modern, people would become less religious. In some countries, mostly in Western Europe, that has indeed happened. In the UK, for example, over 70 percent of those 18 to 24 say they have no religion. But it’s hardly a sure thing.

Modernity not all positive

Modernity can be quite frightening. Old hierarchies and securities collapse, communities fracture, support systems vanish, people feel adrift. Under some circumstances, modernity seems to make people more religious, and in a more reactionary way around the world, many countries have become more fundamentalist, less democratic, and more oppressive to women.

And contrary to what you might think, not all of these countries are Muslim. We always hear about them. But it’s happening in Russia, India, Israel, as well as Turkey, Pakistan and many other countries. A lot of this is political.

Most Israelis, for example, are thoroughly secular, but religious parties hold the balance of power in government. In Russia, the once nearly moribund Orthodox Church has hitched itself to Vladimir Putin’s star and he is happy to have its help to promote his nationalistic family values conservatism. In the U.S., fewer people may be religious, but the ones who remain seem pretty adamant. We’re seeing a fusion of fundamentalist religion and right-wing politics. Not so long ago, after all, evangelical Protestants avoided politics as worldly and sinful. Those were the days.

Now they’re an organized and active political bloc. And the point of it all is to turn back the clock and bring back patriarchy and “the bible holds the answer to every question.” Obviously, evolution would not be true. Global warming is not happening unless it’s the will of God, in which case there’s nothing you can do. And how convenient that these views coincide with the big business wing of the Republican Party, where oil and gas companies rule and have promoted global warming denialism for decades.

That these positions are a reaction to modernity can be showed by a look at birth control and abortion. It’s interesting historically that Protestants tended to favor birth control. Their small families showed that they were not like those careless improvident immigrant Catholics. And historically, although not keen on abortion, it wasn’t a defining issue for them. And at the very beginning of the 1970s, right before Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement calling for possible loosening of anti-abortion laws. Flash forward to now and we find evangelicals uniting with their old enemy the Catholic Church to call for a total ban on abortion and restrictions on birth control. Who thought that that would happen?

As secular culture grows stronger, theological disputes about baptism and the pope fade away. The patriarchal denominations come together politically to turn back the tide of feminism, gay rights and sexual liberation. Women should not have power over themselves. They can all agree on that. Even that “nice” Pope Francis.

I’m going to close with the thought that nothing good will happen if people don’t fight for it. And that’s where you all come in — the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, a whole bunch of other wonderful civil liberties and civil rights organizations.

We can’t give up the fight, even though things look pretty gloomy right now. And I’m happy to say that we aren’t giving up the fight. I think a lot of people have been very energized by this. And they’d better stay energized, because it’s going to be a bumpy four years, or eight years. [Audience groans.] Oh no, it won’t be, it won’t be, no, no. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation