By David Smith* – The Guardian
Evangelical backing for a thrice-married celebrity is not as odd as it seems: on abortion, the supreme court and more, the president keeps delivering
After bowing his head in prayer, Donald Trump addressed faith leaders in the sunshine of the White House Rose Garden.
“Together, we are building a culture that cherishes the dignity and worth of human life,” he said, earlier this month. “Every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God.”
It was hardly a detailed policy pronouncement – the president devoted more time to his bizarre claim that he has liberated shops to say “Merry Christmas” again. But it was enough to bring the audience to their feet, in rapturous applause, at the national day of prayer service. They sense a historic opportunity is theirs for the taking.
Eight hundred miles away, Alabama is on the verge of turning back the clock to a near total ban on abortion. When some Republicans in the state Senate last week stripped an exception for rape and incest from the bill, shouting broke out in the chamber and the vote was postponed. If the measure passes it would give Alabama the harshest anti-abortion law in the country but it also points to a wider trend: Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have approved bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur in about the sixth week of pregnancy.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman from New York with a huge social media following, tweeted in response: “‘6 weeks pregnant’ = 2 weeks late on your period. Most of the men writing these bills don’t know the first thing about a woman’s body outside of the things they want from it. It’s relatively common for a woman to have a late period + not be pregnant. So this is a backdoor ban.”
The passage of such extreme laws has stunned reproductive rights advocates and thrown a fresh light on the marriage of convenience between Trump and an increasingly powerful religious right which was crucial to bringing to him power in 2016 and is intent on repeating the feat next year.
A thrice-married adulterer with previously socially liberal views, Trump captured four in five white evangelical voters, more than fellow Republicans Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W Bush in the previous three elections. Analysts suggest reasons include fear over a decline of Christian values, the failure of past Republican presidents to deliver their promises and Trump’s relentless focus on loading federal courts with conservative judges.
For Shannon Wilburn, a Christian and a teacher in Atlanta, the 2016 election came down to binary choice on abortion.
“The sanctity of life was a major deciding factor,” she said. “Hillary Clinton had no problem terminating a life in late term. Whoever the candidate was opposing her, I would have felt the same.”
Wilburn, 51, said she welcomes the recent moves at state level to curb abortion access.
“I take the stance of a pro-lifer. I’m a woman and people are talking about women’s rights, but what about babies’ rights?”
‘They feared the sixth vote’
While other Republicans presidents were ostensibly more religious, they were often seen as making too many compromises on the difficult issues. But Trump, in the eyes of evangelicals, has actually delivered, most obviously by nominating conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court, potentially locking in their values for a generation and imperiling the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that effectively legalised abortion.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said: “It’s purely transactional. Christian evangelicals had felt such a sudden reversal of fortune in America, they were afraid of what would happen to their faith under a progressive supreme court.”
Evangelical pressure on Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell not to hold a vote on Barack Obama’s nominee for the court, Merrick Garland, “started long before Trump was the nominee”, Olsen said.
“They feared the sixth vote would be the death knell for central elements of their faith.”
McConnell’s ploy worked and the seat remained vacant going into the 2016 election. Trump, a vulgarian celebrity, was far from evangelicals’ first choice but soon became their champion. In return, they were willing to forgive his sins and believe in redemption, putting him on notice that personal misconduct in office would not be tolerated. Thus an unlikely relationship rooted in mutual dependency was formed.
Olsen, author of The Working Class Republican, added: “So you’ve got people afraid and a Republican nominee who seems to their bulwark. Trump, [turning] on a dime, says: ‘If that’s what it takes to get you, sign me up.’ He’s got the deal and they’ve got the deal and it’s plain sailing ever since.”
Trump, a Manhattan billionaire and reality TV star, infamously revealed his ignorance of the Bible in January 2016 when he referred to “two Corinthians“ instead of “Second Corinthians”. He spends more Sundays playing golf than going to church. But with born-again Christian Mike Pence at his side, he maintains enough outward shows of piety to keep the religious base satisfied.
Erick Erickson, a journalist and conservative evangelical, was fiercely opposed to Trump in 2016 but will vote for him next year.
“Some of my concerns about President Trump remain,” Erickson wrote recently. “I still struggle on the character issue and I understand Christian friends who would rather sit it out than get involved. But I also recognize that we cannot have the Trump administration policies without President Trump and there is much to like.”
Trump’s appeal is not just to white guys threatened by the growth in immigration or threatened by the #MeToo movement
The character issue is a paradox many have found a way to rationalise. Some admirers argue that Trump has seen the error of his ways and found God. Others have drawn parallels with biblical figures such as King David or King Cyrus, deeply flawed men who nevertheless carried out God’s will.
David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, suggests Christian evangelicals start with an assumption of “human depravity” that sets expectations low, so Trump’s lying and philandering and Twitter rage and can be overlooked.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, Barker also noted the parallel between Christian nationalism and white nationalism over Trump’s 2016 election slogan, “Make America Great Again”.
He said: “While it is certainly true, and people have pointed out, that phrase is a nativist dog whistle … it’s also like a straight out statement to evangelical Christians that, ‘Hey, the United States has always been great, was great, the reason it’s great is because of its connection to God.’”
Barker also highlighted questions of belonging and identity.
“Republicans in general,” he said, “and certainly ‘red’ American conservatives in certain parts of the country, do have a sense that the elite culture on the coasts is abandoning them, has abandoned them, looks down on them. So they feel threatened, they feel attacked, they do feel discriminated against and persecuted.
“Trump’s appeal is not just to white guys who are threatened by the growth in immigration or threatened by the #MeToo movement. It also speaks to these evangelicals who feel like, ‘Yeah, we used to have a place in American society and we don’t feel like we have that place any more. When we turn on the TV, we can’t watch the Academy awards without having somebody look down at us or make fun of us.’”
This might explain why evangelicals apparently feel kinship with Trump when he claims persecution by the “fake news” media or investigators digging into his tax returns or contacts with Russia. However, there may also be some simpler, cruder areas of overlapping interest.
Jerry Falwell Jr confers with Mike Pence at Liberty University’s commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Virginia on Saturday. Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters
One of Trump’s most prominent evangelical supporters is Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s biggest Christian colleges. Last week Reuters reported that according to a taped conversation, Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen intervened in 2016 to ensure that racy “personal” photographs of Falwell were destroyed. Falwell, who months later endorsed Trump for president, declined to comment to Reuters.
Last year, Falwell declared there was nothing that Trump could do that would endanger his support from evangelical leaders. Last week, referring to the Russia investigation, he tweeted: “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
‘Don’t all Republicans go to church?’
Recent research, however, suggests that the alliance is more fragile than widely assumed. Only 55% white evangelical Protestants said they prefer to see Trump as the Republican nominee in the 2020 when given other options, such as Pence or any other Republican, according to a survey by Morning Consult.
This is 16% fewer than the share of self-identified Republicans who said the same, and significantly lower than the 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016. The president’s approval rating among white evangelicals is 70%, 14 points lower than with Republicans in general. He must balance the other elements of his coalition.
Emily Ekins, a researcher at the Cato Institute, told the audience at the AEI: “Trump drew disproportionate support from those voters who don’t go to church very often, which is really interesting. I think a lot of people think, ‘Well, don’t all Republicans go to church? Isn’t that what Republicans are?’ Well no, actually about half of Republicans say they never or very rarely ever attend religious services.”
Christians in America are far from a monolith. Many accuse Trump and Pence of hypocrisy and of hijacking faith for use in the “culture wars” over abortion, gay marriage and other issues. There are black churches in major cities, for example, that find no hint of “Make America Great Again” in their reading of the Bible.
The Rev Dr William Barber, a pastor in North Carolina and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, said: “Any god with a small ‘g’ may be directing Donald Trump: the god of money, the god of greed, the god of racism. But he cannot claim to be a Christian and that God is directing him to be racist, to be Islamophobe, to hurt the poor and to take from the working people and poor people and give to the extreme wealthy and greedy who don’t need it, and to lie and lie and lie.
“All you’ve got to do is read Jesus’s first sermon where Jesus declared what it looks like when God is leading your life. When God is leading you, will preach good news to the poor, you will develop good policies for the poor, you will heal the brokenhearted, you will free people who are captive in society, you will embrace the unwelcome and the unwanted.”
*David Smith is the Guardian’s Washington DC bureau chief.
Revealed: Controversial Plan to Boost Religious Lobby in Brussels, as Far Right Pledges to Fight for ‘Christian Europe’
Leaked proposals from a senior Irish politician, backed by powerful Christian lobbyists, raise stakes in European elections, where the far right is pushing for big gains
15 May 2019 (openDemocracy)* — A leaked report reveals a controversial plan to dramatically increase the influence of religious groups on the European Parliament, openDemocracy can reveal today [15 May 2019].
Written by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, the parliament’s vice-president, it would give churches a say on potentially every new piece of legislation, resolution or report going through the European Parliament.
The report recommends more direct meetings between religious associations and the parliament’s rapporteurs – who handle legislative proposals drawn up by the European Commission, as well as other key documents, including draft strategies.
Religious groups are already treated differently to other civil society organisations in Brussels. But critics say the proposed changes would increase this imbalance. Some MEPs say this would violate the separation of religion and politics.
McGuinness’s report was presented last month to the European Parliament’s bureau, which decides the body’s rules and draft budgets.
It was shelved after lawmakers protested, but is expected to be discussed again in June – after the parliament’s hotly contested elections, in which far-right parties hope to make big gains.
Already far-right politicians from Italy to Hungary are pledging to defend ‘Christian Europe’ and promote an ultra-conservative ‘traditional values’ agenda, aligning with Christian conservative groups that oppose divorce and contraception as well as sex education, abortion and gay rights.
There is concern from MEPs that an increased far-right presence in the European Parliament could aid future attempts to pass McGuinness’s controversial proposals.
One MEP told openDemocracy that the report was “pre-empting decisions in the next parliament” and that this, with the predicted surge of far right MEPs, is “worrying”.
openDemocracy can further reveal that Mairead McGuinness’s assistant in Brussels, a senior Irish civil servant who is understood to have worked on this report, is also connected to Agenda Europe, a secretive network which campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights.
The report’s recommendations would also apply to ‘non-confessional philosophical groups’ that parliament consults with, including humanist organisations. But these groups are fewer in number – and they are also highly critical of the proposals.
Julie Pernet, at the European Humanist Federation, told openDemocracy that the report was supposed to be “the result of a broad consensus” of organisations, “which is not true”. Rather, she said, it primarily reflects the positions of powerful Christian groups who want to “impose a reactionary agenda” and “make sure EU legislation obeys Catholic dogma”.
In a letter to the parliament’s president, a group of MEPs said the proposals were a “severe violation of the principle of separation between religion and politics” and would create “a highly undesirable and untransparent privileged lobby channel for religious organisations.”
Citing openDemocracy’s recent investigation into the millions of dollars the US Christian right has pumped into European politics over the last decade – boosting the influence of the far right across the continent – the MEPs warn that it would be “irresponsible to open up the legislative process to religious organisations”.
The MEPs also questioned the report’s claim to reflect “a clear consensus” among the consulted groups, saying it “appear[s] to endorse mostly the views of the churches present”.
‘Christian Europe’ and the far right
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is perhaps the most prominent far-right politician pledging to defend ‘Christian Europe’ and promote an ultra-conservative ‘traditional values’ agenda. He put such pledges in his party’s European elections manifesto.
Another far-right leader, Matteo Salvini – Italy’s deputy prime minister and far-right Lega party leader – called a recent summit of ultra-conservative Christian activists an example of “the Europe that we like”.
Many of these politicians have targeted ‘gender ideology’: aligning themselves with Christian conservative groups that oppose divorce and contraception as well as sex education, same-sex marriage, trans rights, and women’s access to safe, legal abortion.
Viviana Waisman, director of Women’s Link Worldwide, a women’s rights organisation with offices in Spain and Colombia, has warned that these global Christian conservative movements seek to “take us back in time in terms of what women can and can’t do”.
COMECE – the Catholic Church’s lobby group in Brussels – has long pushed for strengthened dialogue between churches and the European Parliament. One focus has been reform of how Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union is implemented. This part of the treaty requires “open, transparent and regular dialogue between the EU institutions and churches, religious associations, and philosophical and non-confessional organisations”.
McGuinness’s Article 17 report proposes more “working-level meetings” with rapporteurs to share “expertise on specific dossiers”. It also recommends that European Parliament liaison offices support churches in influencing policy by reaching out to their MEPs. openDemocracy understands that COMECE specifically pushed for these changes.
Critics say these recommendations would give religious groups like COMECE, which consistently oppose sexual and reproductive rights, further privileged access to those in charge of legislative planning on those issues.
COMECE denies that it is close to the far right. In response to questions put by openDemocracy, it also stated it is “committed to limit its focus only on EU competences” and “no dialogue is carried out by COMECE with the EU institutions on matters falling outside EU competence, including access to abortion and same-sex marriage”.
However, Julie Pernet at the European Humanist Federation has called McGuinness’ report “one of various initiatives that have been taken by COMECE to re-Christianise Europe and undermine key rights”.
The lead signatory to the MEPs’ letter against the proposals is French politician Virginie Rozière. She told openDemocracy the recommendations the report makes to strengthen religious influence are “completely crazy” and will lead to “civil servants organising meetings between church groups and rapporteurs”, which would create a privileged lobbying channel.
“We have already seen church groups try to influence everything that is related to gender equality, human rights, non-discrimination regarding your gender and your sexual orientation,” she said, citing how religious groups “tried to prevent the parliament from calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy”.
She also pointed to campaigns by religious organisations against the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence, saying they “place the traditional view of what a family should be above the protection of women from violence”.
Reproductive rights activist Ailbhe Smyth, who was involved in the successful campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland last year, said: “We have seen attempts in many countries – some successful – from the Catholic Church to stall or prevent legislation on issues such as equal marriage and abortion,” noting similar campaigns from “extreme right parties”.
Meanwhile, Pernet gave the example of a hypothetical future European Parliament text on reproductive rights which, if McGuinness’s recommendations went through, would mean rapporteurs could have to consult COMECE, which opposes these rights.
Mixing religion and politics
McGuinness’s report was prepared after consultation with 16 organisations in February. Half of those present were Christian.
The European Humanist Federation says the report’s recommendations are effectively “an endorsement of the requests made by Catholic organisations”. The federation was one of just three secular groups involved in the consultation.
Other groups consulted were Baha’i and Hare Krishna associations, one Muslim group, two Jewish groups, and the European Masonic Alliance.
openDemocracy understands that when humanists asked McGuinness whether she was listening more closely to religious voices, she said she did not have to treat all dialogue partners equally. When asked directly about this over email by openDemocracy, she did not respond.
According to Rozière, McGuinness’ own faith may have influenced her report, observing a desire amongst some political leaders in Europe “to strengthen the Catholic Church in reaction to what is perceived as an increasing influence of Islam and Muslim organisations”.
The Irish politician did not respond to requests for comment on this point either.
Another Irish voice in Brussels understood to have worked on the report is Faerghas O’Beara, whose LinkedIn profile says he is McGuinness’s adviser and that he coordinates “Parliament’s dialogue with religious and philosophical organisations, based on Article 17”.
The fact that an Irish MEP and an Irish senior civil servant have had their hands in the report challenge the idea that Ireland has been moving towards less, not more, separation between church and state.
O’Beara has spoken at events with representatives of ADF International, the global wing of a US Christian right-wing ‘legal army’ which poured millions of dollars into Europe over the last decade, as openDemocracy has previously revealed.
His name is also on a leaked list of subscribers, from 2016, to a Google group for the previously mentioned Agenda Europe network, which campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights. Along with O’Beara, other names on the leaked list include two secretaries of state for the Vatican, other representatives from the Holy See, and the COMECE lobby group.
O’Beara also did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
A new political reality
McGuinness’s report has been shelved for now – a move welcomed by the MEP Rozière and her colleagues.
However, Rozière told openDemocracy “if we had not protested, the report would have been adopted with no one paying attention”.
She also pointed to the threat posed by far-right groups hoping to make big gains in next week’s European elections.
“We have seen the connections between the far-right and religious organisations,” she said. “They want to signal they are not hostile to churches.”
The risk, say MEPs and humanists, is that a more powerful far-right parliamentary grouping will back the proposals when they return to the parliament’s bureau in June.
Pernet explained: “The way politics is evolving in Europe would be more in favour of adopting these proposals.” Rozière echoed her concerns, saying “We should be worrying about what is going on in the next parliament.”
In response to the recommendations of the report, reproductive rights activist Ailbhe Smyth warned that “a Europe that is dominated by the extreme right will always target women and sexuality”, as she said that the Catholic Church has done for many years.
“Giving the Catholic or any other church privileges within the European Parliament is absolutely unthinkable,” she said. “It is completely contrary to the principles of equality in the EU and it simply must be resisted.”
*Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist. sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein.