Politics / February 23, 2024

Hit Trump on Theocracy, Not Hypocrisy

The former president’s alliance with religious fanatics is a far bigger problem than his lack of piety.

Jeet Heer
Former President Trump holds a Bible outside of St. John's Episcopal church in Washington, DC
Then–US President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside of St. John’s Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. Trump was due to make a televised address to the nation after days of protests against police brutality. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Last Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos have the same legal status as human children—a radical decision, with wide-ranging implications for reproductive freedom and fertility treatment. Critics of the decision see both short-term and long-term problems. In the immediate future, it could end fertility treatment in Alabama, since clinics will justifiably worry that many standard medical procedures will now be classified as murder (in vitro fertilization necessarily involves the overproduction of embryos, not all of which are used). In the longer prospect, the decision is clearly a part of a right-wing push to enshrine the doctrine of fetal personhood, which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would necessitate a nationwide total ban on abortion.

As worrying as the decision was, the theocratic logic used by the justices to justify their conclusions was even scarier. The judges in this case presented themselves as instruments of divine will rather than expositors of secular law. In his concurrent decision, Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote, “Even before birth, all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

This theological language was no accident. Media Matters on Wednesday reported, “During a recent interview on the program of self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ and QAnon conspiracy theorist Johnny Enlow, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker indicated that he is a proponent of the ‘Seven Mountain Mandate,’ a theological approach that calls on Christians to impose fundamentalist values on all aspects of American life.” According to a faction of evangelical Protestant fanatics, Christians have the right and duty to impose their domination on the so-called “seven mountains” of American life: government, media, education, business, religion, family, and entertainment. During the interview, Parker said God “is calling and equipping people to step back into these mountains right now.” The judge added that God “is equipping me with something for the very specific situation that I’m facing,”

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Judge Parker is not alone in his avowal of theocracy as a goal. He’s symptomatic of the larger rise of Christian nationalism on the right, a tendency that goes back decades but has rapidly accelerated in the Trump era.

One of the signature features of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign is that he is now in open alliance with Christian nationalists—a faction markedly more radical and opposed to democracy than the mainstream evangelicals he courted in previous elections.

As Politico reported on Tuesday,

An influential think tank close to Donald Trump is developing plans to infuse Christian nationalist ideas in his administration should the former president return to power.… Spearheading the effort is Russell Vought, who served as Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget during his first term and has remained close to him. Vought, who is frequently cited as a potential chief of staff in a second Trump White House, is president of The Center for Renewing America think tank, a leading group in a conservative consortium preparing for a second Trump term.

In a 2021 essay for Newsweek, Vought claimed that Christian nationalism (which he put in quotation marks) “is actually a rather benign and useful description for those who believe in both preserving our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage and making public policy decisions that are best for this country.” Vought’s influence can be seen in the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. As Politico notes, this proposed blueprint for a second Trump term “says policies that support LGBTQ+ rights, subsidize “single-motherhood” and penalize marriage should be repealed because subjective notions of “gender identity” threaten “Americans’ fundamental liberties. It also proposes increasing surveillance of abortion and maternal mortality reporting in the states, compelling the Food and Drug Administration to revoke approval of “chemical abortion drugs” and protecting “religious and moral” objections for employers who decline contraception coverage for employees.”

The Heritage Foundation, which for decades has helped shape policy in Republican administrations, has itself become a bastion of Christian nationalist thought. In May of last year, Heritage posted this startling tweet: “Conservatives have to lead the way in restoring sex to its true purpose, & ending recreational sex & senseless use of birth control pills.” If the Republican Party follows the lead of the Heritage Foundation and starts campaigning against “recreational sex,” then Democrats could soon win the largest landslide in American history.

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It might seem strange to talk about Christian nationalism and Trump in the same sentence. After all, he is far and away the most secular—indeed, profane—president in American history. Notorious for his louche personal life and open celebration of greed and violence, and utterly ignorant about the Bible, Trump seems an unlikely standard-bearer for any sort of religious movement.

Anti-Trump writers have often noted the hypocrisy displayed by both sides in the former president’s alliance with the religious right. Writing in The Guardian in 2019, Samuel G. Freedman claimed that under Trump, “the religious right has laid bare its hypocrisy.” In a similar vein, former George W. Bush adviser Peter Wehner in 2023 lamented on MSNBC that evangelical Christians had embraced “the person who probably most embodies the antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount, the person of Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus. And this guy’s a rock star and has been for year after year.”

But surely, in the larger scheme of things, hypocrisy is a minor infraction. To use the language of religion, it is a venial rather than a mortal sin. After all, any system of rules and ethics will produce some hypocrisy, perhaps religion most of all. The preacher who transgresses against morality is a familiar figure, as witness the life histories of such pious philanderers as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, not to mention countless less-famous holy men with hot pants.

No, Trump’s true sin is not hypocrisy but theocracy. Christian nationalism is an extremist ideology at odds with the fundamental pluralism of American life. It poses a threat not just to secular people but also to the vast majority of religious people whose faith does not entail using the state to impose theology.

The focus on hypocrisy follows a common pattern of weak anti-Trump polemics: an obsession with personal issues at the expense of policy. But the problem with the Christian nationalists around Trump is not that they sometimes violate their moral norms—or that their chosen leader is an obviously ungodly man. The true problem is that they are too sincere: They really believe their unhinged and wicked ideas.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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