Nonetheless, William Barr — again, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for defending the Constitution — is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!
So what’s going on here? Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr, whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House, has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No, this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump’s response to his predicament has been to ramp up the ugliness in an effort to rally his base. The racism has gotten even more explicit, the paranoia about the deep state more extreme. But who makes up Trump’s base? The usual answer is working-class whites, but a deeper dive into the data suggests that it’s more specific: It’s really evangelical working-class whites who are staying with Trump despite growing evidence of his malfeasance and unsuitability for high office.
And at a more elite level, while a vast majority of Republican politicians have meekly fallen in line behind Trump, his truly enthusiastic support comes from religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who have their own ethical issues, but have called on their followers to “render to God and Trump.”
Patriotism, Samuel Johnson famously declared, is the last refuge of scoundrels. But for all his talk of America first, that’s not a refuge that works very well for Trump, with his subservience to foreign autocrats and, most recently, his shameful betrayal of the Kurds.
So Trump is instead taking shelter behind bigotry — racial, of course, but now religious as well.
Will it work? There is a substantial minority of Americans with whom warnings about sinister secularists resonate. But they are a minority. Over all, we’re clearly becoming a more tolerant nation, one in which people have increasingly positive views of others’ religious beliefs, including atheism.
So the efforts of Trump’s henchmen to use the specter of secularism to distract people from their boss’s sins probably won’t work. But I could be wrong. And if I am wrong, if religious bigotry turns out to be a winning strategy, all I can say is, God help us.
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