CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — Playing The Religious Card: A Long American History

“Take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.”

When President Trump uttered these words this past week, he sparked the usual outrage in the world beyond his base. His accusations against Joe Biden, who is a serious Catholic Christian and who has not indicated distaste for the Second Amendment, seemed so wide of the mark and so completely undisciplined (“hurt God”?) that they were dismissed as a spasm of desperation from an incumbent now well behind in the polls. One commentator said Trump was just throwing mud at the wall in the hopes that something would stick.

I believe what the president said was much more serious and purposeful than that and that it is essential to try to understand his message. This is one of those moments when it is important to take President Trump seriously but not literally. As usual, the left and much of the media fixated on the literal without attempting to discern the important underlying message of the president’s strange outburst.

Here’s my translation of the first part, “Take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment”:

  • “As you decide whether to vote for me or Joe Biden, you should know that the Second Amendment has a more consistent champion in me and my party than in much of the Democratic Party. If you vote them in, they may attempt to pass legislation forcing universal background checks. They may ban semiautomatic weapons. They may close loopholes that allow undocumented gun sales at gun shows, etc.”

Is President Trump right? The answer is some form of yes. If the Second Amendment is for you a kind of constitutional absolute, and any firearms restriction a serious loss of liberty, then Trump is the preferred candidate. This assurance matters greatly to tens of millions of Americans.

“No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God.” Translation:

  • “Biden and the majority of Democrats support the secularization agenda of the ACLU and the federal courts. If you believe it should be permissible to have the Ten Commandments displayed on the courthouse lawn, if you believe that a manger scene should be allowed on the grounds of city hall, if you think we should permit Christian prayer at high school graduation or before public school football games, then you are better off voting for Trump than for Biden or any other Democrat. The Democrats will ‘hurt the Bible’ by insisting that you can take an oath just as successfully on a Koran or the Bhagavad Gita or the Analects of Confucius as on the King James Bible, and by arguing that the central truths of Christ’s mission must now be regarded as metaphoric rather than literal. They will ‘hurt God’ by attempting to cleanse America’s public square of God’s presence and His blessing, and they will continue to promote the radical secularization of American culture that has brought us to moral and social perdition.”

I’m not suggesting that President Trump had precisely this fuller message in mind when he uttered those staccato sentences, but that is what his words evoke in the minds of tens of millions of Americans, the ones, for example, who voted for Judge Roy Moore in Alabama in spite of his personal problems; the ones who bristled at former President Obama’s statement that some rural Americans cling to their guns and their religion in the face of a rapidly changing world. They voted (and will vote) for Trump in spite of “his” personal imperfections, to which, as one evangelical leader put it, they are disposed to grant a mulligan. Donald Trump understands the fundamentalist agenda (on guns and religion) and he is determined to carry water for those tens of millions of Americans. Because of that, the “forgotten Americans” can shrug their shoulders at everything else, including their awareness that Trump may not privately actually share their views, so long as he delivers on the guns and Bible agenda.

In a sense, President Trump is saying, “Whatever you may think of me personally, or my tweets, or my presidential deportment, you surely know that if you care about guns and God you are better off with me than with them.” Whatever else Trump has done in the 3½ years since he was elected, he has very successfully worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to confirm 203 life-tenured federal judges, the great majority of whom are dedicated to the values implicit in Trump’s “shorthand” — a lowering of the wall of separation between church and state; an insistence that the United States is a Christian nation; antagonism to gun restriction legislation; a desire to roll back Roe v. Wade, perhaps not entirely, but — without question — as severely as possible.

My point is that while President Trump’s outburst on Thursday, Aug. 6, may have seemed unhinged to the literalists on the left, it conveyed a very strong message both to his base and to millions more Americans who have apprehensions about Democratic policies on gun restriction, on multiculturalism, on “political correctness,” on moral relativism and on the secularization of American life. A significant percentage of the American people are uneasy with the real or perceived Democrat cultural agenda. We are, in fact, in a real or perceived culture war as well as what Carl Bernstein calls a “Cold Civil War.” President Trump knows that he is now more likely to win support in the cultural arena than for the economy, America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, foreign policy, or environmental policy.

President John Kennedy addressing the issue of his Catholic faith in Houston in 1960.
President John Kennedy addressing the issue of his Catholic faith in Houston in 1960.

President Trump knows what he is doing. It’s his best chance to be re-elected Nov. 3. Like several of his predecessors in presidential politics, he is playing the religion card.

This is not the first time that religion has been used to try to disparage the opposition candidate. The maneuver goes all the way back to the beginning of the republic. I’ll provide a few historical examples, the most interesting of which was the election of 1800.

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, the pundits wondered if his membership in the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) would hurt him. He lost the race to the incumbent Barack Obama, but his LDS affiliation did not seem to be a significant factor. By the early 21st century, Mormonism had been sufficiently mainstreamed in American life to cause most Americans to shrug Romney’s faith off as nonconsequential. This would not have been true even 50 years earlier.

Barack Obama had a much harder time than Romney, though he is a professed and serious protestant Christian. When he ran for the presidency in 2008, he faced withering criticism on two religious fronts. Millions were persuaded to doubt that he was a Christian or even an American citizen. On right-wing media and in the vast new universe of social media, Obama was widely denounced as a foreign national, born in Africa, a Muslim, perhaps even a radical Muslim front man working to destroy America from within the White House. You can still find that argument, on any given day, on a variety of right-wing websites. At the other end of the spectrum, Obama was heavily criticized for his associations with Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Wright’s sermons, many of which the Obamas attended, were often deeply critical of the United States and of the white community. Obama critics argued that Wright’s radicalism either represented Obama’s undisclosed views of America or at the very least rubbed off on him to a certain (and unacceptable) extent. Obama won in 2008 and again in 2012, but the religious attacks never fully dissipated.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, it was widely thought that his Catholicism might doom his candidacy. No Catholic had ever been elected to the presidency in American history. Was Kennedy’s core allegiance to the United States or to the Vatican and the Pope? Against the advice of some of his top aides, Kennedy decided to face the issue head-on. On Sept. 12, 1960, he addressed the Houston, Texas, Ministers Conference:

“Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he declared. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”

JFK provided a learned and spirited analysis of the doctrine of separation of church and state, invoking Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), and deftly turning the constitutional argument on its head:

  • “I would not look with favor upon a pesident working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so — and neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection.”

Article VI states unequivocally that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

It was a brave and brilliant performance, which neutralized his opponents and disarmed much of the anti-Catholic feeling in the non-Catholic community. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in November 1960. Nixon, to his credit, never attempted to use Kennedy’s religious faith to discredit him.

1928 cartoon critical of presidential candidate Al Smith and his Catholic faith.
1928 cartoon critical of presidential candidate Al Smith and his Catholic faith.

In 1928, four-term New York Gov. Al Smith ran for president. He was a Catholic. In response to an Atlantic magazine challenge to his fitness for the presidency, Smith published a reply in May 1927. Smith openly wrestled with the problem of fundamental allegiance and concluded, “I am unable to understand how anything that I was taught to believe as a Catholic could possibly be in conflict with what is good citizenship.” His essay was a work of great dignity and thoughtfulness. Smith lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. At least some of that loss can be attributed to his religious faith. The country would be unready to accept a Catholic president for another full generation. A journalist concluded that Smith was defeated by “the three P’s: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity.”

The closest analogy to the Trump declaration that his opponent would “hurt God” came in the infamous election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged his old friend, John Adams, for the presidency. Jefferson kept his religious views mostly to himself, but he was (very privately) a unitarian, a Deist, an anti-Trinitarian and a skeptic who had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus. His only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” had provided some hint of his expansive and freethinking views, particularly with the words, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This was thought by his detractors to reveal a dangerous glibness and even irreverence in Jefferson. No sentence that he ever wrote came back to haunt him as often as this one. Historian Edwin S. Gaustad said that the raucous election of 1800 represented “perhaps religion’s greatest visibility in a presidential race until the 1928 effort of Alfred E. Smith.”

The Federalists attacked Jefferson as a utopian, a radical who had spent too much time in French salons, a coward (during his governorship in Virginia), a slaveholder (and therefore a hypocrite) and an enemy to the central government, but they reserved their deepest savagery for what they believed were Jefferson’s religious views.

Then-Yale President Timothy Dwight worried that if Jefferson were elected, “our churches may become temples of reason.” Another Federalist propagandist declared, “If Jefferson is elected, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin — which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence” — would be officially abandoned. A Federalist editorialist warned: “Look at your houses, your parents, your wives and your children. Are you prepared to see your dwelling in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on a pike and the halberd?” He was, in short, predicting an American version of the French Reign of Terror if Jefferson won in 1800. Jefferson learned that in some New England pulpits, pastors were advising older women to bury their Bibles in the garden or hide them in wells out of fear that the Jefferson administration would attempt to confiscate the Christian sacred text.

As the election neared, the Gazette of the United States asked repeatedly,

Shall I continue in allegiance to


or impiously declare for

Jefferson — and no god!!!

The Connecticut Currant asked, “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or, in the alcoran [Koran]; whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all.” Here you see an echo of the controversial passage in Notes on Virginia.

Jefferson remained steadfastly silent in the face of all of this criticism. He never publicly divulged his religious views, no matter what the provocation. He trusted the American people to give the issues of the 1800 election their proper weight. He knew that people are more interested in public policy than in the religious sensibilities of the person who happened to be president. Just what the average American thought about all of this, if she or he was aware of what was for most a faraway debate, is unclear. The people of the United States in 1800 were almost infinitely less “connected” by media and social media than we are today. Probably most people reckoned that John Adams, the candidate from Calvinist New England, was likely to be more devout than the candidate from cavalier Virginia, where Jefferson’s famous Statute for Religious Freedom had been adopted in 1786, but the campaign turned on other issues and Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States in the fall of 1800.

If the American people had known the whole truth about Jefferson’s religious views — that he called the “idea of the trinity … the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus,” that he was steadily, at times severely anti-clerical, that he believed that Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived but probably not the son of God — they might not have elected him twice to the presidency. It is even doubtful that an individual espousing those views could be elected today.

Generally speaking, religion is a less central issue in the United States in 2020 than it was in 1960 or 1928 or 1800, but it still matters enormously to tens of millions of Americans. While it would be a mistake (and a distortion) to grant one party a monopoly on Christian faith, or to oversimplify what is a very complicated set of social and religious dynamics in America, it is certainly true that Donald Trump has had great success with the evangelical community and those who regard the Second Amendment as the most important article of the Bill of Rights. Whether his attempts to stir the fears of that constituency sufficiently to get him re-elected, and to paint the opposition — including the devout Joe Biden — with a broad God-hurting brush, remains to be seen.

For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay’s most recent book, Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available at Amazon.com.

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