Many American Christians are succumbing to the dangerous delusion that political leaders like President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) can protect them from an increasingly hostile culture.
For instance, Rod Dreher; normally a thoughtful skeptic of American institutions labels U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr a “Religious Liberty Warrior” at The American Conservative. Dreher’s questionable thesis is that Barr is an important champion of religious liberty because of one speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
Yes, Barr can take many actions to protect religious freedoms. However, the next U.S. Attorney General can undo all of Barr’s actions in about five minutes. In addition, many of Barr’s actions will be shallow, symbolic, and easily ignored.
Something Dreher forgets is that Barr only controls federal law enforcement as attorney general. Under the Constitution, most American law enforcement is controlled by state and local authorities. Hence, Barr’s power to stop oppression by local or state authorities is limited.
The Real Threat to Religious Liberty in America is the Economy
Moreover, Dreher ignores what I consider the greatest threats to religious liberty in America today. Those threats are America’s dismal economy and the widespread collapse of traditional communities and institutions across the nation.
Hitler, for example, seized power in Germany when that nation’s economy collapsed in the early 1930s. In addition, the collapse of Russia’s economy during World War enabled Lenin’s Russian Revolution; which led to the Soviet tyranny.
The economy in much of America’s heartland has collapsed. In addition, tens of millions of Americans are barely surviving despite the so-called economic recovery.
For instance, 40% of Americans admit they could not cover a $400 emergency expense, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System estimates. In addition, 17% of Americans admit they have trouble paying their monthly bills, the Fed estimates.*
Income Inequality Threatens Christians
Notably, the US Census Bureau estimates U.S. Income Inequality reached its highest level in over 50 years in 2018, the Associated Press reports. To clarify, US Economic Inequality; as measured by the Gini Index, grew from 0.482 in 2017 to 0.485 in 2018.
In particular, six “heartland states;” Arkansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and New Hampshire had big yearly gains in income inequality, the AP claims. Historically, high levels of income inequality preceded the American, French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions.
Income inequality could get worse because automation could wipeout 25% of US jobs in the next decade. To explain, the Brookings Institution estimates 25% of US employees have a high risk of being replaced by machines or artificial intelligence by 2030.
Historically, high unemployment breeds bigotry and radical politics. Germany had high unemployment in the 1930s before Hitler.
The United States could survive high levels of income inequality and economic insecurity, if America had strong communities and social and cultural institutions to protect average people. However, community involvement and social capital are declining in America.
Churches are Dying and Bigotry Grows
For instance, Gallup estimates the percentage of Americans who claim to be church members fell from 71% in 1983 to 50% in 2018. Correspondingly, over 4,000 U.S. churches close every year, Church Leadership claims.
Church collapse makes economic collapse worse because institutions like churches provide social capital and a safety net for ordinary people. For instance, Northview Church in Carmel Indiana claims to have paid off $7.8 million in medical debt for 6,000 families, RFD TV claims.
When institutions like churches die social and economic insecurity grows. History teaches that social and economic insecurity leads to political unrest and violence.
Economic insecurity and income inequality drive church and community decline in a vicious cycle. To elaborate, incomes fall so low communities can no longer support church activities. Yet the church activities contribute to the communities’ quality of life.
Consequently, insecurity grows which breeds violence and bigotry. Notably, we have seen an upswing in racist sentiment in America as church attendance falls. For example, America elected its first openly racist president, Trump, in a century in 2016.
Historically, increasing religious intolerance accompanies growing racism. For example, the anti-black and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan had 300,000 members in Ohio alone during the 1920s, The American Experience estimates.
The Federal Government Cannot Protect Christians
History shows only strong communities, institutions, and churches can protect minorities from violence and oppression. In addition, the federal government has a poor track record of defending minorities.
During Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s, African Americans enjoyed some rights and political power in the South. The basis of those rights and power was federal troops.
African American rights and political power in the South vanished when federal troops left. Notably, the troops withdrew because of the Compromise of 1877. To elaborate, Southern Democrats accepted the contested election of President Rutherford B. Hayes (R-Ohio); in exchange, for the withdrawal of federal troops.
With federal troops gone, Southern Democrats quickly established the racist Jim Crow regime. Under Jim Crow, African-Americans could not vote, hold political office, or work at many jobs. Consequently, African Americans endured ninety years of oppression and racism.
Disturbingly, the NAACP estimates racist thugs lynched 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968. The federal government could have prevented many of those lynchings. However, federal officials; such as President Franklin. D. Roosevelt (D-New York), refused to support anti-lynch laws out of fear of losing Southern Democrats support.
Given American history, a betrayal of Christians by Republicans for political reasons is likely. Notably, the Republicans betrayed African Americans twice; first in 1877, and again in 1964.
Can Trump and Barr Protect Christians?
In the final analysis, I think politicians like President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, will not protect Christians. Instead, Trump and Barr’s clumsy and cynical efforts to win Christian support could breed more intolerance.
Notably, Barr’s speech is provoking anti-Christian outbursts from leftist intellectuals like economist Paul Krugman. In an October 15, 2019 New York Times column Krugman condemns Barr’s “ outburst of God-Talk.”
Tellingly, numerous critics took to Twitter to condemn the Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture for inviting Barr to speak, The National Catholic Register notes. In fact, The National Catholic Register brands Barr as unchristian and un-catholic because of his speech.
Krugman thinks Barr violated the Constitution by mentioning God and raising the possibility of secular intolerance. Hence, in Krugman’s twisted thinking Barr violated the Constitution by exercising his First Amendment Right to free speech.
Thus, Christians have gone from a joke to a threat in Krugman’s mind. Worse, Krugman is claiming that Christians cannot be patriotic Americans.
America’s New Secular Anti-Christian Bigotry
Essentially, Krugman implies that Christians are not loyal to America because they are loyal to God. Krugman’s apparent belief is “we cannot trust Christians because they are loyal to God instead of America.”
Consequently, Krugman’s opinion of Christians mirrors some right-wingers’ claims that Moslems cannot be patriotic Americans. The Islamophobic claim is that Moslems put loyalty to God ahead of loyalty to country.
Bizarrely, the Trump administration; which claims to champion Religious Liberty, bases its efforts to limit Moslems’ rights in America on such arguments. Trump’s notorious Muslim travel ban for instance.
Thus, Trump injects a dangerous; and thoroughly secular, strain of anti-religious bigotry into American politics. Worse, some of Trump’s fiercest critics now direct that bigotry against Trump and his supporters.
Why Christians need to Fear for their Liberty
Frighteningly, claims of disloyalty preceded some of the worst oppression in American history.
For instance, in 1941 and 1942, the media began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans. In response, in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) illegally ordered the Army to place all Japanese Americans in several states in what he openly called “concentration camps.” FDR interned Japanese Americans because of suspected “disloyalty.”
Furthermore, in the late 1940s the media and politicians; including U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), began branding all Communists and leftists as disloyal to America. By the early 1950s, Congress unconstitutionally banned the Communist Party, and the federal government imprisoned many Communists and leftists.
Hence, Christians are right to be afraid of oppression in America. Notably, as I point out elsewhere; Pew Religious Landscape Survey data shows you can categorize 45.7% of Americans as “nonreligious.” In response, the Democratic National Committee plans a “targeted outreach” to nonreligious voters in 2020.
Importantly, individual Christian groups are minorities in America. For instance, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey estimates “Evangelical Protestants” made up 25.7% of America’s population in 2017. In addition, Roman Catholics made up 20.8% of the US population. Finally, “Mainline Protestants” made up 14.7%. and historically black protestants made up 6.5% of Americans.
Okay, Christians could have an overwhelming majority if all Christian groups work together. Given America’s history; and the deep theological divisions among Christians, I think such cooperation is unlikely. I believe a more plausible scenario is Christians turning on each other.
In the final analysis, Christians need to understand that political leaders like Trump and Barr cannot protect them. I think Trump, in particular, promotes both religious and racial hatred and has made religious bigotry national policy.
Politicians Cannot Protect Religious Liberty
History shows we cannot trust politicians to protect liberty. Indeed, the experiences of African Americans and Japanese Americans show politicians could throw Christians to the lions the minute it serves their interests.
Consequently, I think the best way for Christians to protect their liberty is to work to strengthen communities, institutions, and values. I think alleviating income inequality will do more to protect Christians and liberty than any action the U.S. Department of Justice can take.
Moreover, a good study of America’s long history of bigotry, oppression, and intolerance could show Christians how to avoid such evils. In conclusion, the biggest threat to Christians’ liberty could be all the Christians who put their faith in political leaders like William Barr and Donald J. Trump rather than God.
- Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018 downloaded from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201905.pdf