Over the weekend Donald Trump addressed the graduating class at Liberty University, the fundamentalist college founded by the late Jerry Falwell and now led by his son Jerry Jr. It was Trump’s first commencement speech and the venue indicated that he was there to pay a favor. White evangelical Protestants supported Trump like the had not supported other GOP candidates in recorded history. His speech should concerns all of us who cares about the secular state and maintaining the growth that the secular population has enjoyed in the last decade.
David Niose and Rob Boston, two of the best and most experienced voices on issues of church-state separation have very gloomy reactions to the speech. While there’s some overlap in their assessments, they highlight some separate issues.
Niose highlights the transactional nature of the Religious Right and how Trump, an expert in trasactional relationships, brags about the “deal.”
In speaking to his Christian audience, Trump was brazen in his you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours rhetoric, reminding evangelicals that their policy goals are his. “I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time,” he said, referring to last week’s controversial executive order instructing the IRS to do everything possible to allow churches and religious groups to participate in politics. Turning to his host Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of the college’s founder), he bragged, “I said I was going to do it, and Jerry, I did it. And a lot of people are very happy with what’s taken place. . . We did some very important signings.”
Of course, here Trump refers to his infamous executive order on religious freedom. As Mark Silk notes, the EO really amounts to not a lot in practice. This doesn’t mean that we should take our guard down. The Religious Right has the Johnson Amendment on the cutting board and Republicans hold power in all three branches of the federal government.
Boston focused his concerns on Trump’s view of the role of God in America, and in American history.
“America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers,” Trump declared. “When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth they prayed. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don’t worship government, we worship God. That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, ‘So help me God,’ as they take the oath of office. It is why our currency proudly declares, ‘In God we trust,’ and it’s why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. The story of America is the story of an adventure that began with deep faith, big dreams and humble beginnings.”
He’s right to be concerned. With the Religious Right-led GOP in power many issues of church-state separation are already coming up and will continue to come up. It is possible that we will get into a social and political environment where people on the fence, such as many nones, will stop identifying as such and return to their old religious labels. This could happen because people may fear the social, economic, and political consequences of not identifying as or been seen as religious.
We are in for a wild ride in the 3 3/4 years we have left in this mess. Trump may not be an evangelical, but he knows they got him elected. More important, they know it.