I have never forgotten a political cartoon that appeared in the midst of the Watergate impeachment investigation. It caricatured the strange relationship evangelical Christians had with then-President Richard Nixon, and speaks to me today of the way the current group of right-wing preachers is dealing with President Donald Trump.
The cartoon was made up of a series of eight separate boxes. Shown in the background of each box was Richard Nixon speaking on the phone. Pictured in the foreground of each box was the face of a prominent evangelical Christian preacher. In the first seven boxes, Nixon is shown ordering the bombing of Cambodia, the invasion of Laos, surveillance of political opponents, criticizing welfare benefits for the poor, etc. In the first seven, the preacher in the foreground is shown saying “Praise the Lord, truly this is a man of God.”
In the eighth and final box of the cartoon, Nixon is on the phone using the obscene and vulgar language that appeared in the White House tapes he had been forced to surrender to a Senate investigative committee. In this box, on hearing Nixon’s foul language, the preacher, in the foreground, looks shocked and says “Tsk, tsk, a moral lapse!”
What I loved about this cartoon was that it so perfectly captured the moral bankruptcy that characterized the religious right’s relationship with Nixon. He could invade and bomb other countries, use napalm on civilian villages, gut federal programs for those in need, deny equal rights to an entire group of Americans and still be embraced by right-wing preachers because he supported their narrow social agenda and espoused the idolatry of hyper-Americanism they also advocated. They didn’t even break with him when law enforcement arrested some of his operatives breaking into his Democratic rival’s campaign headquarters, then lied about it to Congress and did everything he could to obstruct the investigation. But when the White House was forced to release Nixon’s secretly recorded phone conversations and they revealed the president’s penchant for “colorful language” – that was, as we say, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
While the matter in question was Nixon’s language, it opened the door to a deeper rupture that allowed right-wing Christians to join the growing chorus of Americans – Democrats and Republicans, alike – who recognized that Nixon had abused the office of the presidency and who now were calling for his impeachment.
There are interesting parallels to the relationship Nixon had with the religious right and the way that their contemporary counterparts have embraced President Donald Trump. They say they support him because he promised and delivered on much of their conservative social agenda. He appointed federal judges whom they believe will oppose abortion and gay marriage. He has pledged to eliminate penalties for tax-exempt churches that engage in electoral political activity. He has warned about the dangers of allowing too many Muslim refugees to enter America. He has been seen as a staunch defender of Israel, going so far as to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – a step which some evangelicals view as necessary to bring on the awaited “final days.” And he has promoted today’s version of the idolatry of hyper-Americanism.
Because of this, they have either ignored or forgiven Trump’s otherwise decidedly less than exemplary behavior and un-Christian policies: his multiple marriages, the too numerous to count allegations of sexual misconduct, his public use of obscene and vulgar language, and his policies of family-separation and denial of entry to refugees and asylum seekers. Despite all of this and more, the religious right has stood by Trump, sometimes using over-the-top language to describe him. One has referred to Trump as “heaven-sent,” while another called him a “gift from God.”
This past week we witnessed the first crack in this support for “their president:” Trump’s decision to order US troops in Syria to stand down and allow for a Turkish invasion of Northeastern Syria. While the Turks say their goal is to create a “safe corridor” that will allow them to forcibly resettle Syrian refugees who have entered Turkey, they are also targeting the US-allied Kurdish militias – whom Turkey refers to as “terrorists.”
The response of the religious right has been outrage and condemnation – focused narrowly on their professed concern with the rights of Christians. Said one evangelical preacher, “Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity… What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.” Another called on his followers to “pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated.” And Pat Robertson, notorious for his “end of days” prophecies, declared that President Trump was in danger “of losing the Mandate of Heaven.”
One can’t fault critics of Trump’s dangerous decision, since it represents a betrayal of allies and dangerous escalation of the already too costly war in Syria. It will create a new wave of displaced peoples and, given Turkey’s record, the forced resettlement of refugees in Syria will come at an enormous human cost both to those who are forcibly resettled and those who will be cleansed to make way for the resettlement.
But the way the Christian right has latched onto this issue and used it as the reason for their break with the president is both unconvincing and hypocritical. When then-President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, putting at risk that country’s Christians, they were silent. When massive ethnic cleansing occurred during the Iraqi civil war, resulting in the forced displacement of almost two-thirds of Iraqi Christians, again they said nothing. In fact, they only took this matter up in earnest when, during Obama’s term in office, Daesh began its assault on Christians and other minorities. They were silent when Trump banned Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States, many of whom were Christians. And when the Trump Administration recently deported Iraqi Christians back to Iraq, there was no outrage from the religious right.
And so the question is, why now? Will their break on this matter cause them to reconsider all of the Administration’s other un-Christian behaviors and policies? Is it just a one-off criticism or will it be the “straw that broke the camel’s back?”
What’s interesting is that the president’s Republican allies in the Senate, who have steadfastly defended Trump and scoffed at the Democrats’ charges against him, have also broken with the Administration on his decision to abandon the Kurds. Could this be the beginning of the rupture between Trump and Congressional Republicans, or just a one-off disagreement?