A few days before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Minnesota pastor Darryl Knappen posted a video on Facebook announcing that he was ready to take up arms to keep Donald Trump in office.
"It was pastors who led the way in colonial times to encourage our country to shake off the totalitarian regime of the king of England," Knappen said, referring to the "Black Robed Regiment," a name given to those ministers who supported the Revolutionary War effort.
"I was tempted to wear my black robe today and cover up my AR-15 beneath it, but I thought that would be way too graphic for all of you and for Facebook to allow. But I would be part of that movement back then, and I may be part of that movement today.”
Knappen wasn't ostracized for his violent declaration. Instead, his Facebook video got 100,000 views, part of a surge of faith-based violence that seemed to come out of nowhere.
In reality, the current combustible cocktail of politics and religion, two subjects that used to be verboten in polite company, took a long time to shake and stir — roughly 30 years, give or take a few centuries if you’re counting the Crusades. At bottom, the cause isn't God. It's Mammon.
The ideological pretext for the Christians who showed up at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 came from a soft-spoken Texan named David Barton. Barton calls himself a historian. Yet his only credential is a bachelor's degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University. For decades, his company, WallBuilders in Aledo, Texas, has sold books and merch reflecting his own quirky version of U.S. history.
If that's as far as his "Man in the High Castle" version of America had gone, it wouldn't have mattered much. But starting in the 1990s, Barton made the rounds of Republican political circles, saying that he’d collected 100,000 documents from before 1812 — original or certified copies of letters, sermons, newspaper articles and official documents. He claimed that the documents proved that the framers of the Constitution — skeptical Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas.
"It's what I would call historical reclamation," Barton told National Public Radio in 2012. "We're just trying to get history back to where it's accurate. If you're going to use history, get it right."
Yet when NPR researched his claims, not one of Barton's citations checked out. Historians, even some at evangelical institutions, say Barton has made up facts and his conclusions are wrong. John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College, told NPR that Barton is peddling a distorted history that appeals to conservative believers.
If Barton has a place in history, it’s smack in America’s tradition of rainmakers who hit the back roads peddling salvation. Usually these hucksters end in disgrace. Barton ended up on the New York Times bestseller list — at least before his publisher was forced to recall his book.
The recall didn't impede Barton's cultural influence. Starting in the 1990s, Barton’s version of American history took hold in churches, schools, and within the GOP. Time magazine listed him as one of the country’s most influential evangelicals. Until 2006, he wielded power as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Ted Cruz Marco Rubio sought his endorsement. Newt Gingrich was a fan. So was Mike Huckabee.
"I almost wish that there would be like a simultaneous telecast," Huckabee said at a conference in 2011, "and all Americans will be forced, forced — at gunpoint, no less — to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country will be better for it.”
Apparently, a whole lot of Americans didn’t need a gun to their heads to embrace Barton’s “Man in the High Castle” version of U.S. history. As the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol revealed, Barton’s template has been weaponized beyond his wildest dreams. His alternate history of a theocratic America harks back to colonialism and even further, to the Crusades. It is a powerful cocktail with three ingredients: patriarchal dominance and white supremacy cloaked in religious uplift.
American History Lite: One of the items available at Barton's shop.
It All Goes Back to God's Cause: The Confederacy
Former League of Conservation Voters political director and Atlanta native Betsy Loyless traces the recent history that led to the attack on the Capitol to a backlash against 1960s civil rights legislation.
“As civil rights laws took hold and the federal government ‘intruded’ on the states, there was the loss of that feeling that white supremacists need, the feeling that they’re at the top of the heap,” Loyless said. “And for Southerners it’s always been imbued with Christianity. The confederacy was God’s cause. It was infused with that Christian dynamic, that God was on our side and whites were the Chosen People.”
Ironically, the entrada of religion into the mainstream of American politics started with Jimmy Carter, according to Loyless.
“Jimmy Carter was a legitimate Christian,” she said. “I think (George W.) Bush got religion but Jimmy Carter had found religion far earlier and it wasn’t because he was a fall-down alcoholic.”
But religion soon became the purview of Republicans. Lee Atwater, the Republican political consultant and author of the notorious Southern Strategy in 1981, merged white supremacy and “small government” ideology. Researcher James Carter IV found a tape of Atwater describing—one might say ‘pitching’-his schtick:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.
Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Ultimately, Atwater told his interviewer, “the real issues will be economic issues” but the lever was still race. Atwater is known for weaponizing the oldest racist trope in the book to take down Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
Rick Perlstein wrote in The Nation that “even years after that interview, in his stated goal to ‘rip the bark off the little bastard [Michael Dukakis]’ on behalf of his candidate George H.W. Bush, Atwater ran the infamous ad blaming Dukakis for an escaped Massachusetts convict, Willie Horton, ‘repeatedly raping’ an apparently white girl. Indeed, Atwater pledged to make 'Willie Horton his running mate.’”
Mike Dukakis lost to Bush in a landslide. Years later, when Atwater was dying from brain cancer, he apologized. But he had already catapulted U.S. politics back to the days of Jim Crow, at least in certain states.
The tank photo didn't help. He looked like he was having too much fun and nobody could believe the wonky Massachusetts governor really got the whole search and destroy thing, especially after the attack ad.
Finding God at Bullfeathers
Most Americans became aware of evangelical Christians as a political force in the 1990s, after televangelist Pat Robertson hired Ralph Reed, a young man whose fine-featured good looks might have earned him the appellation pretty rather than handsome. Reed had cut his teeth as a young Republican in Washington, D.C. with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and the now-disgraced lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff.
After finding God at an upscale Capitol Hill bar called Bullfeathers in 1983 Reed seen his opportunities and he took ‘em, to quote Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt.
Between 1989 to 1997, before leaving under a cloud of fiscal impropriety, Reed turned Robertson's Christian Coalition into a Get Out the Vote powerhouse. Suburban sprawl driven by Clinton-era affluence was creating the new demographic known as soccer moms. Newly affluent and living in isolated new suburbs, these female voters got their news from church, not newspapers. They were single-issue voters and the issue was abortion.
Working elections in the 1990s and early 2000s, Betsy Loyless saw Reed's Christian Coalition morph into the Tea Party. Launched in 2009, the populist Tea Party movement co-opted the “no taxation without representation” cries of the American Revolution, invoking the Boston revolutionaries masquerading as Indians who clambered aboard a ship, dumping tea overboard rather than pay an extortionate tax imposed by the British.
The early Tea Party activists embraced the pro-life agenda but in the beginning the "movement" seemed to be made up of the cranks at town meetings who ramble for hours about how they don't want to pay taxes. But something bigger was about to happen.
By the 2000s, more Americans were feeling the pressure of income inequality. Globalization and automation were wiping out blue-collar jobs. Suddenly these Tea Party people were everywhere.
As reporters dug into the Tea Party’s funding sources, it became clear that the “populist” movement capitalizing on the rugged individualist hearts of bootstrap-believing Americans was bankrolled by the non-profit group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), founded by billionaires David and Charles Koch.
With George W. Bush in office, the Oklahoma oil family scions' anti-regulatory, anti-union agenda gained significant traction. The result? Even more roiling dissatisfaction among Americans whose paychecks weren’t keeping up with the upward mobility that constituted the genuine American dream.
By 2009, Americans for Prosperity had transformed the Tea Party movement into a major political force that proved a formidable opponent to the incoming Obama administration. While the group worked against worker rights and expanding the Affordable Care Act, the Koch family’s main interest was propping up fossil fuels. The amount of money the group poured into anti-environmentalism was larger than the budget of many small countries.
Between 1997 and 2018, the group had spent more than $145 million financing nearly 100 groups that attacked climate change. After 2011, the Koch brothers spent $200 million to elect Republicans who pledged not to enact environmental legislation. (Astoundingly, both AFP and the associated Americans for Prosperity Foundation are tax-exempt nonprofits and don’t have to disclose the identities of their donors.)
The Koch brothers became high-profile targets for progressive ire, but there were other influential groups with similar agendas. The Club for Growth is a billionaire-funded PAC and Super PAC with an anti-tax agenda that funneled $20 million to lawmakers like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Lauren Boebert, all of whom were major players in the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
What does all this have to do with religion?
According to Betsy Loyless, evangelical support for Donald Trump had a lot more to do with money than abortion. The same was true of his predecessors, but, of course, there was no one quite like The Donald. When it comes down to it, it's not just billionaires for whom too much is never enough: it's affluent folks everywhere. For those who don't have much security, Donald Trump was aspirational. Perfectly nice people would tell you they didn't like the way he talked, but they liked how their IRA was looking as he juiced the stock market. For those who were struggling, he sold them the American Dream. Others had done it before, from Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-spouting Republican House Speaker to the cruder former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“I think evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike were able to rationalize their support for Donald Trump, overlooking things that were irredeemable, in part based on money and the economy," said Betsy Loyless. "Certainly abortion was the big outward symbol but greed and money or the hope of it were the incentive to many people who were Trumpers,” she said.
“It’s the economy,” she added, politely paraphrasing the famous James Carville line “It’s the economy, stupid.”
She added: “And it usually is the economy.”
But tearing down the entire country? Even Charles Koch draws the line there. As Koch’s 2020 book, Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, reveals, Trumpism is a wild card too far; he refused to support Trump’s re-election and is now attempting to rebrand himself, with the help of blurbs from technology venture capitalist Marc Andreesen. (Meet the new boss, just like the old boss?)
Koch, whose brother David died several years ago, has broadened his funding to support Democrats, including Rep. Henry Cueller of Texas. It's a businessman's move, based on efficacy rather than ideology now that the Democrats are in control of both houses of Congress. But with the Koch firepower in play, the donations take on a more ominous tinge.
According to Vanity Fair, Koch hasn’t exactly had a Come to Jesus moment. He bankrolled Republican incumbent David Perdue in his attempt to fend off Rev. Raphael Warnock’s ultimately successful bid for the U.S. Senate and the Koch machine was notably silent on Trump's attempt to overturn the election results. (In 2018, AFP spent $2 million against then Sen. Claire McCaskill, now a familiar face on MSNBC. The result was Josh Hawley.)
Most alarmingly, Charles Koch now says he’s looking for common ground with the Biden administration — in other words, how can we co-opt you? Or to be more specific: How can we buy the Democratic Party now that the Republicans are too crazy to keep hold of the American economy?
But the Church Militant may have gotten beyond the 85-year-old Charles Koch now. Think Steve Bannon, except the sunblasted roué isn’t far enough right for a lot of these folks. They're determined to go medieval on Joe Biden’s conventional Catholic ass, and they’re not kidding about the medieval part.
"In Your Face" Catholics
A new brand of extreme right-wing Catholicism is stealing thunder-or maybe stealing heaven, if it’s on a golf course-from Protestant evangelicals. Reactionary Catholicism, American-style, has surfaced partly in opposition to the current Pope, whose championing of the poor and moderate views on homosexuality are riling up influencers. It’s hard not to describe them as “old, rich white guys.”
The ties of William Barr, Trump’s Attorney General, to the shadowy group Opus Dei have been extensively covered in the media, including the group’s links to the Federalist Society, the organization that has implemented a strategy to pack the U.S. court system with stunning efficiency.
But the new players are aboveground and overtly political. The Napa Institute is bankrolled by Timothy Busch, who owns the Meritage Resort in Napa, California; Legatus was launched by Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan (Legatos calls itself “the world's premiere organization for Catholic CEOs and Presidents”), and the most far-reaching, the Acton Institute, offers grants to promote understanding of the virtues of “limited government” and “economic freedom,” copying the Koch playbook of funding scholars and curriculum development to influence American discourse.
The far-right libertarianism propagated by these tax-exempt Catholic “think tanks” has more in common with Donald Trump than Mother Teresa, as Sojourners magazine reported about a Napa Institute gathering in 2019:
What (Timothy) Busch calls “in-your-face Catholicism” is often expressed amid multicourse meals followed by wine and cigar receptions, private cocktail parties for the especially privileged, traditional Catholic devotionals, Mass said in Latin for those so inclined, “patriotic rosary” sessions that include readings from George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and the occasional break for a round of golf.
What’s more notable is the radical aspect of their ideology. There’s a kind of entitlement that has become the marker of a certain kind of very rich man, someone enabled and ennobled by the later fruits of Reagan deregulation: super-rich, latter-day Medicis who believe that their power transcends the state.
“I think we’re in a kind of brave new world where these groups really are setting themselves up as authorities above the authorities,” said Stephen Schneck, former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Sojourners magazine. “I don’t know how else to say that. They’re challenging the legitimacy of existing structures of authority and trying to fill that space with their own agenda and their own people.”
And it was “their own people” who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Big Man Theory of History
Political analysts and historians have noted the weakening of the nation-state, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world, starting in the early ‘90s. Tribalism, political fragmentation, a loss of faith in institutions — all of these are fueling the rise of strongmen like Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, and others.
David Barton’s successors in historical revisionism, notably Eric Metaxas, author of a biography of Martin Luther that set into type a kind of superman. In The New York Times, Yale professor Carlos Eire wrote: “The Luther portrayed here is a hero cast in a Whiggish mold, a titanic figure who single-handedly slays the dragon of the Dark Ages, rescues God from an interpretive dungeon, invents individual freedom and ushers in modernity.”
Whiggish, indeed. Metaxas, who has parlayed his authorship into a talk show, became a virulent Trump acolyte, helping to organize the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“I’d be happy to die in this fight,” Metaxas assured Trump during a recent interview reported in the Washington Post. “This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty.”
Elsewhere Metaxas predicted, “Trump will be inaugurated. For the high crimes of trying to throw a U.S. presidential election, many will go to jail. The swamp will be drained. And Lincoln’s prophetic words of ‘a new birth of freedom’ will be fulfilled. Pray.”
As columnist Michael Gerson pointed out:
Just to be clear, Metaxas has publicly committed his life to Donald Trump, claimed that at least two members of the Trinity favor a coup against the constitutional order, endorsed the widespread jailing of Trump’s political enemies for imaginary crimes, claimed Abraham Lincoln’s blessing for the advance of authoritarianism and urged Christians to pray to God for the effective death of American democracy. This is seditious and sacrilegious in equal measure.
The Metaxas vision of a Nietzschean superman, whether his version of Martin Luther or Donald Trump, represents the third leg of the triumvirate of weaponized Christianity: patriarchy. Or to put it less dogmatically: a father figure. But not a nice one like Joe Biden.
Sarah Posner, author of the landmark book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, describes Donald Trump, with his macho swagger, as “the strongman the Christian right had long been waiting for.”
The Moral Minority
While longtime political strategist Betsy Loyless called the ambitions of the Capitol attackers anarchistic, the end result, if they succeed, would not be anarchism. It would be chaos. A coup d’etat may or may not establish order. It could just result in America sliding further down the failed state scale. The success of the Biden administration is really about the survival of the United States.
How serious is the threat? The number of Americans who call themselves evangelicals is staggering. The Pew Research Center reports that evangelicals account for 25 percent of all Americans. Other studies indicate the number may be as high as 30-35 percent or as low as 8 percent.
But let's take the 25 percent figure. In 2016, 80 percent of voters who called themselves evangelicals supported Trump. There are 200 million Americans of voting age; if 25 percent are evangelicals, that’s 50 million people, and 80 percent would equal 40 million voters.
Even if many are Black evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and the Pew numbers are too broad, 10 million votes can represent enough folks, if they're in the right districts, to swing most elections. And the evangelical vote didn’t change significantly in 2020, despite a surge in support for Biden among white Midwestern Catholics.
Could evangelicals decide the next presidential election? It's hard to tell, according to The New Republic columnist Walter Shapiro. Shapiro warns that polls may not tell us what we want to know when it comes to evangelicals.
“There are two problems with polls about religion and politics,” he says. “Problem number one is everyone has a different definition of evangelical. Polls that ask ‘Are you evangelical?' get different results depending on the definition they use.
“What seems, on the surface, to be a much better question: ‘How often do you go to church?’ has another flaw. In rural areas, the church is the only entertainment in town. (See our accompanying story: The Great Divide.)
“People may go to church two or three times a week because they believe in the book of revelations," Shapiro said. "Others go because what the hell else is there? So it’s hard to tell what motivates the disproportionate numbers that show evangelical support for Trump or any other candidate.”
For Betsy Loyless, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the success of the Biden administration agenda will tell the tale, not just about the motivation of evangelicals, but about the whole toxic cocktail that includes putting women and people of color back in their places.
“That church vote has always been there,” said Betsy Loyless. “It came into its own under the aegis of Lee Atwater. He looked and manipulated the Christian identity to benefit Republican candidates. It took somebody like an Atwater or a Ralph Reed to really understand and dig into it.
"Between the Ralph Reeds and the Tea Party and what we’ve got going on now, there’s a huge difference. They have gone to the extremes of an anarchistic view that no government is better than the government. Certainly better than the government that has been installed with Biden.”
“I think Biden is up against the hardest wall since the ‘30s and essentially what FDR was up against. He’s got the progressives who want more, more, more.
“On the other side he’s got Trump voters who just want their lives to get better. You can’t attribute it all to abortion. We’re schooled to think that evangelicals are morally driven but there isn’t anything further from the truth.”
Susan Zakin is an editor of Journal of the Plague Year.
Great Minds Dept.
He Calls That Religion ::: The Mississippi Sheiks
Man And Religion ::: Ze Manel
Cash Money ::: MC Solaar
False Prophet ::: Bob Dylan
Do You Call That Religion ::: The Monroe Brothers
Lies ::: J J Cale
The World Is Going Wrong ::: Mississippi Sheiks