The Christian Right Set the Stage for Trump’s Misinformation Campaign
Americans are completely baffled by Trump’s penchant for making things up. He cites facts that don’t exist. He talks about events that never occurred. And he uses these opinions to inform his policy decisions.
Sane Americans are justifiably freaking out. It is frightening to have the most powerful country on earth dragged around by the whims of a petulant president. As Dana Bash observed, Trump “has a history of wanting his own personal truth to be everybody else’s reality.”
That is a delusional standard for what constitutes the “truth”—a standard that is usually reserved for despots and cult leaders, not the POTUS. It is refreshing to see both liberals (and some conservatives) demanding more robust explanations from our Dear Leader. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, extraordinary claims must require extraordinary evidence.
I hope you agree. The question then becomes: why has it taken Americans so long to worry about the dangerous relationship between personal faith and politics?
As an atheist, all I can say is welcome to the fight.
Seen through a non-believer’s eyes, Trump’s misinformation campaign isn’t actually that much of an aberration to the American political experience.
Trump’s fondness for fabrication is an unintended byproduct of allowing religious beliefs to be a primary justification for political decisions. Like Trump, the Christian Right has willfully propagated their own alt-facts to achieve desired political outcomes. And by doing so, American civil society has inadvertently given Trump the space—the permission to revel in fantasy and subject the world to his intellectual capricousness.
We take it for granted now, but religion wasn’t always so prevalent in American politics. For much of the 20th century, the Christian Right chose to “remain outside the political arena.” As recently as the 1960s, Christians thought of politics as “a dirty and ungodly business.” Their disgust with affairs of the state did not last for long, however. Stoked by the “social ferment and upheaval of the 1970s” the Christian Right emerged as an incredibly powerful electoral force.
To assert their influence, Christian politicians and their followers felt no need to engage with reality, and coopted civic issues that “concerned secular conservatives, but…did so with religious rationale.” Such rationale, as history shows, has an unfortunate tendency to be manipulated for political gain.
So the Christian Right, like Trump, made political arguments based upon “illogic, big lies, and deceit.” We’ve seen evangelicals do a complete 180 turn on the issue of abortion, where they eventually warped the Good Book’s words to mobilize pro-life advocacy. They’ve similarly distorted reality by claiming God is against gay marriage (and what’s more, homosexuality caused the 2008 financial crisis and 9/11!). The levels of fantasy are really turned up when it comes to teaching evolution. Do I really need to point out the utter stupidity of claiming that Darwin’s theory is false because “men and dinosaurs coexisted on an Earth created 6,000 years ago”?
The Christian Right’s alt-facts have serious consequences for our planet as well. Today too many “Christians have been trained to interpret sensitivity for ecological concerns as a direct threat to Christian faith.” Consequently, those who are religiously affiliated are much more likely to believe there is no solid evidence linking human activity to climate change. These notions are just as ridiculous and dangerous as Donald Trump claiming that three to five million Americans voted illegally.
Clearly, religious thinking isn’t solely to blame for the recent surge (and acceptance) of alternative facts. The proliferation of media outlets and the echo chambers of social media have played a huge role in our “post-truth” world. But you’d be fooling yourself if you didn’t think the confluence of religion and politics since the 1970s hasn’t in some way set the groundwork for Trump’s deceptions.
Back when the Tea Party’s rise shocked many Americans, Frank Schaeffer came to a very similar conclusion:
“When secular pundits wonder why a segment of the population seems hard to convince of basic economic or environmental facts…what they miss is that the political, fact-free beliefs are possible only because of the religion that demanded a choice between facts and faith…”
This is why it’s not just an aside when secularists argue that dogma, even when cloaked in a popular religion, should never be the basis for selling public policy in a democracy. It is a wholly unacceptable way to govern, even if it is politically expedient.
That is why certain political philosophers have dedicated their lives to advocating for the need of public reason in our discourse; which is to say, requiring political arguments to rely on justifications which all people, not just the majority, can appreciate and understand. If public reason was to reign supreme, participants in a democracy would therefore:
“abstain from appealing to religious arguments, or other controversial views over which reasonable people are assumed to disagree.”
We have not required our politicians to even feign interest in public reason. Instead we have bowed, indeed we have advocated for, politicians who call upon religious arguments. How else can you explain why 40% of the country won’t vote for an atheist president? Is it any surprise we find ourselves in a place where truth is so delicately tied to personal faith?
Our appetite for fabricated realities has become a learned behavior. For decades now, Americans have been primed by our political leaders to lower our standards of evidence. Psychological studies suggest that “people are biased to interpret” evidence “in ways that are consistent with their desires.” American politicians know this and they have cultivated such bias and then exploited it for political gain. As David Frum noticed:
Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves.
Much of our nation is deluded. It has been so for some time now, but many of us have been blind to its presence because we are sympathetic to viewing the world through a Christian lens. Thankfully, Trump’s full embrace of false realities, without the cover of religious conviction, has awoken all of us to our national predicament. God help us.