Editors’ Note: Adapted from The New York Times, October 14, 2019, OpEd by Paul Krugman. If anything, the First Amendment guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion, and as a barrier to those who would impose religion and religious values upon all. AG William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent speeches personalized their religious beliefs as necessary ingredients to their leadership and the values of our country.
The speech, delivered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors, discussed the influence of his faith on his work as a U.S. official. Days later, the State Department shared the speech at the top of its website, ahead of more pressing department issues, like U.S. involvement in Turkey’s invasion of Syria.
His personal faith isn’t the problem critics noted but when it dictates his actions as Secretary of State, or when those beliefs top the State Department website the line of separation has been crossed.
In a speech in 2015 in a Kansas church, Pompeo offered comments in which he opposed same-sex marriage and stated that “we will continue to fight these battles, it is a never ending struggle… until the rapture.”
In reply to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address, Qasim Rashid, a Muslim state Senate candidate in Virginia, tweeted, “When do we get to see ‘Being a Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or atheist leader?'”
The criticism was not limited to a single response. Former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council Aaron Keyak said that “There’s obviously no issue with the Secretary of State being a leader, nor his being a proud Christian. But it’s a problem that Secretary Pompeo thinks it’s appropriate to put those two words together and hold an official State Department event on being a Christian leader. Him talking as a Christian leader and billing it as such is an affront to our separation of church and state,” added Keyak. These comments hit the bull’s eye.
Paul Krugman dissected a similar speech by AG William Barr:
Listening to the speech Barr, the attorney general, gave last week at the University of Notre Dame Law School, I found myself thinking of the title of an old movie: “God Is My Co-Pilot.” What I realized is that Donald Trump’s minions have now gone that title one better: If Barr’s speech is any indication, their strategy is to make God their boss’s co-conspirator.
Given where we are right now, you might have expected Barr to respond in some way to the events of the past few weeks — the revelation that the president has been calling on foreign regimes to produce dirt on his domestic opponents, the airport arrest of associates of the president’s lawyer as they tried to leave the country on one-way tickets, credible reports that Rudy Giuliani himself is under criminal investigation.
Alternatively, Barr could have delivered himself of some innocuous pablum, which is something government officials often do in difficult times.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.
But no. Barr gave a fiery speech denouncing the threat to America posed by “militant secularists,” whom he accused of conspiring to destroy the “traditional moral order,” blaming them for rising mental illness, drug dependency and violence.
Consider for a moment how inappropriate it is for Barr, of all people, to have given such a speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.
And we’re not talking about a tiny group, either. These days, about 20 percent of Americans say that they don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion, roughly the same number who consider themselves Catholic. How would we react if the attorney general denounced Catholicism as a force undermining American society?
And he didn’t just declare that secularism is bad; he declared that the damage it does is intentional: “This is not decay. It is organized destruction.” If that kind of talk doesn’t scare you, it should; it’s the language of witch hunts and pogroms.
Nonetheless, William Barr — again, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for defending the Constitution — is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!
So what’s going on here? Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr, whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House, has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No, this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump’s response to his predicament has been to ramp up the ugliness in an effort to rally his base. The racism has gotten even more explicit, the paranoia about the deep state more extreme. But who makes up Trump’s base? The usual answer is working-class whites, but a deeper dive into the data suggests that it’s more specific: It’s really evangelical working-class whites who are staying with Trump despite growing evidence of his malfeasance and unsuitability for high office.
And at a more elite level, while a vast majority of Republican politicians have meekly fallen in line behind Trump, his truly enthusiastic support comes from religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who have their own ethical issues, but have called on their followers to “render to God and Trump.”
Trump is instead taking shelter behind bigotry — racial, of course, but now religious as well.
Patriotism, Samuel Johnson famously declared, is the last refuge of scoundrels. But for all his talk of America first, that’s not a refuge that works very well for Trump, with his subservience to foreign autocrats and, most recently, his shameful betrayal of the Kurds.
So Trump is instead taking shelter behind bigotry — racial, of course, but now religious as well.
Will it work? There is a substantial minority of Americans with whom warnings about sinister secularists resonate. But they are a minority. Over all, we’re clearly becoming a more tolerant nation, one in which people have increasingly positive views of others’ religious beliefs, including atheism.
So the efforts of Trump’s henchmen to use the specter of secularism to distract people from their boss’s sins probably won’t work. But I could be wrong. And if I am wrong, if religious bigotry turns out to be a winning strategy, all I can say is, God help us.