President Donald Trump began his week tweeting about biblical literacy: "Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!" By great, he means great for him — in the way that someone who is desperately parched might call anything wet, “great!” For the vast majority of us — Christian or not — the religious nationalism Trump binge drinks when he’s feeling politically vulnerable is really bad.
After watching dissatisfaction with his performance steadily increase during a 35-day shutdown that achieved nothing, it’s no secret in Washington that Trump is desperate for approval. The Republican National Committee rallied over the weekend to declare their support for his 2020 bid in an attempt to shore up confidence. But within the party’s fragmented coalition, Trump knows that the core of his support comes from the people behind Project Blitz — Christian nationalists who believe that the “biblical values” America was founded upon are under threat.
While many white evangelicals want to deny that racism was a motivating factor in their decision to vote for Trump, this administration understands how much its claim to legitimacy depends on the values cultivated by 40 years of “culture wars” that framed traditional white values as “biblical” while branding progressive proposals for systemic change as “secular” and “anti-Christian.”
For far too long, we have accepted these terms, ceding control of the moral narrative in our public square to spokesmen who represent no more than 18 percent of the religious community in this nation. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., and James Dobson have been allowed to speak for “morality,” even as the vast majority of religious people in the country do not agree with them.
Meanwhile, anyone who has spoken out for the moral concerns at the heart of our tradition has been grouped with a “religious left,” putting our claims on equal footing with a religious nationalism based entirely on the myth that America was founded on “biblical” principles that we must somehow get back to.
This lack of moral clarity in our common life has brought us to the crisis we now face. It is not only a crisis of America’s democratic institutions, but a crisis of Christian identity. When harmful policy uses the cover of Christian nationalism to justify attacks on immigrants, refugees, non-white citizens, and poor people, those who would follow Jesus must make a public distinction between the way of Jesus and the way of fear that has hijacked Christian religion.
It is notable, at the start of 2019, that several Democrats have made clear moves to reclaim the moral narrative in our public life. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted throughout the shutdown that she could not negotiate with the demand for an “immoral wall.” Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), reaching back to the civil rights movement where he cut his teeth in public life, presented HB1, an omnibus package to restore and protect voting rights, as a moral issue. But no one has more clearly adopted this narrative than Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who launched her campaign for the presidency in San Francisco over the weekend.
Challenging the false call for unity that often comes from religious nationalists who refuse to acknowledge the cries of the people they are hurting, Harris said we must remember what Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King knew: “To love the religion of Jesus is to hate the religion of the slave master.”
As good as these actions are, we cannot depend on politicians alone to carry this moral narrative. Elected officials, as well as the media that often frames public issues, need a moral movement to hold them accountable and push us all, as a people, to face our hypocrisy as we strive toward a more perfect union. That is and will always be the role that faith must play in public life. The urgent need of our time is for people of faith to rise to the challenge.