Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Book Review: 'Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump' by Sarah Posner

For the Christian right, Trump is no ordinary politician and no ordinary president. He is anointed, chosen by God “and sanctified by the movement, as a divine leader sent to save America.” Trump has manipulated the Christian right into supporting him despite everything, because he gives them everything they want. He gives their pastors direct access to the White House and the Oval Office, and they dutifully inform their flocks of how wonderful he is and how influential they are. In Sarah Posner’s hardhitting Unholy, support for Trump is total. The book is an apocalyptic view of American politics, not religion.

The book is a component by component view of how the Christian right is infiltrating the federal government, and changing it to its own worldview. It has been building up to this for decades – since the end of the Nixon administration. It has been a purposeful campaign to build “think tanks”, lobbies, Political Action Committees and ecclesiastic pressure, most visibly from televangelists. Their reward is government positions, selfies with the president, foreign influence in autocratic Christian hotspots like Hungary, Moldova and Ukraine, and money, from unconstitutional tax breaks to bookselling and everything in between. It’s the best time to be in the God business, the way Posner structures it.

It is all based on racism and white supremacy. It’s there, out in the open among the preachers of Trump as the anointed one:
-“(Historian Randall) Balmer told me the religious right had come ‘full circle to embrace its roots in racism,’ and ‘had finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or family values,’” Posner says.
-According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Christians’ rights are traditional, and natural. LGBTQ rights are newly manufactured and therefore of lower status.  
-His predecessor at State, Rex Tillerson, moaned that promoting human rights and democracy abroad could often be an obstacle in advancing American interests.

They are all about autocrats, hoping Trump will take charge like the Putins, Xis and Orbans of the world. Anything that smacks of democracy is suspect. They applaud gerrymandering, closing down media that isn’t 100% with them, and building bigger government to accommodate and impose their program on the American people:
-Republican congressmen demand investigations into funds for democracy initiatives in eastern Europe, while praising the power grabs of Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, who figured out years ago that the harmless Christian church is the perfect tool for implementing their takeovers, and who have lavished funds on them to kick it all off and keep it going. There is nothing to criticize; they are simply bringing back traditional values.
-Despite the stated goal of small government,  Trump has been placing religious zealots in key positions, such as the Office of Civil Rights of the Health Department, where Roger Severino has created a whole new division for protection of religious freedom (in health and human services). This allows Americans to deny healthcare to each other based on religion, sex and “conscience”. The new division pushes Americans to complain about infringements.  It threatens to shut off all federal funding for the entire state if someone complains about hearing the word abortion, for example. All this is of course, the exact opposite of the stated purpose of the Office of Civil Rights. And goes totally against supposed Republican values of shrinking government.
-This is happening all over the federal government at Trump’s insistence.

They are all about taking power, and Trump, with no network of his own to draw on, fills judgeships, civil service posts and diplomatic postings with sycophants whom he knows will do his bidding, whatever that is as it changes from day to day. They will forgive everything he says or does that goes directly against the constitution, theirs or America’s, because they are thrilled to be in power at long last, according to Posner.

What comes through most strongly, at least to me, is that the alt-right, the new right, evangelicals and conservative Christians all look at the world as zero sum. There is only so much wealth, right and privilege available, and any raising of the levels for non-whites or non-heterosexuals somehow diminishes the rights and privileges of white Christians. This is the driving force behind anti-busing, anti-immigration, anti-civil rights, anti-Equal Rights Amendment, anti-textbook, anti-gay, anti-abortion, religious freedom for tax deductibility - and pro-Trump. No one is allowed to match the status of white Christians.

As Posner demonstrates ever more clearly and precisely, Trump and his unholy minions are heading the United States into a state of inequality it has never known. Different ethnic groups will have different rights from white Christians. Jews will have less rights than whites (Posner, an Ashkenazy Jew, has had her religion pointed out to her numerous times over the years of dealing with the right. It lessens her in their eyes and puts her on her guard). Muslims will have no rights at all, and gays could face the death penalty if some get their way. Different religious groups will also be demoted, perhaps nominal Christians falling somewhere below evangelicals but ahead of say, Mexican Catholics. This dystopian future is well on its way, and can be seen in various stages in countries like Russia, Hungary and Brazil, where the president has declared immigrants “the scum of the earth.” Bolsonaro and Trump praise each other to the skies.

As in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, it is striking how low quality the players are. They are Nazis (some not even ex), fraudsters, crooks, sex fiends and hypocrites. They are mean and vicious. Posner says ex-con Jim Bakker told his televangelist crowd the day Representative Elijah Cummings died that God struck him down for leading the committee to impeach Trump. They all insist there was not the slightest pretext to impeach, that it was all purely a ploy to deny them, white Christians, their vote.

Posner has been living this beat for decades. She attends the conferences, interviews pastors and televangelists, and is generally well known in these circles. Not to mention well read. The result in terrific insight, rationally laid out for the reader to appreciate in its true depth. It is all politics in the world of Unholy.  The quotes will not be disputed. Nor will the goals and ideals. There is an agenda, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in its implementation. It is clearly holy war, with Donald Trump shuffling the players on and of the board.

They are always the victim, and time is always running short. Influence is measured by the amount donated. Such is the Unholy world Sarah Posner has lived. And unless Americans change their votes in 2020, so will the whole country.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.