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Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Selina Chan

Selina Chan

First Amendment under siege: Trump and the rise of Christian Nationalism

By Selina Chan

The first words of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution state “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It is clear that the Founders had intended to keep a strict wall between government and any religion. The First Amendment notwithstanding, the United States has always been a hotbed of religious fervor, from the fire-and-brimstone of Johnathan Edwards to the Second Great Awakening of Charles Finney, Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church. These and more recent events such as the Jonestown massacre all have their roots in a particularly fiery brand of American Millenarianism, whereby true believers will restore the one true faith through violent social or political reform. In short, religious fundamentalism.

President Trump achieved political victory partly by stoking the flames of religious fundamentalism in America. He cultivated a personality cult, where his followers trusted him as if he were a deity. He claimed absolute supremacy and moral authority, which turned many evangelical Christians into his sycophants — defying morals, science, public health, civil engagement and the law. The president and his most ardent followers increasingly use “God” and religion as props and a means to divide the American people. For this reason, it is as apparent now more than ever that religion must be kept out of the political debate.

The latest incarnation of American religious fundamentalism began in the 1980s with the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority.” It was as much a religious and political shift as racial.

President Reagan appealed to Southern whites — conservatives who left the Democratic Party as a rejection of the civil rights movement. Rallied around issues such as abolishing abortion and proclaiming America “as a Christian Nation,” the “Moral Majority” was firmly ensconced in the Republican Party.

It was no surprise that in early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump sought the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., [then] president of Liberty University, one of the largest evangelical universities in the United States. Trump, a decidedly areligious candidate, understood that without the vote of the conservative Christian community, he would not stand a chance of being elected. With this charm offensive, Trump secured 81 percent of the evangelical vote and won.

Under Trump, the lines between white identity politics and Christian Nationalism blurred considerably. His tacit approval of naked racism and violence emboldened hate groups in America. The president created a group of loyal fanatics, using religion and nationalism to build himself up as a strong man in true fascist manner. After the deadly 2017 attack at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., the president did not repudiate the white nationalist hate-groups that had assembled there. For many, this was a nod and wink encouraging white supremacist groups to continue their actions.

But nothing encapsulated the risk of mixing politics with religion worse than Trump’s walk on June 1, 2020. On that day, Trump and his entourage of advisors, cabinet members and family emerged from the White House bunker, walked across Lafayette Plaza and stood awkwardly in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Using violent tactics, federal police had created a protective cordon for the president. They had dispersed peaceful protesters with tear gas and flash bangs, violating the protesters’ First Amendment right to assemble. From her purse, Ivanka Trump procured a bible, which she passed to her father. Cameras flashed and military aircraft buzzed overhead as Trump held the bible aloft, unopened and upside-down, a prop in a bizarre photo op.

To his supporters, Trump’s antics represented a triumph for the cause of Christianity in America. In truth, it was the use of violence against American citizens by the president to endorse the Christian religion for his own political gain. It was a brazen appropriation of religious iconography for political power. Even more dangerous, these actions sent a message to fundamentalist lone-wolf actors and hate groups. They saw Trump’s actions and felt emboldened to perpetuate violence to promote their religious crusades.

Trump’s embrace of Christian Nationalism runs afoul of the Constitution. As his publicity stunt at St. John’s Church demonstrated, he promoted the cause of religion when it benefitted him politically. Religion and its symbols are easily appropriated by corrupt leaders such as Trump, and for that reason it is evident that there is no place for religion in the American political debate.

Selina, 29, is from Alpharetta, Ga., and attends the University of Pennsylvania.

“I graduated in 2014 from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and then worked several roles at ExxonMobil. I spent three years in the oil and gas industry before pursuing a career in animal care and public health. For the past two years, I have worked with animals and communities both in the United States and throughout Latin America. I am in the first year of doctorate studies in veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.”