“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion,” Michael Flynn told a conservative Christian crowd this weekend. “One nation under God and one religion under God, right? All of us, working together”.
First Amendment zealots were quick to pounce. Flynn wasn’t saying that there could only be one religion in America (although that is a permissible reading of his remarks); but he was definitely saying that only one religion should be viewed as official or state-sanctioned.
A clearer violation of the First Amendment is hard to imagine. If you haven’t committed it to memory, here’s the text: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In the mind of James Madison, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press stand, or fall, together. Heather Cox Richardson provides some helpful historical background on that issue in a Monday morning blog post if you are interested.
As you might imagine, historians, theologians and military leaders are lining up to denounce Flynn’s remark. Others have asked what the “one religion” might be, since Flynn didn’t name it. “If it’s Judaism, one comedian quipped, “I have no complaint.”
Of course, Flynn’s one religion isn’t Judaism; it’s Christian nationalism.
Flynn was speaking to a Texas audience as part of the Reawaken America Tour, an event which brings pretty much all of Hillary Clinton’s Basket of Deplorables in one place: the Stop the Steal crowd, anti-vaxxers, quack physicians peddling Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine and other fake Covid cures, the Mr. Pillow guy and, of course, leading lights from the world of conservative white evangelicalism.
Flynn’s comment sparked hoots and extended applause because (a) it was what his audience wanted to hear, and (b) it was bound to trigger the libs.
Flynn’s passion for religious and cultural conformity fits a larger pattern. Anne Applebaum just published, The Bad Guys are Winning, a feature article in The Atlantic that traces the links between authoritarian regimes across the globe. Autocrats are willing to see their countries devolve into failed states, she says, “accepting economic collapse, isolation, and mass poverty if that’s what it takes to stay in power.” Part of the trick is not caring how liberal democracies respond.
“How have modern autocrats achieved such impunity?” Applebaum asks. “In part by persuading so many other people in so many other countries to play along.” The primary enablers of authoritarianism are powerful nations like Russia and China who invest in rogue client states for fun and profit. But major corporations like Apple and Google are also complicit. As a cost of doing business, Applebaum says, American firms often turn a blind eye to flagrant human rights abuses.
Recently, I spoke of the Quest for Christian Monoculture. “Monoculture” is a form of agribusiness in which thousands of contiguous acres are devoted to a single crop. “One of the main problems with monoculture farming is the elimination of biological diversity,” an article critical of monoculture explains. “Sufficient variety of specific plants, animals, and insects in a particular environment helps to control excessive proliferation of pests, plant diseases, and other negative manifestations caused by disruption of the natural balance of soils on monoculture farmlands.”
Monoculture, I contend, is as disastrous for human society as it is for the natural environment.
“One nation under God and one religion under God, right?” Flynn told the crowd. “All of us, working together.” Except that, if there is only one recognized religion, “all of us” won’t be working together. A favored minority will be working to undermine the faith of the majority. Flynn’s “all of us” referenced the folks in his audience—hardly a representative slice of America.
There is, I must admit, something refreshing about Flynn’s honesty, even if it did make him sound unhinged and dangerous. He was giving voice to the unspoken assumption that has permeated the rhetoric of the religious right since the 1970s. These people aren’t trying to protect their own religious freedoms, they want to make their way the only way. Or, at the very least, the only state-sanctioned way.
Which explains why American white evangelicals have grown so comfortable with authoritarian politics.
But even within the confines of the white evangelical community, this cozy relationship between preachers and politicians is highly contested. The bad news is that the religious authoritarians are winning.
In authoritarian regimes, outspoken critics of the one-party system are quietly arrested, tortured and disappeared. A similar fate awaits American evangelicals who refuse to play by the established rules. In either case, it isn’t necessary to punish every thought crime; come down hard on a few randomly-selected victims and everyone else connects the dots.
If you think I am engaging in hyperbole, you aren’t familiar with the day-to-day workings of the evangelical world.
How do we account for these dangerous trends? The seeds of authoritarianism, I contend, have been lying dormant within American white evangelicalism for decades. More on that next time.
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Well stated and though I spent many years focusing on the original language and teaching to correct the KJV, I…
Please reinstate. I hit the wrong button.
Thank you for these kind words, Rita.
Mr. Bean, Alan – I am enormously grateful to you for keeping me on your list…..whatever “list” that may be.…