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Countering Donald Trump's Electoral Appeal Requires Taking Religion Seriously

Donald Trump’s enduring electoral appeal is no surprise. While not religious himself, Trump consistently taps the shadow side of a distinctly American brand of Protestant Christianity that has always been central to our nation’s history and culture. President Joe Biden must continue to conjure the noble strains of this American religiosity in his attempt to thwart Trump’s campaign to regain the Presidency.

Most Americans today underestimate the role played by the Protestant religious tradition in the founding of the United States. This is especially true of Americans educated in secular institutions that separate the study of religion from the study of fields like politics and history.

Consider the “self-evident truths” that Thomas Jefferson set forth in the Declaration of Indepence – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Generations of American students have been taught to read this framing as a secularist move away from orthodox Christian expression, and to trace its lineage to the English enlightenment.

But this language is also exemplary of a distinctly American “Protestant vernacular” that emerged in the eighteenth century. Mastery of this vernacular allowed Jefferson and others to bridge long-standing religious divisions among English colonists in the buildup to the American Revolution. Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and dissenting Anglicans in Virginia – these and other devout Protestants from across the thirteen colonies would have heard in the Declaration’s opening lines an apt summation of ideals they associated strongly with their faith.

Even the most “enlightened” founders were deeply grounded in this Protestant tradition.Their forebears had fought on the Protestant side of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. Their grandfathers had engaged in near-perpetual warfare against their colonial competitors, the hated Catholic French. And their fathers had gone to war in the 1750s and 1760s in what they called the “French and Indian War,” which they saw as an explicitly Protestant war to confront a diabolical conspiracy between the “popish” French and their native American allies. 

As their thirst for political Independence grew, revolution-minded colonists shifted their animus from the Pope and his bishops in Rome to the King of England and his magistrates in London. When Jefferson cast King George as a “tyrant,” and called on American patriots in the rousing conclusion to the Declaration of Independence to join the fight by pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” he tapped a centuries-old tradition of Protestant martyrdom

In good Protestant fashion, the revolutionaries took their victory in the War of Independence as a sign of Providential approval. Conjuring the Biblical story of the Exodus, they cast the United States as a “new Israel,” and so justified the extension of their longstanding practice of forcibly displacing the  native peoples of North America. The rallying cry of “manifest destiny” proved compelling through the mid-19th century and beyond because it evoked longstanding, and unmistakably Protestant, claims. 

Tens of millions of Americans today can trace multiple branches of their family trees to these roots, whether their ancestors were among the first Puritans to colonize New England or whether they came amidst the ensuing centuries of Protestant migration. Not until the last decades of the nineteenth century did Roman Catholics from Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere begin to migrate in significant numbers to the United States. 

Donald Trump‘s popularity among white “evangelical“ Christians is the subject of much conversation. But evangelicals are just the easiest-to-identify cohort of white Americans who identify with Trump‘s political brand – unfailingly oppositional and suspicious of authority, prone to conspiratorial thinking and easily seduced by romantic visions of the past, territorial and always fearful that those beyond our border are intent on doing us harm, convinced that the United States is an instrument of divine purpose and “the greatest nation on earth.” These very Protestant habits of heart and mind have been passed down from generation to generation, even as formal religious commitments and expressions have changed. Millions of white Americans who no longer profess the Christian faith are nonetheless steeped in this sinister side of our nation’s Protestant heritage.

But some of the most noble attributes of the American character can also be traced to these same religious roots. The“liberties” for which generations of Protestants fought and died – the freedoms of the press, the pulpit (speech), and the individual conscience, for instance – are foundational to American pluralism. And while some white Protestants used the Bible to justify slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and other expressions of white supremacy, others, both black and white, found in the Bible’s pages calls for abolition, for the Social Gospel, and for Civil Rights. Protestant convictions may have inspired some of the sorriest chapters in US colonialism, but they also sustained the zeal of millions of American soldiers through two World Wars. And so on.

Democrats must not allow Republicans to frame the choice confronting voters in 2024 as a question of which Party, or which Presidential candidate, is more “pro-religion.” Instead they should ask voters whether they want our shared future to be shaped by the noble or ignoble parts of our nation’s religious past.

Donald Trump makes a bad President not because he is un-American, nor because he happens to be irreligious. He makes a bad President because he indulges the worst of the American spirit — violent, nostalgic, racist, propagandistic, conspiratorial, and nationalistic — and encourages Americans to do the same. Joe Biden is wisely inviting Americans to consider the fight to defend American democracy as “a sacred cause” and he is wisely emphasizing that freedoms – “the freedom to vote, and have your vote counted, … the freedom of choice. The freedom to have a fair shot. The freedom from fear” – are also part of our nation’s spiritual inheritance. 

These conflicting impulses rooted deep in American history compete for turf within the body politic of our nation because they compete for spiritual turf within the lives of millions of Americans descended from Protestant stock. For this reason the question confronting American voters in 2024 is rightly understood as a spiritual question: Which path will we choose? 

For my part, I’m hoping we choose the path preferred by Abraham Lincoln, another American President who, while not openly religious, understood the deep resonance of faith in the American people. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln closed his December 1, 1862 message to Congress with this description of the way forward: “The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

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