Who will ever forget the six Republican presidential candidates simultaneously pledging to support for President someone who has been convicted of crimes against democracy and national security? The first Republican debate featured six out of eight raising their hands for just that proposition. The sheer lawlessness of their position, beloved by the so-called “base,” should be stunning to anyone who treasures democracy – as opposed to authoritarian autocracy. Many thought that Donald Trump’s fourth indictment since April would have peeled off supporters and emboldened competing candidates. Remarkably, the former is a long shot and most of the candidates continue to be willing to abandon the law to curry the favor of an authoritarian who scares them.
Something serious has happened to the rule of law and it is incumbent on all of us to fully understand it—and fix it.
On its surface, the most incomprehensible loyal and continuing support for Trump is coming from evangelicals. Trump is not one of those guys you would expect to appear in an evangelical pastor’s sermon as an example for his flock. Quite the opposite. Yet, in polls and reporting they remain right there with him as you can read here and here. He is more popular with conservatively political evangelicals than George W. Bush was. And it’s not simply that he packed the Court with anti-abortion Justices.
The truth is that both Trump and today’s evangelicals believe that they should be above the law.
Trump is simply lawless. As he says over and over again, the law “happens” to him. When it’s inconvenient, he wants to toss it, like the U.S. Constitution he suggested trashing last year. He has now been criminally indicted on four different theories since April, and setting aside his manic ad hominem attacks on each of the prosecutors, his standard reaction has been to cry that the ordinary operation of criminal law is a “witch hunt.”
The legal evidence is crystal clear that he participated in a conspiracy or a criminal organization—take your pick—to steal people’s votes so he could hold onto power in 2020, which is the very definition of an anti-democratic crime. Democracy and the rule of law typically go hand in hand, but to him they are simply irrelevant. “Evidence” to him is just a fanciful story he can counter with his own. His truth is measured by the font size he uses on social media, and he has made a career of delaying the many cases and now indictments flowing his way for the sake of delay; who cares about justice? Through his example and his blind followers, he is not just destroying democracy, but each element of the rule of law to take back the levers of power.
The far-right evangelicals take a different path to reach the same end. They take a two-sided hatchet to the rule of law. First, they sincerely believe that their beliefs should be the law and they insist on religious litmus tests for political candidates. Note how the Republican candidates agreed without qualification that fetuses are “life.” That is not a scientific or public policy position. It’s a religious conclusion. They were, to a person, expressing none other than the religious theology of far-right evangelical (and right-wing Catholic) believers. The majority of Americans don’t buy into this belief as a stand-in for the law. Yet, the candidates shamelessly parroted this religious dogma.
Second, many of today’s politically right-leaning evangelicals, and especially their leaders, hold that their religious beliefs should trump the law—that they should have “autonomy” from the law. They do not think they should be bound by Title VII when it comes to discrimination in employment or employee benefit packages including contraception or the public accommodations laws, or, frankly, any other law that impedes their push to turn American public policy into a reflection of their dogma. They love to say that the United States was founded as a “Christian country” where there was a mandatory rule that Christianity sat atop the law as they advocate for a return to the supposed days of Christian kumbaya consensus.
The “Christian country” thesis is as dangerous as it is false. No one at the Founding experienced the colonies or the states as a religious collective. To the contrary, they felt their religious differences keenly. Puritans hated and killed Baptist dissidents in Massachusetts, leading the Baptists to advocate for the “separation of church and state.” They further attacked the Quakers for having the wrong beliefs. Maryland was settled by Catholics, but Protestants took over and then banned them from voting and public office. Not to mention the fact that Jews arrived in 1654, who were not Christian to state the obvious. The state constitutions did not provide autonomy to religious speakers and actors. To the contrary, they limited religious liberty that violated peace, order, and safety. “Licentiousness” was a crime with no religious defense. For this country to become the Christian country it never was, it would need to dispatch the rule of law and replace it with a list of religiously vetted beliefs. Can you see them nodding in agreement? Today’s evangelical insistence on religious autonomy is the flipside of the Trumpian rejection of the rule of law for his own ends. Either way, the rule of law is inconvenient, not a core value.
Thus, you see, Trump and 21st-century right-leaning evangelicals share a world where the rule of law is an expendable barrier to controlling the country. Along the way, they throw each other a few favors like votes and Justices. That’s part of the reason why, when Trump is accused of breaking the law, many evangelicals simply yawn.