What a fool believes: Donald Trump and America's bogus respect for "faith"

How religious "freedom" has been twisted into an all-out attack on critical thinking and the rule of law

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published June 9, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump holding a bible (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump holding a bible (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult. Now ... they're everywhere.
— "Conan the Barbarian"

Last summer’s federal indictment of Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol released a flood of concern-trolling from the establishment media. The arguments revealed something sadly defective about the intellectual tenor of the present age, a mindset that cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. It is the root cause of American political and social dysfunction.

The verdict of the prestige journals was remarkably consistent: Trump’s eventual trial would hinge, not upon facts, evidence and patterns of behavior involving him or other actors in the case, nor on whether the trial scrupulously upheld the law and proper judicial procedure, but on subjective matters concerning the defendant’s beliefs, feelings and motivations, as well as how the public perceived the trial through the polarizing lens of political partisanship.

You know what’s coming when you read a headline like this New York Times howler: “Trump Election Charges Set Up Clash of Lies Versus Free Speech.” Really? Conspiring to violently overthrow the government and then inciting a mob to do it is just a little free-spirited political rhetoric, such as to allow legitimate disagreement? Does that require us to set aside the fact that people were killed?

The Wall Street Journal, as you might expect, chimed in with this one: “Trump Is Being Prosecuted, but Justice Department Is on Trial, Too.” Both-sides-ism, much?

But the absurdity of the media mentality is perhaps best captured by this Washington Post headline: “Heart of the Trump Jan. 6 indictment: What’s in Trump’s head.” Absent some breakthrough in neuroscience, what goes on in the minds of others is denied to us; just as a scientist can’t infer the intentions of the solar system, only its behavior, we can only draw conclusions from a person’s words and actions, not his subjective state of mind. In all the media reports I have cited, the journalists seem to have made Trump the final arbiter of his own intent. 

If criminal conviction depended on a defendant’s own representation of his state of mind, there could be no law enforcement. But the unspoken premise of legal experts typically quoted in the media is that a default assumption of benign intent only applies to certain claimants like Trump. Try robbing a 7-Eleven or stealing a police cruiser and I doubt the judicial system will be unduly concerned about what was going on in your head, or your claims that it was free expression under the First Amendment.  

Religion and its adherents, contrary to assertions that the faithful are beleaguered by the aggressions of secular society, have obtained extraordinary privileges well beyond their tax-exempt status.

In the last several years, we’ve been inundated with similar claims: Refusing to get vaccinated is a matter of religious conscience; Jan. 6 rioters were honestly convinced the 2020 election was stolen; the anti-abortion crowd fervently believes that life is sacred; refusing service to a retail customer or firing an employee is dictated by sincere faith, burning like a pure flame, rather than mere spite or ill will.

These extraordinary claims have long been embedded in law, politics and social convention, and they are related to, or devolve from, a particular form of ideological advocacy: religion. Religion and its adherents, contrary to assertions that the faithful are beleaguered by the aggressions of secular society, have obtained extraordinary privileges well beyond their tax-exempt status.

When the U.S. had military conscription, formal adherents of certain religions could obtain exemptions from the draft if the religion in question explicitly espoused pacifist principles. That loophole did not, however, apply to a nonreligious individual who merely objected to killing. While the attitudes towards taking human life were identical, the law granted legal exemption to one and not the other. 

The Supreme Court ruled, in a Wisconsin case involving members of the Amish community, that parents have a constitutional right to withdraw their children from public school by the eighth grade. No one, however, consulted the children to determine whether their rights to become educated, functioning citizens might have been infringed. The same religious or “conscience” exemption from generally applicable law prevails in many states with respect to home schooling or childhood vaccination if a petitioner claims he doesn’t “believe” in public schools or vaccines, whatever that may mean.

What is a belief, anyway? It can be defined, approximately, in terms of the mental perception that something is true based on generally accepted evidence or established standards of logic. But belief also has a secondary meaning: an attitude, disposition or emotional commitment that has nothing to do with facts or logic. It is a stance that can be firmly maintained regardless of evidence to the contrary and, taken to an extreme, becomes the willful suspension of critical thinking.

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In contrast to the doubt and uncertainty that assail most people when considering complex matters, the dogmatic vehemence with which adherents of various fringe ideas often advocate their case can tempt us to conclude that an “untrue” belief is held more strongly than a “true” one. But this certitude can only be sustained if it is never questioned, because the leaders of authoritarian movements that propagate these beliefs instinctively know their doctrines are brittle and cannot survive open debate.

That is the reason fundamentalist Christians have built an entire subculture of home-schooling, Bible colleges, retreats and a vast body of approved literature to reinforce their dogma and avoid contact with contaminating ideas; conservatives have done much the same with their Fox News bubble. Since all authoritarian movements are founded on obtaining followers of weak character and low intellectual curiosity, and sustaining them within that information bubble, an outsider challenging even absurd doctrines will have a difficult task.

Adding to the surrealism of the situation, the very doctrines that gain privileged exemption from generally applicable laws (like taxation and nondiscrimination against retail customers) may not even be sincerely held. Russell Moore, a former Christian fundamentalist and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has described why he sees religion in crisis:

It was the result of having multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — "turn the other cheek" — [and] to have someone come up after to say, "Where did you get those liberal talking points?" And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, "I'm literally quoting Jesus Christ," the response would not be, "I apologize." The response would be, "Yes, but that doesn't work anymore. That's weak." And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we're in a crisis.

Being a devout evangelical these days apparently does not require church attendance: “In the farming communities of Calhoun County [Iowa] . . . church adherence fell 31 percent from 2010 to 2020 — the steepest decline in the state — even as 80 percent of the population continued to identify in surveys as white Christians. More than 70 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020.”

This apparently contradictory phenomenon of devout yet nonobservant evangelicals can lead to some peculiar theology: “Ron Betts, a 72-year-old Republican who said he plans to caucus for ‘Trump all the way,’ said he felt the former president ‘exemplified what Jesus would do.’" One wonders if that includes paying $130,000 to a porn actress to hush up a tryst. 

Aside from the legal deference given to purported holders of such beliefs, there is social convention: Most of us are brought up not to question or argue about another person’s faith. This exemption from the rough-and-tumble of genuine debate allows the purported believer to wield religion as a stick to beat others and a shield against accountability.

If you wonder how insurrection-supporting judges landed on the Supreme Court, you should read the establishment media’s coverage of Samuel Alito’s nomination hearing.

This deference, and the impunity it breeds, carries over into public policy debates. Those Americans wondering how insurrection-supporting judges landed on the Supreme Court should read excerpts from the establishment media’s coverage of Samuel Alito’s nomination hearing. He lied about his previously documented position on abortion and obfuscated when his membership in a Princeton alumni association that discriminated against women and minorities came to light, yet the supposedly godless press scolded Senate Democrats for bullying a man of faith, rather than correctly calling out Alito as a liar. 

Iustificatio sola fide: Justification by faith alone. This is the core tenet of Lutheranism, and, more broadly Protestant evangelicalism. When William L. Shirer, probably the most widely read of all chroniclers of the Nazi regime, drew a straight line from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, he was mostly referring to Luther’s notorious antisemitism. Shirer received a lot of subsequent criticism for an exaggerated historical determinism, and there is probably some merit in that critique – but we are left with the fact that Luther did indeed write a furious 65,000-word tirade against the Jews and, 400 years later, Hitler approvingly quoted him.

Missing from the controversy (which still sputters on, to the present day) was a broader look at Luther’s thinking, and a recognition that its implications don’t just affect German history but are universal. What Luther was propounding was the acceptance of a complex of beliefs based on blind faith, without any reference to facts, evidence or reason. It is not difficult to see how this mindset leads to dogmatic inflexibility, intolerance and epistemic closure. With Luther, those attitudes preceded the antisemitism he espoused later in life — his pathological hatred of a nonconforming out-group logically flowed from his pre-existing mental disposition.

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After the European wars of religion that culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (which may have killed 20 percent of the population of Central Europe), most of the branches of evangelical Protestantism, along with the Roman Catholic Church against which they had rebelled, gradually shed their zealotry, if only from sheer exhaustion. Undoubtedly in part from the disgust with the desolation that zealotry always brings in its wake, the dawning of the Enlightenment showed a new way of explaining the world, a worldview that required neither gods nor demons. 

When the great scientist Pierre-Simon LaPlace presented a copy of his "Celestial Mechanics" to Napoleon, the latter asked why LaPlace never mentioned the divine creator of the system he had described. His reply: "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là" (“I had no need of that hypothesis”). And so we thought, with LaPlace, that the ghosts would gradually be banished and the world made a little more straightforward and sane once the God hypothesis received critical scrutiny.

But just as there was no straight line from Luther to Hitler (else how can we account for Beethoven and Schiller?), there is no straight line of civilizational progress. I grew up as an Eisenhower Republican and thought that I, and the party, would remain more or less as such, despite the transient shock of Barry Goldwater in 1964. I spent most of a decade in Europe during the 1970s; the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation came and went. I might as well have been living on Mars, given the ideological transformation which occurred in America in that misunderstood decade. Out went the cloth-coat Republicans, the small-town bankers and matrons with big hats. In came Jerry Falwell’s dervishes, back-country Southern accents and the Party of Ideas. And what ideas!

When I came to Capitol Hill in the 1980s, I gradually discovered that the country had catapulted itself back into the Age of Faith. One congressional staffer informed me, with the air of wearily cluing in a gullible friend, that dinosaurs were a hoax. I was too startled to ask whether the fossil remains had been counterfeited by evil Darwinians intent on subverting the faithful, or by God himself for some inscrutable purpose, perhaps as a test of faith.

Those who rant about eternal values and verities have now lurched into nihilism, as is evident in the fanatical devotion to Donald Trump expressed by nearly 80 percent of evangelicals.

Another staff member I’ll call Jim, because that was his name. A self-cultivated religious eccentric, he once declared the now-universally accepted Gregorian calendar, adopted because it was more accurate than the preceding Julian calendar, to be no good. The reason was that it was a product of Pope Gregory’s “atheist astronomers.” Yes, these people make the policy that runs the country.

The same person announced to me that he was philosophically indifferent as to whether stars were celestial bodies many light years away or just tiny, twinkling lights in a dome over the earth, like LED lights above a suburban patio. Aside from the fact that GPS wouldn't work on his cellphone if scientists had somehow miscalculated distances by many orders of magnitude (as well as having to adjust for relativity), there are enormous problems with this point of view.

Precisely those people who rant about eternal values and verities have now lurched into nihilism, the diametric opposite of what they claim to espouse. This is nowhere more evident than in the fanatical devotion to Donald Trump expressed by nearly 80 percent of evangelical Christians. They have tossed overboard every tenet of decency, religious or secular, to embrace Trump’s hatred, because his burning torch of ill will, in their minds, is the royal road to the only thing they care about — power and domination.

How ironic, then, that religious “belief,” by abandoning every constraint imposed by empirical reality, has adopted the nihilistic theories of Ingsoc (English Socialism) in George Orwell’s "1984." In that novel, we read of protagonist Winston Smith's exchange with his interrogator, the cynical O'Brien, as to whether objective reality exists apart from the Party's commands:

"But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever."

"What are the stars?" said O'Brien indifferently. "They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it."

I might have been tempted to doubt the plausibility of the fictional O’Brien’s declaration of the triumph of belief over reality — if I had not actually heard someone say it to me.

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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Commentary Donald Trump Far-right Maga Media Religion Republicans Samuel Alito Supreme Court Trump Trial