There is an air of absurdity in attributing a victory to God only when Donald Trump is victorious. But Thomas and Meadows were dead serious. It is not enough to wield power in their attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Their efforts must be covered with a thick layer of spirituality. The conspirators believed they were doing God’s work. But in reality, they were trying to spin the Creator of the universe into a partisan hack that furthered their (half-baked) political ambitions. In doing so, they demonstrated the multiple dangers of the religious impulse in the public domain.
Part of the problem is simple hypocrisy. The day after January 6, Thomas wrote a sort of apology to her husband’s former clerks. “I probably imposed my lifelong passions on you,” she explained in an email. This month, she said in an interview with the Free Washington Beacon that “a democratic system like ours must be able to discuss and debate rationally in the political arena. I’m afraid we’re losing that ability.
In his texts with Meadows, however, we see a markedly different attitude toward democratic dissent. Thomas forwarded a report that had been circulating on right-wing websites that the ‘Biden crime family’ and ‘voter fraud co-conspirators’ were being arrested and sent on barges floating off Guantanamo Bay for possible trial. by military tribunals. “I hope that’s true,” she added.
It might be difficult to conduct a rational debate above the din of the waves near Gitmo. But given another sentiment that Thomas conveyed, that’s probably not necessary. “The most important thing you can realize right now,” the text reads, “is that there are no rules in wartime.” It was Thomas’ Christian contribution near the center of a political crisis fraught with threats of violence: “There are no rules.
If there are no rules here, there could be lessons to be learned from the Thomas-Meadows trade. They illustrate many of the reasons why people – including religious people – are disturbed by the outsized role of faith in politics.
· The Christianization of politics makes people less persuasive in a democracy. It is more difficult to question your cause if you consider it a holy cause. And it becomes harder to see any truth in the opinions of your opponents.
· Religious certainty about uncertain matters can blind people to difficult and complex debates. Look at how conservative religion has encouraged, among all things, skepticism about vaccines. It is the deification of ignorance.
· Religious passion in politics can easily turn tribal, as opponents turn into infidels. And that can pave the way for racism and anti-Semitism.
· Religious passion can lower the standards we hold as leaders, since the only real political choice is between a supportive strongman and the social abyss. It can reveal and encourage a dangerous authoritarian tendency.
· Religious passion in politics can encourage an apocalyptic tone that drives out true deliberation. (For Thomas, we saw “the end of America…the end of freedom.”)
I say all this as a religious person. i say all that because I am a religious person. I believe that religion can elevate the moral views of politics (see Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.) and ingrain our belief in human dignity. But it is the very power of religious belief that can cause people to co-opt it with their own passions and beliefs. Instead of being judged and challenged by the best of their faith, they use their faith to judge others. And they are getting closer and closer to blasphemy.
Christian writer and lay theologian CS Lewis wrote“I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be entrusted with unchecked power over others. And the higher the claims of such a power, the more dangerous I think it both for rulers and for subjects. Theocracy is therefore the worst of all governments. … The inquisitor who confuses his own cruelty and his lust for power and his fear with the voice of heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his best impulses appear to him as temptations.
The problem, of course, is that this fury is mostly rooted in theological error. And there is little the government can do about it (except the healthy maintenance of democratic institutions). Curiously, for a secular era, our country could expect a theologian at the height of the moment.