Pleased To Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name
The Germans Now Too, Have God On Their Side
“Sympathy for the Devil,” the opening track from Beggars Banquet (1968) is one of the greatest rock songs of all times. Jagger has explained how Mikhail Bulgakov’s best known novel, The Master And Margarita— the story of Satan's visit to Moscow and his interactions with a cast of characters that includes writers, bureaucrats, and criminals, viewed as a satire of Soviet society and the way in which power corrupts individuals and institutions— was a key influence on his idea behind the song. (An English translation had come out in 1967 and Marianne Faithful gave him a copy.) I wish Jagger had said it was Plato whose influence was an impetus for the song, which may have been indirectly the case, Plato influencing Baudelaire and Baudelaire, according to Jagger, inspiring him when he wrote “Sympathy.” That may be a stretch on my part, but what isn’t, is that Jagger, Bulgakov and Plato were all warning about the evils inherent in the combination of politics and religion.
I'm sure you remember learning that in Plato’s Greece, religion played a central role in political life. The Greeks believed that their gods and goddesses had a direct impact on their daily lives and that they needed to appease these deities through ritual sacrifice and prayer. However, this close relationship between religion and politics could also lead to conflicts, as different city-states and factions vied for dominance and sought to impose their own religious beliefs on others. Plato was profoundly critical of this system of religious belief and argued that the state should be governed by reason, not superstition or "divine will." In his famous work, The Republic, Plato describes an ideal society that is governed by philosopher-kings who use reason and wisdom to guide their decisions, rather than religious belief. He asserted that religious beliefs were too often used to justify political authority and that this could lead to tyranny and injustice, arguing that the state should be independent of religious institutions and that religious beliefs should be a matter of personal conscience, rather than a basis for political authority.
Plato's ideas on the separation of church and state were radical for his time, and they challenged the traditional belief that religion and politics were inseparable. His work influenced later thinkers in the Western tradition, such as Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued that the state should be secular and that religious beliefs should be a matter of personal choice, something that had a deep influence on America’s Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams and, most importantly, Thomas Jefferson— who, much to the later-day consternation of American religionists, used the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. (While most of the Founding Fathers were proponents of the separation of church and state, there were some— particularly bigoted conservative John Jay, who became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and who believed that Christianity was the only true religion, and that government had a role in promoting Christian values and preventing the spread of "false religions”— who held backward and more traditional views that religion and government should be intertwined.)
The Founding Fathers were educated men, well-read in the classics of literature, philosophy and history and deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual growth that emphasized reason, science and individual liberty. They were very much aware that during the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was wracked by religious conflicts, some of the most violent and disruptive in history, that led to wars, persecution and repression—including the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which killed MILLIONS of people, the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), the English Civil War (1642-1651) and, of course, most horrifically, the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834). In response, many intellectuals had begun advocating for the separation of church and state and for religious tolerance as a means of preventing the misuse of religion for political ends. One of the most influential of these thinkers was Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who argued that the state should be secular and that religious beliefs should be a matter of personal conscience.
The idea of separating church and state gained further prominence during the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and cultural ferment that swept across Europe in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau argued, as Plato had, that the state should be based on reason and that religious beliefs should not be used to justify political authority or persecution. The Founding Fathers recognized that the separation of church and state was essential to protecting religious freedom and preventing the kind of religious conflicts that had plagued Europe for centuries. That’s why separation of church and state was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as a fundamental principle of democratic governance, something religionist extremists are still fighting to this day.
There has been no greater evil in contemporary American politics than politicized, paranoid evangelical Christianity, the father and the mother of political polarization, a profound, dangerous and debilitating anti-science perspective and general social backwardness that stands in opposition to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial equality. At the same time, Christianity itself has been harmed— some say captured by Satan— because of hypocrisy among its leaders, most of them preaching traditional moral values while being embroiled in scandals involving sexual misconduct, financial impropriety, collusion with the Republican Party and with Donald Trump (to the point of complete and utter co-option) and other severe ethical lapses.
Politics and religion, they say,
Should never mix in any way.
But time and time again we see,
The damage caused by their unity.
Religion becomes a tool for power,
Politics a tool to make us cower.
Both are corrupted, both are stained,
By the unholy alliance they have maintained.
When religion enters the fray,
It can lead us so far astray.
Dogma replaces reason and fact,
And freedoms are trampled under attack.
When politics calls upon the divine,
It's hard to tell truth from the line.
The common good becomes a mere facade,
As politicians strive to placate their god.
So let us heed the warning of the wise,
And keep politics and religion in disguise.
For when they join forces, all is lost,
And humanity pays a heavy cost.
Hal composed that poem for me this morning in a free-form modernist style. Now this song... Dylan wrote it of course-- one of his greatest masterpieces-- but Kevin Hunter did a better job singing it. I'm biased, though... it was released on my label, 415 Records.
On Friday, writing for The Atlantic, Tim Alberta noted that Señor Trumpanzee is now on the wrong side of the Religious Right. He began with a parable about failed politician Mike Pence, “a man who felt God’s hand on his selection to serve alongside Donald Trump— the Lord working in mysterious ways and all— now feels called to help America heal from Trump’s presidency. It’s why Pence titled his memoir, which describes his split with Trump over the January 6 insurrection, So Help Me God. It’s why, as he travels the country preparing a presidential bid, he speaks to themes of redemption and reconciliation. It’s why he has spent the early days of the invisible primary courting evangelical Christian activists. And it’s why, for one of the first major speeches of his unofficial 2024 campaign, he came to Hillsdale, offering repeated references to scripture while speaking about the role of religion in public life.”
Alberta noted that “Piety aside, raw political calculation was at work. Trump’s relationship with the evangelical movement— once seemingly shatterproof, then shaky after his violent departure from the White House— is now in pieces, thanks to his social-media tirade last fall blaming pro-lifers for the Republicans’ lackluster midterm performance. Because of his intimate, longtime ties to the religious right, Pence understands the extent of the damage. He is close personal friends with the organizational leaders who have fumed about it; he knows that the former president has refused to make any sort of peace offering to the anti-abortion community and is now effectively estranged from its most influential leaders. According to people who have spoken with Pence, he believes that this erosion of support among evangelicals represents Trump’s greatest vulnerability in the upcoming primary— and his own greatest opportunity to make a play for the GOP nomination.”
Many of Trump’s potential primary opponent are united in “a common recognition that, for the first time since he secured the GOP nomination in 2016, Trump has a serious problem with a crucial bloc of his coalition. The scale of his trouble is difficult to overstate.” Virtually none of the leaders of the evangelical movement in America have committed to backing Trump in the primaries, despite him giving them the Supreme Court, which promptly overturned Roe v Wade.
The grotesque and existential evil of the now completely Jesus-less, Satan-dominated American evangelical movement knows no bounds today. Even Trump isn’t "good" enough for them any longer. Alberta spoke with one of the most corrupted of the lot, Tony Perkins, who told him that “Oddly enough, it was Donald Trump of all people who raised the expectations of evangelical voters. They know they can win now. They want that same level of fight.”
Trump sabotaged himself. Desperate to dodge culpability for the Republican Party’s poor performance in the November midterm elections, Trump blamed the “abortion issue.” He suggested that moderate voters had been spooked by some of the party’s restrictive proposals, while pro-lifers, after half a century of intense political engagement, had grown complacent following the Dobbs ruling. This scapegoating didn’t go over well with social-conservative leaders. For many of them, the transaction they had entered into with Trump in 2016— their support in exchange for his policies— was validated by the fall of Roe. Yet now the former president was distancing himself from the anti-abortion movement while refusing to accept responsibility for promoting bad candidates who lost winnable races. (Trump’s campaign declined to comment for this story.)
It felt like betrayal. Trump’s evangelical allies had stood dutifully behind him for four years, excusing all manner of transgressions and refusing countless opportunities to cast him off. Some had even convinced themselves that he had become a believer— if not an actual believer in Christ, despite those prayer-circle photo ops in the Oval Office, then a believer in the anti-abortion cause after previously having described himself as “very pro-choice.” Now the illusion was gone. In text messages, emails, and conference calls, some of the country’s most active social conservatives began expressing a willingness to support an alternative to Trump in 2024.
“A lot of people were very put off by those comments … It made people wonder if in some way he’d gone back to some of the sentiments he had long before becoming a Republican candidate,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, who runs the Young America’s Foundation and sits on the board of an anti-abortion group. Walker, himself an evangelical and the son of a pastor, added, “I think it opened the door for a lot of them to consider other candidates.”
The most offensive part of Trump’s commentary was his ignorance of the new, post-Roe reality of Republican politics. Publicly and privately, he spoke of abortion like an item struck from his to-do list, believing the issue was effectively resolved by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, conservatives were preparing for a new and complicated phase of the fight, and Trump was nowhere to be found. He didn’t even bother with damage control following his November outburst, anti-abortion leaders said, because he didn’t understand how fundamentally out of step he was with his erstwhile allies.
“He thinks it will go away, but it won’t,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, told me. “That’s not me lacking in gratitude for how we got here, because I know how we got here. But that part is done. Thank you. Now what?”
Before long, evangelical leaders were publicly airing their long-held private complaints about Trump. Mike Evans, an original member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, told the Washington Post that Trump “used us to win the White House” and then turned Christians into cult members “glorifying Donald Trump like he was an idol.” David Lane, a veteran evangelical organizer whose email blasts reach many thousands of pastors and church leaders, wrote that Trump’s “vision of making America as a nation great again has been put on the sidelines, while the mission and the message are now subordinate to personal grievances and self-importance.” Addressing a group of Christian lawmakers after the election, James Robison, a well-known televangelist who also advised Trump, compared him to a “little elementary schoolchild.” Everett Piper, the former president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, reacted to the midterms by writing in the Washington Times, “The take-home of this past week is simple: Donald Trump has to go. If he’s our nominee in 2024, we will get destroyed.”
…Having spoken broadly of the need for all Americans to return to treating one another with “civility and respect,” the former vice president made a specific appeal to his fellow Christians. No matter how pitched the battles over politics and policy, he said, followers of Jesus had a responsibility to attract outsiders with their conduct and their language. “Let your conversation be seasoned with salt,” Pence said, borrowing from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
If he does run for president, this will be what Pence is selling to evangelicals: humility instead of hubris, decency instead of denigration. The former vice president pledged to defend traditional Judeo-Christian values— even suggesting that he would re-litigate the fight over same-sex marriage, a matter settled by courts of law and public opinion. But, Pence said, unlike certain other Republicans, he would do so with a graciousness that kept the country intact. This, he reminded the audience, had always been his calling card. As far back as his days in conservative talk radio, Pence said, he was known as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
That line got some laughs. But it also underscored his limitation as a prospective candidate. After the event, while speaking with numerous guests, I heard the same thing over and over: Pence was not tough enough. They all admired him. They all thought he was an honorable man and a model Christian. But a Sunday School teacher couldn’t lead them into the battles over gender identity, school curriculum, abortion, and the like. They needed a warrior.
“The Bushes were nice. Mitt Romney was nice. Where did that get us?” said Jerry Byrd, a churchgoing attorney who’d driven from the Detroit suburbs to hear Pence speak. “Trump is the only one who stood up for us. The Democrats are ruining this country, and being a good Christian isn’t going to stop them. Honestly, I don’t want someone ‘on decaf.’ We need the real thing.”
After Pence sacrificed so much of himself to stand loyally behind Trump, this is how the former president has repaid him— by conditioning Christians to expect an expression of their faith so pugilistic that Pence could not hope to pass muster.
Byrd told me he was “done with Trump” after the ex-president’s sore-loser antics and is actively shopping for another Republican to support in 2024. He likes the former vice president. He respects the principled stand he took on January 6. But Byrd said he couldn’t imagine voting for him for president. Pence was just another one of those “nice guys” whom the Democrats would walk all over.
Unprompted, Byrd told me that DeSantis was his top choice. I asked him why.
“He fights,” Byrd replied.