Recent polls show President Donald J. Trump with an approval rating hovering around 39 percent, but there’s one place he can always go to get a whole lot of love: Liberty University.
The fundamentalist Christian bastion in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the TV preacher Jerry Falwell and now run by his son, Jerry Jr., invited Trump to give a commencement address on Saturday, further cementing the bromance the two have enjoyed since the campaign.
The speech was in many ways vintage Trump – which is a polite way of saying it was all over the map. Trump spent some time bragging about the size of the crowd at the commencement (estimated to be 50,000), riffed extensively on Liberty’s football team and offered the kind of bromide typical of these events.
Trump's speech at Liberty University was more fodder for the Religious Right's misguided Culture War.
"Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures," Trump said. "Does that sound familiar, by the way? Relish the opportunity to be an outsider.”
I think it’s fair to ask if a well-connected billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star can truly be an outsider in our society, but it was another statement by Trump that really caught my eye.
“America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers,” Trump declared. “When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth they prayed. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don’t worship government, we worship God. That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, ‘So help me God,’ as they take the oath of office. It is why our currency proudly declares, ‘In God we trust,’ and it's why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. The story of America is the story of an adventure that began with deep faith, big dreams and humble beginnings.”
That’s quite a lot of misleading information jammed into one paragraph. Let’s unpack it a bit:
America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers: Well, not really. Sure, there are plenty of true believers in America, but there have always been lots of non-believers too – and still are. Members of both camps have helped realize the American dream; people of diverse religious beliefs and none have contributed to this nation.
When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth they prayed: Yes, they did. Then they proceeded to create an intolerant, theocratic government that didn’t recognize the separation of church and state. Their view failed to carry the day and was repudiated by the U.S. Constitution.
When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times: These Deistic references are indeed there. Yet how many of them appear in the Constitution, an actual governance document? None.
In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God: This is a classic straw man argument – easy to create and even easier to knock down. Americans disagree about the size, scope and duties of government. Some favor an activist government that builds a safety net that provides for people during times of need. Others advocate laissez-faire policies. No one worships government, literally or figuratively. And, of course, some Americans choose not to worship God at all.
That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, ‘So help me God,’ as they take the oath of office: Nothing in the Constitution requires this. George Washington swore his oath of office on a Bible, and most other presidents have followed suit. Today, many politicians still use the Bible, but others choose to swear on other religious texts or on the Constitution. (Interestingly, early U.S. military oaths were wholly secular, requiring soldiers merely to swear to uphold the Constitution.)
It is why our currency proudly declares, ‘In God we trust,’ and it’s why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance: These practices aren’t traditional and don’t go back to the Founders. The Pledge of Allegiance, as originally written in 1892 by the Rev. Francis Bellamy, a socialist, did not contain the words “under God.” That phrase was added in 1954. The law mandating that “In God We Trust” appear on currency dates to 1956.
Trump’s speech at Liberty probably did what he wanted it to do: portray himself as a defender of the faith and fire up the fundamentalist legions who still love him. But as a history lesson or a coherent comment on the current state of religious and philosophical diversity in America, it left a lot to be desired.
P.S. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn appeared on MSNBC’s “A.M. Joy” Saturday morning to discuss Trump’s speech. You can watch the segment here.