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'Unholy' Examines The Alliance Between White Evangelicals And Trump

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Why has the Christian right embraced Donald Trump, whose values and lifestyle seem at odds with the values espoused by Christian right leaders? That's the question that Sarah Posner tries to answer in her new book "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." Her previous book, "God's Profits" - that's profits as in P-R-O-F-I-T-S - is about prosperity preachers. Trump's spiritual adviser, Paula White, is a prosperity preacher. Sarah Posner is a journalist who writes about the intersection of religion and politics and has covered the Christian right for about 15 years. She's currently a reporting fellow with Type Investigations, which was formerly known as The Nation Institute.

Sarah Posner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book is subtitled "Why Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." That may sound like hyperbole, but you've actually spoken to people who believe that Trump was chosen by God to lead. Who are Christian leaders who believe that?

SARAH POSNER: Well, there are a number of people around Trump and his evangelical advisory board, people like Paul White, who you've mentioned in your intro. There are others outside of that particular circle who kind of filter in and out. So Paula White, Ralph Reed, who leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Robert Jeffress, who's a prominent megachurch pastor in Dallas. There are some other less-well-known figures who helped perpetuate this idea that Donald Trump has been chosen by God - Lance Wallnau, Frank Amedia. These are people who appear in the book who very much believe that Donald Trump is anointed by God, or the phraseology that some people would use is that God's hand is on him.

GROSS: So for the Christian leaders who are saying that Trump has been anointed by God, what are they using to explain that to justify that statement?

POSNER: It really depends on who's speaking. It's such a common belief in the Christian right that Trump has somehow been chosen by God. The specific rationale for that varies. So some people will say, sometimes God just chooses an unlikely leader to lead a country at a very critical moment in its history. So God chose Donald Trump, who, you know, seems very unlikely to be our Christian favorite or an unlikely leader for us, but there's a reason that God chose him. And he's fulfilling America's destiny or restoring it as a Christian nation. So that might be one example of how they would talk about it. Another example is, well, in the Bible, God chose unlikely leaders or God chose someone who was maybe not of the same religion. So maybe he's not a Christian. But just like in the Bible, God chose King Cyrus, the Persian king, to help restore the exiled Jews to Jerusalem. And he helped rebuild Jerusalem. And so the analogy there is that Trump may not be a Christian, but he's restoring Christian America.

GROSS: How are Christian right leaders defending Trump's lack of leadership during the pandemic, His unwillingness to follow his own Coronavirus Task Force advice to wear a mask, maintain social distance, not hold large gatherings?

POSNER: Well, I think it's really important to understand how the Christian right has operated in an alternative media universe throughout Trump's presidency. So they are not reading or listening to or absorbing the same kind of information about the pandemic that the rest of America is. And that's partially because they've been told by their leaders throughout Trump's presidency not to listen to the fake news media or not to listen to the deep state because the deep state is actually trying to take down Donald Trump. So this kind of messaging has been so intense throughout his presidency and that every questioning or investigation or exploration of his presidency by the press or by Congress or by the courts is viewed as a nefarious effort to take him

down. So the distrust of the media and of science and of the government has been baked in. It's hard to convey how intense this alternative universe is. But that's why his followers are not looking at the pandemic in the same way that the rest of the country is. And it's playing out in really lethal ways because governors who are allied with Trump are now facing a severe escalation of outbreaks of coronavirus in their states because they followed Trump's lead in states like Florida and Texas and Arizona. So this is really dangerous stuff, but it's also important to understand how intense this alternative reality is.

GROSS: Do you know if the leaders of the Christian right believe that the corona virus isn't really a threat? Do you think they believe what Trump has been saying, like 99% of people who get the virus have, you know, it's nothing, basically?

POSNER: I think that there's sort of a mix. I think some of them believe that most people don't have severe symptoms, or they try to talk about the death rate not being as high amongst certain populations. From what I've seen, they seem to me to not be taking it very seriously from their public statements. They very much want to return to church. I mean, there have been a lot of lawsuits against governors and municipalities against the stay-at-home orders or the restrictions on large gatherings on the grounds that it violates the religious freedom of churches to not be able to gather. So even in the face of a lot of evidence that big indoor gatherings without masks and social distancing and especially gatherings where people are talking very intensely or singing, and specifically outbreaks in churches - even in the face of all of that evidence, they still want to portray stay-at-home orders as infringing on their religious rights to gather in worship.

GROSS: How was Donald Trump first embraced by the Christian right? He seems to know very little about the Bible. He's had affairs with women outside of his marriages, including with a porn star. He's constantly stating facts that aren't true. They're facts in quotes, but they're not factually accurate. He insults everyone he sees as an enemy. He demonizes Muslims, Mexicans, Black Lives Matter. He is insulting to women. I mean, these are not Christian values. So did he first embrace them because he needed more of a base? Did they first embrace him because they wanted a powerful - like, a potential president so they could get their agenda passed? Like, who embraced who?

POSNER: So back in 2011, when Trump was first toying with running for president, he appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network and basically got a lot of coaching about what he should say to appeal to an evangelical Christian audience. And I wouldn't say he did particularly well in that appearance. But he did as well as he later did in terms of catering to the Christian right's claimed priorities like being opposed to abortion - at the time, back in 2011 - being opposed to same-sex marriage, although he was pretty vague about that. He did not speak the language, but it seemed pretty clear that he was getting some advice and coaching to appeal to that audience. And that was layered on his relationship with Paula White. He had met Paula White back in the mid-2000s. The story that she and others like to tell about that meeting was that Trump likes to channel surf, and he happened on her television program where she was talking about, quote, "the value of vision." And he felt like that talk that she was giving really appealed to him as a businessman. He had a secretary call her up. They met. They became friends. She bought a condo in Trump Tower, and they had been friends ever since.

So he really started to navigate this world of Christian television probably before he navigated the world of Christian right political activists. And when he launched his campaign finally in 2015, there were a lot of leaders in the Christian right who were extremely skeptical of him for all of the reasons that you state. But what they found was that the base was becoming enthralled with him, and they were enthralled by the very things that other people thought were not Christian - his nativism, his racist rallies, his attack on liberalism and political correctness, his attacks on the press. And so he kind of brought together these different streams of the American right into one candidate. So he brought the Christian television televangelism in, and he brought in this racist, nativist strand of the new right of the 1970s and '80s that did back then coalesce with the Christian right and bring - you know, basically bring the Moral Majority into Republican politics.

And I think that the unifying piece of this is just a real hostility to liberal democracy, to civil rights for everyone and hostility to the values and institutions of a liberal democracy, like a free press, an accountable government, an independent judiciary. And so he brought all of that together, and he enthralled the base. And there were leaders who got onboard with him early, but for the ones who followed and the leaders who signed on to support him after the base was evidently enthralled with him, they are now all in.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Sarah Posner, who covers the intersection of religion and politics. Her new book is called "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THE LONE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Sarah Posner, author of the new book "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump."

My impression from your book is that even though Trump doesn't share the values of the Christian right in terms of lifestyle and religion, the Christian right and Trump share a lot of the same grievances. So what are some of the grievances that unite them?

POSNER: Trump articulates for them the idea that changes that took place largely in the second half of the 20th century - political, legal, social changes - robbed them of something, robbed them of the Christian America that they believe was God's intention for America's founding, robbed them of being able to say what the dominant form of Christianity in America is or rob them, they believe, of their right to practice that version of Christianity.

GROSS: So you say some of the Christian right's grievances date back to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of schools. And, you know, the Christian right didn't want that. The Christian right was also worried that religious schools would lose their tax-exempt status when those schools were accused of racist policies. Do you think that part of the grievance that Trump shares with the Christian right is this fear that white America is being threatened by Black people and now Muslims and Mexicans?

POSNER: Yes. Yes, very much so. So the Christian right, for the evangelicals and fundamentalists who came into the national politics in the era of the Moral Majority, the founding story that they like to tell is that they were propelled into national politics because they were upset and outraged about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But, in fact, even by the admission of the leaders of this movement at the time, they were motivated to get involved in national politics because of federal government policy meant to desegregate or end discriminatory policies in private Christian schools after public schools were being desegregated in the wake of Brown.

So in the 1960s, as public schools were desegregating, you saw a rise of what were known as segregation academies. These were private schools that were intentionally created to avoid desegregation. They were intentionally segregated. And you also saw the rise of Christian schools, which were formed for multiple reasons, including the invalidation of mandatory school prayer and Bible reading in public schools by the Supreme Court in the early 1960s. But they were definitely a response to a number of different social changes, including desegregation. And even though they weren't explicitly segregation academies, the IRS in response to a series of court decisions went to them and said, look; you cannot get a tax exemption and basically be subsidized by the American taxpayers by having a policy or having policies that lead to the same segregation that we are trying to end in public schools. And so the IRS came to them and said, look; you know, you should try to enroll more Black students, or you should reach out to the community to enroll more Black students, but the requirements were pretty minimal.

GROSS: On a political level, what do leaders of the Christian right see in Donald Trump? What have they hoped he would deliver for them?

POSNER: They hoped that he would deliver judges, which he has, and they hoped that he would deliver personnel with the freedom and flexibility to implement policy that they wanted. And he has largely done that, too. So obviously judges, the Senate has confirmed about 200 federal, trial and appellate court judges, plus he had the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh nominations. And in federal agencies, he has appointed political appointees who have carried out policy relating to LGBT rights, reproductive rights, religious freedom that are - these policies are favored by the Christian right. And they are thrilled with what he has allowed them to do. They call him the most pro-life president in history and the most pro-religious freedom president in history.

GROSS: You describe the Department of Health and Human Services as ground zero for the Trump administration's efforts to scale back reproductive and LGBTQ rights and for eroding church-state separation and framing that as religious freedom for Christians. So what has happened at HHS?

POSNER: One of the principal things that they did was create conscience and religious freedom division within HHS. And there, they invited members of the public to file complaints against states or health care providers that they believe are violating conscience protections that are written into federal law that basically allow a health care provider, say a nurse in a hospital, to opt out of participating in a procedure that she has a religious objection to, like an abortion or sterilization procedure. The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division is trying to expand the scope of what those conscience protections mean to broaden the ability of these religious objectors to exercise that objection and potentially punish hospitals or even states who they believe are violating the conscience of these people.

GROSS: The head of HHS, Alex Azar, is on the president's Coronavirus Task Force. Azar has said the department has never fought more fiercely to protect life at all stages, from conception until natural death. That is thanks above all to the leadership and the courage of President Trump, the most pro-life president in American history. It sounds a little ironic to hear all this talk about pro-life from Health and Human Services now that President Trump is really downplaying the deaths that have happened as a result of the coronavirus and downplaying the dangers that we all face. And he's walking around without a mask. He's not encouraging people to wear masks. He's holding, you know, these mass rallies. I wonder how that sounds to you to hear about, you know, like, pro-life when so many people are dying now.

POSNER: It's just mind-boggling. I mean, it really is because I've been listening to them for years now talk about how Trump is the most pro-life president, not that he's done anything in particular except allow them to, you know, appoint judges and allow them to run policy at HHS. And he showed up in person for the March for Life this year, which the Christian right thought was a really big deal. But he is given a complete pass on the coronavirus. Nobody is holding him to account for his abject leadership failures, his own failure to model behavior by wearing a mask himself. He continues to call it the China virus or the Chinese virus and focus primarily on the economy, I think - or reopening the economy. I think it shows the breadth and depth of this hero worship that has happened around Trump, where not just their goals for their policy, but their goals for what America is going to look like supersede anything, including this pandemic.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Sarah Posner. She covers the intersection of religion and politics. Her new book is called "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." We'll be back after this short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON AND DAVE HOLLAND'S "DR DO RIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Sarah Posner, author of the new book "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." She covers the intersection of religion and politics and has written about the Christian right for about 15 years. She's a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. What do you think is the ultimate goal of the Christian right leaders who are supporting Trump?

POSNER: A very serious - more serious rollback of the separation of church and state than the Supreme Court has already undertaken, and kind of a flipping of the separation of church and state to elevate the free exercise clause over the separation clause - so to basically brought in what is perceived as religious freedom for Christians and to have government policy and the law reflect that.

So if you think about the Hobby Lobby decision, where a Christian company was permitted to opt out of providing contraception coverage in its employer health plan, bolstering government support for Christian private schools, creating huge religious exemptions so that people would not have to comply with nondiscrimination laws protecting people based on sexual orientation and gender identity - basically, have a government run from the perspective of the Christian right, what they would call a biblical worldview.

GROSS: So we've talked about the alliance between Donald Trump and the Christian right. Let's get to the alt-right. How does the alt-right connect in there? Does the alt-right connect to the Christian right, as well as to Donald Trump?

POSNER: Donald Trump speaks to both of these constituencies simultaneously when he articulates the grievances of white America. So the same grievances that he talked about in the opening of his campaign energized both the alt-right, you know, the white supremacist fringe of the American right, as well as white evangelicals who also shared these grievances about Mexicans who were criminals coming to take their jobs or change the fabric of America.

And as Trump's campaign went on, with his racist rallies, his attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters - his verbal attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters during campaign rallies - I mean, all of this was energizing the alt-right and white evangelicals at the same time. So Trump articulates this vision of a white America that has been, somehow, lost or under attack.

GROSS: And so has he - has Trump brought together the alt-right and the Christian right in a way they hadn't been together before? Or are they already connected?

POSNER: I think that they're connected by a shared hostility to liberal democracy. So there are people in the alt-right who have a lot of contempt for the Christian right and vice versa. There are a lot of people on the Christian right who would never go to a rally where people were giving Hitler salutes, which is something that happens at alt-right rallies. And there are a lot of people on the alt-right who don't really consider themselves to be particularly religious and don't really like the moralizing of the Christian right.

That said, the two movements do find a common hero in Trump. And that's because they do share the same grievances and the same scapegoats for a lot of those grievances. So a lot of the conspiracy theories that you see Trump peddling in his Twitter account you will see articulated in Christian right and alt-right circles. So George Soros is a boogeyman in both movements. And, you know, political correctness or cultural Marxism are phrases that are used to identify, basically, you know, a liberal democracy that they see as hostile to their interests.

GROSS: You say that the Christian right sees Trump as the strongman they've been waiting for. What do you mean by that?

POSNER: Well, they don't really like liberal democracy. And so when I say liberal democracy, I mean a democracy where there's a free press and an independent judiciary and a Congress, you know, a legislative branch that can conduct oversight of the executive branch. They really like a powerful executive, a powerful executive who will stack the judiciary and a powerful executive who is unafraid to attack the free press that tries to hold him to account. So it's precisely those things that they like about him because they feel like all of those trappings of the liberal democracy are the things that are pulling the rug out from under their cultural dominance.

GROSS: In addition to all the research that you've been doing historically about the Christian right and how they became aligned more recently with Trump, you've been to a lot of evangelical churches. You've been to megachurches. Can you tell us some of the things you've heard in the churches that relate to President Trump, that directly address Trump and his leadership?

POSNER: Well, I think that my answer includes conferences and rallies and religious events that took place in places other than churches as well as churches. But you hear that Trump is a really great leader, that he is a historic figure, that he is a disrupter. He was the chaos candidate and that this kind of disruption - or wrecking ball is another term that I've heard used - that this is his virtue, that he is going to dismantle, you know, all this political correctness that has been bad for religious freedom. He is attacking the fake news media, which, you know, tells lies about him and his supporters. And he has come to save Christian America. So it doesn't really matter if he can't cite a Bible verse because God has His hand on him to do these things. And sometimes, God picks an unlikely leader to carry out His will.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Posner. She covers the intersection of religion and politics. Her new book is called "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET'S "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Sarah Posner, author of the new book "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump."

One of the things that the Christian right approves of is President Trump's appointment of two Supreme Court judges. I think the Christian right would see that as victories. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, that Title VII applies to gay and trans workers. Neil Gorsuch, one of Trump's appointees, wrote for the majority in that decision. Do you know what the Christian right's reaction to that has been?

POSNER: They were very upset because they had vociferously argued that sex does not include sexual orientation and gender identity. However, there was a caveat in Gorsuch's opinion which they're pinning a lot of hope on, which is that he said that we do not know yet whether religion can provide an exemption to this because that was not an issue in the case before the court. And so he left open the possibility that a religious employer or a private employer who was religious, like Hobby Lobby, could say, well, it's against my religion to hire a gay or trans employee.

And so that - they're pinning a lot of hope on that one paragraph in the opinion because, obviously, like, there's kind of no going back on the main part of the opinion. But, like with many other issues, they're going to work on this religious exemption approach to carving out their own distance from this particular civil rights law.

GROSS: Another recent Supreme Court decision is that private schools, including religious schools, can qualify for state scholarship money. And this was a case from Montana. What's the significance of this in terms of religious groups?

POSNER: It's extremely significant in terms of public school and public subsidization of private religious schools. The Christian right was very happy with this decision as compared to the Title VII decision because it basically opens the door for the possibility of state taxpayer funding of vouchers or credits for tuition at private religious schools.

GROSS: So what does that tell us about the court right now?

POSNER: I think the court is very - when you look at the totality of the court's recent decisions that directly bear on religion and religious freedom and the church-state separation, I think that the court is headed in the direction that's very pleasing to the Christian right and to its decades' long effort to erode the separation of church and state and expand the meaning of religious freedom, particularly in the face of laws that protect the rights of others, like women or LGBTQ people. So I think, overall, the court is very open to those kinds of arguments.

I think it has shown us again and again that it is receptive to the idea that, say, requiring a baker to comply with a state nondiscrimination law and bake a cake for a gay couple can be interpreted as evidence of hostility to religion. And I think that the paragraph in Gorsuch's opinion in the Title VII case only bolsters that belief - that he ruled that the plain language of the statute, sex, also includes sexual orientation and gender identity, but the big but was a big invitation to people, to litigants, to bring these claims that complying with that civil rights law could violate their religious beliefs.

GROSS: Sarah Posner, thank you so much for talking with us today.

POSNER: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Sarah Posner is the author of the new book "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship At The Altar Of Donald Trump." We recorded the interview yesterday. This morning, the Supreme Court handed down more decisions pertaining to religion. It ruled that federal employment discrimination laws don't apply to teachers who teach religion in schools run by churches. In a separate decision, the court ruled that if an employer has a religious or moral objection to birth control, it can deny its employees access to free contraception coverage in the company's health insurance plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "THE BEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.