It’s time to end the statute of limitations for sitting presidents

Since Donald Trump came down the escalator of Trump Tower to launch his run for president, we have found ourselves asking questions we never believed we would have to ask about our leaders. The loudest of those questions concern Trump’s criminal activity. While we know that Trump was perhaps the most blatantly criminal person ever to occupy the White House, it’s quite another matter to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

That effort has been hindered by the longstanding Department of Justice (DOJ) policy against indicting sitting presidents for crimes committed while in office. That policy did not anticipate a situation where a president’s political allies were willing to look the other way when said president essentially ran the White House and the country as a crime syndicate.

In 2019, former FBI director Robert Mueller released the results of his special counsel investigation into Russia’s attempt to hack the 2016 election for Trump. While Mueller outlined at least ten potential instances in which Trump obstructed justice, he concluded that none were egregious enough to merit a criminal referral. By the time Trump left office, the already limited window to prosecute him for these potential crimes was even narrower, given that much of the time in the five-year statute of limitations had already elapsed. The ticking clock has only added to frustrations inside and outside this country about the prospect of Trump never facing justice for his actions.

Fortunately, two of Trump’s biggest gadflies in Congress—Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Adam Schiff of California—realize that even if we can’t make Trump stand trial for his crimes in office, we have to prevent the possibility of another criminal president avoiding accountability. They have introduced legislation that would all but eliminate the statute of limitations for presidents who commit crimes while in office.

The DOJ’s policy against indicting sitting presidents for federal crimes has its roots in a DOJ memo issued in 1973, during the worst of Watergate. The 41-page document, penned by assistant attorney general Robert Dixon, head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, was titled “Amenability of the President, Vice President, and other Civil Officers to Federal Criminal Prosecution while in Office.” While delving into several historical documents to weigh the pros and cons of indicting a sitting president, Dixon ultimately concluded that the president’s role was too vital for him to be indicted while in office.

Dixon argued that if a president had to face criminal charges, it would interfere with many duties “which cannot be performed by anyone else.” Dixon believed the concern was especially acute given that the president’s power had grown to a level “undreamed of in the 18th and early 19th centuries.” Dixon also claimed that if an indicted president opted to go to trial, a guilty verdict might not be seen as legitimate, given the “passions and exposure” surrounding the presidency.

For these and other reasons, Dixon argued that impeachment and removal were the only means of dealing with potentially criminal conduct by a sitting president. While he reiterated that there was no bar to criminally charging a president once he left office, he openly admitted that there was a possibility the statute of limitations could run out before then. While conceding that this potentially created a “gap in the law,” he believed indicting a sitting president carried too many unacceptable risks.

Unsurprisingly, having to endure a blatantly criminal president in recent years has led to calls for the Dixon memo to be revisited. Among the loudest voices calling for the memo to be reconsidered is J. T. Smith, who served at the DOJ alongside Dixon. Watch him make the case on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show in 2019. 

One thing is unmistakable from reading Dixon’s memo. He clearly assumed that Congress would swiftly impeach and remove a president who engaged in criminal conduct. After all, impeachment and removal would make any concerns about indicting a sitting president moot. That process worked perfectly during Watergate. When the “smoking gun tape” provided irrefutable evidence that Richard Nixon was directly involved in covering up the break-in, Nixon’s support in Congress evaporated. According to Sen. Barry Goldwater, Nixon was facing impeachment by an overwhelming margin in the House—something close to unanimous support. Goldwater claimed only 15 senators were willing even to consider acquitting Nixon—not even half of the 33 votes Nixon needed to stay in office. Faced with this stark and unmistakably bipartisan math, Nixon resigned.

Nixon was pardoned by Gerald Ford soon after resigning. It turned out that Nixon had become gravely ill less than a week after leaving office. With reports that a trial could not credibly begin until early 1975, it appears that Ford was partly motivated by concerns that Nixon wouldn’t live that long—or at least that he would have been physically unable to stand trial.

Ford’s earlier claims that Nixon had suffered enough by being forced out of the White House in disgrace proved to be an albatross around his party’s neck in 1974, and his own two years later. Political fallout notwithstanding, the system worked exactly as Dixon seemed to have expected.

But to be effective, the process requires Congress to have the political will to act. During Trump’s two impeachments, even though it was beyond dispute that Trump had trampled both the Constitution and his oath to preserve, protect, and defend it, intransigent Republican opposition prevented him from facing his reckoning.

In 2019, after Trump attempted to bully Ukraine into joining a politically motivated investigation into Joe Biden, Republicans were unwilling to take off their red blinders even for a minute and uphold their oaths of office. Instead, we were served with hair-on-fire claims about how evil liberals were in cahoots with the deep state to stop Trump, as well as warnings from Trump’s evangelical supporters that impeachment amounted to an attack on their values.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy summed up this mentality. At the very start of his remarks opposing Trump’s first impeachment he claimed, with a straight face, that the Democrats were only impeaching Trump because they could not bring themselves to accept that he was president.

McCarthy also claimed that Democrats were trying to turn impeachment into “an exercise of raw political power.” His remarks were little more than a longer version of this tweet from then-First Daughter-in-Law Lara Trump.

— Lara Trump (@LaraLeaTrump) September 28, 2019

If anything, the Republicans’ failure was even starker during Trump’s second impeachment. Even though it was clear that Trump had incited the deadly insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, to steal a second term, only 10 House Republicans were willing to summon the will to impeach him. When Trump was tried in the Senate, only seven Republicans voted to convict—10 short of the necessary threshold.

One of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, later recalled that he believed as many as 25 Republicans would vote to impeach—only to be surprised when just nine of his colleagues joined him. According to Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, one of the managers during Trump’s first impeachment, several more would have done so, but feared for their lives. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to call the Senate back into session in order to ensure the trial would begin before the end of Trump’s term. That made his ultimate decision to acquit Trump because he was no longer in office—a sentiment shared by no fewer than seven other senators (Rob Portman, John Thune, Shelley Moore Capito, John Cornyn, Mike Rounds, Steve Daines, and Jerry Moran)—sound disingenuous, to put it mildly.

The current DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president is grounded on the idea that such an indictment would do too much damage to the country. According to the man who authored that policy, the only way to solve that problem is to render that president a private citizen by impeaching him and removing him from office in short order. But if Congress isn’t willing to hold up its end of the bargain, then you have at least the appearance of, in Nixon’s words, a “gap in the law.”

Such a situation is untenable in any society that purports to be based on the rule of law. It also risks irreparable damage to America’s reputation abroad; more than a few of my acquaintances outside this country have wondered why Trump hasn’t been arrested.

I have been of the mind for some time that the sheer egregiousness of Trump’s alleged misdeeds in office was such that there was at least one federal criminal investigation well underway, in addition to the state-level investigations being led by New York Attorney General Letitia James and Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis. Any doubt I had of this was put to rest in February by former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner. On his podcast, Justice Matters, Kirschner opined that he believed we would see indictments of Trump and much of his inner circle because “there are too many dedicated people at the Department of Justice not to ...” Earlier, he’d cautioned that the DOJ’s inclination to conduct “long exhaustive proactive investigations with no deadlines” is a big reason we haven’t seen the indictments roll out yet.

Kirschner spent his entire 24-year career as an assistant U. S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the second-most prestigious U. S. Attorney’s Office in the country, behind the Southern District of New York. He knows what it takes to conduct “long exhaustive proactive investigations” of which he spoke. And when the target of that investigation is a former president with a very cult-like following, it’s even more important to make sure that case is ironclad.

We got a reminder of just how ponderous this process is later in February when CNN revealed that the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection was being snarled by Trump’s pesky habit of using other people’s phones. According to multiple sources in the Trump White House, Trump was so paranoid about people listening in on his calls that he frequently confiscated the cell phones of aides and Secret Service agents. 

These accounts appear to have been corroborated by Trump’s third White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham. In an interview with CNN’s New Day, Grisham revealed that Trump was known to commandeer the phones of anyone who happened to be in the same room.

This makes reconstructing the events of that horrible day even more difficult. If Trump was using other people’s phones, anyone investigating the events leading up to the pro-Trump hordes swarming into the Capitol would have to wade through the phone records of innocent third parties and try to separate legitimate calls from not-so-legitimate calls. If the House investigators were stymied by this, the odds are pretty good that federal prosecutors are as well.

The need to wade through this evidence would make building a solid case against Trump difficult, even without the compressed time frame to bring an indictment before the statute of limitations runs out. Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the de facto second-in-command during Trump’s first impeachment, had this in mind when he wrote the No President is Above the Law Act of 2020. This bill would “toll,” or pause, the statute of limitations for any federal crimes committed by a sitting president before or during his time in office. The Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee had a simple rationale for this bill: to prevent a president from using his office “to avoid legal consequences.”

The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, scoffed that this bill was a solution in search of a problem. However, they claimed that its premise was undermined by Mueller’s report, since any claims that Trump colluded with Russia were “disproven” by Mueller. They ignore that Mueller explicitly stated that his report did not exonerate Trump. Moreover, are the House Republicans okay with creating even the appearance that you can be above the law just by virtue of being president?

Much of Nadler’s bill was folded into the Protecting Our Democracy Act, authored by Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the lead manager during Trump’s first impeachment. In an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, Schiff heralded the bill as an effort to codify “what had been, we thought, inviolate norms of behavior in office.” However, Schiff’s act sets up new guardrails, including the effective pause of the statute of limitations for sitting presidents as proposed by Nadler.

The Protecting Our Democracy Act passed the House in December, with Kinzinger being the only Republican to support it. The Senate has yet to take up the bill as of this writing, which, to put it mildly, is unfortunate. The Republicans had a chance to make up for their failure to uphold their oaths of office during Trump’s two impeachments. So far, they’re squandering it.

This cannot stand.

Even if the clock runs out on any effort to make Trump answer for his misdeeds in federal court, Nadler and Schiff have crafted what is arguably the best mechanism to prevent another president from following his example. Call your senators and tell them to support the Protect Our Democracy Act. We cannot allow even the appearance of a president being above the law.

Black Trumpkin pastor in Virginia brags about issuing 17,000 religious exemptions from vaccines

It may seem that the Republican Party is willing to condone racism. After all, Donald Trump still has the GOP very much in his thrall, despite his penchant for blowing racist yacht horns—like calling Democratic lawmakers “savages” when he was attacking a Latina, two Black people, a Palestinian, and two Jews. But the GOP is okay with people of color—just as long as they’re line-drawing conservatives. Take the word of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is of the mind that people of color “can go anywhere”—but “you just need to be conservative, not liberal.”

While Graham was referring specifically to people of color in his state of South Carolina, I suspect that the kind of Black politician he has in mind is Leon Benjamin, a Black pastor from Richmond, Virginia. Two years ago, Benjamin challenged incumbent Democrat Don McEachin in the commonwealth’s Fourth Congressional District—and got his head handed to him, 61-38. He’s back for a rematch in 2022 even though he’s running in territory that is even bluer than its predecessor. But that hasn’t dissuaded Benjamin from going full-on deplorable. How deplorable, you ask?

He’s openly bragging about doling out religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

I first noticed Benjamin late last month. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch caught him speaking at the Phoenix edition of the Reawaken America Tour, a right-wing conference organized by podcaster Clay Clark and co-sponsored by Charisma magazine. At that gathering, Benjamin took a swipe at pastors who guide their flocks to wear masks and get vaccinated, calling them “false prophets” and more.

MAGA pastor and GOP congressional candidate Leon Benjamin declares that any Christian leader who supports COVID vaccines or the wearing of masks is a false prophet: "God would never cover the mouth of a true prophet!"

— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) January 21, 2022

I did a little more digging, and discovered that his full speech was even worse. Benjamin revealed that his church, New Life Harvest Church in Richmond—where he is founder and “bishop”—is offering forms for religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. In my book, this makes Benjamin no different from a drug dealer. But to do so when he almost certainly knows that hospitals are gasping under the weight of the omicron surge? 

Well, it turns out that such considerations haven’t mattered to Benjamin for some time. His Twitter account features this pinned tweet:

The Democrat Party has become the party of division & governmental control. It is no longer the party of great leaders like JFK or MLK. The time to restore our faith in God, not the government is NOW. Support me ➡️

— Leon Benjamin (@Leon4Congress) January 10, 2022

At first glance, this is a typical treatise of why Benjamin identifies as a line-drawing Black conservative. He claims, with a straight face, that the Democrats have strayed from the vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, people whom he considered role models as a kid. And now he has have prostrated himself before a guy who is basically a Dixiecrat, a guy who has spent his political life trampling on JFK and Dr. King’s vision? 

At around the two-minute mark, Benjamin goes from mere deplorable to dangerous. He openly brags that he has written over 17,000 religious exemptions against vaccine mandates. He frames this as protecting “religious liberty” and “freedom of choice.”

The video had me close to screaming and cursing—a reaction that is normally reserved for outrages from Donald Trump. Benjamin has to know that hospitals in the Richmond area, and in the nation as a whole, are being stretched close to their breaking point due to unvaccinated people filling up beds with severe cases of COVID-19. He has to know that one of the biggest reasons that we’re in the third year of this pandemic is that not enough people are vaccinated to protect the elderly, the high-risk, the immunocompromised, and those who can’t (rather than won’t) be vaccinated.

For instance, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and former Secretary of State Colin Powell died of COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. Why? He had multiple myeloma, which attacked his white blood cells and left his immune system weakened, even while vaccinated. Powell was thus dependent on those around him to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, people like Benjamin are making that task more difficult. Benjamin, according to his campaign biography, is a Navy veteran. It's a safe bet that he considers Powell a role model, as do a lot of Black servicemen of his generation. Has he considered, even for a minute, that exemptions like these may have left Powell exposed?

And if you’re worried about freedom, “Pastor,” what about the right of people to not get sick from a deadly virus? Or the rights of hospital workers and other people on the front lines of this virus? Moreover, would you rather see us in a repeat of the stay-at-home orders of the spring of 2020? If you got your self-absorbed head out of your self-absorbed ass, you’d realize that. You’re certainly smart enough to realize it, with your engineering degrees from Virginia Union University and the University of Virginia.

Benjamin is up against nearly impossible odds in November. As a result of redistricting, he’s now running in a district with a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of D+16; the old VA-04 had a PVI of D+10. Even if he wasn’t running as a full-on deplorable, he would need literally everything to break right for him in order to win. Taking his current line, he’s on a death mission. Moreover, a recent poll from Public Policy Polling shows that newly inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s rollback of COVID-19 restrictions is backfiring—and bigly. Virginians actually favor mask and vaccine mandates by double-digit margins. 

So why sound the alarm about a guy who is basically a sacrificial lamb? Well, Benjamin is positioning himself to be something of a voice for Black Trumpkins. That makes it all the more important to turn the hot lights on him.

It’s also personal for me, since I came close to sounding a lot like him. Many of you know that in my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I was suckered into joining a hypercharismatic and borderline cultish campus ministry. While it was the only even remotely racially integrated Christian group on campus at the time, the Black folks in that bunch made Clarence Thomas sound socialist—just like Benjamin does now. I look back on this a quarter-century later, and realize that had I not been able to hold out, I probably would have sounded a lot like this guy. Just thinking that I might have been joining Benjamin in his COVID foolishness—despite how much this virus has ravaged people of color—makes me shudder.

The religious right and its leaders are desperate for power, even at the cost of the innocent

When the history books reflect on Donald Trump’s presidency, the religious right’s unflinching support of him will surely get a lot of ink. Trump promised the religious right everything it wanted and then some—particularly conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices who would roll back abortion and marriage equality.

It is obvious why the religious right supported Trump. One thing that has nagged at me for the better part of six years, though, is how they could justify doing so. How could rolling back abortion and marriage equality be so important that some of the same people who pilloried Bill Clinton over character issues were willing to make a Faustian deal with a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, and reveled in degrading women?

Looking back at how the religious right has done business since it started rearing its ugly head in the late 1970s and early ‘80s seems to reveal at least part of the answer.

All too often, it seems that the nation’s self-declared moral guardians have been willing to forsake Jesus’ warning in Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these.” They have been willing to throw the vulnerable under the bus for the sake of not only making America great again, but making America Christian again—or more accurately, making America Christianist again.

A stark example of this mentality comes from James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Long before he rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as one of the most vocal generals in the religious right army, Dobson was a prolific author. But at least two of his books say a lot about who he really is.

In 1983, he penned a book called Love Must Be Tough, in which he offered advice to individuals and couples in troubled marriages. One of those individuals was “Laura,” a mother of two in a horribly abusive marriage for the last 12 years. According to Dobson’s book, Laura’s husband was two-faced, or at least he was in 1983. While most people knew him as a prominent lawyer and church leader, he frequently went into fits of rage and beat Laura to a bloody pulp before blaming her for the abuse.

A trained psychologist like Dobson would know that there is only one acceptable response to Laura’s question: Tell her to get out, and get out now. For that matter, it shouldn’t take any training to know that marriage died long ago. But incredibly, Dobson told Laura that “divorce is not the answer to this problem.” Rather, he encouraged Laura to “change her husband’s behavior” by taking his most outrageous demands, wadding them up, and throwing them back at him.

Dobson did suggest that Laura move out until her husband “gives her reason to believe he is willing to change.” Only then, he noted, should the process of reconciliation begin. But one shouldn’t need a psychology degree to know that when abuse has gone on for this long, there’s no reconciling, especially when kids are in the situation.

In 2015, R.L. Stollar of Homeschoolers Anonymous, a community of people who share their experiences in the evangelical homeschooling world, discovered that the sage advice from Dobson remained unchanged in the 2007 edition of Love Must Be Tough. The book has gone through four editions, with the advice to Laura remaining the same in all of them; the most recent was in 2010.

Telling Laura to stay in an abusive marriage isn’t the worst thing that has come from Dobson’s pen. That came in 1978 from one of his many books on child-rearing, The Strong-Willed Child. Dobson starts that book by recalling how he took a belt to his 12-pound dachshund, Sigmund Freud, after “Siggie” refused to go to bed. This vile account has remained unchanged through five editions—most recently in 2017. As disturbing as this is on its own, it’s even worse when considering the mountain of evidence that cruelty to animals inevitably leads to cruelty to people.

Dobson still went on to become one of the most powerful voices in the religious right, with the ear of three presidents—including Trump. Watch him give his thoughts about Trump on CBN News.

But how was Dobson even allowed to get to that point? The only plausible conclusion one can draw is that the publishers, pastors, and Christian radio stations who supported Dobson and Focus on the Family were willing to overlook these outrageous statements due to his conservative views on child-rearing, reproductive roles and rights, and the family. A little violence against a senior dog didn’t matter so much when Dobson’s publisher and his audience liked the rest of the book.

This conclusion doesn’t sound so outlandish in light of the religious right still being in thrall to Trump, even in the face of his many depravities. Trump infamously declared in January 2016 that he wouldn’t lose any supporters even if he turned Fifth Avenue into a bloodbath. But in 2020, The New York Times’ religion reporter, Elizabeth Dias, revealed that Trump said something else in that speech.

“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.

Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”

If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.

“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

Trump gave that speech in a corner of northwestern Iowa that’s one of the most fundified regions of the country. This was the former bailiwick of one of the most odious members ever elected to the House, Steve King. According to Dias, this speech encapsulated why people in this region, and evangelicals as a whole, flocked to Trump. They knew full well he was a gangster, a boor, a bully. But at least he was “the bully who was on their side,” someone who would “restore them to power.”

Seen in this light, the religious right’s continued support for Trump despite his voluminous outrages, as well as its willingness to peddle a false narrative about him, makes more sense. For instance, after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, it seemed like religious right leaders were falling all over themselves to say that his profane words didn’t matter nearly as much as Trump’s promise to appoint line-drawing conservatives to the courts who would roll back abortion and marriage equality. Indeed, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council openly admitted he and other so-called moral guardians were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his past depravities. To service the massive debt he owed them for their support in 2016, Trump just had to give evangelicals what they wanted on policy. During Trump’s first impeachment, pro-Trump pastors actually claimed that those evil liberal Democrats were actually impeaching their values, under the influence of demons.

This nonsense hasn’t let up since Trump left office, even though it has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that Trump was not just lying about the 2020 election being stolen from him, but also incited a deadly insurrection in hopes of stealing another term. For the better part of a year, a number of so-called “prophets” have insisted to everyone who would listen that Trump is the legitimate president, and that God himself will right the terrible wrong done to him. One of them, Johnny Enlow, even declared with a straight face that those who don’t bow and pray to the orange god that he and his fellow moral guardians helped make do so at risk of their salvation.

Sadly, this approach is working among the religious right’s followers. In late September, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a whopping 61% of white evangelicals believed that Trump had a second term stolen from him. An equally staggering 68% of white evangelicals considered Trump a “true patriot.”

In what world is it possible for people holding themselves out as moral guardians to go all-in for a man whom they know is a thug and a reprobate? And in what world is it possible for a significant segment of a major party’s base to be in thrall with such a man even after it has been amply demonstrated that he is guilty of moral and political corruption at best, and treasonous acts at worst? In the world of the religious right.

With this knowledge in hand, a number of other low moments in the religious right’s worship of Trump suddenly make more sense. The one that sticks out the most came during the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Almost from the moment Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the religious right went all-in on the effort to get Kavanaugh that black robe. It’s no surprise: Kavanaugh was Reason 1-B for the religious right prostrating itself before Trump. (Neil Gorsuch was Reason 1-A, and Amy Coney Barrett was Reason 1-C.)

But just how determined the nation’s so-called moral guardians were to get another potential vote against Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges was revealed when Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine, claimed that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her were no big deal.

For some time, Strang has used his platform as the publisher of the largest Pentecostal/charismatic-oriented magazine in the world to carry water for the religious right, including the effort to bully the country into worshiping Trump. Strang has written two paeans to Trump, God and Donald Trump and Trump Aftershock, arguing that Trump’s upset victory was a miracle, and that he wasn’t just making America great again, but Christian again—which we’ve of course heard before.

Strang hit absolute bottom in late September, when he told Charisma’s Facebook followers that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed—even if Ford’s allegations of assault were in fact true. As he put it, even if one believed Ford, Kavanaugh was merely engaging in “the kind of nickel and dime stuff that high school kids do.” No, this isn’t snark. Watch him say it.

These Trump-loving false prophets spread dangerous lies, but social media companies won’t act

Donald Trump left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of American opinion polling. His average approval rating at FiveThirtyEight never topped 45%. And yet, he was able to remain standing in part because the religious right remained firmly in his corner.

From the time Trump locked up the Republican nomination in 2016, the nation’s so-called moral guardians peddled a false narrative to their flocks. Most of the nation saw a candidate who plastered a news anchor’s private cell phone number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, and reveled in degrading women. They also saw a president who knowingly spewed racial slurs at lawmakers of color, forced taxpayers to foot the bill for his golf outings, lied over 30,500 times, and utterly mishandled the worst peacetime crisis in our nation’s history.

But the religious right portrayed Trump as a guy whom God himself chose to not only make America great again, but make America Christian again. After all, pro-Trump ministers and evangelists insisted, what really mattered was that Trump opposed abortion and marriage equality, and intended to stack the courts with line-drawing conservatives.

They also saw a guy who openly promised that under him, “Christianity will have power,” while choosing to ignore that in the same breath he claimed he could turn Fifth Avenue into a bloodbath and still keep his support. For good measure, those who opposed him were branded as opposing the Almighty himself.

This all-out bullying campaign is a big reason why 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020. That’s pretty sobering—until you consider that 81% of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016. Given that Trump made virtually no effort to reach out to those who didn’t vote for him, any downtick in his base, no matter how small, would have been lethal. Indeed, one can argue that when Trump lost 5% of his white evangelical support from 2016, it was enough to pull Joe Biden out of the danger zone where he could have won the popular vote and still lost the Electoral College.

Unfortunately, recent months have seen elements of the religious right ramp up a false narrative that may be even more insidious and dangerous than the one they peddled for five-plus years. As Politico noted in February, these elements have taken the Big Lie to a very logical extreme. Supposedly, God himself knows that Trump really won, and is so determined to right that wrong that he is going to pull out all the stops to restore his Chosen One to power.

The main promoter of this narrative is Elijah List, a website that distributes “words from the Lord” from some of the charismatic Christian world’s most prominent “prophets.” Its founder and publisher, Steve Shultz, sees his task as “delivering fresh prophetic ‘manna’ from the Lord, regarding the days in which we live.” Much of this manna comes from “those with whom we have a relationship, who are most likely to be speaking the true and current heart of the Father in this hour.”

Among those with whom Shultz has a “relationship” is Johnny Enlow, a so-called prophet from Franklin, Tennessee—a suburb of Nashville—who figured very prominently in Politico’s deep dive into these rabidly pro-Trump prophets. Back in January, Enlow sat down with Shultz and claimed that Biden’s inauguration “doesn’t really mean anything,” since any discovery of fraud voids the entire election even after a new president is sworn in. For that reason, Enlow said, he believed we were on the verge of “great celebration, great joy” when Biden would be dumped from his position of “pretend power.”

What extraordinary evidence did Enlow offer for this extraordinary claim? None whatsoever. And Shultz didn’t demand any. Actual journalists have a name for this—malpractice.

A month after that interview, Enlow hit the ceiling when the Supreme Court rejected a raft of 11th-hour challenges to five states narrowly carried by Biden. He took to Facebook to call for a military coup, arguing that the Supreme Court’s “failure” to recognize that Trump had won gave the military a “green light for defense of the constitution, electoral integrity, and the nation’s very foundations.” Earlier, Enlow had told his Facebook followers that with so many elements of the government failing to recognize that Trump had a second term stolen from him, there were only three forces that could potentially right this terrible wrong—“the Supreme Court, the Military, and We the People.”

This sent a chill down my spine. Remember, we were only two months removed from the Jan. 6 insurrection, which was sparked by this very kind of talk. But apparently Shultz didn’t mind. On March 11, he invited Enlow back. What ensued was more seditious wingnuttery. 

Enlow claimed that Trump was still president. How’s that, you ask? Well, in Enlow’s telling, this country was secretly and illegally converted into a corporation in 1871—and Biden actually presides over this corporation. Trump, on the other hand, restored the “republic” when he took office in 2017, and still presides over that republic—and hence still controls “the essential machinery of the economy and the military.”

Is your head spinning yet? Well, it turns out that Enlow is a full-on QAnon kook. In September 2020, he told fellow “prophets” Allen and Francine Fosdick that he believed QAnon dovetailed perfectly with his long-standing promotion of the “Seven Mountains Mandate:”

Enlow and others are of the mind that if Christians take over the seven forces, or “mountains,” that influence our culture—business, education, entertainment, media, family, religion, and especially government—they can bring about the Second Coming. Enlow told the Fosdicks, who also drink the Q-Aid by the barrelfull, that by focusing solely on the “mountain” of religion, the church hasn’t applied “salt and light to the other sectors of society.” As a result, it’s allowed “multi-generational deep darkness” to take hold—including the nest of pedophiles that Trump was supposedly out to expose.

Now, let’s move back to March 2021. Enlow was peddling a line that was very popular among those who were still “trusting the plan” even with Biden in the White House. Supposedly, on March 4, Trump was slated to return to the White House as the 19th president—the first lawful occupant of the office since Ulysses S. Grant. In the meantime, Enlow said, Trump was “ruling and reigning” in a way that would not be possible if he were still in the White House.

Did Shultz shut Enlow down? Did he demand extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim? No! He simply referenced an earlier “word” from late “prophet” Kim Clement about people complaining that Trump wasn’t talking enough.

This would be enough by itself to prove that Shultz has no qualms about condoning outright sedition on his platform. But there’s more. Another so-called prophet who continues to peddle this dangerous and seditious corollary of the Big Lie is Jeff Jansen, a pastor from another Nashville suburb, Murfreesboro. Back in February, Jansen told Shultz that even though Biden may think he’s president, Heaven still recognizes Trump as president—and that’s the only vote that really counts.

In Jansen’s telling, the military—“the last line of defense in our Constitution”—knows it too, and was preparing to throw Biden out and restore “power and order back to the people” by putting Trump back in the White House.

Later in March, Jansen put a precise date on Trump’s return—by the end of April.

It looks like Shultz has deleted those videos from all of Elijah List’s platforms—but not before one of my earliest online friends “loved” Jansen’s call for a coup on Facebook. Fortunately, Right Wing Watch got receipts.

But why is he still promoting Enlow? And why did he see fit to blast out a “word” from central Florida-based “prophetess” Donna Rigney declaring that Trump was a “righteous leader” who had been “misrepresented and portrayed as evil,” and would be restored to office? And why is he promoting Irish-based evangelist Veronika West, who claimed to have seen a vision of the letters T-R-U-M-P written in gold on a stairway and saw it as a sign that God was going to bring him into “the fullness of his destiny”? And why is he hosting weekly “intelligence briefings” with Robin Bullock, an Alabama-based “apostle” who has declared Biden is not really president and demanded that Biden “repent” for stealing the election from Trump?

All things considered, one has to wonder—are Shultz, Enlow, Jansen, and their compatriots so loyal to Trump and so great a need for more donations that they are willing to erode trust in our democracy? Given their willingness to keep churning out this nonsense, that’s more than a fair question.

A deep dive into these outfits may make some people inclined to think I’m making a fuss over nothing. After all, Elijah List’s main Facebook page has just under 390,000 followers, while its video streaming page, Elijah Streams, has 24,000 followers. By comparison, Sean Hannity has over four million Facebook followers.

But there are a lot of reasons why we should be concerned. For one thing, poll after poll since the Jan. 6 insurrection has shown alarming majorities of Republicans still believe the Big Lie. Most recently, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 60% of Republicans believe Trump was the victim of election fraud. It cannot be stated enough—a large majority of a major political party believes this nonsense.

The Survey Center for American Life, a project of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, drilled down further and looked at how white evangelicals saw the Big Lie. The results are disheartening—74% of white evangelicals believe the election was tainted by fraud, and only 27% believe Biden’s election was legitimate. We’re talking about a substantial component of the GOP base. Now, consider that much of Elijah List’s constituency consists of the most diehard of diehard Christian conservatives. This can’t be dismissed as the ravings of a small fry.

Moreover, many of Elijah List’s followers believe that God himself is speaking through Enlow, Jansen, and other “prophets.” For them, all that matters is that God told them Trump would win a second term—and everything else be hanged.

Unfortunately, it appears that the desire to deliver what Shultz sees as God’s voice for this hour has taken precedence over basic human decency. After all, it simply defies belief that Shultz isn’t aware that these false claims about voter fraud resulted in election officials being harassed and trolled, and caused an executive at Dominion Voting Systems to go into hiding. And what of the police officers who were injured in the Jan. 6 insurrection, including two who committed suicide soon afterward? Or the lawmakers who had to flee for their lives as these sans-culottes flooded into the Capitol? Is Shultz so determined to keep his followers bowing and praying to the orange god he helped make that he has no regard for the safety of those who had to endure the horror of Jan. 6? Judging by the content he has shared, the answer to that question, unfortunately, is no.

One may think this sounds harsh. But I’m reminded of a message Republican strategist Scott Jennings sent to Senator Josh Hawley in the wake of Hawley’s misguided championing of the effort to overturn Biden’s win even after the insurrection. Jennings wondered, “Once the Capitol had been occupied, how can you give quarter to the viewpoint that caused the occupation?” While he was directing that question at Hawley, it applies in equal measure to anyone who would continue to peddle the Big Lie when it is clear beyond all doubt that it caused an insurrection.

When you look at this from a Christian perspective, it’s no less outrageous. It’s pretty clear that Shultz, Enlow, Jansen, and friends have forgotten Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Like it or not, gentlemen—a term that I use in its loosest possible sense—these election officials, voting systems workers, and lawmakers are your neighbors.

One also has to wonder if Facebook and YouTube really understand the harm of this content. I have reported numerous videos and posts from Elijah List, as well as from Enlow and Jansen. These reports have passed without so much as a response. It looks like Facebook may be making the same error it did with its handling of Trump’s more incendiary posts. By carving out exceptions to its community standards for “newsworthy political discourse” in an apparent effort to avoid Trump’s wrath, it allowed Trump’s blatantly false claims about voter fraud to gain credence they didn’t merit. There’s no question about it—had Facebook dropped the hammer sooner, this nonsense about voter fraud wouldn’t have gained nearly the traction that they did. In all likelihood, there would have been no insurrection.

Indeed, if you strip the Christian veneer away, Enlow and Jansen’s screeds are no different from the kind of incendiary rhetoric that ultimately led Facebook to lock Trump out of his Facebook and Instagram feeds. Facebook’s reasoning for this was simple—it was necessary to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. And their spirit is the same as that of numerous tweets from Trump that were so egregious Twitter was forced to ban anyone from retweeting or replying to them—a prelude to his permanent ban from Twitter.

YouTube banned QAnon in October, and Facebook followed suit around the same time. And yet, by not taking action against Elijah List, it is continuing to let Enlow have a forum to normalize QAnon lunacy. Past history suggests that this won’t end well.

One would have thought that Jan. 6 would have awakened Facebook and YouTube to the dangers of allowing the words of these false and seditious prophets to be written on their walls. Apparently, they don’t see it. Hopefully it won’t take another violent episode to change their minds.

Kevin McCarthy must face consequences for promoting Trump’s Big Lie

Donald Trump still has a hammer lock on the Republican Party. That was amply demonstrated in the days after all but seven Senate Republicans voted to acquit Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Of those who joined the bipartisan rebuke of Trump’s conduct and voted to convict, Sen. Richard Burr and Bill Cassidy have been censured by their state parties, while the other five face calls for their censure.

Yet an even clearer and starker indication of the hold Trump still has on the GOP came much earlier, on Jan. 28, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago to meet with him. The topic? How to take back the House in 2022. This came on the heels of McCarthy voting to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, hours after the insurrection—thus not only giving succor to the insurrection, but to the false claims of election fraud that triggered it.

It is impossible to overstate just how outrageous this was. The leader of the House Republicans, the second most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, saw fit to publicly kiss the ring of a man who spent months attempting to steal a second term—an effort which culminated in a deadly insurrection that came frighteningly close to claiming the lives of members of both chambers of Congress (and the vice president). And yet, as near as can be determined, McCarthy has faced almost no blowback for it, nor for effectively promoting the Big Lie by voting to object.

To be sure, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have gotten well-deserved scorn, and even calls for their expulsion, for their “leadership” in the effort to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Sen. Lindsey Graham has crassly declared that the GOP needs Trump’s help to win. He has been pilloried in the reality-based community for this, and rightly so. But it is one thing for backbench senators to subvert the will of the American people. It is quite another for the leader of the House Republicans to do so.

The leadership of the Republican Party in situ, January 28, 2021.

— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) January 28, 2021

McCarthy objected to Biden’s victory, and then embraced Trump, despite knowing full well that Trump had told the biggest lie in a political career shot through with them. The fact that McCarthy hasn’t had his feet held to the fire for either of these outrages can only be described as political malpractice of the highest order. It’s long past time to correct that oversight.

Minutes after the insurrection died down and the Capitol had been finally secured, Dave “I’ve seen enough” Wasserman, House editor of Cook Political Report, tweeted that McCarthy had acknowledged what the nation already knew: Trump had lost the election.

A few weeks after the election, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged Trump's clear loss to me and I asked him if the president's refusal to concede would lead the country down a dangerous road. His response: "Maybe."

— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) January 6, 2021

Wasserman doubled down the next day, noting that McCarthy objected to the certification of Biden’s victory even after repeatedly acknowledging to Wasserman that Biden had won. Then, five days after the insurrection, Wasserman revealed that McCarthy had previously told him that if Trump made good on his repeated threats to reject any result other than his reelection, he knew he’d have to enter the fray.

True story: the day before the election, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy told me that if Trump refused to concede, he and McConnell would eventually have to come out and issue a joint statement acknowledging the result. In the end, McCarthy left McConnell twisting in the wind.

— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) January 11, 2021

McCarthy knew that Trump was blowing smoke when he claimed the election had been stolen. And yet, McCarthy remained silent even in the face of reports of election officials being harassed, trolled, and threatened due to these claims. He remained silent even as an employee at Dominion Voting Systems was forced into hiding after being targeted with vicious smears and threats.

When I first saw these reports, my thoughts turned to Frank DiPascali, who helped Bernie Madoff run his Ponzi scheme from 1986 until Madoff’s arrest in December 2008. Though he died before he could be sentenced, DiPascali pleaded guilty to his role in the racket, nine months after Madoff’s scheme imploded. He admitted that he had known since at least the early 1990s that Madoff wasn’t trading. And yet, not only did DiPascali squander numerous chances to come clean over the previous two decades, but he actually helped Madoff further the scheme. For instance, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, when Madoff realized he was on the brink of collapse, DiPascali persuaded Madoff to use the remaining balance in Madoff’s now-infamous Chase account to cut $350 million in checks to relatives and favored investors.

McCarthy’s behavior in the months after the election isn’t much different from DiPascali’s behavior in the last two decades of Madoff’s fraud. Based on Wasserman’s accounts, McCarthy knew the Big Lie was, well, a lie—and he didn’t do a damn thing about it. He didn’t speak out publicly, nor did he tell Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the rest of the Sedition Caucus to call off their plans to object.

We won't forget what you said on 11/5/2020 and your complicity in the insurrection @GOPLeader: "Trump won this election, so everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes... join together and let’s stop this.”

— Alfred Spellman (@AlfredSpellman) January 20, 2021

This was a time where the leader of the House Republicans had a chance to, you know, lead. In this case, it was a chance that McCarthy was morally, and almost certainly legally and constitutionally, required to take. He blew that chance eight ways to Sunday. In so doing, McCarthy did something that, on paper, takes a lot of effort: For a time, he made McConnell look like a paragon of integrity.

What in the world could McCarthy have been thinking, you might ask? Well, one answer can be found in a profile that The New York Times ran on him in January, days after Trump was impeached for a second time. McCarthy was getting a lot of blowback from Republican constituents back home in California’s 23rd district, based in Bakersfield and the Central Valley, for not being supportive enough of Trump. When McCarthy publicly stated that Trump bore responsibility for the attack during the certification of the Electoral College votes, hours after the Capitol had been secured, it ruffled a lot of feathers among his Republican constituents. According to The Times, at least one local tea party activist, who ran against McCarthy in 2016, is giving serious thought to primarying McCarthy again in 2022. Before Trump, it would have been unthinkable for a party leader in the House to face a substantive primary challenge.

McCarthy may have taken a trip to Florida to smooth things over back home in Bakersfield, but he seems to have forgotten that he is not only the congressman for CA-23, he is also the leader of the House Republicans. As such, he would have the inside track to becoming speaker if the GOP retakes the House. If McCarthy has any ambitions of peeling off swing voters and suburbanites in 2022, being seen publicly with a man who stirred up a deadly insurrection can only be described as an unforced error. It’s particularly outrageous when combined with the fact that he knew Trump had lost and said nothing for months.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blames *you* as he tries to clear up his statements on whether Trump bears responsibility for the January 6th attack on the Capitol or not. “I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility," Rep. McCarthy says.

— The Recount (@therecount) January 24, 2021

Recall that in 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught a lot of scorn from the right for ripping up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech. Self-promoting conservative law professor (and Fox News pundit) Jonathan Turley went as far as to call for Pelosi to step down saying that she forgot she was representing the whole House.

McCarthy’s meeting with Trump is far, far worse. There is something wrong if merely ripping a copy of a speech draws more hackles than meeting with a president who spread pernicious lies about an election being stolen, then incited a deadly insurrection to overturn his defeat. By meeting with Trump, McCarthy thumbed his nose at the many police officers who were injured, including one who died in the line of duty and two others who died by suicide soon after. He thumbed his nose at those who were harassed, trolled, and threatened as a result of the Big Lie that he knew it was a lie. That’s hardly behavior becoming of someone with ambitions of representing the whole House.

McCarthy will never resign, of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make him answer for his misdeeds. According to the latest Cook Partisan Voting Index, there are only four districts in California with ratings of R+10 or worse. McCarthy sits in one of them; with a PVI of R+14, on paper, it’s the reddest district in the state. There’s no denying it: This district is one of the few red smudges left in a state that has turned an unrecognizable shade of blue. But the trendline suggests that if done right, a Democrat can at least keep McCarthy tied down.

Bakersfield is undergoing considerable demographic change, for one thing. Once dominated by the descendants of people who fled Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas during the Dust Bowl, figures from the 2010 census showed Bakersfield was 45% Latino and 38% non-Hispanic white. According to The New York Times’ profile from January, Bakersfield is now majority Latino. This shift suggests that the city’s Latino population is growing too rapidly for neighboring CA-21, which has long served most of the Latinos in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor.

Add that to the fact that McCarthy’s district as a whole is currently just barely majority white, at 50.5%. Wasserman suggested earlier this month that CA-23 could potentially become whiter and more Republican in redistricting. But that seems hard to believe if Bakersfield is already majority Latino, or close to it. While Wasserman argues that it’s very likely the state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission will create two Latino-majority districts in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor, mathematically it’s hard to see how the 23rd would not absorb more Latino voters if its central city is already majority-Latino. Coupled with the right candidate, policies, and outreach, this shift can only help Democrats.

The vote margins between McCarthy and his challenger are a FIFTH of McConnell’s. CA-23’s demographics (+30% Latino) are similar to CA-25, whereas Kentucky is 87% white. CA-23 can be flipped by investing in Latino working class enfranchisement and turnout.#GetThatMangone

— Ricardo Gutiérrez (@icaito) June 17, 2020

Beyond demographic shifts and redistricting, Trump actually underperformed in a McCarthy’s district, which the Grey Lady describes as an area with “bobbing oil pump jacks (that) dot the landscape like a page out of West Texas,” with a strong historical bent of social conservatism. In other words, classic MAGA territory. According to the latest numbers crunched by the folks at Daily Kos Elections, while Mitt Romney won this district over Obama 61-36 in 2012, Trump only won it 58-36 in 2016 and 57-41 in 2020. Contrast that with IA-04, the former balliwick of Steve King, now held by Randy Feenstra. It swung from a 53-45 win for Romney to a 61-33 win for Trump in 2016 and 63-36 in 2020. Or OH-05, Jim Jordan’s domain. It swung from a 56-42 win for Romney to a 64-31 win for Trump in 2016 and 67-32 in 2020. What’s more, in 2020, McCarthy sits in the only district in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor, long one of the more conservative parts of the state, where Trump won by double digits.

Moreover, McCarthy’s own winning percentages have been tailing off. After winning his first five terms with 70% or more of the vote, his totals have actually dwindled since Trump: 69% in 2016, 63% in 2018, and 61% in 2020. It’s no coincidence that McCarthy’s vote totals have tailed off as his Democratic challengers have spent more money. His 2016 challenger only raised $35,300 for the entire cycle. By comparison, his 2018 challenger raised $106,000; an improvement, but still nothing to write home about. His 2020 challenger, Kim Mangone, raised $1.6 million … not what you’d expect for a Democrat in an R+14 district. 

If the blue team plays it right, McCarthy could potentially face a reckoning back home for first remaining silent the wake of the Big Lie, and then kissing Trump’s hand after said lie triggered an insurrection. There’s already at least one Democrat running against him: naval veteran and ironworker Bruno Amato.

Looking at his website, Amato doesn’t have the look of the sacrificial lambs and Some Dudes that typically surface in districts that are R+10 or worse. Moreover, it’s not often that you see Democrats already stepping up to run in districts this red.

Amato has a lot of work ahead of him, as will any other Democrat challenging McCarthy. This is a tough, tough district. But given the prospect that he’ll be running in a district that will be a bit more Latino than its predecessor, there’s a chance that he’ll be in a position to give McCarthy heartburn.

But we can do even better than that. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Sean Patrick Maloney should tie McCarthy’s duplicity about the Big Lie around the GOP like an anchor. For the last two cycles, the Republicans have tried to position the Democrats as a radical socialist mob. It would more than even the score to point out that the leader of the House Republicans remained silent about the Big Lie despite knowing that it was a lie, even after that lie stirred up an actual mob. That he did so to put out fires back home is no excuse, and Maloney and his team ought to remind the nation that this is not the kind of behavior we should expect from the likely speaker of a Republican-led House. If swing voters and suburbanites recoil from McCarthy over his embrace of Trump, it will all but assure that the GOP stays in the minority.

One way or another, McCarthy must answer for behaving beneath the dignity of someone who has ambitions of becoming speaker. We can make McCarthy do some heavy lifting in his own district, tie his duplicity around the entire House Republican Conference, or some combination of the two. Either way, McCarthy must learn that when you have ambitions of representing the whole House, you cannot forsake your oath in the name of keeping the wolves from your door back home.

Religious right’s worship of Trump proves what we already knew: It’s drunk on power

When the history books are written about the Donald Trump era, a lot of people on the right are in for a lot of well-deserved scorn. The religious right, in all likelihood, will come under particular scrutiny. These self-appointed moral guardians tried to get the nation to bow to Trump, knowing full well that he was manifestly unfit and unqualified. These so-called leaders were willing to support a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, reveled in degrading women, blew blatantly racist dog whistles, mishandled the worst peacetime crisis in our nation’s history, and on, and on, and on.

Oh no, the religious right told their followers when they dared to flinch at the idea of supporting Trump. None of that matters. What mattered, they insisted, was that Trump opposed abortion and wanted to end Roe v. Wade; that he supported the definition of marriage as one man and one woman, and would appoint line-drawing conservatives to our courts.

For people who cut their political teeth during the Bill Clinton years, as I did, seeing the religious right go all-in for Trump was particularly bewildering. Despite Christian conservatives slamming Clinton over his character issues during the 1990s, they were willing to look the other way for Trump, even though they knew full well that he was a reprobate and a thug, so long that he checked the right boxes on social issues.

Not long after the Access Hollywood tape came to light, former Christian Coalition chairman Ralph Reed told NPR’s Scott Simon that hearing Trump boasting about forcing himself on women wasn’t nearly as important to “conservative people of faith” as a president who would oppose abortion, strengthen the economy, and scrap a nuclear deal with Iran that he and his compatriots considered “an existential threat to Israel.” Along similar lines, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told BuzzFeed that the religious right’s support for Trump wasn’t based on “shared values,” but “shared concerns” about the country going off the rails. Franklin Graham claimed—with a straight face—that as bad as Trump’s comments were, the Supreme Court mattered more.

Franklin Graham

It is not possible to overstate what Reed, Perkins, Graham, and other purported moral guardians were doing at this moment. They effectively told their followers, and the nation at large, that they would look past behavior that no decent person would ever tolerate—all for the sake of a few policy wins and the prospect of putting a distinctly conservative stamp on the federal judiciary.

I was reminded of this just days before Election Day 2020, when one of my more conservative friends laid into me for citing Trump’s degrading comments to women. She told me that trashing women was nothing compared to “murdering babies.”

Worse, the religious right is not just willing to condone Trump’s outrages, but willing to bully those who exposed them. During Trump’s first impeachment, a number of pro-Trump pastors went as far as to frame the impeachment effort as an attack on their values. That was pretty mild stuff, compared to what we heard from other prominent pro-Trump pastors. Perry Stone called Trump’s foes in Congress “demonic,” and threatened to ask God to smite them if they didn’t leave Trump alone. Hank and Brenda Kunneman tried to spiritually “shush” the evil forces that were supposedly driving the impeachment effort.

Several prominent members of the religious right signed onto Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election, long after it was clear he had lost to Joe Biden. Some of the worst offenders were the Kenneth Copeland clan. Just 24 hours after the major networks declared Biden president-elect, Copeland’s daughter, Terri Pearsons, led her flock in praising God for giving Trump “legal strategies” to expose the (nonexistent) fraud that supposedly denied him victory. She even called for a new election, if necessary.

A day later, Pearsons and her husband, George, led Copeland ministry staffers in an effort to cover Trump’s efforts in prayer. Terri told the audience that she’d organized the meeting after the Trump campaign asked for prayer as it sought to throw out ballots in Pennsylvania, supposedly cast after Election Day.

At that same meeting, George Pearsons issued a “heavenly cease-and-desist order” against the supposed scheme to deny Trump another term. Two weeks later, George told his flock that he’d had a vision of Jesus walking up and down a roomful of tables where ballots were being counted in Philadelphia and flipping them over. The symbolism was obvious: George was likening this scene to Jesus’ flipping over of tables in the Temple after he saw it had been turned into a marketplace.

Here’s Terri Pearson in early December, perpetuating election fraud in six states.

When Terri Copeland Pearson says the “vote is counted and that is matters”, the subtext she’s implying is that any vote that doesn’t agree with hers shouldn’t be counted because it’s not aligned with the will of her white supremacist

— Zachary Forrest y Salazar (he/him) (@zdfs) December 8, 2020

Even hearing Trump attempting to bully Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into trying to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s lead there wasn’t enough. Less than 24 hours after The Washington Post’s story about the shakedown went live, Al Perrotta, managing editor of The Stream, a Christian conservative web magazine, demanded that Biden agree to Sen. Ted Cruz’s call for a 10-day audit of the election results, despite the hard proof that Trump was the one trying to steal the election.

One would have thought that the Jan. 6 riots would have knocked some of the scales off the eyes of these pro-Trump “men and women of God.” Far from it. Mark Taylor, the “firefighter prophet” who claims God told him in 2011 that Trump would be president, promised that God was going to perform a miracle that would allow Trump to stay in office—even as Trump was recording a video acknowledging that he was going to leave the White House. Considering that Taylor rose to fame by retconning his original claim that Trump would unseat Barack Obama, it’s just more evidence that his vision was just a little clouded.

But even that pales in comparison to Graham claiming that the 10 Republicans who supported impeaching Trump had forgotten “all he has done for our country.” Even worse, Graham claimed they had been induced into doing so for “30 pieces of silver,” suggesting that the Republicans who voted to impeach betrayed Trump in the same manner that Judas betrayed Jesus.

Seeing the religious right sweep Trump’s depravities under the rug—and use Scripture to praise him—has been especially sickening to me, as I’ve been down this road before. Back in college, I saw firsthand what is possible when a right-wing Christian group is willing to embrace some of the most outrageous tactics—all in the name of supposedly doing God’s work.

It’s no secret to my regular readers that I had a very up close and personal experience in the belly of the (religious right) beast. During my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I joined WayMaker, which I thought was a campus fellowship group. It was actually a hyper-charismatic outfit whose parent church, King’s Park International Church (KPIC) in Durham, subscribed to some of the mind-bending stuff that, then as now, is standard fare on TBN and other Christian TV networks.

I got a hunch that something was way off about them, but couldn’t put my finger on it until my “brothers” and “sisters” tried to guilt trip me into doing a total philosophical 180—from a liberal Democrat to a Christian Coalition Republican. I was told that I had no business being pro-choice, and that I had to junk my liberal leanings without another thought. The realization that I could not and would not reorder my mind on such simplistic terms was, I believe, a big reason why I was able to avoid being sucked in. Even so, it took months before I finally walked away for good.

Jim Bakker

Looking back almost a quarter-century later, that experience feels eerily reminiscent of how the religious right outright bullied evangelicals into supporting him. A mere month after Trump’s upset win, Jim Bakker warned that any county that voted for Hillary needed to brace for the wrath of God. Later, not long after Trump took office, he claimed that anyone who opposed Trump was probably possessed by a demon. Along similar lines, when Pat Robertson joined the religious-right chorus warning against opposing Trump in the early stages of 2017, he explained that doing so was tantamount to opposing God’s plan for this country. Rick Joyner let it be known that the devil himself was behind the opposition to Trump, and warned anyone who dared oppose Trump is at risk for being “smacked” by God himself.

According to 2020 exit polls, 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. This marks a significant drop from the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016. How could it still be even that high, even in the face of Trump’s endless outrages? Well, for the better part of five years, the religious right subjected its devotees to a steady diet of warnings against opposing Trump. If you opposed Trump, at best, you opposed God, and at worst, you needed a demon cast out of you. These rabidly pro-Trump pastors and evangelists preach to a choir that mostly lives in a bubble. Their children are homeschooled or attend Christian schools. The entire family consumes a news diet of Fox News, Newsmax, One America News, and Christian talk radio. In other words, they’re hearing this pro-Trump drumbeat day in, day out, and with little to counter it.

Combine that with some four decades of being told—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that merely voting for a Democrat puts one’s salvation at risk. Suddenly, it makes sense why so many white evangelicals were still willing to vote for Trump, even though it was amply demonstrated that he was a gangster and a thug. Considering the environment in which most of Trump’s most diehard evangelical supporters live, it’s natural for anyone who had even mild reservations about Trump to keep their heads down—especially if they lived in one of the few areas where Trump’s approval ratings were still in the stratosphere.

In hindsight, it also explains why it took so long for me to walk out on WayMaker, even when I knew in my gut that they were feeding me baloney. When you spend six months being told that your doubts might be demonic in nature, it’s natural for even the most resilient person to wonder, “What if they’re right?”

That’s why I can’t begrudge most of my more conservative Christian friends for still backing Trump. The real scorn should go to what passes for leadership on the religious right, who are still all in for Trump, despite knowing exactly who he is. Like Tony Perkins, who told Politico that he and his religious right compatriots were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his sins, such as having an affair with Stormy Daniels. And like Shane Idleman, who claimed that Trump’s 280-character tirades didn’t matter as much as the fact he was “fighting for biblical values” in a climate where Trump’s foes were coming after “you, me and our Christian values.”

Uh-huh. So the 26 women (at least) who claim Trump sexually assaulted them didn’t matter to Perkins because Trump, and not Hillary, was making conservative appointments to the courts? And when Trump praised “both sides” in Charlottesville, it didn’t matter because he opposes abortion? As noted above, the list goes on, and on, and on. As a Christian, I consider supporting Trump to be grossly hypocritical—even before noting that many religious right luminaries hammered Bill Clinton for far less while being willing to bow and pray to a neon—or rather, orange—god they helped make.

It takes me back to my sophomore year at Carolina, when I discovered by accident that KPIC, the parent church of the group I’d left, had once been part of Maranatha Campus Ministries, one of the more notorious “campus cults” of the 1970s and 1980s. Maranatha had come under well-deserved heat in those days for abusive and controlling practices; it was denounced as a Christianized version of the Moonies or Hare Krishnas.

After I left, a number of people from Maranatha came to me to warn me that I had chosen the path of destruction. Meanwhile, I still had doubts as to whether I had done the right thing. I started having panic attacks, believing that I would experience the wrath of God. 14/27

— Richard Wattenbarger (@musicologyman) November 22, 2020

I’d stumbled across a list of “friends and former members” of Maranatha while trying to get in touch with others who’d been burned by KPIC’s campus ministries at my campus and others in North Carolina. KPIC’s address and website were listed there, along with the name of its longtime pastor, Ron Lewis. I was dumbfounded. It was now obvious to me that Lewis was hiding his Maranatha past to avoid getting the hairy eyeball from school officials who still remembered the abuses that had won Maranatha infamy a decade earlier. Further research confirmed that I’d narrowly escaped a watered-down version of Maranatha.

But when I told my former “brothers” and “sisters” about this, their collective response was, in so many words, “So what?” They had no problem with Lewis’ deceit because people were being saved through his church and ministry. The fact that Lewis was blatantly lying about his past with a denounced, dangerous ministry didn’t matter. I think they might have overlooked nearly anything once they were part of an effort to “bring the good news of Jesus to UNC!”

"Deeper than postmodernism" strikes a chord bc I joined the group after completing an MA in English, which in the late 90s meant a degree in postmodernism and "theory." While I didn't disagree with all of it I was concerned then that it would undermine facts and science. 3/x

— (yes I'm a real Dr. too) ulyankee, Ph.D. (@ulyankee1) August 29, 2018

I’ve found myself thinking back a lot to that time ever since I realized how many religious right pastors and evangelists pushed their followers to vote for Trump simply because he made the right clucking noises about key social issues. Forcing people to give birth was so important, they could look past over 30,500 false or misleading statements Trump made in four years and believe he deserved another term. More conservative judges were so important that devout evangelicals were told to look past Trump’s choice to knowingly “play down” the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and vote for his reelection. I realize now that I saw a prelude to this cherry-picking mentality when my former friends in WayMaker were more than willing to stay loyal to a pastor who they knew had lied to them about some serious stuff.

The religious right’s support for Trump has exposed the movement, once and for all, as utterly morally bankrupt. I saw the beginnings of that moral bankruptcy during my college days, and it is this moral bankruptcy that has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse. If we are to prevent a next time for this, we must call it out when we see it … and we must do so loudly.