“You gotta put on the full armor of God. You gotta take a stand, take a stand against the Left’s schemes. You gotta stand your ground. You gotta be firm. You will face flaming arrows but take up the shield of faith and fight on.” — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, June 30, 2021
I had to view the video in order to confirm the crude grammatical construct here (intentional for his audience, perhaps?). The 2021 appearance of Florida governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis before the Faith and Freedom Coalition is indicative of the willingness of politicians to use scriptural references, not to inspire to civil rights and human decency as did Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather to gin up open hostility by one Christian extreme against other Christians and secular voters.
For six years, “good Christians” of a conservative stripe have had to paste an apologetic veneer on Donald Trump’s thuggery. Trump’s association with organized religion throughout his life was opportunistic at best and thuggery was basically his business model. Once becoming the Republican nominee, however, he was portrayed as a “flawed but great” King David, they said, or even the Persian King Cyrus, who freed the ancient Hebrews from their captivity in Babylon. However, Governor DeSantis, Trump’s leading potential heir-apparent, casts aside any need for veneer. He proudly wears a “Christian” label on one hand while thuggishly punching out at his opposition with the other.
I recently touched on Governor DeSantis’ crude behavior with the press and masked students, but I’d like to expand more on the “roots and wings” that enable, and even reward a politician whose first reaction is affront and aggression against people just trying to live their lives in peace. The DeSantis press appearances have become predictable. When asked any challenging question, he first lashes out at the reporter asking the question or spouts a Trumpian anti-media line. He has even begun to copy signature Trump hand gestures.
Before Trump, you need to go back as far as Kansas Senator Bob Dole in the 1996 election to find a major-party presidential candidate who put an “anti-charm” foot out front, and that strategy did not work for Dole. The “goon” role has often been handed to the vice-presidential candidates, such as Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin. Until Trump, successful presidential candidates in the modern age have always needed first to look, um, presidential.
It is already apparent that the “nasty factor” will be much more up front in the 2022 congressional campaigns and the 2024 presidential election. Some leading candidates will be wearing a Christian cross and waving an American flag at the same time they are unapologetically preaching violence in the name of overt racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Religion plays an important permission role
Historians debate the chicken-versus-egg issue of whether religion influences culture or vice-versa. Sociologists often come down on the simplification that religion is a product of culture and inseparable from it. In either case, it is not hard historically to see key instances where the overt or tacit permission of religious leaders was essential to socially sanctioning “bad behavior” from their followers.
I am not naïve here about the historical thread of bad behavior running through Christian history. It has often been very ugly. However, there did exist a clear pacifism theme in the first couple of centuries CE, mostly based on the “turn the other cheek” theology in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew and subsequent Roman persecution. This theological “peace” thread has continued to run through several monastic Catholic traditions over two millennia and emerged in the Protestant Reformation primarily through the Anabaptists, whose descendants include the Amish and the Mennonites today.
The Apostle Paul preached a counter-cultural inclusiveness in the first-century church as well, although by the fourth century, top-down control over the populace replaced early attempts at egalitarian communities. The broader Christian church has ever since remained quite siloed by ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Some of the “old mainstream” denominations have made inroads toward promoting female leadership and LGBTQ+ acceptance in recent years. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, however, “the church is still the most segregated major institution in America.”
As I have recently written, the co-opting of the Catholic Church by the Roman emperors in the fourth century CE enabled centuries of abusive, and sometimes murderous behavior by linking the moral authority of the Church to the political power of the State. The Spanish Inquisition’s repression of Judaism in the 15th century and the concurrent enslavement of Black Africans for importation to the “New World” could not have happened without theological license by Vatican authorities.
Ecclesiastical change is difficult; the current Pope Francis has tried to move the church away from its scandal-stained patriarchal insularity. My ethics mentor, who is a Jesuit priest as is Francis, spent his early years of ministry working with the poor at great risk to his own life during the worst period of human rights and church oppression in El Salvador that resulted in the deaths of fellow church workers at the hands of the junta. However, an aggressive conservative Catholic thread is in opposition to the current Pope and threatens the rights of “the least of these” yet today, including at least two Supreme Court justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. There are both living saints and power-hungry goons in some of the biggest Christian denominations yet today.
By 1845 the cognitive dissonance between scripture and religious practice caused an irreparable split in the Protestant side of Christianity, at that time among American Baptists, with the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention primarily to give religious imprimatur to Southern slavery. Most of the dominant 19th century Protestant faiths in the American North, while opposing slavery, had little problem with the decimation of America’s multi-million-strong aboriginal population, especially if attempts to “save their souls” failed.
The Northern economic system was also not without its church-sanctioned ill-treatment of immigrants as well, with each new arriving ethnic group working through at least one generation of overt discrimination and segregation into their own denominational silos. Some ethnic groups are still “on the outs” with adherents to major Protestant denominations, both north and south. This clash has been made evident by the ready acceptance of Ukrainian immigrants into the United States by some of the same groups that most oppose refugees fleeing violence, death, and poverty arriving on the U.S. southern border.
Church-sanctioned nastiness is not new in America.
Cruelty is the point
Governor DeSantis has recently decided to top even his own very conservative legislature in challenging their re-drawing of congressional maps after the 2020 census. He is specifically targeting for elimination one majority-Black house district stretching across north Florida which the Republican-dominated legislature had decided to keep in place. DeSantis is mounting an open assault against what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court has already hobbled its enforcement in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, Chief Justice Roberts absurdly claimed that racial discrimination in Southern apportionment is a thing of the past. DeSantis has decided here to prove Roberts wrong and be upfront about it.
Governor DeSantis recently signed what has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law. While he defends this legislation by saying that LGBTQ+ topics will not be allowed to be discussed in schools in the third grade and under, the bill’s language is actually much more vague, adding, regardless of grade, “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” That intentionally-mushy language (no state standards currently exist) is a prescription for endless litigation and increased state control over local schools. In order to stoke up overt parental opposition to LGBTQ teachers in schools, he has consistently used the term “grooming” with this bill to imply that gay teachers are actively “recruiting” young students.
While many Christian denominations have come to terms with issues of gender identity and equal rights under the law (and 21st century biological science in general), DeSantis’ own Catholic Church and major fundamentalist Protestant organizations that support him continue to live in denial, even as they try to bury their own sexual scandals. The open support by these churches for politicians running on racist, sexist, and homophobic platforms promises an election season with lots of money as they try to pit Christian against Christian. Respect and tolerance for a diversity of both life choices and theology has gone out the window. Meanwhile we see few media reports of the churches that have successfully embraced diversity.
Just as we continue to see incidents of obnoxious anti-mask airplane passengers forcing the re-routing of flights or disrupting school board proceedings over a school’s library books they never read, the upcoming election season promises a whirlwind of thuggish behavior by candidates and their followers who, on Sundays, swear allegiance to “the Prince of Peace.”