Pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy on Oct. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nev.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Facing crises, Team Trump takes aim at the church-state line

On Friday, Attorney General William Barr spoke at Notre Dame’s law school and raised a few eyebrows by condemning societal ills on conspiring American secularists. As far as the nation’s chief law enforcement official was concerned, non-religious Americans – roughly a fifth of the population – are helping advance “social pathology” and “moral upheaval.” Barr added that these sinister secularists are responsible for “an unremitting assault” on “traditional values.”

One day later, Donald Trump spoke at a religious right gathering, where he told social conservative activists, “Forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer, and the eternal glory of God.” Soon after, the president called into Fox News and insisted that there’s a Christian revival underway because “everybody” knows that “the Russian witch hunt was a faux, phony fraud. And we got rid of that. And then they came up with this Ukrainian story that was made up by Adam Schiff.”

And then, of course, there’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. USA Today reported late yesterday:

A recent speech about “Being a Christian Leader” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was promoted on the State Department’s homepage Monday, and has been met with criticism that it potentially violates the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The speech was delivered at the America Association of Christian Counselors on Friday in Nashville, Tennessee. Pompeo touts Christianity throughout the remarks, describing how he applies his faith to his government work, referencing God and the Bible during the entirety of the speech.

If you visited the U.S. State Department’s website yesterday, its homepage featured a picture of Pompeo alongside text that read, “Being a Christian Leader.” (That text has since been replaced with content about Turkish sanctions.)

Taken together, Team Trump’s theological push isn’t exactly subtle. In a country that’s supposed to honor the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, it isn’t exactly healthy, either.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman argued in his new column, “Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr, whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House, has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No, this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.”

With Trump, Barr, and Pompeo each touting related theological messages over the course of a few days, as each of these men get caught up in an impeachment scandal, it’s hardly unreasonable to think there’s a larger strategy unfolding. And given the importance of evangelical Christians in the president’s base, the effort may even have the intended effect.

But I continue to marvel at Trump’s secularism and the inherent disconnect at the heart of the campaign. The president – a thrice-married former casino owner – claimed to go to a New York church that rarely saw him. Asked if he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, he said, “I don’t think so.” Asked whether he’s drawn more to the New or Old Testaments, Trump replied, “Both.”

And, of course, there was the whole “Two Corinthians” incident.

The Republican has proceeded to lie repeatedly to leaders of the faith community about repealing the Johnson Amendment, which remains fully intact.

The irony of positioning Trump and his scandal-plagued team as heroes to the faithful is extraordinary.