For centuries conspiracy theorists have used religious terms and symbolism to transform fear into political activism. And from the earliest days of Christianity, when followers discerned divine significance in the smallest details of scripture and current events, conspiracy helped Christians interpret events in a way that propelled their religious interests forward, showing them that conspiracy could be harnessed as a potent religious – and political – force. Right-wing populists use religion to define a “good” people whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and “dangerous” others. The populist use of religion is much more about “belonging” than “belief” and revolves around two main notions: restoration and battle. Donald Trump tapped into a deep schism in the Religious Right. Trump promises that he will battle ‘illegal’ immigrants who threaten prosperity and safety, and appoint conservative judges to – potentially turn back the clock to ensure variants of behaviors and ways of thinking that are acceptable to the Religious Right – define social truth.
In 1534 a religious schism in England established the Anglican Church. In July 1536, Henry VIII’s government issued the Ten Articles, which upheld traditional Catholic teachings on the sacraments of the altar, penance, and baptism. In 1537, the other four traditional sacraments of confirmation, holy matrimony, holy orders, and extreme unction were defended in an official primer called The Institutions of a Christian Man, also known as “The Bishops’ Book.” In the 1539 passage through Parliament of the Six Articles, these articles stated that the Church of England upheld the traditional doctrines of Transubstantiation, celibacy for priests, the inviolability of monastic vows, the legality of private masses, and the necessity for oral confessions to a priest. Parliament next passed a statute that appointed penalties for violations of the Six Articles. At the same time, obedience to the authority of the Roman Church was made treason, punishable by death.
The first events of the English Reformation occurred alongside Henry VIII’s sensational divorce proceedings. Henry himself was not a Protestant, and the great majority of the English people, though they may have been somewhat anti-clerical, were, at the time, piously devoted to the Catholic Church. Whatever Henry’s deeper convictions and understanding of the religious implications of his schism with the Papacy, the manner in which he both played upon the anti-clerical feelings of many in Parliament and destroyed the propertied influence of the secular clergy and the monasteries was crucial to the advancement of Protestant religious doctrines in later decades. While he was king, Henry fulfilled the role of Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England with ruthless success, but his desires to uphold rigidly most of Catholic orthodoxy was not long championed by the majority of Parliament or by the effective will of future English monarchs.1
According to George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the coalition aimed “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” The contemporary conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq is based not only on a schism that happened almost 14 centuries ago, but on the politics of the Saddam Hussein era. The Sunni Arabs, some 15-20% of the population, provided the bulk of the governing class under Saddam, while the Shiites, who comprise upward of 60% of the population, were denied political rights and their religious freedoms were curtailed. The contemporary politics of the divide also has a regional dimension: The main Shiite religious political parties that have dominated Iraq’s democratic elections have close ties to Iran, a fact that has irked not only Iraq’s Sunnis but also the U.S.-allied regimes of the Arab world, who fear the consequences throughout the region of expanded Iranian influence.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq has had unintended consequences. The new Iraqi constitution recognizes the Kurds’ de facto autonomy in northern Iraq, allowing them to keep the revenues from any new oil fields and to maintain their own armed forces. But the status of the oil rich northern city of Kirkuk remains a flash point, because it is claimed not only by Kurds and Arabs, but also by the Turkmen minority – less than 5 percent of the population, but which carries the backing of Turkey, which is vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish entity. Following the May 2018 election, the initial distribution of seats of the nine main parties reflect the irreconcilable polarization of the Shiite population. This victory is a major step in Iran’s determination to consolidate the on-land corridor to the Mediterranean. There are no longer any “nationalist Iraqis” anywhere to be found; nor are there any “pro-American” politicians in position of power and influence.2
Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took over North Yemen in 1978, and became president of the whole republic after its two halves were united in 1990. The only man to serve as president of a unified Yemen, he proved to be a wily political operator, manipulating the country’s tribal system and fending off sustained insurrections in the north and south. The Houthis, a Zadi Shiites sect in the north, emerged as a resistance to Saleh and his corruption in the 1990s led by a charismatic leader named Hussein al Houthi, from whom they are named. The Houthi fought six wars with Saleh and Saudis from 2003 – 2009. The Arab Spring protests of 2011 call for the end of Saleh’s 33-year rule, lead to a schism in the army and allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to seize swathes of territory in the east.
In 2012 Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected President of Yemen. Since taking power, President Hadi has struggled to tackle widespread poverty and malnutrition. In January 2015, unhappy with a proposal to split the country into six federal regions, Houthi fighters seized the presidential compound in Sana’a. This prompted calls by Yemeni President Hadi for outside military support. Iran has funneled money and weapons to the Houthis. Mohammad bin Salman, as Saudi defense minister at the age of 29, pursued a war in Yemen against Shiite rebels that began a month after he took the helm and wears on today. Already the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has for months been subjected to a Saudi blockade, creating shortages of essential goods, including food. This has, not surprisingly, bred hostility – Riyadh is now losing the battle of hearts and minds, as it were. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda exploits schisms and shortages to thrive in Yemen.
Right-wing populist parties in several Western democracies have hijacked religion and used it to define a “good” people whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and “dangerous” others. Seeing the court as the way to accomplish their objectives – and their last defense against the total secularization of American life – has kept religious conservatives closely attached to every Republican presidential nominee. Stressing the importance of the Supreme Court in the 2016 campaign made sense for evangelical leaders, given Trump’s ill-defined and less-than-conservative politics. “The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court,” Franklin Graham repeatedly reminded audiences. Other evangelical supporters, including Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson and Tony Perkins, stressed that Trump would appoint judges sympathetic to conservative Christians’ views on abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty. The 1973 ruling that made abortion legal in all 50 states, is critically endangered and careening toward extinction.
One of the most insightful observers of the Christian Right, Sarah Posner recently observed that Trump may represent a subculture of American Christianity that’s declaring its independence from the larger tribe: “Deliberately or not, Mr. Trump may be the perfect candidate for an evangelical subculture that has increasingly become enamored with the prosperity, or health and wealth, gospel. In trying to build a singular religious faction that agreed on some core issues (like abortion), the Republican Party has courted that subculture, even though many evangelicals consider prosperity theology to be heretical.” What Trump has exploited, like many political leaders in 20th-century Europe, is that a lot of culturally threatened conservative white Christians are willing to throw away the cross in favor of their flag, their race, their tribe, and everything that’s familiar. The religious right made a Faustian bargain with one of America’s most boastful violators of the “values” that the movement claims to uphold.3
By organizing politically, the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it’s also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat. This schism creates an interesting cycle: The more the religious right engages in politics, the more people get fed up and abandon Christianity. Some see Trump playing the same role that opposition to same-sex marriage has in the past: Giving people who already have one foot out the church door an excuse to leave completely. And the more they do that, the easier it is for them to embrace socially liberal policies. An unintended consequence of schism, the Christian right is becoming ever more radical. It’s also getting smaller at the same time, in no small part because moderating forces within the evangelical churches are being driven out. How long will it take for the movement to shrink so much it finally loses its political clout?
1 Henry VIII: Schism and Reformation https://www.sparknotes.com/biography/henryviii/section4/III
2 Tony Caron. (24 Feb 2006) Understanding Iraq’s Ethnic and Religious Divisions http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1167476,00.html
3 Ed Kilgour. (11 May 2016) How Donald Trump Has Split the Christian Right http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/05/how-donald-trump-has-split-the-christian-right.html