For those puzzled about why so many evangelical leaders were willing to endorse Donald J. Trump, the most openly irreligious major-party presidential candidate in our history, Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the answer in his singularly graceless speech at the Republican National Convention: “Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party’s platform to repeal I.R.S. rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and nonprofits from expressing political free speech.” Mr. Falwell assured his audience, “Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.” Kevin Baker, New York Times Editorial, Living in L.B.J.’s America, August 28, 2016.
Before anyone starts to read this essay, which was inspired by Kevin Baker’s editorial, let me offer a controversial truth about America, which could dissuade some people from reading further. Why waste time with truths that are disagreeable? some might be thinking.
Here it is: The United States is the one country on the earth where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is forbidden by law to conduct operations against civilians inside its borders. It’s the reason controversial people come here. The USA is a safe place for dissidents. The concept of freedom (whatever that is) has nothing to do with it.
In other countries, men and women who have run afoul of USA strategic objectives have sometimes disappeared. Enough said.
It’s a violation of US law to discuss the CIA and its associations with American institutions. I can’t be more specific other than to say that the CIA, like other super-sized organizations, has to train and equip, house and deploy hundreds-of-thousands of people (the actual number is classified) who work for, with, or under its guidance. It’s a huge undertaking.
The CIA is TEAM USA. It’s big, and it’s complicated. It’s on our side. Some good people work there. Some of them would like to have more say about what happens here, in America, where we live. Enough said.
If you are still reading, let me get on with it.
Of the 195 countries on the earth, only 75 do not have intelligence agencies. Of the 120 or so countries that do, 15 to 20 conduct operations extensive enough to influence the policies of their adversaries and, yes, even their friends. Influencing public opinion is a big part of what these two dozen intelligence services do, especially when conducting operations in competing democracies.
Nevertheless, the United States keeps agreements with every foreign intelligence agency, which define the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Russian intelligence agents don’t assassinate our civilians, nor do we theirs—things like that. The details of our agreements differ depending on who we are negotiating with.
The “Temple” or “Church” or “Mosque”—call it whatever you will—was always the primary institution used by intelligence agencies in the past to influence public opinion and monitor people’s behavior. Hundreds of books and histories have been written about it. Those who don’t believe it, read a book and learn something.
I don’t want my essay to go off the rails, but let me remind readers about the Divine Right of Kings doctrine, the institution of confessionals, the Inquisition, and secret monastic orders imbedded in populations, and on and so on. These intelligence structures and systems existed in the past and persist in most major religions and denominations to this day.
In the past, each country had its own state sponsored religion. In many parts of the world state religions are still encouraged and supported. In the United States, we fought a revolution to get religion out of government; it was an institution that our founders thought would rot our new republic from within by caving our values of freedom-of-thought and speech to non-enlightened extremists whose purpose was earthly power, not the salvation of souls.
In the 1950s, a form of right-wing extremism got a grip on the American public that was truly frightening. (Remember McCarthyism?) It cloaked itself in the Constitution and the Bible. Its stated purpose was to defeat Communism, which it portrayed as godless and authoritarian. But what its leaders wanted most was the political power to turn back trends that they believed would unravel the social order—trends like pop music (rock and roll), integration of the races, the rise of unions, voting rights for minorities, and things like that.
It’s why Lyndon Johnson, a powerful liberal Senator from Texas, tacked an amendment on a bill in 1954, when Republican Eisenhower was president and the GOP controlled the Congress. Charitable groups, like churches, weren’t going to be allowed to become lobbying organizations for political causes and candidates by spending their flock’s flood of tax-deductible money.
If folks want to hear a reason why this separation of church and state is important, look to media to see what has happened there. Many of our news-outlets are owned and operated by foreign nationals, for example.
In those few media outlets where foreign nationals (some dual-citizens) are not owners, the rest are billionaires; you know, the kind of people who own football teams. Diversity of political thought among billionaires is notoriously limited; they have the reputation of Neanderthals; it’s why our Congress set up public broadcasting stations like NPR—diversity of opinion is a good thing, they thought.
In the year 2000, Fox News helped throw the election of Al Gore to the defeated George W. Bush. An Australian businessman and his Chinese wife owned Fox News. They each had an ideological stake in the outcome of the election. Their assault against the election of Al Gore became an exercise in bullying on a grand scale.
I watched Fox News in real time spew their venom and lies with an intensity that shocked me and much of the nation. After thirty-six days of this barrage, on December 12, the Supreme Court stepped in and put an end to it—they stopped an ongoing vote recount in the state of Florida to avoid the long court fights and violence the folks on Fox News had promised and delivered, in some cases, through their surrogates in the GOP.
The election result doomed America to suffer terrorism, endless war, and a financial collapse that sucked dry one-third of our people’s retirement funds. It led to world-wide destabilization, especially in Europe and the Middle-East.
Imagine Pastor Jerry Falwell Jr.’s church buying Fox News and pushing candidates and right-wing causes consistent with its vision for America. It’s a lot of tax-free political power for a preacher. With the repeal of the 1954 LBJ law, these preacher-politicians will multiply to become tens of thousands. The repeal will provide temptations to actors who might not necessarily be Christian or even religious to use religion to corrupt our politics, establish their vision, and seize power.
If these religious leaders get their way, they will create an American caliphate; a nation under a Christian version of Sharia law. They will make war between the world’s great religions more likely. History teaches that wars over religion are always bloody; always cruel. Read about the Crusades or Spain’s conquest of South America.
What bothers me is that leaders of religions or cartels (or foreign governments, for that matter) can influence our discourse and choose our leaders. It doesn’t seem democratic, at least to me. It doesn’t seem to be a dynamic of governance that our founders would approve. The hacking of secure computers and other information technology during the current election by hostile states is demoralizing; especially when Russian intelligence is directing it, as some in our Department of Homeland Security have said.
Let’s face facts. Some in our country have gone way over the edge. We have a billionaire, self-funded, running for president. He took control of the Republican Party by pandering for the votes of white supremacists (some call them the alt-right) who fly the Confederate flag in their front yards and on the back of their trucks. Go to Charlotte, Michigan and drive through white, working-class neighborhoods, anyone who doesn’t believe it.
After WWII, Michigan was the northern state with the largest population of Ku Klux Klan members in the USA. White supremacists are obsessed by fire; especially burning crosses. People haven’t changed much in some places. Many supremacists plan to vote for the GOP nominee.
Worse, these haters adore the orange-man with floppy hair who married two women born and raised in communist countries allied with Russia. His current wife grew up in a province of communist Yugoslavia—renamed Slovenia in 1991. Give me a break.
The biggest intelligence coup a foreign government can achieve is to place a sympathizer in the bed of a powerful man—one who has publicly aspired to be president for twenty-five years. She only has to spill one secret at the right time to be worth her weight in gold; to change the course of history—and not in a good way; not for our side, anyway.
Is Melanija Knavs (she eventually Germanized her name to Melania Knauss) a Russian sleeper agent? Of course not. The idea is preposterous. Her father was a member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which had ties to the Soviet Union. He administered a state-run business enterprise. No problems there.
But wouldn’t everyone sleep better at night if Donald turned over his tax filings, balance sheets, and income statements? Wouldn’t our beloved country be reassured if he disclosed the details of Melania’s immigration to the United States and her personal history; especially the history of her life before the orange-man dumped his second wife (with whom he bore a child out-of-wedlock) and brought Melanija Knavs to America to become his third wife? They were married in 2005. Melania became a US citizen in 2006.
Clout craving Christians, like the Reverend Jerry Falwell Jr., seem to believe that they can make a Faustian bargain and come away with the power and influence they covet. They can make a deal with a man who seems to lack a track record in any church to turn their right-wing political agenda into an army for God. It’s the offer Satan made to Christ, after Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert without food or water. His defenses were down. He lay in the dust weak and vulnerable.
Again, Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this I will give to you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me. Jesus said to him, Get away from me Satan. For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only. Then Satan left Jesus, and angels came to care for him. [from the book of Matthew]
Whatever this election is about, it’s not about power. It’s about doing what is right. It’s about helping people and preserving peace. It’s about forgiving and being forgiven. It’s about loving others—even our enemies; especially our enemies. Love always wins. Does anyone believe it?