NOTE: This piece was published during the Trump presidency. All references to the “current head of the US administration” and such refer to Trump.
Two days ago it spread quickly across my timeline, much like an oil spill: the current head of the US administration had made more strange comments about religion. In this article I plan to rhetorically analyze those illuminating comments about Biden being “against God” and “against the Bible,” putting them in context of what I’ve been discussing in this space about god terms, devil terms and conspiracy rhetoric. In the process, I hope you’ll start to understand why the conspiracy theorist-laden alt-right Patriot Movement is being treated as the primary audience for many of the remarks from the current US administration, as well as why that’s unhealthy. Finally, I’ll talk about why we need to persist in working against it.
As a reminder, I’m a pastor’s kid with a PhD in Communication who studies and teaches with a focus on stress, trauma, and conflict communication. As I’ve discussed here before, I took a course in the rhetoric of conspiracy during my PhD, and have been dismayed to find how applicable it is in recent years.
“Sheeple” and the Background of This Series on Conspiracy Rhetoric
A couple of weeks ago I jumped down a fascinating and disturbing rabbit hole looking for the origins of the word “sheeple” and started the current series.
I did so when I discovered the word “sheeple” had been popularized by conspiracy theorist and Patriot Movement member William Cooper, whose broadcasting work and published book in the last part of the 20th century has had an enormous amount of influence on key people who have gone on to gain prominence in the current state of things.
In Opposition to Standard Views of Christian Faith
If you’ll remember, I talked in that first article in the series about how counter-intuitive to biblical themes a derogatory usage of the word “sheep” is.
Today’s article analyzing the remarks by the current head of the US administration will likely heighten that sense for you, highlighting the ways in which his remarks are targeting those with fringe religio-political groups and trying to get others to join in agreement with their interpretive community.
In short, rather than representing the entire country—or even trying to speak to the entire country—with his remarks, the current head of the US administration is trying to elevate the understandings of a fringe group (the Patriot Movement) by presuming they are his audience.
Deeply Disturbing that the Fringe Is the Primary Audience
Far from being a matter we ought to dismiss as “ridiculous,” or the ramblings of someone who isn’t fully conscious of what they are doing, I believe this ought to be a matter for extreme concern.
Not Espousing Religio-Political Freedom, Much Less the Rights of All Citizens
After all, it’s really not okay nor normal nor something to be dismissed that the current leader of the free world is seeing an alt-right group as his primary audience and is treating their beliefs as normative, especially because he’s doing it in a way that demonizes all other views. This is not religio-political freedom he’s espousing—it’s one group’s authoritarian views being elevated at the expense of all others.
Explaining how this works gets nuanced, as usual. Thanks for sticking with me while I explain.
The Current President’s Demonization of the Opposition
Okay, so let’s start with what the current president of the United States said on Thursday to supporters in Cleveland. The current president characterized the opposing candidate with the following words: “Take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything.” He went on to say “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God. He’s against guns. He’s against energy.”
Defending God, Guns, and Energy Against Progressives?
To many folks, the strong association here between guns and God (and presumably big oil) as things equally to be defended might seem nonsensical. In fact, some may dismiss it as a kind of rambling word salad.
But it makes sense in light of what I’ve been researching, and is in fact deeply disturbing, when you consider everything we’ve been discussing in this space about god terms, devil terms, authoritarianism, and conspiracy rhetoric. And especially the strands of authoritarianism and conspiracy rhetoric associated with the alt-right loosely connected group known as the Patriot Movement.
God Terms and Devil Terms
As I’ve said before in a series starting here, god terms are concepts to be defended at all costs and devil terms are concepts to be fought at all costs. Naturally, the idea of a supreme being and the authority associated with that supreme being are often seen to be, well, sacred, and things to be defended at all costs. And things that are cast in opposition to that supreme being are seen to be devils.
Where the Patriot Movement and Conspiracy Theory Come In
As I noted in the last article, William Cooper , conspiracy theorist who claimed a strong voice for the Patriot Movement, often cast progressives as “sheeple” to be simultaneously demeaned and fought at all costs.
William Cooper and the Demonization of Collective Action
As someone who came from the right-wing, he also really regularly associated any kind of collective action, especially that related to institutions, with totalitarian tyrrany and corruption, evoking the long-held American devil term “socialism” as being in opposition to the term “freedom.” (This should be ringing bells—I wrote about socialism as a devil term here and here and freedom in the issue of mask-wearing here.)
(Select Right-Wing In-the-Know) Citizens as Having the Divine Right of Kings?
And as Mark Jacobs outlines in his well-researched biography of Cooper (which I’m drawing on heavily here–thank you for your hard work, Mark Jacobs!), Cooper’s views on what it means to be an American citizen are very important to this picture.
See, as Jacobs reports, Cooper—along with many others in the patriot movement—believed that America’s founders, in claiming certain things to be “inalienable rights endowed by the Creator,” was not actually breaking down the divine right of kings, as so many believe they were, but transferring them to American citizens who understood that and rose up to take those rights and defend them.
Where the Second Amendment Comes In From This Perspective
Importantly, as Jacobs points out, Cooper and others in the Patriot Movement take the founders’ concern with a well-regulated militia in the second amendment to be taken literally. The fact that the Patriot Movement is often associated with armed militias like those involved at Ruby Ridge is not an accident.
In short, to many if not most in the Patriot Movement, every citizen (most white and male) who understands this particular meaning behind the Constitution properly, and sees anyone working collectively as a potential threat, has the divine right of kings once claimed by Henry VIII and his descendants in England, and the responsibility to defend those rights with as many guns as possible.
The Patriot Movement’s Relationship to Violence
Practically, this sets up a situation in which suspicions run extremely high, and is rife for armed conflict and violence.
Patriot Conspiracist William Cooper, having fought in Vietnam, did not claim to condone violent solutions and reportedly decried the actions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh who claimed him as an influence. And yet, along with others in the movement, he publicly claimed those who died at Ruby Ridge and Waco as faultless patriots to be honored and defended at all costs.
Meanwhile, he demonized organizations like the UN, FEMA, the FBI and the IRS, suspecting them and viewing them as enemies to be evaded and fought (with guns, if needed) at all costs. As it happens, Cooper ended up dying when a three-year standoff with federal agents came to a head—he paralyzed a deputy in the shootout.
When the Divine Rights of Citizens Clash
Interestingly, Cooper was derogatory toward Mormons for believing that men would become gods with their own planets in the afterlife. This makes sense—after all, however much he claimed that everyone should think for themselves, family and friends alike discuss how little openness he had toward people who thought differently from himself (which makes total sense if you believe you have the divine right of a king as a “select” citizen).
Back to the Current President’s Statement about His Opponent
I could go on, but hopefully this background is enough to help you understand that the current president’s string of god term and devil term associations I quoted toward the beginning of this article is not at all nonsensical. In fact, the only lens it makes sense from is when looking at the Patriot Movement as its primary audience—and the current president making theirs his rhetoric and electoral platform of sorts.
Let me break down briefly why these words would make sense from their view.
Biden as “Against God”?
After all, to the alt-right libertarian Patriot Movement, the fact that Joe Biden is an established member of the government, much less the member of the Democratic Party running on a platform of trying to take care of the common good, would mean that he symbolizes “socialist tyranny.”
The fact that Joe Biden is for a platform of reasonable gun control, viewed by this audience, would further put him on the side of the devil.
Creating God Terms to Defend
And if Joe Biden is on the side of the devil, surely he must be against God and the Bible, right? Especially since he is in the party that are for equal rights for all religions. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s Catholic either—Catholics have been seen as the incarnations of devil terms by many Protestants since the Reformation. Sigh. As a Protestant, let me take a quick moment to apologize to my Catholic friends on behalf of my people.)
How to Determine These Are God Terms and Devil Terms
Note that none of this aligns with anything related to orthodox Christian theology in any way, which is one huge sign that the terms used are being wrenched from their “dictionary definitions” to be used as god terms and devil terms.
And so William Cooper and the right’s use of the term sheeple is at odds with Matthew 25 and the comparisons of Jesus laying down his life as a lamb.
The Demonization of Biblical Tenets
In the same way, these statements from the current president demonize the very ideas that both orthodox and progressive conceptualizations of Christian theology hold most dear.
The idea that guns and God would be god terms that are yoked together in a “might makes right” away are certainly there in the Bible, but they are combated there by statements like those of Jesus, who famously asked his disciples to put away their weapons when they had the opportunity to defend him.
And while there are theologies and perspectives like those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s to be taken seriously arguing that bringing down tyrants like Hitler are toward the greater good, such thoughtful theologies are strongly different from this assumption that any collective action is automatically the enemy.
The Patriot Movement: Really Far from Casting Out Fear
In fact, the religions whose primary tenets Jesus boiled down to “Love God” AND “love your neighbor as yourself and Paul boiled down to “love does no harm to its neighbor” and “love casts out fear” looks REALLY different from the alt-right Patriot Movement’s view of the world.
Patriot Movement as the Audience
This fact makes it further clear that the president isn’t speaking to or for progressives or even moderate Christians when he speaks about guns being so closely associated with God. No, those aren’t his audiences—on the contrary, his statements only make sense when you view the alt-right Patriot Movement as his primary audience and those he aligns with most closely in these rhetorical statements.
How My “Moderate” Folks Get Caught Supporting This
As I’ve discussed many times before on this blog, especially in this piece, I grew up in a slightly right-leaning Evangelical denomination, and have been greatly disturbed to see many of the people I grew up with now aligning themselves with this kind of rhetoric since the 2016 election.
They would be the first ones to separate themselves from the “God and guns” association, of course, and would be appalled that I would suggest that they were in any way aligning themselves with the alt-right. Many of them say they don’t like the current president’s rhetoric.
Fear of “Socialism”
And yet they argue regularly that they had no choice but to vote for him (and likely will be again) because Hillary was evil (which they believe because they’ve absorbed conspiracy rhetoric about her–conspiracy rhetoric which Mark Jacobs’ research makes clear is strongly aligned with the Patriot Movement).
And they say they have to vote for his policies now to “stave off the dangers of socialism.”
Aligning Themselves with the Far-Right
And in voting for the man whose political platform aligns with the Patriot Movement’s beliefs and view of the world, and buying into their unfounded conspiracy theories, they ARE sadly aligning themselves with the Patriot Movement and their suspicions of collective action.
How This Gets Personal for Me
As I’ve said many times before, it gives me great sadness and grief to have watched them to line up with such beliefs.
As I’ve discussed before, I wish I had the words that could make them change their minds—but, you see, as I’ve stepped over the line to identify with “the other camp,” they won’t trust my words on this subject.
None of Us Has to Overcome This Alone
So yes, I don’t have those particular magic words that can undo this ugly rhetorical strategy years and decades in the making—certainly not on my own. And the thing is, it’s okay that I don’t.
See, unlike the Patriot Movement, I don’t think it’s my job to act like a king with unlimited power and frustrated control. It’s not my job to take down anyone who disagrees with me.
Breaking Away from God Terms and Devil Terms about Collective Knowledge
And the thing is that I know mine’s the healthier way, because theology and science and social science all agree that bullying and controlling behavior aren’t the way to a healthy society. And while I think critically about all of those things as an individual, I also trust that others have expertise I don’t, and that collective action such as that wrought by science isn’t automatically untrustworthy any more than it’s automatically perfect.
My Job—and Our Jobs–Together
What IS my job is to do whatever I can where I am with what I’ve got to assertively point out the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all, knowing that a cloud of witnesses stands around me working to do the same (thanks, you lovely cloud of witnesses!).
And in doing this I’m not speaking only for myself, but stand consciously and gratefully on the shoulders of many people who devoted many hours to understanding how communication, including unhealthy communication, works.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? After all, the major fallacy in seeing collective action in all its forms as a devil term is that we all argue on the internet because of the fruits of lots and lots of collective action that created technological devices and other amazing creations.
The Deeply Unhealthy Views of the Alt-Right
Sure, as I discussed in the last article, there are absolutely unhealthy and corrupt forms of collective action, and I think we’re all about fixing those major problems.
But seeing people who are trying to solve collective problems as opposed to God because they are doing so and because they are in a different group from you frankly is strongly unchristian. And supporting a politician above those opponents because he claims to be combating collective action is just frankly unhealthy and toxic.
A Call to Healthier Action
Chances are, if you’re in this group of supporters of the current president and reading this article, let’s be honest: you’ve probably clicked away by now. But if you’re a Christian and supporting the current president after he called Biden as against God and against guns, I call you to repent. It’s really not okay that he’s speaking directly to the alt-right’s twisted, spiritually abusive view of the world and theology.
If you support him but aren’t okay with this, then call him out, friends.
A Call to Keep On Keeping On Toward a Healthier World
If you don’t support him, well, be assured that you’re–at least in this–on the side of healthier views of spirituality and the world, friends. Just be assured that this struggle isn’t going to be easy—the fact that the rhetoric is being spoken with the Patriot Movement as the primary audience ought to illustrate that in highly disturbing ways.
I’m not suggesting that you hold back—now, on the contrary, is the time to continue speaking up as much as we can to try to help others understand and pull back from the worst consequences of this path we’re going down.
Get Out the Vote!
And by all means, vote and fight to get out the vote as much as is possible in this crazy pandemic world. Let’s keep striving to elect healthier leaders—and remember, the midterm elections showed us that while this isn’t an easy task, change for the better is still achievable.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to work against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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