Fox Evangelism — Amy Sullivan in The New York Times on how evangelical Christians have sold their soul for political expediency.
To hear the Christian right tell it, President Trump should be a candidate for sainthood — that is, if evangelicals believed in saints.
“Never in my lifetime have we had a Potus willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump,” tweeted Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress sees a divine hand at work: “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.”
Testimonials like this confound critics who label conservative evangelical figures like Mr. Graham and Mr. Jeffress hypocrites for embracing a man who is pretty much the human embodiment of the question “What would Jesus not do?”
But what those critics don’t recognize is that the nationalistic, race-baiting, fear-mongering form of politics enthusiastically practiced by Mr. Trump and Roy Moore in Alabama is central to a new strain of American evangelicalism. This emerging religious worldview — let’s call it “Fox evangelicalism” — is preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.
Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself. As a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion, I’m as guilty as any of not noticing what was happening. We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.
Consider the so-called War on Christmas, which the president has made a pet crusade. Mr. Trump has been sharing Christmas greetings since October, well before decorations had even shown up in most stores, when the Values Voter Summit crowd gave him a standing ovation for declaring, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” He has spent November and December taking victory laps, telling crowds at political rallies in Utah and Florida that “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before.”
Every one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors declared “Merry Christmas,” too — including Barack Obama, whose message at last year’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was virtually indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. What matters to Fox evangelicals, though, is not that Mr. Trump observes Christmas but that he casts himself as the defender of the Christian holiday.
From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause, introduced by the so-named 2005 book by John Gibson, a former Fox News host, and promoted annually by Bill O’Reilly. But it was never really a religious argument. Mr. O’Reilly and company weren’t occupied with defending belief in the Virgin Birth or worrying that the celebration of Christ’s birth had become too commercialized.
In an irony appreciated by anyone who remembers the original anti-consumption, anti-Santa meaning of the “Reason for the Season” slogan, Fox and allies like the American Family Association focused on getting more Christmas into stores and shopping malls. For more than a decade, Fox News hosts have kept viewers updated on which stores were “in the Christmas spirit,” and the American Family Association, which operates nearly 200 radio stations in the United States, maintains its very own “naughty and nice” list for retailers.
As a result, the War on Christmas has moved one of the holiest Christian days out of the church and into the secular realm. That may suit conservative activists who promote Christian nationalism and want to see Christianity officially dominate the public sphere. But at a time when a new Pew Research Center study shows that only about half of those Americans who celebrate Christmas plan to do so as a religious holiday, the War on Christmas may be damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices.
These days, even though Mr. O’Reilly declared “victory” last year in the War on Christmas, Fox News still gives the supposed controversy wall-to-wall coverage and has folded it into the network’s us-versus-them, nationalist programming. The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.
The power of that message may explain the astonishing findings of a survey released this month by LifeWay Research, a Christian organization based in Nashville. LifeWay’s researchers developed questions meant to get at both the way Americans self-identify religiously and their theological beliefs. What they discovered was that while one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.
But if the conservative media has created a category of Fox evangelical converts, it has also influenced the way a whole generation of churchgoing evangelicals thinks about God and faith. On no issue is this clearer than guns.
In fall 2015, I visited Trinity Bible College, an Assemblies of God-affiliated school in North Dakota, to join the conservative evangelical students there for a screening of “The Armor of Light,” a documentary by the filmmaker Abigail Disney. The film followed the pastor and abortion opponent Rob Schenck on his quest to convince fellow evangelicals — the religious demographic most opposed to gun restrictions — that pro-life values are incompatible with an embrace of unrestricted gun access. I found Mr. Schenck compelling, and my editor had sent me to see if his target audience bought the arguments.
It did not.
As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.
These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”
This worldview is familiar to anyone who has spent time watching Fox News, where every day viewers are confronted with threats to their way of life. It’s also profoundly un-Christian. One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is the exhortation “Do not be afraid!” Before young evangelicals can read, we memorize verses reminding us to “be strong and courageous” and “trust in the Lord.” “Fear,” says Mr. Schenck in the documentary, “should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”
Fear and distrust of outsiders — in conflict with numerous biblical teachings to “welcome the stranger” — also explain Fox evangelicals’ strong support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bar refugees and restrict travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations. After Mr. Trump’s initial executive orders during his first week in office, more than 100 evangelical leaders, including the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the refugee ban and urging the president to reconsider. But those leaders didn’t speak for most white evangelicals, three-quarters of whom told Pew pollsters they supported the refugee and travel bans.
That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”
It’s meaningful, Mr. Martin says, that scions of the religious right like Jerry Falwell Jr. are not pastors like their fathers. “There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to Senior” — Jerry Falwell — “that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture,” Mr. Martin said. “Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”
The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.
“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”
Three views of the Republican tax bill and the ramifications for America.
The Hairball — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on how the tax bill got through.
Grant the Republican Party leaders one thing: their tactics in passing their hugely unpopular tax bill have been consistent—consistently evasive. A few weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was passed in the middle of the night. This weekend, the final iteration of the legislation was made public on Friday evening—a traditional dumping ground for bad news. The Republicans intend to hold votes on the bill early next week in both houses of Congress, and it seems certain to pass.
It is hardly surprising that Republicans don’t want to give anyone too much time to look closely at their latest handiwork. The final tax bill is the product of a conference committee that was tasked with reconciling the different bills passed in the House and the Senate. Almost eleven hundred pages long, the final bill is just as regressive and fiscally irresponsible as either of the two earlier bills, and it is arguably more so. At its center is a huge tax cut for corporations and unincorporated business partnerships—such as the ones that Donald Trump owns—while arrayed around the edges are all sorts of carve-outs and giveaways to favored industries and interest groups.
For individual households, the bill contains some tax cuts and expanded family credits. But these provisions are temporary, and they are also partially offset by changes to the rules about deductions. Because the deduction for state and local taxes will be limited to ten thousand dollars a year, for instance, some upper-middle-class households in states like California and New York could end up paying more to the federal government.
Nowhere to be found in the bill are three elements that House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their colleagues originally promised to deliver when they urged the American public to embrace tax reform: revenue neutrality, simplicity, and fairness. The final bill is a corrupt, budget-busting hairball.
According to its authors, the bill will increase the budget deficit by about $1.5 trillion over ten years. That’s a lot of money, obviously, but it’s an underestimate. If you adjust the numbers for a series of accounting gimmicks, such as expiration provisions that are unlikely to go into effect, the real cost seems likely to come out at more than two trillion dollars.
To insure that the final bill would have enough votes in both chambers, the conference committee larded the bill with various additional handouts. They reduced the top rate of income tax to thirty-seven per cent, compared to 38.5 per cent in the Senate bill. (Currently, the effective top rate is close to forty-one per cent.) And they did a big favor to large businesses by getting rid of the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, which many of them could have ended up paying because their tax rates under the new system will be so low.
The principle of simplifying the tax code met the same fate as the principle of fiscal responsibility: it was jettisoned. Originally, the White House proposed reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The final bill contains seven brackets: ten per cent, twelve per cent, twenty-two per cent, twenty-four per cent, thirty-two per cent, thirty-five per cent, and thirty-seven per cent. On the business side, the revised treatment of pass-through income is so complicated that most tax experts don’t yet fully understand it. One thing we do know is that it will create big incentives for highly paid employees to turn themselves into independent contractors or L.L.C.s, which qualify for the new low business tax rates.
As for fairness, that principle was junked a long time ago. The final bill reflects the same principle as the previous two G.O.P. bills: Dom Perignon for the plutocrats, cheap swill for the masses. The bill is also cruel. In abolishing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to purchase health insurance, it will make individual plans even more costly and more difficult to obtain, especially for sick people. This isn’t just a tax bill. It is a backdoor effort to overturn the principle of universal access to health care.
As reporters went through the bill on Friday evening, they discovered various quirks, giveaways, and clawbacks, which appeared to reflect last-minute lobbying and rushed rewriting. Businesses owned by trusts were given a break, and so were architectural and engineering firms. On the personal side, the bill was found to contain a substantial marriage penalty: the maximum deduction of ten thousand dollars for state and local taxes is the same for individual filers and couples. That’s bad news for people who are wed—though the blow will be cushioned for those married couples who own sports franchises. The Wall Street Journalreported on Friday night that the bill “preserves the ability to use tax-exempt bonds for professional sports stadium bonds—a priority for Mr. Trump, a GOP aide said.”
Another provision, which wasn’t in the House or Senate bills, allows real-estate developers who own buildings through L.L.C.s, as Trump does, to deduct twenty per cent of the income that these properties generate. To qualify for the break, the properties have to be newish ones that haven’t been fully depreciated. “This helps people who have held property for a while, like Donald Trump,” David Kamin, a law professor at New York University, told David Sirota and Josh Keefe, of the International Business Times.
Another beneficiary of this provision may well be Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is also a real-estate investor. Corker had been the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the tax bill, but on Friday he announced that he’d changed his mind, and that “after great thought and consideration, I believe this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.” Corker didn’t mention his personal interests, but Sirota and Keefe did. “Federal records reviewed by IBT show that Corker has millions of dollars of ownership stakes in real-estate-related LLCs that could also benefit” from the final bill, they reported.
Sham and Con — Charles P. Pierce on the tax bill.
And, in the end, they all folded like cheap suits because empty suits are the easiest to fold. Friend of the kids Marco Rubio took a dive, and deficit hawk Bob Corker followed him into the tank. The vastly unpopular—and economically disastrous—tax bill likely will pass the Senate because senators come pretty cheaply these days, and accommodations are easily made when you know the only constituency worth your time is your donors, and when you know all the math in the monstrosity is 90 percent fudge anyway. From The New York Times:
The unexpected support from Mr. Corker, who had opposed the initial Senate legislation over concerns about its impact on the deficit, put the Republicans on the one-yard line in the final seconds of the tax bill debate. Lawmakers plan to vote next week with the aim of getting a bill to President Trump by Christmas. On Friday, as details emerged about the final bill, it became clear that the agreement would provide slightly more generous tax breaks to low- and middle-income Americans by reducing some benefits for higher earners, one of several tweaks intended to solve the budget problems standing between the bill’s passage and President Trump’s desk, according to people briefed on the final plan. With the finish line to their first legislative victory in sight, Republican negotiators agreed to provide a more generous child tax credit in the final bill to shore up support from Mr. Rubio, who said he would not vote for the legislation unless it provided more help to lower-income Americans.
It’s a sham and a con, and it was a sham and a con when Rubio and Corker were pretending to be so very bothered about what a sham and a con it is. There has been some tinkering, because senators come cheaply these days, but it’s still a vaporous collection of unmoored nostrums in search of a magic asterisk. I mean, listen to Corker. A Swiss Army Knife looks less like a tool.
Mr. Corker, a longtime deficit hawk, said he was swayed to support the bill as the result of “many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country.” Mr. Corker said the bill “is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.”
Shut up. Just shut up. You know that “bipartisan consensus” always was impossible on this dog’s breakfast and you know why, too. Your party and its owners didn’t want any part of it. Go back to Tennessee and explain to your former constituents where their healthcare went.
New details from the text, shared with The New York Times on Friday, reveal that lawmakers offset other last-minute changes to the bill — such as eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax and lowering the top individual tax rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent today — through slight adjustments, not sweeping changes. And it was still unclear how they were going to pay for the entire package, which can add no more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit if it is to pass without Democrat support.
Christamighty, they’re not even trying hard any more. Just get a big truck and deliver the cash on pallets to the only people in this country who really matter to you. If you’re lucky, they won’t make you use the servant’s entrance. But get it while you can, fellas. Beggar’s Day is coming, and right soon.
And They’re Screwing Puerto Rico — AJ Vicens in Mother Jones on how the tax bill rips off the hurricane-devastated territory even more.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that Republicans’ decision to leave a pair of provisions in the tax reform legislation that experts say will hammer Puerto Rico’s already struggling economy was “unconscionable.”
“It is devastating and unconscionable that Congress would do this at this juncture,” Rosselló told NBC News after it was clear the provisions remained in the bill.
Republicans released the latest version of their bill Friday evening and plan to vote it out of the House and Senate early next week. The tax bill, as written, would include taxes on payments between US companies and their foreign subsidiaries and profits from intellectual property. At a Friday news conference in San Juan, Rosselló called the tax reform plan “a huge blow for Puerto Rico,” according to Caribbean Business, and, the paper writes, the bill would have an “adverse impact” on 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, 30 percent of the government’s revenue, and 250,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Rosselló’s administration estimates that recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María will cost roughly $95 billion. The island was already grappling with more than $72 billion in outstanding debt, $49 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a 45 percent unemployment rate, the result of a decade-long economic downturn. That crisis had already fueled an exodus of roughly 400,000 people over the last decade, a trend that has only intensified since the hurricanes.
Carlos Mercader, the director of Rosselló’s office in Washington, DC, tells Mother Jones the Republican decision was “shameful” and reflects the island’s lack of status in Washington when big decisions are made. “We’ve had many congressmen coming down to Puerto Rico, visiting the island, being amazed by the incredible devastation,” says Mercader. “They’ve been the most empathetic people in the world. But it’s all words, no actions. When actions need to come, this is what they do.”
In an attempt to make it harder for US companies to avoid US taxes via foreign subsidiaries, the bill would impose a 20 percent excise tax on payments from US companies to their foreign subsidiaries. For tax purposes, the IRS sometimes considers Puerto Rico and the other territories foreign countries. That shift could cause the US pharmaceutical industry, which generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs tens of thousands of workers on the island, to shift production out of Puerto Rico.
According to BloombergPolitics, the way the current law works allows US companies to buy their own products from Puerto Rican subsidiaries and avoid regular income taxes, and pay just 4 percent in excise tax to the island’s government, as long as the money from that subsidiary is kept offshore. The arrangement has been a “paradise” for US drug makers and, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that drug companies and medical device manufacturers account for nearly 30 percent of the island’s GDP.
Rosselló said Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “turned a blind eye” on Puerto Rico. “I will be very active and I’m sure my colleagues will be very active, in different Puerto Rican populations or Latino populations and make sure everyone knows we were treated as second-class citizens,” the governor said.
Doonesbury — Creatures of habit.