Something very odd occurred in the US last Saturday evening. It occurred at a rally held in San Antonio, Texas, which was supported by the Christian non-profit news media network, 'American Faith.' This organisation was established in July 2021 with the self-proclaimed intention of "advancing the cause of truth and freedom" and defending "American values and liberties."
The organisation operates with a distinctly right-wing tone and a particular take on the "values and liberties" that are being defended. In the deeply polarised world of the modern US, the definition of these words are freighted with intense – and contested – meaning.
Speaking at the rally was Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's first national security adviser. Addressing the rally, Flynn said: "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God."
Clearly, he meant Christianity. Flynn was one of a number of speakers taking part in a so-called 'ReAwaken America' tour, which aims to promulgate "practical steps to fight back to protect American freedoms."
Something of the contentious political character of Flynn's statements was further revealed when Flynn claimed that the US was prophetically foretold, and described, as "the city on the hill" in the Gospel of Matthew. This form of confident American Christian nationalism is well rooted in conservative culture. While some applauded Flynn's statements, others asked what would be the fate of those of other faiths, or no faith, in the kind of nation envisaged by Flynn?
Michael Flynn in context
Michael Flynn has a rather colourful past. A retired United States Army lieutenant general, Flynn was fired from his role as 'defense intelligence chief' by Barack Obama, for alleged insubordination, before going on to be an aide to Donald Trump. However, his tenure as national security adviser was short lived as, in February 2017, he resigned following reports that he had lied to the FBI regarding his communication with a senior Russian diplomat.
Later that year, he agreed a deal, by which he pleaded guilty to one criminal charge as part of Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in US elections and the alleged connection between Trump and Russia. In January 2020 he withdrew his guilty plea and, in November 2020, Flynn was issued a presidential pardon by Trump.
In the meantime – as Trump's re-election campaign faced increasing problems – Flynn posted a video online in July 2020, in which he used phrases which experts argued are often associated with the Q-Anon conspiracy movement. Q-Anon believes that there is a "deep state" within the US government, which is controlled by a secret organization of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
Flynn himself, it should be noted, never explicitly referred to Q-Anon in the video. Despite this, it is interesting that, of the 10,500+ replies to Flynn's tweet, many were from self-identified supporters of Q-Anon, who thanked Flynn. In December 2020, the UK's Independent newspaper carried a report stating "Michael Flynn calls for Trump to suspend the constitution and declare martial law to re-run election." Certainly, Flynn is a controversial character.
Now, it appears that Flynn is calling for some kind of Christian domination of the US.
Why this matters
At first glance the outburst at San Antonio on Saturday might seem to be yet another radicalized example of US right-wing extremism, in reaction to a Democrat having the temerity to occupy the White House. However, Flynn's views are rather too close to the mainstream to be so easily dismissed. A CNN report indicates that somewhere in the region of 35 per cent of Republicans continue to support Trump because they regard him as protecting their Christian position; and they consider that position to be in jeopardy. This means that the statement made by Flynn in San Antonio is likely to resonate with tens of millions of white evangelical Republicans.
With Biden struggling in the polls, anxieties mounting regarding US inflation, and the US political system log-jammed, the Republicans are looking to 2022 as the year in which they can win back control of Congress and the Senate. And this is all occurring against a backdrop of concerted Republican attempts to alter state electoral arrangements in a way which could have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the presidential race in 2024.
It should be noted, at this point, that there is no persuasive evidence of widespread electoral fraud having occurred in 2020, despite the fact that these Republican measures are claimed to be a response to such fraud. Many experts fear that the US democratic system is facing an existential threat as a result of this concerted Republican campaign. This is especially the case, with Trump still dictating the mood music of the Republican Party; and hinting that he will stand again for president in 2024. Trump is far from being 'yesterday's man' and Flynn is part of the same, ongoing, phenomenon.
Only last week, a poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Even more alarming than this, almost a third of these Republicans believe that American patriots may, in future, have to resort to violence "in order to save our country." On past experience, it is a reasonable assumption that this includes vast numbers of right-leaning evangelicals.
This brings us back to Michael Flynn and that strange pronouncement in San Antonio. At one time, the thought that millions of Christians in an advanced democracy might choose to get behind a movement to impose their particular political agenda on their nation, via a political party that seems determined to jettison democratic norms in order to take power, would have seemed the stuff of overheated political thrillers. However, with regard to the US, I have learned to never say never!
"One nation under God:" What does that mean?
Well, it clearly did not originally mean anything like the suggestion made by Michael Flynn. For a start, the US constitution is geared to separating the running of the state from any form of religious faith. The American Constitution, which was ratified in 1788, made no mention of religion, other than Article Six specifying that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
The First Amendment to the US Constitution, which was adopted in 1791, defined the commitment of the federal government to the completely free exercise of religion. Furthermore, it prohibited the establishment of an official Church.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson spoke of "a wall of separation between Church and State." This outlook was embodied in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797, which unequivocally stated that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion..." Clearly, that founding outlook has been largely forgotten by millions of modern Americans.
A different matter is the pledge of allegiance. This currently reads:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the
Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty
and justice for all."
The pledge that is used today has its ultimate origins in one devised in 1892, which read:
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
There was no mention of God. While the pledge was tweaked a little in the 1920s, it was not until 1954 that the words "under God" were officially signed into law by President Eisenhower. The actual phrase echoed words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of 1863 but Eisenhower claimed it represented something more fundamental, insisting that "we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future". If so, it had taken a long time to do it since the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
What this goes to show is that people's view of the past often reveals more about the mythology of the present than the events of history. Regardless of how the US appears today, it was not originally set up to be a Christian nation. Indeed, the idea of religious belief defining it was quite alien to its founders and to the constitution.
Even that phrase "one Nation under God" was carefully worded, so as to ensure that it had no specific confessional character. It could be recited by members of any of the world's faiths. And, furthermore, was so vaguely termed that even those who have no faith in any deity could recite it without feeling that it actually impinged on them in any meaningful or demanding way.
Consequently, Michael Flynn – and, arguably, millions of fellow Americans – hold ambitions for their nation that are out of line with its constitutional heritage.
A lesson to us all
What is clear from this, is that there can be a strong tendency to invent the past, in order to suit the ideology of the present. This is certainly not confined to the US.
More importantly, to all of us who are Christians, is the reminder that the New Testament simply does not give us any kind of blueprint for imposing the faith on others. It certainly does not provide guidance regarding the political route to becoming the only acceptable faith in a nation. Given the fact that we would dearly like to see society operate in line with Christian principles, that leaves us with something of a conundrum. And that challenge applies, whichever nation we live in.
The New Testament's whole tone is that of 'radical influence,' rather than 'political imposition.' The latter can seem a short cut to the former, but history shows it is all too often a dead end, which causes the sacrifice of love in the service of legalism and persecution.
That is something on which Michael Flynn and the organisers of 'ReAwaken America' would do well to reflect. Plus, they might want to delve a little deeper into the actual history of the US and its constitutional origins. It may make for surprising reading.
In the meantime, it is clear that what some have called the 'battle for the soul of America' is far from over. It looks like we are simply in the interval before the commencement of the next round in this epic struggle.
Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-three books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021) and The End Times, Again? (2021).