The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP is increasingly viewing politics with the zeal of religious absolutism

Religious leaders pray with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 3, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
4 min

After feigning a desire to keep an open mind about Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he “cannot and will not” support her.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said he “sadly” can’t support her because she has not embraced the constraints of “originalism” in her judicial philosophy. That’s a laughable statement, given that the current right-wing justices on the court who supposedly embrace such views have rewritten Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and roll their eyes at the restraints of stare decisis.

In a sense, these statements are more revealing than the utterly irrelevant and disingenuous lines of questioning that Republicans posed to Jackson in her confirmation hearings last week (e.g., What are her thoughts about a grade-school book that supposedly exemplifies “critical race theory”? How does she define “woman”?). Republicans, in their staunch opposition to Jackson, are not just playing to a enraged base; they are projecting that they refuse to let the other side exercise power when it wins.

Recall, this is the party that denied then-Judge Merrick Garland a hearing at all when President Barack Obama nominated him for the court. Now they say President Biden literally “cannot” get his choice, even though his nominee falls well within the mainstream of judicial thought, is more qualified than current justices and exhibits near-miraculous composure. There is no point at which Republicans will show deference to the victorious opposition.

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That’s a problem that goes way beyond the Supreme Court. Democracy functions only with restraint, good-faith application of procedural rules and devotion to the principle that the other side gets to govern when it wins. That concept is now an anathema to the GOP. As Thomas Zimmer has written for the Guardian, “Many Republicans agree that the Democratic Party is a fundamentally illegitimate political faction — and that any election outcome that would lead to Democratic governance must be rejected as illegitimate as well.”

That view of illegitimacy often stems from Christian nationalism. As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, explains, “A worldview that claims God as a political partisan and dehumanizes one’s political opponents as evil is fundamentally antidemocratic.” He tells me, “A mind-set that believes that our nation was divinely ordained to be a promised land for Christians of European descent is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and equality of all.”

Fact checks found no inconsistencies in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record in regards to child-pornography cases. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Such thinking is evident in the recently revealed texts between then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, after the 2020 election. When Ginni Thomas urged Meadows to pursue tactics to overturn the election, Meadows responded by explaining that “the King of Kings” was on their side, casting their political opponents as “evil.” Such logic, Jones explains, “dissolves the restraint of moral principle, cultural norms and even the law.”

If one is convinced God wants only one side to govern, then democracy falls by the wayside. That’s not even the subtext of the Meadows and Thomas messages; it’s out in the open. This outlook, Zimmer writes, comes from “mixture of deeply held ideological convictions of white Christian patriarchal dominance, of what ‘real America’ is supposed to be and who gets to rule there, and the cynical opportunism with which these beliefs are enforced.”

Christian nationalism cannot be separated from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection or the absolutist politics of today’s GOP. As David French, the evangelical Christian writer and former Republican, candidly acknowledges in the Atlantic:

One of the most dangerous aspects of the effort to overturn the election was the extent to which it was an explicitly religious cause. January 6 insurrectionists stampeded into the Senate chamber with prayers on their lips. Prominent religious leaders and leading Christian lawyers threw themselves into the effort to delay election certification or throw out the election results entirely. In the House and Senate, the congressional leaders of the effort to overturn the election included many of Congress’s most public evangelicals.
They didn’t just approach the election fight with religious zeal; they approached it with an absolute conviction that they enjoyed divine sanction. The merger of faith and partisanship was damaging enough, but the merger of faith with lawlessness and even outright delusion represented a profound perversion of the role of the Christian in the public square.

Jones recalls that, according to PRRI’s August 2021 survey, “compared to those who do not hold a White Christian nationalist view of the country, White Christian nationalists are more than three times as likely to say the election was stolen from Trump, more than three times to believe they may have to resort to violence to save the country, and are four times as likely to be QAnon believers.” An astounding 25 percent of Republicans subscribe to the insane QAnon conspiracy theories. (No wonder pedophilia played such a prominent role in Jackson’s confirmation hearings.)

Republicans have replaced the give-and-take of politics with religious zeal — the politics of absolutism. If God is on your side and the other side represents an existential threat, surely you wouldn’t let truth, comity, fairness or decency slow you down. In the grand scheme of things, what’s a little character assassination of a trailblazing Black female judge?

Jennifer Rubin: The Supreme Court must protect itself from the Thomas duo