There is a measure of support among the Indian American community and India’s middle class for President Donald Trump. Fewer than 20% of Indian Americans are said to have backed Trump in 2016. That number is expected to rise after Prime Minister Narendra Modi nudged the community to support Trump when he said “ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” at the joint rally at Houston last September.
It is not inconceivable, despite ongoing protests over the murder of George Floyd, that a section of Indian Americans may yet vote for Trump in the November’s election. The question is do they realise that their support for Trump’s second term would amount to signing on for more Christianisation of the US?
Trump is pandering to his religious base because he is dependent on the Christian Right for his re-election. As the Christian activist Ralph Reed once explained the importance of the Christian right for the Republican party:
“If you take evangelicals who are 27% of the electorate and you add to them 11% of the electorate that are frequent Mass-attending Catholic, it’s 38% of the electorate, and 56% of the entire Republican vote nationwide. If that vote goes away, the Republican Party ceases to exist as a reliable political party.”
In turn, the Christian Right has been organising for decades preparing for a figure like Trump and has used his presidency to extend its political and cultural reach.
Indian Americans and India’s middle class need to reckon with these realities and their effects. Two new important books provide a firm grasp on the phenomena of increasing power of the Christian Right and white nationalists in Trump’s America. Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism and Sarah Posner’s Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump offer a fascinating glimpse of the individuals, organiaations and networks that are working to wrest power away from the Democrats and traditional moderate Republicans within the GOP. Importantly, they also highlight how the Christian Right is linking up right-wing movements in Russia and Europe, changing Western political cultures from within, in ways that they will not be friendly to immigrants and foreigners.
A little bit of genealogy is in order. The conservative, dominant strand of the Christian Right began to organise politically to counter the end of segregation in public schools which the federal government was pushing following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. There is an erroneous belief that the evangelical foray into politics was motivated by outrage over the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. In actual fact, Protestant evangelicals were not opposed to abortion in the early 1970s as Roman Catholics were. Posner points out that the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution two years before Roe allowing for legal abortion “under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal abnormality” and where the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother was threatened. The famous preacher Billy Graham also indicated in 1970 that abortion was permissible in certain circumstances, before becoming more hardline on the issue.
Opposition to Civil Rights movement
The Christian Right was opposed to the grant of civil rights for African Americans and expansion of freedoms for women in the 1960s. And for much of the 1970s, it was preoccupied with saving the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools that practiced segregation. It also opposed busing and the changing diverse content of textbooks used in public schools. It blamed the Left for these advances and the erosion of Christian values and was to hit upon abortion later in the decade as the single-ticket issue that could rally its followers.
Christian ideologues like Paul Weyrich set their sights on “producing a form of government more congenial to conservatism.” This they did by creating organisations and networks to intellectually challenge the Left and forged ties with wealthy funders and politicians. Weyrich, who was eventually rated as one among the “four pillars of modern conservatism,” the others being Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan, founded or played a critical role in a number of prominent right-wing institutions, including the Heritage Foundation, The American Legislative Exchange Council and the Council for National Policy, “a networking organization for social conservative activists that the New York Times once referred to as a ‘little-known group of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.’”
Stewart’s Power Worshippers, which reads like a retrospective template on how a religion can take over a state, carefully unveils “Christian nationalism,” which is driven by influential and wealthy conservatives and religious leaders who are focused on turning America into a Christian nation by capturing power at the national, state and local level while shaping the narrative on key political and cultural issues. The movement has since morphed into an ecosystem of networked individuals and organizations who seek to transform American politics, the legal system, schools and healthcare through elected politicians, litigation and intellectual combat in the public sphere via televangelists, radio show hosts, conservative think tanks, advocacy groups and so on.
Christian nationalists have a particular reading on US history — they believe that God ordained the country to be a Christian nation and think that the separation of church and state is a profound misreading of America’s founding and destiny. They believe that Christians should be in positions of governmental authority and exercise dominion in line with their beliefs. According to the late preacher Peter Wagner, Christians should gain control of seven “mountains” of culture and influence including government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family and religion.
Conservative Christians pit themselves against everything that stands in the way of their cultural project, be it the liberals, the intellectual left, gays and feminists, who, according to them, are subverting traditional sexual mores, gender roles and promoting abortion. And in these culture wars Christian figures often band together with non-religious conservatives and those on the Far Right to attack political correctness, multiculturalism and so on.
The Christian Right has developed a variety of strategies to enhance and consolidate its political power. One of the key methods is to mobilise Christian pastors and churches to get the Christian vote out. This is done, among other things, through training workshops for pastors on the voting behaviour of churchgoers. Detailed voter guides that can be trawled zip code by zip code for any election are available online. An organisation called United in Purpose claims to have “pretty much the whole voting population” in its database; it builds profiles and produces voter guidance to distribute both online and in person through volunteers, in an effort to get 75% of the country’s 90 million Christians to vote. It is particularly striking from “Power Worshippers” that while Republican politicians do everything they can to suppress the black vote, the Christian Right is busy turning out its white and Latino base to vote Republican.
Trump’s ascension to power has extended the reach of religious conservatives. Ralph Drollinger, a former basketball pro and leader of Capitol Ministries conducts a weekly Bible Study in the White House that at one point was attended by 11 of 15 cabinet secretaries including vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, education secretary Betsy DeVos and former attorney general Jeff Sessions. There are additional Bible Study groups in the Senate and House of Representatives and Drollinger wants to institute them in all fifty state capitals. It’s not clear what these groups discuss but preachers like Drollinger are clear that the Bible mandates a range of policy positions including low taxes, support for the death penalty, denying access to abortion and little environmental regulation. Drollinger believes that the Bible is against social welfare programs and he thinks those who are on subsistence programs and pay no income tax should have their voting rights curtailed. Evangelicals are also busy in flooding the courts with petitions to roll back rights that have been gained by marginalised groups and generally make officials at the state and national level aware of their organising power.
There are, to be sure, several prominent progressive Christians who speak out on racial injustice and inequality and denounce Trump, but they are outflanked in influence by their more well-funded conservative peers who see Trump as God’s anointed, a contemporary Cyrus no less, who speaks his mind on immigrants, liberals, Muslims, abortion, guns and Blacks. Trump has given evangelicals what they want: more conservative judges at the Supreme and appellate courts, newer restrictive conditions for abortions, and cuts to federal funds for public schools. In return, evangelicals assure his control over the Republican party.
The implication of this is that the Christian Right now has the institutional power to hijack the Republican party and propel and keep a figure like Trump in power. What is disconcerting is that they are all united in their opposition to immigrants; religious leaders have either supported Trump or quietly acquiesced with his rhetoric and policies concerning foreigners, including insults directed at Mexicans, making comments on “shit hole countries” and asking Congressional colleagues why the US should take in more immigrants from Haiti and Africa when it should be getting more from countries like Norway.
Trump has also amplified the voices of the alt-right during his presidency, giving prominent places to figures like Stephen Miller in his administration, who wants to restrict legal immigration. Since evangelicals see Trump as God’s chosen they do not censure him when he traffics in illiberal, majoritarian rhetoric. In Unholy, Posner carefully surveys the cast of prominent white nationalists whose views have prominent play in the public sphere during the Trump years. And in a particularly illuminating section, Posner elaborates on the links between the American Right and their counterparts in Russia.
Weyrich himself made several trips to Russia and became a “cheerleader of Vladimir Putin.” He wrote in 1990 that “if the Judeo-Christian culture is to survive and renew itself, it needs to reunite – from California to a non-communist Russia.” Others in the movement see Russia as an essential component for saving “Christendom” from Islam. Another conservative, William Lind, argued that Russia “holds the West’s – and Christendom’s—vast open flank that faces east and south. If that flank collapses, we will soon find Islam once again at the gates of Vienna.” Putin is admired by the US Religious Right for his suppression of LGBTQ rights, general denunciation of liberals and kowtowing to tradition and the church – and they see him as someone politicians in the US can emulate.
The American Right is also in thrall of far-right figures in Europe. European groups rightwing groups are invited to events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference, which has given speaking slots to France’s National Front leaders and UK’s Nigel Farage. Netherland’s Geert Wilders, “one of the world’s most notorious Islamophobes”, has spoken at Conservative meetings in the US and was invited to the Republican National Convention in 2016. American and European right-wing figures also convene at the annual World Congress of Families, which has in its two-decade existence, “repeatedly warned that the West faces a ‘demographic winter’, caused by a decline in white Christian fertility coupled with Muslim immigration.”
Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini hosted the WCF in Budapest and Verona in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Orban gets a lot of praise in the US for anti-immigration outlook, the WCF lauded him in 2018 for championing biblical values and conservative American politicians even challenge the State Department’s criticism of Hungary and other right-wing governments in Eastern Europe.
Implications for Indians
Interested stakeholders in the US such as Indian Americans, the Indian diaspora, its middle class in India, and the Modi government have plenty of reasons to be concerned by these political shifts in the West. A religious faction that has a history of opposing civil rights is seeking to Christianise America with a pronounced majoritarian flavour. Christian and white nationalist forces in the US, Europe and Russia are consolidating links, sharing political tactics and committed to undermining liberals and keeping immigrants out – and these trend lines will outlive Trump.
A few implications follow for now: There is a contradiction between what Trump’s base wants and what Modi supporters in India and America want. The former largely wants more a white Christian America while the latter is invested in a more accommodating, liberal America. Trump is unable to paper over such differences despite being friendly to Modi. His administration has been steadily pushing a hardline on immigration; it is seeking new restrictions on H1-B visas and is under domestic pressure to drastically cut or eliminate the guest worker visas and also end the Optional Training Program (OPT), in “which more than 100,000 Indian students in the U.S. are enrolled in at any given time en route to full time employment.” The US is also reportedly aiming to shrink legal immigration as part of a broader effort to end “chain migration” which enables immigrants to bring their extended family to the US.
In that light, Modi’s attempts to curry favour with Trump by getting his supporters to back Trump at the Houston rally is totally out of line with the interests of his constituents. Modi may fancy himself as one of the world’s strongmen in power, alongside Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. But there’s a difference: the Indian prime minister is the odd man out in this right-wing universe, representing a population that other leaders and their constituents do not want more of. State instrumentalities can tide over contradictions only up to a point. Modi can buy weapons and strike deals with Trump but he cannot move the needle on what India’s middle class wants, which is more access to the West.
As a consequence, Indian Americans and India’s middle class have to recognise that they now have a stake in the preservation of a liberal order in the West which assures their movement and prospects. There is an ongoing fight for that order between progressives and conservatives, starkly so in the US now, and participating in that struggle is not only an imperative but it will entail building coalitions with other racial minorities and liberals in Western countries.
Such cooperation is, however, untenable if Indians (at home and away) back an illiberal Hindutva regime that oppresses Muslims in India. The BJP’s anti-Muslim politics have already put the Modi government at odds with those in the Democratic party including those like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others on Capitol Hill – and even Joe Biden will be susceptible to pressures from the Left about India, if he wins in November. Indians cannot, in addition to this, have a reputation for Muslim bashing and yet be seen as backing Black Lives Matter. They cannot be advocating for liberalism abroad while simultaneously approving what the Modi regime does to minorities at home. In other words, they cannot be against the Christianisation of America while being for Hinduisation of India. The US and the West can, in fairness, be only as open, free and just for Indians as they make India to be.
Sushil Aaron is a commentator on India’s politics and international affairs. Twitter:@SushilAaron.