Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
November 15, 2021
Last night, Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn spoke at the “Reawaken America” conference in San Antonio, Texas, designed to whip up supporters to believe the 2020 election was stolen and that coronavirus vaccines are an infringement on their liberty. Flynn told the audience: “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.”
This statement flies in the face of our Constitution, whose First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” James Madison of Virginia, the key thinker behind the Constitution, had quite a lot to say about why it was fundamentally important to make sure the government kept away from religion.
In 1772, when he was 21, Madison watched as Virginia arrested itinerant preachers for attacking the established church in the state. He was no foe of religion, but by the next year, he had begun to question whether established religion, which was common in the colonies, was good for society. By 1776, many of his broad-thinking neighbors had come to believe that society should “tolerate” different religious practices; he had moved past tolerance to the belief that men had a right of conscience.
In that year, he was instrumental in putting Section 16 into the Virginia Declaration of Rights on which our own Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—would be based. It reads, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”
In 1785, in a “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” he explained that what was at stake was not just religion, but also representative government itself. The establishment of one religion over others attacked a fundamental human right—an unalienable right—of conscience. If lawmakers could destroy the right of freedom of conscience, they could destroy all other unalienable rights. Those in charge of government could throw representative government out the window and make themselves tyrants.
Madison believed that a variety of religious sects would balance each other out, keeping the new nation free of the religious violence of Europe. He drew on that vision explicitly when he envisioned a new political system, expecting that a variety of political expressions would protect the new government. In Federalist #51, he said: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”
Right on cue, Flynn’s call for one religion runs parallel to modern Republican lawmakers’ determination to make their party supreme.
The 13 Republicans in the House who were willing to vote yes and give Democratic president Joe Biden a win with the popular bipartisan infrastructure bill are now facing increasing harassment, including death threats from Trump supporters. Although he talked about passing his own infrastructure bill, former president Trump opposed the measure on Biden’s watch, and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene called those voting for it “traitor Republicans.”
Meanwhile, Republicans remain silent about the video released by Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ), showing a cartoon version of himself killing a Democratic congresswoman. Sixty Democratic representatives are sponsoring a bill to censure Gosar; not even the Republican Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), has condemned the video.
It turns out the plot to overturn the election of a Democratic president was wider than we knew. New information from a forthcoming book by ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl reveals that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows was deeply involved. On New Year’s Eve, Meadows emailed to then–vice president Mike Pence’s top aide a memo outlining how Pence could steal the election for Trump.
On Friday, Meadows refused to testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, ignoring a subpoena. His lawyer, George Terwilliger III, said that Trump had told him not to testify on the grounds of executive privilege, but as far as I can tell, Trump has not actually made that claim over Meadows’s testimony.
That did not stop Meadows’s lawyer from taking to the pages of the Washington Post to try to defend his client. His op-ed was quite misleading both about precedent and about the limits of executive privilege: as the committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and vice-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) said, “there’s nothing extraordinary about the Select Committee seeking the cooperation of a former senior administration official. Throughout U.S. history, the White House has provided Congress with testimony and information when it has been in the public interest. There couldn’t be a more compelling public interest than getting answers about an attack on our democracy.”
But Terwilliger insisted the committee was out of bounds in demanding that Meadows testify. He indicated that the only reasonable compromise between the committee and Meadows was for the former chief of staff to answer written questions.
Terwilliger seems concerned that Meadows will get caught in lies if he testifies. The select committee says that “Meadows has failed to answer even the most basic questions, including whether he was using a private cell phone to communicate on January 6th, and where his text messages from that day are.” That sure makes it sound like they have information on his actions that day, leaving him open to getting caught if he tries to lie. Written answers are much safer.
Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee and member of the select committee, said today the committee would move forward quickly to refer Meadows to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt of Congress.
As Madison foresaw, the Republicans’ attempt to cement their power endangers the country. On Friday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released transcripts of interviews with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledging that Trump administration officials stopped them from talking to the public and altered their scientific guidance about the coronavirus, accusing them of trying “to harm our commander in chief, the President.” More than 750,000 Americans have now died from COVID.
Their power play hurts us abroad, as well. Tensions surrounding Russia remain high. Yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked to Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to reaffirm U.S. support for Poland—a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—as Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko tries to destabilize Europe by forcing migrants over the Polish border. The State Department noted that the turmoil on the Polish border “seeks to threaten security, sow division, and distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine,” where Russian president Vladimir Putin has recently pushed a large military buildup.
But, as Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) pointed out this morning, “Senate Republicans are blocking the confirmation of our NATO and EU Ambassadors so as to deliberately hamper global security…because they believe global instability will hurt Biden, and hurting Biden is all that matters.”