Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s opening prayer at the Republican National Convention offered a stark contrast to the night’s myriad of speeches and presentations.
“Let us pray. And pray we must, as grateful citizens of a country we boldly claim to be one nation under God,” he said. “Pray we must, praising the Lord for a country where freedom of religion is so cherished.”
Feeling more like a referee before a boxing match, Dolan’s prayer concludes with the words, “As we ask your hand, Almighty Father, upon this convention and the nominees of both parties, and his wisdom upon an electorate so eager to perform its duty of faithful citizenship. Pray we do, for we dare claim. In God we trust.”
There was an immediate shift in tone when 26-year-old Charlie Kirk walked up to the podium at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, set a tone of fear that would prove to be a dominant theme of the evening, an almost religious good versus evil framing of Nov. 3.
“This election is between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love,” he stated emphatically, echoing Trumpian rhetoric, which proves to set an outsider persona of Trump.
Presenting Trump as a populist defender of working class and middle-class values, Kirk blamed leaders from both parties for “selling us out to China” – seeming to forget that Trump has been president for four years.
Not only that, he went further by comparing Trump to Lincoln as well as raising the election stakes.
He suggested boldly this is the most important election since 1860 and that “Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization.”
This hyperbolic language played into the fear of the good-and-evil dichotomy that the first night of speakers set out to accomplish in painting “Biden and the socialist/radical left” as evil.
Placing Trump side by side with Lincoln proved helpful for Trump adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle, who described Trump as a great emancipator.
By placing Trump rhetorically among the defenders of Western civilization and as a champion of “American values,” this good-and-evil rhetoric stoked fears that America and Western civilization will be overrun and ruined if Biden is elected.
Speakers also left viewers with testaments of their Christian faith or personal blessings for our nation, echoing the prayerful prelude offered by Dolan.
Some examples include Tanya Weinreis, a local business owner, describing herself falling on her knees in prayer for her business and claiming her prayers were answered by President Trump when she received small-business loan aid during this pandemic.
Further, Democratic representative from Georgia, Vernon Jones signed off with, “God bless you and vote for Donald J. Trump,” while Nikki Haley ended with, “May God always bless America.”
Tapping into a Christian voter base is an important part of Trump’s reelection campaign, since 81% of white evangelical / born-again Christians who participated in 2016 voted for Trump.
By littering speeches with Christian rhetoric and religious depictions of Trump saving Western civilization, look for further uses of religious rhetoric in the coming nights of the RNC and as we move toward election day.
Rhetorically speaking, fear is one of the most powerful tools to persuade and embolden a voter base yet is one of the most infective tools for good and sustainable change.
Paired with religious rhetoric and Christian prayers, two concerns start to emerge.
Not only is a concern for separation of church and state heightened, but a concern for the continued use of Christian nationalist rhetoric raises an unsurprising red flag.
This is an administration that feeds off of dangerous theologies that teach that America is God’s chosen country, that our success as a nation is a sign of a blessing from God and that when America acts in the world, it is doing so in the name of the Christian God.
When we mix the death and resurrection of Christ and the American flag, we only embolden an American empire – one not unlike Babylon against whom prophets raised their fists and not unlike Rome who, through state-sanctioned violence, murdered Christ who came in peace and love.