Birtherism, Conspiracy Theories, and the “Christian Nation”

This morning, just one day after the son of storied evangelical-advisor-to-presidents, Franklin Graham, bluntly suggested that President Obama should “produce” his birth certificate, the White House has released the president’s “long-form” certificate:

The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country. Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate. They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting. President Barack Obama’s long form birth certificate can be seen here (PDF).

As I write this, the president is on my television, an extraordinary political moment, that the president felt compelled to go on television to rebut an absolutely baseless conspiracy theory. (Historical equivalent: had Dwight Eisenhower gone on television to establish that he wasn’t a secret communist agent. Except that Obama’s place of birth is much easier to prove, and has already been proven, unlike Ike having to prove a negative.)

Today, Obama denounced “sideshows and carnival barkers,” adding, “we don’t have time for this kind of silliness.” Which is exactly why he shouldn’t have bothered caving into their ridiculous demands; within moments Joseph Farah of WND decreed the release “raises as many questions than [sic] it answers.”

That sideshow, although driven in recent weeks by Donald Trump, was driven by religious zealotry first: that Obama is not a real American or a real Christian, might even be a Muslim, or possibly the Antichrist. That he’s foreign and strange (Graham’s “born to a Muslim father” or Dinesh D’Souza’s “Kenyan anti-colonialist”), holds views contrary to American exceptionalism (Newt Gingrich’s “secular socialist”), is out to destroy the Christian nation as we know it (any of the many complaints about his supposed lack of devotion to God and country, most recently the ridiculous whining that the White House did not issue an Easter proclamation, even though it held an Easter Prayer Breakfast where Obama spoke of the “resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ”). 

Yesterday at Slate, Dave Weigel published a piece about the origin of conspiracy theories, based on Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay. Weigel draws an equivalency between conspiracy theorists who believe, for example, that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Trig Palin is actually Bristol Palin’s son, and the birther campaign. He sums up what he claims is the rise of conspiracy theories rather simplistically (i.e., blame it on the internet and partisanship):

There are basically two reasons for this, and they’re entwined. The media, as Kay points out, is more fragmented than ever. Information is easier to come across, and bogus information has a way of jumping to the top of Google’s search pages. That fragmentation is happening at a time of intense partisan anger and economic angst.

First, the birtherism campaign and the other conspiracies, largely attributed to the left (although not exclusively) are not comparable. They are largely marginalized by the mainstream media, which has otherwise given wide swaths of time to Trump and others — and the coverage, in and of itself, is sufficient to continually portray this as a “controversy” or “rumor” or “some say…” rather than a politically-motivated, intentionally distracting, outright falsehood.

More important, though, you can’t ignore religion when discussing birtherism. Because it’s a certain kind of religious literalism — one that dominates Republican religious discourse —that is the root of the right’s manufactured distrust of Obama as un-American, not-Christian, possibly Muslim, possibly a secret Muslim Brotherhood agent. It’s that kind of religion that produces the self-satisfaction that there is a truth that is more believable than some piece of paper from a government agency.

And that “truth” is not just the Bible, but the supposed “truth” that God ordained America as a Christian nation. And by “Christian,” they mean not just some Christian like Obama who likes gay people. They mean, as Graham said to Christianity Today yesterday, “a true follower of Jesus Christ and not just by name,” someone who will “obey” and not, say, support LGBT rights. Someone like Mike Huckabee, who “no question this man is saved.”

Count the ways in which Obama is untrustworthy, for his opponents, exemplifying the opposite of “biblical truth”: he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, a Muslim country; his mother married men of color who weren’t American; he says he’s Christian, but doesn’t “obey” God; he might be Muslim; he is Muslim; he’s allowing shari’ah law to subvert the Constitution; he’s a socialist; he’s a secularist; he’s a secular socialist; he might be the Antichrist; he’s a fake Christian; he’s an inadequte Christian; he’s a secret terrorist; he’s a secret seditionist; he’s the Manchurian candidate. Who were the big birthers before Trump? Palin, Bachmann, Graham — religionists who believe that their religion is the only truth, the only path to salvation, and that this justifies questioning a mountain of uncontrovertible evidence — to protect the “Christian nation.”

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