OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: It’s complicated

A report on the website of MSNBC described a "big get" for an organization with headquarters in Conway, Ark.

That would be the nonprofit group founded in 2020 by Jason Rapert, the hyper-conservative and preachy former Arkansas state senator. It's called the National Association of Christian Lawmakers--"Christian" in that context meaning people who agree with Rapert.

The organization had offered up a patriotism award for new House Speaker Mike Johnson. It had thereby lured him to speak last Tuesday night at its gala at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, a facility tucked between the White House and the U.S. Capitol and owned by the evangelically conservative David Green family of Hobby Lobby wealth.

Johnson is a staunch Southern Baptist who sounds for all the world like a milder Rapert.

Most of this meeting of Rapert's group--evangelically conservative state legislators from 34 states--was open to the media. But the media was excluded when Johnson delivered his keynote address.

It is fair to say, then, that a group that wants to take over our government to impose its religious views chose last week to keep secret its biggest play yet toward that goal.

An aide to Johnson asked for the media exclusion and was of course obliged.

Rapert told me that only the liberal media would find something wrong with Christian patriots trying to restore biblical principles to American government.

I can see why he'd say that. But I doubt he'll be able to see why I say it's anti-American to be the speaker of the U.S. House presumably for all the people while excluding access to your remarks on religion in government for hundreds of millions of Americans. That's especially egregious when those remarks are delivered behind closed doors to people who believe American government should reflect their narrow religious views.

Reports are that Johnson said in his speech that he was glad the media was excluded because he wanted to relate God's speaking to him during the recent House speaker brouhaha and telling him to be patient because a Red Sea moment was looming.

Presumably God worked in Johnson's imagination this way: First the Lord got Kevin McCarthy kicked out as speaker, parting some of the sea. Then he got Jim Jordan rejected as the replacement. More water separated. Then he got Tom Emmer rejected, and the water fully parted. Then God ushered a dry Johnson safely between the waters to the speaker's office to advance the influence and eventual imposition of Johnson's imagination on American law.

Johnson, in this scenario, is Moses, personal deliverer of God's commandments.

Some of us believe in a separation of church and state and that the Constitution's ban on government's establishing religion imposes just that. These Rapert/Johnson types don't believe that. They are Christian nationalists.

A patriot loves America warts and all. A nationalist says love it just as he loves it, or leave it.

We happen to have a history in ever-rich Arkansas politics of invoking the Red Sea.

In the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1970, Orval Faubus quoted a member of Dale Bumpers' Sunday School class who related that Bumpers had once raised the possibility in class of argument about whether God had literally parted the waters. Faubus cried blasphemy. Bumpers countered that it's real men of faith who can consider new ideas and that it's men of little faith who can't abide such things.

Bumpers won overwhelmingly in what was, in Arkansas, a more enlightened and tolerant time.

There is a general argument in play here currently. And there is a specific new passion arising within it.

The general argument stems from the political position of evangelical Christian groups that they must take over our politics because America moves ever further from the Christian principles of our founders. There are those of us who counter that our nation was formed with Judeo-Christian principles and a trust in God, but with no specifics beyond that--that, instead, it was founded expressly as a free-religion nation, not a Christian nation. We note that several of the founders were deists, full believers in God, but one who didn't run Earthly matters.

The specific new passion arising from this argument is what accounts for Rapert's group experiencing some membership growth and increased media notice. It's the gender issue, specifically the evangelical right's horror that the nation experiences a spike in gender-affecting therapies for minor children.

They overstate typically with their outcry against "gender mutilation" of children. But they make a point when they say it makes no sense to say by law that a child can't drive until a certain age, no matter what the parents think, but contend at the same time that parents and doctors may choose to start altering a child's gender medically before age 18.

It's more complicated than that, just as the Red Sea's parting is complicated, and just as some find complicated that America can place its trust in God even as citizens hold different views of God.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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