By Andrew L. Seidel
Director of Strategic Response
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Symbols are powerful. That power is why Christian Nationalists want “In God We Trust” on our money and government buildings and state flags. Mormon painter Jon McNaughton refers to himself as “America’s artist” but he’s the Thomas Kinkade of Christian Nationalism. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his ultranationalist, yet distinctly un-American, paintings.
Last week, McNaughton unveiled his latest objet d’art. While no critic could consider it masterful, it is a masterpiece of Christian Nationalism. “Legacy of Hope“ features an absurdly eclectic cast of adversaries — including Harriet Tubman, Andrew Breitbart, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and others — united in prayer around Donald Trump in the Oval Office. This feverish fantasy ripped from the sweaty dreams of a delirious zealot is, for a limited time only, on canvas that you too can buy for the low, low price of $29 (plus tax and shipping).
McNaughton’s mad method
To truly understand the horror that is the “Legacy of Hope” we must commune with McNaughton’s artistic journey, which resembles less the odysseys of Greek sculptors or the pilgrimages of the Italian masters and more your angry conservative uncle stumbling to the fridge for another beer (3.2 ABV, of course) at Thanksgiving dinner. To get a feel for that soused sojourn, I immersed myself in McNaugton’s world for a few days and it was like living in a quagmire of fetid syrup. Sickly. Cloying. Saccharine. Sycophantic.
My friends at the “How-To Heretic” podcast, an amazing resource for ex-Mormons and strong supporters of FFRF, fittingly dubbed McNaughton the “Mormon Rockwell.” Jerry Saltz, an art critic for New York magazine, said of one of McNaughton’s paintings that it had “bad academic derivative realism,” was “typical propaganda art, drop-dead obvious in message” and “visually dead as a doornail.” He added, “It panders and preaches to the converted and tells them what they already believe.” Amen.
A fuller examination of McNaughton’s oeuvre might cause irreparable mental harm, so if you wish to delve deeper into his fever swamp, do so vicariously with University of Southern California art history professor Jennifer Greenhill in The Atlantic.
The latest entry in the contest to make 2020 the worst year on record is McNaughton’s “Legacy of Hope,” a strange moniker for a canvas debuted in the middle of a lethal pandemic that has claimed nearly 150,000 American lives. McNaughton makes no allusion to the deadly virus in his meandering daubs and swirls, though the maskless crowd gathered around Trump forcibly reminded me of the photo Vice President Pence published that showed his all-white, nearly-all-male, maskless coronavirus team praying as one member sneezes.
“The photograph shows a group of Black religious and political leaders, surrounding President Trump and praying for him — praying for the nation. To say that this image inspired me would be an understatement here stood a group of men and women, Americans, praying for God to continue to bless this great nation. It was a photograph of faith and hope for the future.”
The White House image is anything but hopeful to those of us concerned with Christian Nationalism and the subjugation of the U.S. Constitution to conservative Christianity. Here it is:
The two women immediately to the left of Trump as we see it — women who moved McNaughton so mightily — are Youtubers. They make YouTube videos. That’s it. In McNaughton’s dalliance with the canvas, they’re replaced by two U.S. presidents, including the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this age of short attention spans (thanks for sticking with me, friends), McNaughton was not content to explain himself in a few paragraphs so he filmed a revoltingly sentimental video about the painting. His voiceover takes a jab at the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery. But his main argument is clear: Anyone who is not a Christian Nationalist is a seditious traitor.
“What’s even more troubling is that many in the mainstream media have seemingly joined forces with those who are actively and seditiously trying to burn America to the ground.”
The goal of Christian Nationalism is to redefine what it is to be an American: so that to be an American is to be a Christian and to be a Christian is to be an American. McNaughton seeks to do the same with his inexpert brush. It is the only successful aspect of this work.
McNaughton’s Christian Nationalism is perhaps most obvious in the two documents he places on the Resolute Desk — two documents that are fundamentally opposed to one another — the U.S. Constitution and the Christian bible. The lie at the heart of his political theology is that the bible provided the intellectual, spiritual, and legal foundation for the Constitution. This could not be more wrong.
But the people are the focus. Devout Christian Nationalists are pictured alongside those who fought for a godless Constitution separating state and church and guaranteeing a secular government, all praying together at the seat of executive power. We see former slaves and warriors for racial justice and equality alongside slave owners and the traitor who led a military rebellion against the Union to preserve slavery. Presidents are shoulder to shoulder with preachers, painters, and right-wing provocateurs.
Unhelpfully, McNaughton doesn’t identify, either in his video or writing, most of the people in the oily painting. While some are recognizable even when rendered by an unskilled hand, others are less so. (Skill in rendering hands separates true artists from the amateurs. Look closely at Trump’s folded hands to judge McNaughton’s skill. Not only are they too large, there’s an odd number of fingers and some are disembodied, while others appear to attach to both hands.)
I’ve always understood that true art should not need to be explained or justified, but McNaughton provides keys to identify the unrecognized and unrecognizable in some of his more populist works. I used those to take my best guess as to who, precisely, graces this Christian Nationalist hellscape with their presence.
Who’s who? (from left to right)
1. Andrew Breitbart
A favorite of McNaughton, the late Breitbart’s notorious eponymous website is a hotbed of Christian Nationalism and he was one of its most devout enablers. Now we know where McNaughton gets his worldview.
It’s hard to tell, but the figure slightly resembles the Madison McNaughton rendered gesticulating at President Obama in his inflammatory painting, “The Forgotten Man“, which Sean Hannity supposedly purchased hoping Trump would hang it in the White House. Two of McNaughton’s other paint-by-nationalism works, “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God,” feature Madison and the keys suggest the artist’s vague renditions are similar.
If it is indeed Madison, we can be certain McNaughton wasn’t imbibing history while he wasn’t learning painting at Brigham Young University. Madison practically invented the separation of state and church. He also thought believers should fight to keep politics out of religion, writing that “religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” It’s difficult to imagine that Madison would look fondly on his association here.
3. Jon McNaughton himself
The great freethinking Scottish poet Robert Burns penned an ode “To a Louse” which, translated, begs “Oh, would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us!” The art gods have not bestowed that power on McNaughton. This delusional self-portrait shows McNaughton as he wishes to be (complete with a physical proximity to caress Trump). The clues are the graying goatee, glasses and hair.
Along with Madison, the staunchest defender of that original American value, that founding principle, the separation of state and church, was Jefferson. Indeed it was Jefferson who gave us the very metaphor so useful to interpreting the First Amendment:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Well said. McNaughton and the object of his affection, would both do well to read that letter. (Jefferson, who was taller than both Washington and Reagan, appears weirdly shrunken in McNaughton’s rendition.)
5. Ronald Reagan
A few things. First, the Reagan Foundation has formally requested political distance from Trump, but I guess McNaughton didn’t get that memo. Second, Reagan was not an ally in the fight against Christian Nationalism, but even he had some reservations, or, at least he did when addressing religious minorities. In a 1984 speech to a Jewish congregation in New York, Reagan said, “We establish no religion in this country . . . Church and state are, and must remain, separate.” The quote graced FFRF billboards.
Finally, if you want a better Reagan message, check out Ron Reagan’s commercial for FFRF, which has aired during several recent primary debates: “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
McNaughton loves regurgitating Christian Nationalist lies about Washington. On his website he has an image of Washington praying, something he never did publicly, if at all. Washington shunned public piety and refused any religious consolation on his deathbed. McNaughton also claims that Washington added the words “so help me God,” to the presidential oath in 1789, which is not true. He also quotes “George Washington’s personal prayer book, in his own handwriting he wrote…”, but that prayer book is undoubtedly a forgery.
Here’s something Washington actually wrote: “Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Maybe the artist and the central subject of this oleaginous blot both ought to read that letter as well.
Hopefully you’re beginning to see that secular government is the enemy (and target) of Christian Nationalism. JFK famously defended secular government, defended the wall of separation between state and church that McNaughton has mocked and ridiculed and seeks to undermine. FFRF has incorporated Kennedy’s defense in an ad that has run on national TV.
8. Calvin Coolidge?
Perhaps. It looks a little like the barely visible Coolidge in “The Forgotten Man“. Floating around in McNaughton’s small, carefully curated ideological bubble is the idea that Trump is a modern-day Coolidge. The comparison is perhaps apt, but unflattering (think sloth, racism and xenophobia).
9. Donald Trump
Carried into office on a wave of Christian Nationalism most of the country didn’t see coming. He’s been implementing Christian Nationalist policies ever since.
10. Dwight Eisenhower
The first 20th century president to harness the power of Christian Nationalism, Ike presided over the country that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” to paper currency and made it the national motto, and put a prayer room in the Capitol and prayer in the White House. In this respect, he did massive damage to the secular Constitution he swore to uphold.
For McNaughton, MLK appears to be an afterthought or filler. I remember King each year on his holiday by rereading his wonderful Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which was written to his “fellow clergymen,” specifically, “the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South.” King took to task the “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” amid the “mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice.”
King not only condemned religious racism and inaction, he also favored state/church separation.
“Revivals in religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together,” Douglass told a cheering audience. He continued, unsparingly, “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy bibles and communion services for the churches.”
Whatever his personal religious beliefs, Douglass was critical of religion aligned with political power.
13. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln used religious and even biblical rhetoric, but still supported secular government. In 1863 and again in 1864, he wrote, “the U.S. government must not . . . undertake to run the churches. When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest, he must be checked; but let the churches, as such take care of themselves.” Religion was not a license to trample the rights of others.
Pinning down Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs or lack thereof is a fascinating task. Prior to his political career, he “belonged to no Church” and “was suspected of being a Deist.” Some of his close friends and law partners did not think him a Christian. Whatever Lincoln’s personal beliefs, it’s hard for McNaughton’s viewer to suspend disbelief at Lincoln and Robert E. Lee huddling together in such an intimate tableau.
14. Robert E. Lee
Lee, a man who led a military rebellion against the United States and fought to ensure slavery, is just behind and slightly to the side of Lincoln. Placing the military leader of the pro-slavery rebellion behind Lincoln is an ominous choice given that the last Confederate to stand in such a position assassinated Lincoln, but that symbolism is probably too subtle for McNaughton.
Even Lee’s critics agree he “was a devout Christian.” The U.S. Constitution, which Lee rejected and fought a bloody war to undo, is godless. The Confederacy, while copying much of that document (as McNaughton himself has aped other artists), added their slave-mongering god into the Confederacy’s new Constitution and adopted a fitting new motto: Deo vindice (God will vindicate, or, With God our protector or avenger). If this spectacle weren’t set in the White House, Lee might actually be the perfect choice because, unlike the United States of America, the Confederate States of America was founded as a Christian nation.
15. Unidentified woman, circa 19th century?
Just as there are a paucity of female characters in the bible and many are unnamed, McNaughton includes only two women in this painting, and, as of the publication of this piece, leaves one unnamed. I don’t think this figure is meant to be Dolley Madison or Abigail Adams because the fashion is all wrong for their era, but then again, McNaughton cannot be accused of historical accuracy. Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony are two of McNaughton’s previous subjects who might account for this figure (and, in that case, neither Anthony nor Barton was a devout Christian). But only McNaughton knows. Some observers contend that this depicts Anthony, but she was usually photographed with glasses and almost never with a hat. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is something of an authority on important American women, suggests that it might be Frances Willard, head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
16. Billy Graham (model image)
The last time Billy Graham was memorialized in the White House he was recorded trading anti-Semitic tropes with Richard Nixon. After the 1972 National Prayer Breakfast, Graham explained to Nixon his conspiracy theory that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media. “They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” said Graham and then added, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.” On another tape, Graham says “that the bible talks about two kinds of Jews. One is called ‘the synagogue of Satan.’ They’re the ones putting out the pornographic literature, they’re the ones putting out these obscene films.”
Anti-Semitism was not Graham’s only vice. He also worked to destroy our secular government. Graham helped corrupt America’s secular foundations by feeding the religious fervor in the 1950s. Congress formally established the National Day of Prayer in 1952 at the direct suggestion of Graham to help bring “the Lord Jesus Christ” to the nation. (FFRF’s major challenge to the National Day of Prayer uncovered the forgotten history of Graham’s role in this troubling, theocratic act by Congress.)
17. Harriet Tubman
Trump and his team won’t put this racial justice icon and hero of the Underground Railroad on the 20-dollar bill, but McNaughton apparently thinks they’re buds. This real-life Moses did a great deal more to free people than the character of the bible. At least, we have evidence of Tubman’s exploits, while the only evidence that other Moses even existed comes from the fictional stories he supposedly authored himself, including an account of his own death. Tubman is a true American hero and deserving of veneration and memorialization, but by artists better and less toxic than McNaughton.
18. John Adams?
I’m guessing this is John Adams based solely on the pate and quaff — there is little else to go on with such a featureless face. Christian Nationalists love to claim Adams as their own, but you probably remember him as the president who signed the Treaty of Tripoli, approved unanimously by the Senate, after being negotiated by Washington’s administration, which says, “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
A critic’s conclusion
It’s easy to mock McNaughton’s uncoordinated, rambling composition as something disgorged from the viscera of Anne Coulter or Robert Jeffress, but the message will be as clear to his audience as the words of the Treaty of Tripoli are to secular Americans. McNaughton’s acolytes will not look or see, they will simply feel. They will ignore the absurdities, the mashed and macerated history, and focus on the feeling in their gut. For them, every brushstroke is a confirmation that masks are an assault on liberty, prayer a cure, and Christianity the beating heart of the American identity. This is propaganda, nothing more.
McNaughton is telling every Christian Nationalist that they are the true heirs of the American Experiment, and that is a message they desperately want to hear. This painting doesn’t portray the American spirit, our founding ethos or our aspirations, it captures an existential threat to our republic. We are in a fight for America, for the American identity, for what it means to be an American, and most of us don’t even realize it. FFRF is on the front lines fighting this menace. It’s time to join us.