Opinion

Is Roger Stone the unlikely herald of a new religious right?

Pardoned by Trump, the dirty trickster is on the hunt for a higher power

When infamous political operative Roger Stone announced his conversion to Christianity in April, he knew there would be doubters. "I'm aware of the fact there are skeptics who are going to say, 'Stone is posturing. Stone is maneuvering for public sympathy,'" he said.

Well, count me among the skeptics. But I don't believe Stone wants sympathy; I think he wants power and sees religion as a means to get it.

I can't judge the state of his soul, of course, nor can any mortal. But Stone — as I am certain he would agree — has made a career on unscrupulous calculation. He is a self-proclaimed dirty trickster with obvious parallels to Chuck Colson, the dirty trickster-turned-Christian of an earlier generation. And I suspect Stone is filching Colson's story because he sees a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new, more cynical religious right.

I'm far from the first to make the Colson-Stone connection. Both worked for Republican presidents — Richard Nixon and Donald Trump — who were impeached. Both were charged with obstruction of justice for their work for those presidents, and both were convicted (though Colson's conviction was for a lesser charge). Both were sentenced to prison. Both said they'd come to a new faith in Jesus in the midst of their legal troubles, and Colson's conversion also had its skeptics.

Many "greeted Colson's transformation with cynicism and disbelief, both justified by his unsavory past," a Time magazine account noted in 1974. "Colson's entire career has been marked by the kind of unrelenting ambition that led him to become the White House hatchet man," the story continued, so perhaps his claim to be a changed man "was only the most devious of his many political ruses."

This is where the similarities between Colson and Stone end. Colson spent the next four decades demonstrating the sincerity of his spiritual rebirth. Against the advice of his lawyer, he pleaded guilty, describing his conviction and sentencing as "a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new." He served seven months in prison and, after his release, devoted himself to prison ministry, criminal justice reform, and restorative justice.

Stone, by contrast, pleaded not guilty. President Trump commuted his sentence in July, then pardoned him two days before Christmas, so he never went to prison. As a free man, Stone hasn't followed Colson in serving those stuck in the cells he escaped. The cause he is serving is his own, and his newly claimed faith seems awfully like his latest dirty trick, a pitch to an audience Stone believes will pave his path back to power.

He most recently appeared before that audience at the Jericho March, a December event on the National Mall which combined tropes of evangelical apocalypticism with fact-free insistence that the election was stolen from Trump and also a lot of MyPillow ads and promo codes. The whole thing was absolutely bonkers — and Roger Stone was working it.

He was spared prison, Stone told the assembled crowd, because he became a Christian. He did God the favor of joining his team, so God did him the favor of springing him from jail. "It was Jesus Christ who gave our President Donald Trump the courage and the compassion to save my life when I was unfairly and illegally targeted," Stone said. Interviewed for a scathing article published by The American Conservative this week, Stone doubled down on this transactional narrative. "I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lord gave the president the strength, courage, and wisdom to do the right thing," he said. "But for Donald Trump and Jesus Christ, I would not be with you today."

Stone's clearly been honing this recitation, which he also recently delivered in conversation with Jericho Rally host Eric Metaxas, since his commutation in July, when he performed an early prototype of it on Fox News with Sean Hannity. He's used the last six months to study up on conversational Christianese. Stone "carefully curates his testimony for a Christian audience," the American Conservative story observes, "referring to his prosecutors as his 'persecutors,' stating that their attempts to get him to flip on the president would cause him to 'bear false witness,' and sprinkling liberal references to 'the Lord' throughout." Stone anticipates the "Lord will take his vengeance on" his enemies, because — as a new man, you understand — he will refrain from taking it himself.

Or maybe he just has other priorities, like a project to become a founding father of a new religious right. This whole thing feels like nothing so much as the most devious of Stone's many political ruses, and he wouldn't bother with the ruse after his pardon unless he saw something further to gain.

A post-Trump religious right organized by the likes of Stone would be different from the classic religious right of the 1980s and 1990s much as Stone differs from Colson. I see no comparable sincerity of conversion, no similar commitment to principle, no commensurate care for the prisoner and the "least of these." A Roger Stone religious right would dive deeper into consequentialism, make faith ever more the servant of politics, and brazenly, fearfully pursue power to protect its own and punish its enemies. It would also be profitable for its leaders, and The Washington Post reports Stone is broke after his legal battles.

Stone might, of course, be wrong in his apparent anticipation of this burgeoning movement. This new religious right may disintegrate before it fully forms. But if he's right, and if Stone is this movement's analogue to Colson and Trump its Nixon, then the question is: Who is its Ronald Reagan? If the timeline holds, 2024 will be a new 1980.

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