Four months and several thousand news cycles ago, Harvard historian James Kloppenberg wrote in Commonweal about his former student Pete Buttigieg, then the rising star in the Democratic presidential primary field. A lifelong overachiever, the former South Bend mayor probably made writing “Reading Buttigieg” easy. At 38, he had already published a memoir, and two decades of academic papers, newspaper articles, and stump speeches were available to anyone interested in parsing his words to find out how he reached such heights so soon.
As a former teacher of undergraduates, I wondered as I read Kloppenberg’s essay what it must be like for a professor to watch a student suddenly attain national renown. Friends who teach writing, as I once did, often relate the pride they feel seeing young women and men who sat in their classrooms launch careers as authors or journalists. This spring I had a different experience: A former student became the most prominent storyteller in America, and now the future of the country seems to hang on the meaning of the stories she might tell.
I haven’t talked to Kayleigh McEnany since she was in my memoir-writing class at Georgetown a dozen years ago. My first thought upon hearing in April that she had become President Trump’s new press secretary, shortly before her thirty-second birthday, was that it wasn’t much of a surprise. When I knew her, she was an intern for the Bush White House and had already worked for Hannity & Colmes on Fox News. Noticeably more driven than many of her peers, she seemed bound for success at the intersection of media and politics.
As I am no longer a teacher of writing but a historian of American religion, I’ve come to see McEnany’s rise as more broadly significant than just the next step in an ambitious career: She represents an untold side of the oft-told story of conservative evangelicals’ wholehearted embrace of Trump.
In the new press secretary, a uniquely American strand of faith formed by ideas of religious persecution has found an opportunity for profound influence. Her published writing—which remains remarkably underexamined, even as she seeks to craft the national narrative each day—suggests that an earnest belief in Christian martyrdom has arrived at the White House just as Trump struggles with how to respond to death on a massive scale.
Stop reading now if you’re looking for classroom anecdotes that will make McEnany look either silly or predestined for her new role. I have no interest in providing fodder for her detractors or her fans. But there is some historical context missing from recent coverage of her appointment, something that may prove important for interpreting this latest stage of White House messaging.
News stories about McEnany have largely focused on her short career as a media pugilist, someone willing to “go toe to toe with the toughest anchors and commentators,” as fellow cable news pundit Steve Miller told The Guardian. Often judged a made-for-TV mouthpiece, one of the “characters in a drama” cast by CNN president Jeff Zucker, she has shown a combative willingness to turn Trump’s “most despicable actions into signs of his greatness,” as Jeb Bush’s former communications director Tim Miller has said. Yet a look at her earlier work suggests her motives may be deeper, and a bit more complicated.
In our limited interactions, I found McEnany to be pleasant, smart, and sincere. She stands out in my memory mainly because her politics were different from most of the class’s, even though politics rarely came up. Students took the memoir course to learn how to tell stories grounded in their personal experiences. That’s how I learned that, though the class took place in 2008, my students were less shaped by the September 11 attacks than I had expected. An earlier eruption of violence in American life seemed far more formative: the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School.
It would be inappropriate to comment in detail on any former student’s coursework, but suffice it to say, McEnany shared the generational concerns the class expressed, and they echo through her published writing. Her 2018 book, The New American Revolution: The Making of a Populist Movement, is dedicated in part to Rachel Joy Scott, the 17-year-old Christian who was the first person murdered at Columbine. As the story has often been told, the gunmen asked Scott if she believed in God; after she said yes, they shot her four times.
McEnany names Scott as her hero, thanking her for “making the faith my parents had taught me real in my own life.” She also writes of the effect that images from Columbine had on her: “It was the day that I saw evil and realized that it was alive in the world.” At the time of the massacre, she was 11 years old.
This is the part that intrigues me today as a historian of American religion. The notion that the Columbine killers had specifically targeted their religious classmates circulated widely in the immediate aftermath. Though subsequent reporting showed that, in fact, the killers’ only goal was mass death, the story remained persuasive in sermons and youth group meetings. Through multiple books, the 2016 movie I Am Not Ashamed, and the school program Rachel’s Challenge, Scott’s story has reached millions.
Columbine thus introduced the idea of martyrdom to a generation of evangelical Christians. Scott’s death has become a model for giving one’s life for one’s faith, a parable about Christians’ persecution by nihilistic secular culture, and a template for how to respond to anything they regard as evil—which, in practice, can include not only actual violence but perceived attacks upon their beliefs. “I am a warrior for Christ,” a line from Scott’s journals, has become a rallying cry for many who came of age seeing the world through a story of faith held at gunpoint.
McEnany’s appointment as press secretary marks the ascension of this generation to the highest levels of political influence. In McEnany’s writing over the years, Scott’s death never seems far from her mind, and at times serves as a metaphor for what she perceives to be a war on Christian belief and morality in America. In a column marking the fourteenth anniversary of Columbine for The Blaze, she wrote:
As Congress tries relentlessly to squelch religious liberty and remove God from our public buildings, our schools, and our heritage, let’s choose instead to honor the written word of Rachel Joy Scott this April 20th: “I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus. I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put in me. If I have to sacrifice everything … I will.”
Though for the most part McEnany’s columns hewed to standard GOP positions, she was unafraid to criticize certain members of her own party. Given the personal history of the man she now unfailingly defends, some of her complaints read as poignant examples of ideals abandoned, such as the umbrage she took when former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford won a seat in Congress despite having left his wife for his mistress.
“Do we expect perfect men and women to hold office? No. They don’t exist,” she wrote in 2013. “But we owe it to ourselves to elect individuals who will treat the office—and by proxy their constituents—with the respect it deserves. We used to care about morals. Tuesday night showed morality has fallen by the wayside. For the sake of my party and my country, it’s time to change course.”
Her own change of course, from occasional Trump critic to his official defender, came two years later. A recent New York Times profile implied that the reason for this shift was merely her seizing a professional opportunity. But McEnany, who currently serves on the board of Rachel’s Challenge, may also have seen in the self-proclaimed “counter-puncher” someone who could provide protection to a generation shaped by fear.
The New American Revolution suggests some possible implications of this. The book begins as a journey to meet ordinary U.S. citizens, “great American heroes” who are first introduced through several chapters about people who died and whose surviving family members felt safer after the 2016 election. Those featured didn’t die in mass shootings: As McEnany tells it, they died at the hands of terrorists, illegal immigrants, drug dealers, and a mismanaged Veterans Administration. In narratives studded with biblical quotations, the themes common to their stories are faith, death, anxiety about the state of the world, and a longing for someone to fix it. “Their hurt and their loss are reflective of the emotions that fueled a frustrated electorate,” she writes. Their suffering is invoked to bring a sense of solemnity and purpose to Trump’s victory, the dead enlisted in his cause.
To be sure, there are echoes of this mindset among other pro-Trump voices. Similar minglings of faith and death could be heard in responses to the pandemic back in March, when boosters like Glenn Beck (who founded The Blaze) and Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said older Americans would be willing to die for the sake of the economy, and First Things editor R.R. Reno argued against the “false god of ‘saving lives.’” Trump himself called to end the Covid-19 shutdown in time for Easter, despite the warnings of health officials. In apparent anticipation of the deaths that could result from his desire to bolster the economy and his chances at reelection, he declared on Twitter that “The American People are WARRIORS.”
We may now be entering a new phase of this narrative. With a spike of contagion likely as the country reopens, protests against police violence continue, and plans proceed for an in-person Republican convention this summer, it may only be a matter of time before the rhetoric of American warriors gives way to American martyrs. As the theological interpretation of Columbine has shown, the line between the two can be very thin.