A King for Jesus: What the Religious Right Sees in Trump
By Roger O. Friedland, October 26, 2016
What does the love of Jesus have to do with Trump? How to explain his overwhelming support from evangelical voters, who—for more than three decades—have formed the bastion of the Christian right? According to a Pew June 2016 survey 89% of evangelical voters wanted a President with strong religious beliefs. Trump cannot even pretend to qualify.
A number of analysts, particularly liberal ones, see it as the big reveal, that the Christian right is right, not Christian. The political right has captured the Christians, not the reverse. It’s about politics, class and honor, not God.
Arlie Hochschild, in her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, based on her ethnography of Calcasieu Parish in Southern Louisiana, explores the paradox that white low-income citizens who depend on the state both hate it and love Trump. Her subjects were almost all believing Christians, mostly Southern Baptists and other evangelicals. Her account reveals the feelings of humiliation and rage behind their support of Trump, and the “ecstatic high” he provides them in his rallies where one of the posters proclaims “Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump.”
White workers who can barely pay their bills, with stagnant wages and declining job prospects, are enraged and humiliated when they look at the taxes they pay. These are monies that could help them get by, tax monies that support people who do not work, and a government that is allowing others to “cut in line ahead of them” for those jobs that do exist through affirmative action for women and non-whites, and tolerance of illegal immigrants.
And to top it off, they get the message that their plight is their own fault—primitive, uneducated, racist, ignorant, fat believers.
These things may all be true. They fit with the sociological instinct to look behind the curtain. In this moment these kinds of explanations are comforting in thinking about Trump’s embrace by the godly. It’s about power, politics, status, class and race: How else can one explain their support of a man who has celebrated his sexual liaisons, his lust and his luxuries, who never asked God for forgiveness, who has even defended the amplitude of his penis in the Republican primary debates?
Some argue, particularly in this last erotic mud-wrestling month, that this is the end of the Christian right, that evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr, President of Liberty University, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, and Franklin Graham, CEO of his father’s evangelical empire, have sacrificed their Christianity for the sake of political power.
I don’t think so. It is not just their deal with the devil. There is a consonance between their Christianity and their support for Trump.
Trump is not a Christian warrior; he is, however, a warrior for Christ. Conservative evangelicals may want Jesus to save them, but not to rule them. It is not the character, but the capacity, of the candidate, that moves them. Culture warriors have not been able to move their agenda forward. If anything it is the reverse. A candidate’s faith, virtue and public praying have not converted to national political power—and it is political power to protect and promote their agenda they want.
The difference between evangelical and Republican leaders’ response to the revelation of Trump’s past predatory sexual behavior—“I moved on her like a bitch”—couldn’t be more stark. Scores of Republican leaders have repudiated Trump. While there has been some popular evangelical erosion, particularly among women, the leadership has not flinched. It was degrading and offensive, they said, but he had apologized, had shown contrition. “We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t,” Jerry Falwell Jr. declared.
Power Not Purity
“‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” the interviewer asked Robert Jeffress, a Baptist pastor with a congregation of 12,000. “‘Heck no,” he replied. “I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”
Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, declared that if Jesus were running for office against Trump, he would vote for Trump. “Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”
In their eyes America is now locked in a cosmic battle against evil, an apocalyptic war. On the inside there are secularists, like “Killary,” who allow women to take the lives of the ensouled through abortion and who violate the sanctity of marriage by providing access to that sacrament to gays and lesbians. On the outside there is the rise of political Islam before which American geo-politics have been relatively ineffective.
Trump is racializing the American nation. But conservative evangelicals are not white nationalists; they are Christian nationalists: Only as a people chosen by God can America stand strong. A majority of Republican voters subscribe to the view that Islam is fundamentally contradictory to Western values. For old-guard conservative Christians, there is not a contradiction; there is a war. “Islam is at war with us – we’ve witnessed its evil face,” Billy Graham’s son Franklin, tweeted in response to the Paris attacks in 2015 in opposition to Pope Francis.
And it is Trump who calls out the struggle not only as a war against terror, but against Islam, who claimed that “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims cheered the 9/11 bombings, who hammers on violence and exile experienced by Christians in the Muslim world, who would ban Muslim immigration. And it is Trump, who – since it started in 2011 — led the charge that President Obama is not only foreign born, but himself a Muslim. With Obama’s election the enemy had made it not only inside the national gates, but inside the hearts of a naïve and vulnerable American populace.
Trump has committed himself to empower his politically mobilized evangelical base. Not only has he vowed to appoint anti-abortion judges to the Court, he has promised to build their political muscle by overturning IRS regulations forbidding partisan endorsements as a condition of their tax exemption. The Washington Post reported on Trump’s high level powwow with the evangelical leadership: Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” again and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.”
In a war, one does not need a God who forgives and loves, but one – like the God of the Israelites, who fights and vanquishes, who delivers His people to a pre-millennial greatness. “To be blunt,” opined Ken Crow, former Tea Party head, “America needs a hard-charging, outspoken, politically incorrect, borderline jerk at the moment. We need someone who loves our nation, makes our enemies quiver in fear…”
Fundamentalists evaluate Trump as an instrument of divinity, not as a holy man, not unlike the sexually voracious David, who sent Uriah to his death in order to bed his wife Bat-Sheva, a man from a marginal tribe who went on to both unify the nation and conquer its enemies. Steeped in the Hebrew Bible, they point to myriad cases where God used the ungodly to achieve His purposes, like the Persian King Cyrus who freed the Jews from Babylonian exile to return and rebuild the Temple.
Some of them read Trump in the apocalyptic frame that arose in 20th century American Protestantism in which a battle with evil forces is a sign of the end-times before Jesus’ return. “I know that Donald Trump is not a Christian,” the preacher and editor of End Times News Geoffrey Grider declared, but “God is preparing to shake the nations of the world and I believe he is going to use Donald Trump to do it.”
And there is the much-cited firefighter Mark Taylor, who back in 2011 had a prophetic vision while watching Trump on TV.
The Spirit of God says, I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America!…America will be respected once again as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, (other than Israel). The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States, and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged.
In the eyes of many conservative Christian Trump supporters the other Christian Republican primary contenders – like Cruz and Rubio — tried to use God to reach for power. The truth is now apparent: God is using Trump.
Who’s Your Daddy?
At the Republican convention, the crowds did not chant “Yes, we can.” They rather shouted, “Yes, you will.” Trump is the leader who will make America strong and impenetrable, the powerful son of a powerful father. His campaign is organized around his person, not around core ideas or policy proposals.
Like a myth or a wrestling-match it is the feelings he evokes that count: the feeling of humiliation, the feeling of threat, the feeling of imminent, even apocalyptic danger, that enemies outside and inside are coming to tear us apart, and the feelings of fierce determination and anger that that they will not get away with it.
Hillary Clinton is cast as the handmaiden of our enemies, on the one side an avatar of globalism, a woman in a pantsuit who has lived off the money of foreign nations who feed the coffers of the Clinton Foundation. She is the leader of a global multi-culturalism refracted in our own nation, emblematized in her chief of staff and closest advisor, Huma Abedin, an Indian Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia. The sources of threat and emasculation sit at the table.
Insidious workings are afoot. Trump is the political master of conspiracy theories, of infiltration and deceit, imagining amazing things such as the Chinese invention of global warming to undercut American production. Right-wing religious, too, tend to look behind the surface flux for both divine and nefarious forces, for the finger of God and the devil. Clinton is the latter. If you are keyed into the plotline of Left Behind, the highest selling drama on apocalyptic tribulations, Hillary stands in as a female anti-Christ whose global talk heralds the end times.
A large percentage of the evangelical voters are voting for Trump because they are against Clinton. He is not her. But this is not just an ordinary sexism, a preference for men over women: It is an affirmation of political patriarchalism. Trump is a powerful father who, while he fornicates with whom he likes, will protect the homeland, not a mother who endures a president husband who allows a lowly intern to fellate him in the Oval Office and makes deals with the Iranian mullahs.
Opposition to Hillary has cosmic meaning, a desire to reinstall government authority based on the original order of things, a nation pleasing to God.
Trump’s vaunted, old-school machismo qualifies him for office. It will enable him to take down Hillary and ISIS. Trump’s seemingly unhinged jump in the second debate from his apology for “locker room talk” to his capacity to protect the American body politic from the real predations of ISIS and immigration signaled to his followers that the same masculine power that led to the excesses of the first would power the needed response to the second.
“And women have respect for me,” he said. “And I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe. We’re going to have borders in our country which we don’t have now.” His intrusion into Hillary’s speaking space, hovering there as she took her turn, was not rude; it was an assertion of masculine primacy. Only men like him can stand strong, ready to move, at the border.
Two thirds of Trump’s followers believe that America has become “too soft and feminine,” according to a PRRI poll this last April. A majority of evangelicals feel likewise. Trump embodies masculine power; he manifests an indomitable will, defeating the Republican king-makers, saying the gross and the unthinkable.
Trump’s business enterprises exemplify power’s role. Real estate, the core of his holdings, is a fixed territory whose capitalization depends on the ability to secure the support of the state: on roads, zoning, tax abatements, subsidies. Real estate is about power, and the rents that accrue to that power, as much as it is about markets.
“That’s business,” Trump blithely replied when Clinton excoriated him for not paying taxes, for exploiting the rules. In Trump’s eyes, the economy, and the global market, is “rigged.” The terms of trade are political. American manufacturing workers lost their jobs because of our political submissiveness, not because of the product cycle. China and Mexico have taken us to the cleaners.
Trump is no market liberal: The free market is anything but. So he would naturally use the state’s power to countermand the property rights of corporations who export their jobs and plants abroad. He attributes his own market failures to his lack of power.
He has only run one public company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts in Atlantic City between 1995 to 2009. Subject to stockholders and a board of directors, Trump was a disaster. His company went bankrupt; his investors lost everything. In Trump’s eyes this was not because of anonymous market forces. Just like elections, opinion polls, political debates, the news media, he thinks the stock market is “rigged.” “I believe it’s a false market,” he said of the equity market. “I don’t even invest in the stock market.”
He wants to be the sole decider, the absolute sovereign who intimidates or beguiles, who bends or even breaks the law to protect and promote his turf, who gets things done—like the long-languishing skating rink in Central Park. He is the one who can say: “You’re fired” – without remorse or justification. There is no reason to believe he would not do likewise as the American executive.
Here is a man who announces that, if elected, he will use his executive authority to imprison his Presidential rival.
Trump is part of the anti-institutional posture afoot in our land. He is a charismatic figure; Clinton is not. An anti-institutional stance is at the core of what Max Weber meant by charisma, somebody who garners authority because of the extraordinariness, the exceptionalness, of his person. Clinton, in contrast, is the institutional candidate – backed by the party elites, the darling and beneficiary of Wall Street financiers who have refused to back Trump’s enterprises, the one who grounds her ability to act in her expertise, in her mastery of the rules, the evidence and the law.
Hillary reads her script; Donald speaks his mind. He may lie, but it is his bullshit.
Trump represents a return to the masculine principle as the ground of the order of creation, and most importantly in the current circumstances, to the order of destruction, the capacity to kill and subordinate those who would do us harm, to smash the interest-groups who hobble American policy-making, who somehow convert their interests into America’s. Trump is an action figure of our times.
Conservative Christian politics are likewise grounded in the divine exception, His power to make and to take life outside any law, to enter in history against the enemies of Christ, to save the day.
Trump is not running to be a god, but a king chosen by a chosen people, a people long in exile, awaiting the man who can defeat their enemies and deliver them to greatness.
Roger O. Friedland is a professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. His current work focuses on politicized religion worldwide.
Painting (modifed) of King David: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-52352260/stock-photo-king-david.html