“I even brought my Bible—the evangelicals, OK?” Donald Trump whinged at a campaign stop in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. “We love the evangelicals and we’re polling so well.” For good measure, he waved his prop a little more and doubled down, “I really want to win Iowa—and again, the evangelicals, the Tea Party—we’re doing unbelievably, and I think I’m going to win Iowa.”
This sycophantic word vomit was about average as Trump’s public forays into religion go. His transparent attempts to cast himself as a churchgoer have been awkward at best, and more often approach the bizarre if not the heretical. Nevertheless, as the man himself would say, the professing evangelicals—and the “professing” is key here—love him. They really, really do.
But for all the headlines the Trumpvangelicals have snagged, their vehement support is ably matched by the strident opposition to Trump found among millions of American Christians of all stripes, many of them (like me) appalled that such blatant pandering and brash prurience is, well, working on our fellow travelers in the faith. Nearly a year into this misadventure, it is still tempting to ask: How is this happening? How is the heir of the Moral Majority endorsing a twice-divorced former strip club owner? How is Trump so appealing to what is supposed to be a Christian nation?
And it is in precisely that last phrase—“Christian nation”—the answer may be found: America’s entrenched, pseudo-Christian civil religion is the primary culprit here. President Trump is the due result of our theologically vacant imperial cult, which in the guise of orthodoxy worships only the power of the state.
Granted, the connection may not be immediately obvious, particularly in light of the harsh critiques Trump has received from many prominent Christians, as well as his own dime-store costume faith.
These surface obstacles obscure the deeper fit. Trump’s extravagant self-deification, his demands of personal allegiance, and his obsession with unique national and personal greatness all flow naturally out of a civil religion which co-opts Christianity to cast an aura of divine approval on Washington. Indeed, Trump fancies himself a modern Caesar, tinged with divinity and cloaked in gold. Our civil religion gives him just the theological resource he needs.
Consider, first, Trump’s view of himself. As Frank Bruni persuasively argued in the New York Times, the Republican frontrunner comes off not as “someone interested in serving God” so much as “someone interested in being God.” Trump so closely links himself and the divine that he drifts into boasting of his own accomplishments in the very process of explaining why God is important. The candidate feels he is above the need for God’s forgiveness (as it is written, “there is one who is righteous, yea, just one”) and recently named “an eye for an eye” as his favorite Bible verse, an interesting selection given the New Testament’s assignment of vengeance as God’s prerogative.
Of course, Americans might rightly protest that we don’t ascribe divinity to the presidency, but the office is undoubtedly sacralized. Its successes—notably in foreign policy—are attributed to divine blessing. Conventional politicians may be more politic than Trump, but most will happily harness God to tow their pet projects. A classic example is what theologian Michael J. Gorman labels the “divine passive voice,” in which, often in the run-up to war, presidents say things like “We are called…” to subtly invoke a holy authority for their plans. In a Trump White House, the voice would simply become slightly more active.
Beyond this there’s Trump’s demand (and receipt) of intense personal loyalty. One gets the feeling that the provision of a bust of Trumpself for long-distance veneration would not be taken amiss by many of his followers, but usually a simple pledge of allegiance will do.
“I do solemnly swear that I, no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there are hurricanes or whatever, will vote on or before the 12th for Donald J. Trump for President,” he asked Floridian supporters to promise in advance of their state’s primary. This sort of ultimatum is right at home in a civil religion that facilitates unthinking Christian loyalty to the state by means of a clever syncretism: If America is “under God”—if the United States becomes the “city on a hill”—we needn’t worry about obeying God rather than men. It’s all one and the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph is idolatrously mutated into an American tribal deity.
But the most convincing link lies in Trump’s preoccupation with greatness. In the context of American civil religion, Gorman explains, “Greatness is defined especially as financial, political, and/or military strength, and this definition carries with it the conviction that both America and Americans should always enjoy and operate from a position of strength and security.”
“Weakness,” he adds, “is un-American; Americans want to be number one. For many, these kinds of secular strengths are seen as manifestations of power from God.” Gorman wrote that more than five years ago, but Trump couldn’t have said it better himself. His is a perverse patriotism inextricably tied to the notion that God likes America (and the Donald) most. Trump is certainly more explicit in his promises of unparalleled personal (“the greatest jobs president God ever created”) and national (“we will have so much winning”) greatness, but his distinction from our standard-issue civil religion is one of degree, not kind.
We might ask why a Trumpian candidate is only now appearing—and with such success—on our political stage. The civil religion is hardly new, but surely Trump is. The tipping point, I suggest, is primarily about the expansion of power in the executive branch, a process which has been underway for decades but accelerated in recent times. The authority of the White House has expanded to match the sanctity we’ve assigned it. (Not for nothing is it called the imperial presidency.) The modern office “looks nothing like the modest, businesslike, law-governed executive the Framers envisioned,” and if it did, Trump wouldn’t want it.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis recounts a conversation with an elderly clergyman sincerely convinced that his “own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.” “To be sure,” Lewis muses, “this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite.” If mixed with assurance of unique divine favor, he continues, this dangerous nonsense “draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”
In Trump we find such nonsense crystallized into an ass that kicks and bites, and gleefully plans to torture and murder because this is what will make America great again. His gilded self-aggrandizement is the organic fruit of a “Christian” nation that welcomed such theo-nationalism in drabber forms for years. We may not for a while see again so shameless an execution of the temple ceremonies of the American state, but the false transcendence of our civil religion will not die with the Trump campaign.
Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate student at Bethel Seminary, a contributor at The Week, a columnist at Rare, and a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation. Her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. Find her at bonniekristian.com and @bonniekristian.