Donald Trump and Evangelicals
Analysts and journalists are having a hard time understanding Donald Trump’s appeal to America’s evangelicals. This is not surprising, considering the media’s widespread ignorance about and (often) repugnance toward evangelicals and religion in general.
Evangelicals are not a simplistically defined group. Millions do not fit the typical media stereotype most often presented to the public. Millions seek to live and act out the Christian life in uncompromising ways.
There also have been and are titans of the movement, both in America and abroad, who as Christians committed to orthodoxy, have had and are having an enormous impact on individuals as well as society. One thinks of William Wilberforce, the tireless anti-slavery champion of England; and here in the United States, the influence of evangelicals led by such preachers as Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor , Charles Finney and others who stood for the freedom of slaves, founded foreign mission movements and worked for women’s emancipation.
Today, we see similar evangelical leaders within the famous Graham family, including the outspoken Franklin Graham and Boz Tchividjian, whose fight against the sexual abuse of children starts with confrontation of the evangelical Church of which he is a part.
However, there is also a huge segment of the evangelical and fundamentalist movement that has fallen prey to much more compromised versions of the formerly tough and uncompromising evangelical faith. It is those evangelicals who are extremely vulnerable to men like Donald Trump as he currently is -- not as many might wish and hope him to be, his exhibitionist carnality transformed by God’s grace.
First, millions of evangelicals have bought into the prosperity gospel, a Protestant heresy that holds God blesses those who love Jesus with wealth and prosperity. Nearly completely forgotten are the words of Christ, who said that though his presence would always be with those who suffer, following The Way would inevitably mean hard times.
Preachers such as Joel Osteen, who is among the most famous adherents to the prosperity gospel, preach financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that looking on the positive side of things as well as giving donations to ministries such as Osteen’s will increase one’s material wealth. Osteen is not alone in his preaching. Others include Prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include E.W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, TD Jakes, A.A. Allen, Robert Tilton and many others.
True believers steeped in the prosperity gospel are too easily persuaded to see men like Trump as blessed by God and as possible role models, despite his almost completely secularist outlook. After all, few are more prosperous than the Donald.
Trump, with his unerring instinct of finding the lowest common denominator, has been savvy enough to key into the weaknesses of prosperity evangelicals, even quoting scripture from Two Corinthians at Liberty University. Trump speaks kindly of Christianity.
For many evangelicals, this is enough to endorse him. The thinking might be as follows: who knows how Americans, Christian and secular alike, would prosper if only a man like a transformed Trump were in the White House? Maybe there would be an economic revival that would put a Lexus in every driveway or at least a chicken in every pot -- especially if America would just get China out of the way.
Trump also appeals to many evangelicals who are deeply influenced by and imitative of the Hollywood celebrity culture. Evangelicalism has its own celebrity culture, with heavy crossovers into the secular world. Many evangelical churches have so thoroughly incorporated the Hollywood and pop culture milieu that worship services are scarcely indistinguishable from rock concerts, with the notable absence of evangelical orthodoxy and the vast treasure of evangelical hymnody.
Trump is inextricably intertwined with celebrity culture and possesses the instant name recognition and influence celebrity status confers. Many evangelicals crave and admire his status, and therefore are inclined to join his bandwagon.
The inclination to support Trump because of his carefully cultivated celebrity status is not surprising when one considers the mega stars of the evangelical and fundamentalist communities, both of which have long had their share of celebrity seeking preachers, including such past luminaries as Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson. Recent mega church personalities like televangelists Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are among the members of the celebrity personality cult that continues to heavily influence a huge segment of the evangelical community. When one or more of the mega stars fall to earth, other evangelical and fundamentalist preachers rise up to take their place.
The superficiality of the evangelical and fundamentalist personality cult emphasizes the person, the fame and power -- not the message. So it is particularly inclined to turning the evangelical movement into mundane theater and entertainment; hence the appeal of Trump, who is a master of theater, entertainment and manipulation of the media.
In many ways, Trump is the secular and political equivalent of the fundamentalist con artist preacher portrayed by the film Elmer Gantry. Gantry, who is parading as a revivalist fire and brimstone preacher, is actually selling snake oil behind the pulpit and seducing women --all the while fleecing a gullible flock.
Trump affects the same mannerisms as the tawdry revivalist exemplified by Gantry -- the same repetitive bullet points, the same kind of attacks against opposition, the same kind of public persona, the same smarmy embrace of true believers in Trump. Anyone who criticizes either the messenger or the message is a loser.
In sum, for Trump, as for shallow televangelists, what could be a great and serious message to the national conscience is bastardized beyond recognition. Too many evangelicals eat it up, effectively saying, “Preach it, Brother Donald.”
All evangelicals should pay attention to Trump’s actual message and his personal failings. But gripped by a mentality that God is love and love only, evangelicals emphasize forgiveness -- a good quality. But should love and forgiveness not be accompanied and tempered by some hard examination of Trump’s present tendencies? Should his brashness, arrogance, incessant personal attacks on anyone at any time, his constant shape shifting always be lovingly translated as strengths rather than as serious flaws that could cripple a presidency as surely as Obama’s flaws have perilously damaged his entire administration and the very fabric of America?
Should Trump’s completely un-nuanced domestic and foreign policy statements be left unchallenged just because they reflect too many evangelicals’ persistent love for simplistic memes? Is there perhaps more subtlety in diplomatic relations than wholesale condemnation of whole countries? Is there more to the immigration crisis than building a wall? Is everyone not beating the drums on Trump’s bandwagon incurably stupid or a loser who is unworthy to wipe Trump’s shoes? Is clarity possible without being utterly simplistic and condemnatory?
In sum, Trump appeals to too many evangelicals’ worst inclinations, which include incorporating the glitz, power and fame offered by the world without examining the true message animating the persona. By choosing Trump, such evangelicals repudiate the very best messengers -- the best being exemplified by those who faithfully proclaim the gospel and its relevance concerning temporal affairs.
Meanwhile -- and yes, this is a shameless promotion of Ted Cruz -- there exists a brilliant man who professes the evangelical faith, who takes reliably consistent conservative stands, and whose personal life appears to be irreproachable even when measured by evangelicalism’s toughest standards and critics. He is running for the presidency, but is spurned by shallow evangelicals who have forgotten and even rejected the depths of the Christianity that once dominated the American scene, including politics.
Looking at many evangelical churches today, it is now hard to believe that at one time Christian influence predominated in all of America’s institutions. As Alexander de Tocqueville noted in the 1830,’s Christianity was utterly foundational, supporting the entire American enterprise, including the government. He wrote:
“I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion -- for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.
In the United States, the sovereign authority is religious…”
What is the sovereign authority today? It surely isn’t religious. It is secularist.
Evangelical support of triumphant secularist Donald Trump is an indicator of how far evangelicals have fallen from de Tocqueville’s day. The fact that high profile conservatives such as Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Dole and Sarah Palin support Trump is an indicator of how successfully the new secularist Wizard of Oz has been in dazzling the masses -- Christian and non-Christian, high and low, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat.
It is also an indicator of how completely exhausted the current political paradigms characterized by both the Republican and Democrat parties are; and of how badly this nation needs renewal across the board.
But there is hope.
Perhaps Christians in America will once again see, as de Tocqueville did, the vital role of the Christian faith in maintaining republican institutions.
Perhaps when the curtain is pulled back, the truth will be seen and Christians will respond in a serious way.
Let’s hope and pray so.
Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her its prize for excellence in systematic theology. She has at times been a congregant in both evangelical and fundamentalist churches. A regular contributor to American Thinker, her thoughts have appeared in many other online magazines, including CNS, Fox News, RealClearReligion, and National Review. She may be reached at email@example.com