One great mystery of Donald Trump’s rise to power involves the overwhelming support he received from white evangelicals during the 2016 campaign ― support he still enjoys despite his constant and easily verified lying, his attacks on the courts and the free press, his close associations with open racists, his aggressive pursuit of undocumented persons, and his support for a wretched health care policy. Yes, white evangelicals tend to be conservative, but one would hope their gospel values would reject dishonesty, authoritarianism, and cruelty.
So powerful is the evangelical affinity for Trumpism that dissenters face punishment. Look what’s happened to Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist ethicist who called out Trump’s “serious moral problems” and un-Christian personal behavior. Under withering pressure from his own denomination, Moore offered a public apology for being “overly broad” and “unnecessarily harsh” in his criticisms of Trump supporters. That apology might have saved Moore’s job, but it reveals the fierce support Trump enjoys among evangelicals. How do we explain the evangelical affinity for a movement that so obviously conflicts with Christian values? Some propose that evangelicals have fallen in love with political power. They’ve sold out themselves and their values in order to support a conservative agenda ― and to find themselves seated at the table when key decisions are made. Perhaps their pro-life convictions outweigh all other considerations, or maybe they’ve just corrupted themselves. Surely this criticism bears a measure of truth. We should not overlook another dimension of white evangelicals’ attachment to Trumpism: apocalypticism.
With respect to contemporary religion, scholars use words like apocalypticism and millennialism somewhat loosely. But these terms describe a widespread fixation among evangelicals with the end times, particularly the belief that we are currently living in the last days. Visit a Christian bookstore and you will likely find shelves devoted to “Bible prophecy,” explication of Revelation and other parts of the Bible that, they say, outline history’s climactic events. Even evangelicals who reject the Bible prophecy movement are often shaped by its values and tensions. We don’t have time here for a critique of evangelical millennialism. I’ve done it here, here, and here, and I’ve written textbooks on biblical apocalypticism. My point here is more straightforward: in significant ways, apocalypticism strengthens the evangelical affinity for Trumpism.
“[Evangelicals] sold out themselves and their values in order to support a conservative agenda.”
First, American millenarians have long harbored strong suspicion of international and religious alliances. In part this suspicion goes back to old anti-Catholic sentiments, read in the light of key passages from Revelation. Chapters 13, 17, and 18 envision a great Beast who makes war against God’s people. All the “inhabitants of the earth” worship the Beast. The Beast has seven heads and 10 horns, often taken to represent an alliance of nation states. According to this logic, Revelation’s Beast stands for unholy political and religious alliances that will emerge just prior to the end. Watch out, World Bank and National Council of Churches!
Both suspicions, religious and international, manifest themselves in popular millennialist sources. We find them in Hal Lindsey’s classic The Late Great Planet Earth, which was published in 1970 and was the top non-fiction bestseller of that decade, and in the incredibly popular Left Behind series of novels. The authors of the Left Behind series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, describe “three signs of the end”: “world government,” a “one-world economy,” and “a one-world religion.”
Trumpism plays into these scripts at multiple levels. Trump’s campaign quickly built alliances with conservative evangelicals like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Paula White, but it largely ignored ecumenical and mainline Protestants. (Apocalypticists are especially suspicious of the ecumenical movement, which seeks to reunite Christians in the United States and around the world.) His Twitter relationship with Pope Francis has so many layers of complication that CNN recently summarized it in “A Tale of 10 Tweets.” Trump openly criticizes NATO and the United Nations, and his recent visit to Europe only undermined confidence in the United States among NATO allies. He has also rejected multi-lateral trade deals, threatening to back out of NAFTA and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
We saw a perfect example of Trumpism in the recent announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump offered a series of arguments for his decision, culminating with this claim: “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty.” Trump went on for several paragraphs concerning how the multi-lateral agreement placed the United States under the authority of other nations. Moreover, he characterized those other nations as taking advantage of the United States. At this point he conjured an image from his campaign: “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.” Setting aside the question of Russia, Trumpism is fundamentally opposed to multi-national collaboration.
A second affinity between Trumpism and apocalypticism involves dualism, the tendency to make rigid distinctions between good and evil. Dualism stands among the defining characteristics of apocalypticism, and it also characterizes Trumpian rhetoric. For example, on Memorial Day Trump lauded “those brave souls who raced into gunfire, roared into battle, and ran into hell to face down evil.” Surely American soldiers have confronted outright evil in great conflicts. But always? Were the Mexicans, the Spanish, and the Vietnamese “evil”? Memorial Day honors all who have died while in military service, but most of us would not characterize the Native American nations who resisted white expansion as evil. Would we?
“Like Trump, evangelicals are prone to describe themselves as beset by hostile forces.”
It’s not as if Trump’s Memorial Day line was a mild slip. Trumpism is all about naming enemies. Channeling Stalin, Trump has branded the news media as an “enemy of the people.” With a deeply polarized American electorate, Trump’s dualistic attacks appeal to his base. But it’s more than a matter of style. Trump’s intellectual guide Stephen Bannon has spoken of a “clash of civilizations” between a purportedly Judeo-Christian West and an Islamicist East. Bannon describes a centuries-long conflict with Islam, but his enemies are not only external. As any Breitbart reader could see during Bannon’s run as its executive chair, the enemies also include those who would erode the “Judeo-Christian” nationalist identity Bannon attributes to the United States. Given Bannon’s dualist view of society, Breitbart’s merciless attacks against religious and cultural opponents make sense. Trumpism is about enemies: remember Trump’s New Year’s Eve tweet?
“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
That tweet may have sent love and greetings, but it reveals Trump’s mindset. People who disagree are enemies, and that’s how he’ll treat them.
Dualism almost always goes hand in hand with a persecution complex. Trump routinely complains about the mistreatment he receives from his various adversaries. As commencement speaker to the United States Coast Guard Academy, Trump whined, “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” When Nordstrom’s pulled Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from its stores, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom.” Like Trump, evangelicals are prone to describe themselves as beset by hostile forces. Hard as it is to believe, white evangelicals today believe they suffer discrimination more intensely than do Muslims. A dualistic outlook is a gift that keeps on giving.
Apocalyptic dualism stands in tension with another value evangelicals hold dear: grace. Trump’s candidacy posed many problems for evangelicals, not least his three marriages ― including dating future wives while still married. It didn’t help that Trump bragged about disrespecting women and grabbing women by their genitals. But evangelicals can forgive easily. During the campaign, multiple stories bubbled up that Trump had found Jesus.
But with dualism, the grace that applies so easily to one’s allies cannot touch one’s enemies. Actual Christians like Bill and Hillary Clinton have never received grace from the evangelical world. Bill could never be forgiven despite his shows of repentance. And Hillary’s Christian testimony, like that of Barack Obama, could not be accepted because she was on the wrong side of evangelical politics.
The apocalyptic stream runs a long, winding course through American history. Donald Trump appeals to American evangelicals for many reasons. Apocalyptic resonances within Trumpism made the man and his message especially palatable. Trumpism’s rejection of international and interreligious cooperation, combined with its tendency to demonize its opponents, touched a deep place in the evangelical mindset.