America is, in many ways, a religious experiment gone very, very right. By embracing the fact of religious diversity and pluralism from the get go--in reality, primarily among Protestant denominations in early America, but also in theory among the world religions--the framers of the Constitution created a new religious space.
We have no established church, no established religion, but American religion is also not purely a private matter, banished to the margins of political discourse. American religion is private, but it is also public, political, contentious, and competitive--an aggressive player in the marketplace of ideas and rhetoric that makes up the public sphere of the United States.
Religion has thrived in America like no other developed country, I would argue, largely because religious communities that are neither established as state religions nor banned from public faith have to innovate and adapt and appeal to outsiders. America is not a Christian or a Protestant country, but it is undoubtedly a religious country. Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Donald (I refuse to append the definite article "The" to the name of any mere mortal) is a cynical showman. He's a pretender, a man who has learned that if you confidently assert a factually inaccurate, imagined reality long enough and vociferously enough, you can eventually convince some people it's true. His lies don't stick to him because his bravado, his braggadocio, his combative persona sweep away any concern for truthfulness. Donald is shallowly, unconscionably, sneeringly all about winning. He is, perhaps, the most cynical operator on the stage of American politics today (though Ted Cruz, as per usual, runs a close second), but Donald is winning, as the South Carolina primary on Saturday demonstrated.
What is, at first glance, most surprising to me is that Trump is winning among religious voters. Trump is, for lack of a better term, a heathen. He claims to be a Presbyterian--full disclosure, I am an elder in a Presbyterian PC(USA) church, the same denomination he alleges membership in--but the Presbyterian church baptized and confirmed the teenaged Donald and hasn't seen hide nor hair of him since. He attended Norman Vincent Peale's church for a while, but orthodox Christians have long questioned whether Peale's "power of positive thinking" message had anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus.
No, Trump is a heathen in a much more basic sense: nothing, NOTHING, about his message or persona is even tinged by the Christian ethos or the character of Christ. Can anyone imagine Jesus Christ saying the things that Donald says or using the tone that Donald uses or grimacing with Donald's snide face? Trump's lack of Christian formation is not about his inability to name a favorite Bible verse, or his stumbling over pronouncing 2 Corinthians, or him, literally, throwing cash into the communion plate at a church in Iowa (the symbolism!). Jesus taught that you will know a person by the fruits they produce with their lives (Matthew 7:16), and the Apostle Paul taught that the fruits of God's Spirit at work in a person are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Would anyone ever mistake Donald Trump for evincing much less embodying any of the nouns on that list?
I am deeply sympathetic to the intention behind Pope Francis' admittedly inelegantly phrased comments on Trump this past week. When you go searching for something Christian about the billionaire, you are hard pressed to find anything beneath the smirking veneer. Who knows whether Donald has ever prayed for forgiveness (he says he's not sure if he ever has) or can say the Nicene Creed without crossing his fingers? What is on display is a man who flouts Christlikeness, who glories in his heathen virtues.
Donald Trump exposes how the genius of the American religious experiment is also its Achilles heel. Religion that competes and innovates in the public sphere is easily coopted by other, more cynical forces in that sphere. When religion enters politics, politics can more easily adopt the mask of religion. Deep theological and moral traditions of reflection can be usurped by a shallow civil religion that carries not a touch of the prophetic power or ethical formation that Christianity or Islam or Judaism holds. American civil religion is the religion of Americanism, commandeering the rhetoric of piety for the sake of simplistic nationalism and selfish indulgence.
And Trump has tapped into that deep vein of American civil religion like no other politician of our day and age. Trump is less like Moses coming down the mountain with the challenging and enlightening word of God and more like the golden calf, a persona manufactured for the roaring rabble and bedecked with golden finery. The problem with civil religion is that it has no moral core, and when put under the pressure of a polarized culture it can become very uncivil. Trump lashes out against migrants and American Muslims, not because they are a real threat, but because they are culturally weak; they are convenient minorities, relatively powerless targets of American incivility and rage.
Jesus, while warning his followers against false prophets, coined the metaphor of wolves dressed in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). But Donald Trump is something new. He comes as a wolf in wolves' clothing, and his ostensibly religious, Christian crowds eat it up. Some of them say they admire his faith, but mostly they say they want a strong man, someone who will fight for them. Trump is all too happy to act the part and take their votes. After all, religious communities have never gone wrong in history choosing an insincere strong man as their protector, right?