“Christians love me.” That is columnist David Brooks’ version of a typical-sounding Donald Trump claim. Some Christians, of course, would strongly disagree. But Trump himself made a more reliable claim on “60 Minutes”, telling Leslie Stahl, “Without the evangelicals, I could not have won this nomination.” No serious political observer can disagree. In the early primaries of the southern Bible Belt, evangelicals gave their boost to Trump, rather than to Cruz, Rubio or Bush. Trump never relinquished that momentum. As for November, if Trump happens to win, his margin will certainly be built upon a large percentage of self-identified Christians now planning to give him their votes.
“Christians love me” is something Hitler also could have said. Some Christians in Germany, especially post-1945, would not want to be lumped into that group. However, Hitler simply could not have risen to power in Germany without what now looks like the badly misplaced assessment of Christians. Voting studies show that the most intensely Protestant regions, regions of piety similar to the Bible Belt in today’s America, had the highest rates of support for the Nazi Party. This provided the margin Hitler needed to be named Chancellor in 1933. The Catholic Church proved less supportive at first. Within weeks, however, Catholic delegates in the Reichstag voted as a bloc, giving Hitler the two-thirds vote he needed to amend the constitution. This “Enabling Act” transformed Weimar democracy into the Third Reich, the dictatorship that Hitler then dominated for twelve brutal years. Though it might seem strange, self-identified Christians in Germany gave us Adolf Hitler. Paul Althaus, the leading Luther scholar in Germany at the time, put it this way: “Our Protestant churches have greeted the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle from God.”
To my knowledge, no Christian leaders are calling Trump a miracle or a gift from God. However, Trump has received the support of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr, Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and Eric Metaxas, all of them important figures in the evangelical community. Mike Pence, who claims to be “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” has given up his earlier critique of Trump. After getting the nod for VP, he now praises his running mate as “a good man” who advocates policies that are “wonderful,” rather than what he formerly called them, “offensive and unconstitutional.”
What explains the surprising but parallel attraction among “values voters” for Hitler and Trump? Neither looks at first glance like a pious Christian. Hitler was baptized a Catholic, but he ignored the church as an adult and governed with maximum brutality. Trump is known for his casinos, his three marriages, his boasts about sexual prowess, his bare-knuckles approach to business, his very large ego, and his harsh belittling of those who oppose him. He claims never to have asked God for forgiveness, one of many indicators that he is quite clueless about Christian doctrine. These qualities would seem to make his appeal among Christians more than a little surprising.
Several parallels between the two politicians do emerge. Trump’s style is aggressive, bullying, and hyper-nationalistic, quite like Hitler’s. Trump appeals to unhappy voters, especially those angry at women, minorities, and immigrants, plus all those who oppose the political correctness designed to encourage civility toward others. He then promises that he alone can solve their problems. Hitler had the same appeal. Germans were very frustrated in the early 1930s. Hitler would have had no chance without this discontent, because, like Trump, he was a seemingly unprepared and eccentric candidate, widely rejected by the political establishment. As a campaigner, Hitler shouted nasty things that had not been a part of accepted political discourse, lowering the level of decency and dignity. Hitler focused his wrath on scapegoats he blamed for Germany’s problems, allowing him to propose simplistic answers to complicated questions. For Hitler it was Jews, for Trump it is Muslims and Mexicans. Above all, Hitler was the toughest, most aggressive candidate promising to solve all problems and make Germany great again. These parallels are why pundits frequently describe Trump as both xenophobic and demagogic, words also applied to Hitler and never meant as compliments.
Hitler got Christians to ignore questions about his personal faith by loudly claiming to support Christianity as the foundation for German life. He also promised to return Germany to respect for traditional values and to give Germany back its rightful place in the world. Trump’s appeal for Christian voters is very similar. Conveniently, he has switched to the evangelical position against abortion. He sympathizes with those Christians who feel persecuted and promises they will be able to say “Merry Christmas” again when he is president. Trump also knows—as seen in his hesitancy to reject support from the KKK—that his stance in favor of traditional American values implies, for some, our traditional racism, our residual sexism, and our traditional assumption that whites and Christians are meant to be dominant. Hitler knew that traditional values in Germany included a widespread hostility toward Jews. Hitler also knew that democracy, as introduced by the Weimar Republic in Germany, guarantees freedom of speech and political equality both to women and minorities. These values grate against the sensibilities of those who were more comfortable before “liberals” started to enforce democratic change.
This gets us to the question of what values are actually important to “values voters.” Flaws in the Christian persona of Trump as well as Hitler might be thought, at first glance, to repel rather than attract Christians. Trump’s questionable ethics—not just his personal history, but also his propensity for insults and lies―have been called out by many, including a large number of leading Republicans and conservative pundits. However, many Christian voters in today’s America, somewhat like Christian voters in 1930s Germany, seem ready to sacrifice compassion and humane values to an aggressive and robust protection of the “true Germany” or the “true America.”
Is this scary? By 1945, Christians in Germany deeply regretted their enthusiasm for Hitler, who gave them only defeat, destruction, and moral disrepute. Like most postwar Germans, they also tried to hide their earlier stance. Christian votes for Trump might not seem quite as risky. However, if we are seeing the real Trump, which seems likely, and if he should win, which at the moment seems somewhat unlikely, “values voters” might well find a time when they will want to deny they were responsible for his rise to power.
Robert P Ericksen, a retired professor of Holocaust Studies, is the author of Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, 2012) and of Theologians under Hitler (Yale, 1985).