James Dobson of Focus on the Family has announced that Donald Trump is a born again Christian. This is a dubious claim, but curious, because it is yet another example of an enigmatic phenomenon. When it comes to faith, conservative Christians seem to want to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. A few factors from our history can help explain Trump’s appeal.
Wealth. Trump is wealthy, and American Christians have a long history of linking wealth with divine favor. Max Weber said it helped ease Protestants’ anxiety about their salvation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, populist preachers, such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, often blamed people’s poverty on their sinful habits. Today, Dave Ramsey and Joel Osteen have media empires devoted to selling God’s plan for financial prosperity. When one is already convinced that a godly person is wealthy, it becomes easier to convince oneself that a wealthy person is godly.
Simplicity. There is a strong anti-intellectual strand running through much of American Christianity, and Trump fits right in. Our history has been punctuated by three or four “Great Awakenings,” religious revivals that successively fostered mistrust of “head knowledge” in favor of “heart knowledge.” For instance, the Azusa Street Revival gave birth to a religious movement that literally equated speaking nonsense with the power of the Holy Spirit. For many American Christians, emotional appeals carry far more weight than reason. Whether it’s a rousing guitar solo from the Sunday morning praise band or chants of “Build that wall,” far too many Christians in this country are primed to respond positively to whatever pumps them up. Reason be damned!
Racism. Donald Trump is a racist, and white eurocentrism has been part of the American experience from the beginning. The Puritans who landed on our shores believed they were the new Israel, tasked with driving the dark-skinned heathens out of the land God promised them. Plantation owners hired preachers who encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters, suffering earthly toil now for the promise of heavenly rest upon death. As Americans pushed further westward, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny continued to justify slaughter of Native Americans. By pitting mostly white American Christians against mostly brown Muslim refugees and other immigrants, Trump stands in a long line of people who have linked the Christian faith with the superiority of white people.
The Christian Right. Starting in the 1980s, Jerry Falwell and the burgeoning Christian Right began a political movement that associated Christian values with Republican policies. Now, one is hard-pressed to find an Evangelical over 40 who does not automatically vote Republican. Some of the same people rallying behind Trump may still believe that Barack Obama is a covert Muslim. When Republicans say they are Christian, they are given the benefit of the doubt, but when Democrats do the same, they are clearly just pandering.
The weight of Donald Trump is making the Christian Right buckle. This process of defection began with the presidency of George W. Bush. Younger conservative Christians saw Bush bumble his way into atrocities in the name of a Manichaean war against evil; they questioned how a self-proclaimed Pro-Life president could mislead a country into a war that has killed half-a-million people; and they saw that a Christian man could annihilate Christianity in the Middle East more or less by accident. Bush showed that a Christian president can still have an unrighteous reign, inadvertently straining the tie between conservative Christianity and the Republican Party. Trump may finally cut the cord. James Dobson and other Evangelical leaders seem desperate to find a way to keep voting Republican. It is as if they do not know any other way to be Christian. Millennial believers seem to want a faith richer than that. For them, such desperation is just one more sign that the political theology of the Christian Right is paper thin, and that Jesus Christ does not belong to any party. Not even the Republicans.