Donald Trump has a unique way of fusing the sacred and the profane. His most fervent supporters are white evangelical Christians, and he loves to stoke their culture-war fears. At a Florida rally on Tuesday night, he even suggested Thanksgiving was under threat. “There are some people who want to change the name Thanksgiving,” Trump claimed, echoing talking points he heard on Fox News. “They don’t want to use the name Thanksgiving. And that was true also with Christmas but now everyone is using Christmas again.” At that same rally, Trump falsely asserted that polls show that the American public thinks impeachment is unwarranted. “You see what’s happening in the polls?” he asked the crowd. “Everybody said that’s really bullshit.” That last word thrilled the crowd, who started chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”
The rally showed the two sides of Trumpism: a claim to be defending venerable traditions (Christmas, Thanksgiving) combined with a breaking of social norms. Presidential swearing is usually reserved for secret recordings, as in the famed expletives of the Nixon White House, or hot mic moments, as when George W. Bush in 2000 used a foul word to describe a New York Times reporter. Trump’s vulgarity isn’t furtive or private but all too public. When Trump yells “bullshit” on stage, his fans don’t recoil but take up the word as a mantra.
On August 21, Trump made a more subtle but still shocking statement when he said, “I am the chosen one.” That same day, Trump quoted an evangelical leader who said Israeli Jews loved Trump as if he were “the second coming of God.” The religious implications are clear: Trump was suggesting that he’s nothing less than a messianic figure, a divinely sanctioned savior if not God himself.
Remarkably, these comments didn’t earn Trump rebukes of blasphemy from Christians. Rather, they received a thumbs-up from evangelicals, who are increasingly using the language of faith to defend Trump as he faces impeachment charges.
On Sunday, outgoing secretary of Energy Rick Perry appeared on Fox & Friends to give his support to the idea that Trump enjoys divine sanction. “God’s used imperfect people all through history.” Perry noted. “King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect.” Perry went to say that he gave Trump “a little one-pager on those Old Testament kings about a month ago. And I shared with him, I said, ‘Mr. President, I know there are people who say, you know, you are the chosen one,’ and I said, ‘You were.’” The one-pager was a nice touch, suggesting that Perry has a realistic assessment of Trump’s limited tolerance for biblical exegesis.
To be sure, it’s not unusual for evangelical Christians to have a providential view of history, which includes the belief that election results are manifestations of a divine plan. Still, Perry pushed this familiar point in a radical direction by using the loaded language of “chosen one.”
Nor is Perry alone. Apocalyptic and messianic language is becoming increasingly common among Trump supporters. In a sermon in June, presidential adviser Paula White said, “I declare President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy of the enemy, every strategy, and he will fulfill his calling and his destiny.”
Leading figures in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, talk about political conflict as if it were a holy war. Speaking at Notre Dame in October, Barr claimed that America was witnessing the “organized destruction” of religion. According to the attorney general, “Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
To be sure, the alliance between the Republican Party and the religious right long predates the Trump administration, with roots that go back to at least the Reagan presidency. Further, the increased intensity of the religious language owes something to the larger situation of evangelical Christians as a shrinking minority in American culture.
Writing in Vox, Ezra Klein argues that the underlying anxiety is demographic in nature. “Almost 70 percent of American seniors are white Christians, compared to only 29 percent of young adults,” Klein notes. White evangelical Christians feel like they are under siege, and as such are in no mood to abandon their leader, Trump.
Klein is willing to take evangelical feelings of besiegement at face value, writing, “I take William Barr at his word. I believe he looks out at the landscape of contemporary America and sees a country changing into something he doesn’t recognize, that he believes Christianity is under an assault from which it may not recover and Trump, whatever his faults, is their last, best hope. And it’s the support of Republicans like Barr that ensures Trump’s survival.”
But of course, it’s possible to have a more cynical view of the motives at work. After all, the sense of being under siege doesn’t come from any real evidence of persecution of Christians but rather from the reality that Christians can no longer dictate terms on issues like gay rights the way they could even a decade ago. In other words, the fear is not that Christians are becoming second-class citizens but that LGBT folks are becoming first-class citizens.
Even if William Barr and Rick Perry are sincere, there’s no reason to think Trump is. His decision to ratchet up messianic language has a very pragmatic purpose: It takes impeachment out of the realm of fact and law. If God chose Trump to be president, then it doesn’t matter how corrupt he is. Who are we to gainsay the wisdom of God?
Trump is using religion in the most manipulative way possible. As long as evangelical Christians continue to stay in thrall to this con man, they’re condemning their own faith far more harshly than any skeptic ever could.