Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
The Heretical Gospel of Trump
03/11/2016Posted by on
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a column out in the Week tracing Donald Trump’s evangelical support to two factors: Christian nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. As is often the case, I almost agree with Gobry about the prosperity gospel. Gobry:
In its most crude forms, the prosperity gospel says that God rewards financially those who pray. If you don’t have the car you want or the house you want, if you pray hard enough, God will give it to you.[F]orgetting […] that sometimes the righteous have to suffer […] and that a man’s worth is never, ever judged by his possessions.
The prosperity gospel is one of the most vibrant heresies in America today, […and…] one of America’s most powerful religious leaders is undoubtedly Joel Osteen, who is a prosperity preacher. It’s obvious why someone taken in by the prosperity gospel would see no glaring contradiction between Trump’s assertion that he’s a “very strong Christian” and his gaudy lifestyle and ostentatious wealth.
So far so plausible. Prosperity gospel breaks orthodox Christianity’s view of wealth and creates the idea that being a good Christian is positively correlated with wealth, Trump is wealthy, so prosperity gospel believers think he’s a good Christian, so prosperity gospel is at fault. But if you look at how prosperity gospel churches actually work, and how Trump supporters behave, it doesn’t quite match up with their optimism and their activism.
The prosperity gospel is a very optimistic approach to religious life. The kind of twisted optimism that casts cruelty as a shadow. As I’ve discussed before, the inevitable consequence of believing that if you just pray hard enough you’ll be wealthy and healthy is that if you are not wealthy and healthy, you believe that it is all your own fault. Trump supporters do not believe it is their fault. They are not optimistic and about their personal ability to do things, they believe they need some savior billionaire to wreck/beat all the other countries. Hell, there is a lot of evidence that they don’t even believe that. Instead, they believe that Trump can’t change things, but he can help them give a big middle finger to everyone who has looked down on them or otherwise messed with their lives. And their anger seems to come from the standard issue places: socioeconomic class resentments, personal prosperity, Jacksonian ideas of national dignity and so on. No reason to reach for some sort of psychological inversion of the self-blame the prosperity gospel engenders. Trump’s Evangelical followers aren’t going to this church enough to shape their thinking in this way. Hell, they’re just not going to church much at all. Which brings us to the activism gap.
Prosperity gospel churches trend heavily towards a highly active church life with big asks. Now, most other Christians sneer at this, because the theology of the prosperity gospel asks pretty much none of the hard things, like embracing your enemies, faith while in fear and trembling, and charitable conduct and thought. But prosperity gospel churches ask a lot in simpler ways: cold hard cash. Tithing, going to church activities, evangelizing for the church, buying the preacher’s latest book, buying a book from the church store for this month’s sermon, providing free labor for the church’s commercial bookstore – there are plenty of big asks, especially for the poor who don’t have much to give. Trump has done none of these. Except that one time he screwed up giving money during communion. He can’t even rely the subtle linguistic cues of someone culturally Christian to signal that he is “one of us” to the Evangelicals who support him. He is not one of them. So who are these supporters anyway?
Evangelical supporters of Trump may not actually be Evangelicals the way we tend to think of them. They’re probably more like Mr. Young from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens:
He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left‑footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell‑floor polish for the Low, somewhat suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.
Gaiman and the late Pratchett were writing Mr. Young in an English context, but change the set dressing a little, and you get that everywhere religion has just enough hold on a people to give them a tribal affiliation but not enough to give them religiosity. They probably know a lot of churchgoers, they’re related with churchgoers, probably even married to churchgoers. But you don’t need to believe Christian ideas to identify as Christian on a poll. You don’t need to believe to get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” or telling you to stop saying “God bless you”. You don’t even have to disdain the outsiders doing it, you just have to perceive their disdain for you. That’s tidy, isn’t it?
But, but, but, what if there are, actual religious evangelical Christians in the Trump coalition and it can’t be explained away by personal idiosyncrasies? Well, certainly it’s going to be a further step in the Faustian bargain with secular power Christians have made since suborning Constantine into the flock. Christianity is deeply suspicious of secular power, but if a Christian takes the idea we live in a fallen world seriously grasping at power is inevitable. But why Trump and why were they doing it while other candidates still seemed viable? And this is where we get into a twisted up understanding of evil. Which is to say, too many people think that evil works better than good.
Way back when America was grappling with whether or not to torture – sorry “use enhanced interrogation techniques on” – captured suspected terrorists in order to get information. And according to the Republican Presidential candidates, we should relitigate that debate. So here it is: torture is not a superior, always works like for Jack Bauer on TV, method of interrogation. Torture doesn’t give you information. Torture gives you compliance, a compliance that is agnostic to truthfulness. We know this because of the several thousand year known history of regimes torturing people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. So, while we can construct scenarios where torture is both effective and forgivable, they are not the general case. The general case is torturing someone until they break. And yet there are clearly people who think it is universally effective, purely because the bad guys do it and we won’t (anymore). But sometimes evil is evil agnostic of its effectiveness. And sometimes evil is evil because it is so ineffective.
Trump is more than America’s pro-even-worse-torture candidate. He’s America’s pro-evil candidate. He’s selling the idea that he’s evil, he’ll be evil for America, and that will make America win again. And even before we embrace evil because it is effective, we have to remember that evil is not effective. Trump represents a number of challenges, and one of them is religious. A number of Evangelicals have failed that test, God help them. And more are to come unless we can convince them otherwise.