I’d rather not talk about Rick Perry, but, alas, he has forced me to. The US Energy Department secretary made headlines last week, saying God chose the president:
“God uses imperfect people through history. King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect. And I actually gave the president a one-pager on those Old Testament kings … And I shared it with him and I said, ‘Mr. President, I know there are people who say that you say you were the chosen one.’ And I said, ‘You were.’ I said, ‘If you are a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.’ ”
So once again, we are faced with an apparent paradox: why would white evangelical Christians stand cheek-to-jowl with such an un-Christian president? Perry has his way of explaining things, a “biblical” explanation. But another way of looking at it is so obvious as to be quite invisible: Donald Trump is as Christian as evangelicals are.
That we ask the question at all may be part of the problem. We keep asking why white evangelical Christians support such an un-Christian president because we believed what they said about Barack Obama, but especially about Bill Clinton. We believed their outrage over Clinton’s relations with an intern in the White House, thus sparking a process that led to his impeachment. We believed it was all in good faith. We believed it was based on genuine religious sentiment. We believed they meant what they said.
Well, what if they didn’t mean it? If we imagine for a moment that they meant none of that, what we are seeing now makes a lot more sense. All of this talk about a biblical understanding of Donald Trump as the chosen one makes more sense. This “biblical understanding” is a rationalization for a conclusion they’d already come to, which is a conclusion with little grounding in religion. It has more to do with power politics.
Put another way, more accurately: power politics is their religion.
So it doesn’t matter that Trump paid off at least two women to keep quiet about having extra-marital sex with him. It doesn’t matter that he’s a proud self-proclaimed “pussy grabber.” It doesn’t matter that he abandoned Syrian Christians. It doesn’t matter that his administration confiscated infants from immigrant mothers at the border. All of his actions are irrelevant because evangelical Christians have already made up their minds, a process totally in keeping with the history of the cult of American tradition.
“The cult of tradition” is something I’m borrowing from Umberto Eco. He was talking about European tradition. I’m substituting “American.” In the current context, that tradition has held that the United States is a Christian nation given by God. We must ask: who was it given to? You already know. They didn’t look like Barack Obama.
The cult of tradition was necessarily syncretistic, a combination of different forms of belief that tolerates contradiction, Eco said. “Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth” (my italics).
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message. […] No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.
For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason. (“Ur-Fascism” is the title of Eco’s article.)
The president’s critics are familiar with the idea that his followers constitute a cult of Trump. What his critics fail to understand, mostly, is that this cult was always already functioning under different names in different places for different reasons. But once the leaders of this cult of American tradition understood in 2016 what Trump was about, the melding of interests was easy and natural. There was no contradiction.
The president’s critics are also familiar with the argument that Trump is a fascist leader who will not tolerate constitutional limits on his power. That he’s a fascist and that his followers are evangelical Christians is also not a contradiction in terms. To the contrary, it is syncretistic. Everything alludes, allegorically, to the same primeval truth
There is no such thing as abuse of power when one has been chosen by God to rule. There is no such thing as obstruction of justice when God alone decides who is worthy of justice. Since God chose Trump, only God can end his presidency, and any attempt to impeach and remove him is, by consequence, a sinful attempt to obstruct God’s will.
That white evangelicals genuinely believe this to be true should not in any way be mistaken for religious sentiment that other Americans are bound to respect. We should not give this authoritarian strain of Christianity any more benefit of the doubt politically than we would to a man who yells “fire” in a crowded theater. Yes, he has the right to free speech, but not at the expense of everyone else’s rights and freedoms. Evangelical Christians have religious freedom, but no right to impose it on others.
That white evangelical Christians believe they are an oppressed minority—see Ezra Klein’s latest—should not in any way deter other Americans from fighting like hell. Their worldview is categorically incompatible with a just and equitable democratic republic. Their politics is their religion, and their opponents should act accordingly.
Is Trump as Christian as evangelicals are. Yes, it’s obvious.
Once you see them for what they are, that is.
A slightly different version of this essay first appeared in John Stoehr’s subscription-only newsletter, The Editorial Board. It is republished here with permission.