When Donald Trump voices his attitudes, many people are horrified. How can so many Christians find his positions appealing? Rather than simply arguing back or dismissing Trump followers as racist and ignorant or unchristian, it might help to understand Trump and his appeal more deeply on a religious level.
Trump actually represents the worst of what might be called “deep Christianity.” This is the set of deep-seated assumptions in orthodox Christianity, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, that are held most clearly by fundamentalist believers but are also embedded in Christianity of all stripes. Importantly, they affect many in the American population who are not church-goers but simply live in our Christianity-infused culture. These assumptions are ancient, but they have modern applications. Over all, they are a threat to a present-day democracy.
What are these assumptions?
1. The world is a bad and dangerous place. Trump is adept at naming dangers of terrorism, financial ruin, violent crime, and more. Politicians have always had criticisms but not in such apocalyptic terms. His view resonates with the fear of the world taught in the Bible—evil is everywhere and dangers are rampant. The devil is said to be prowling about and controlling the earth in perilous end times (I Peter 5:8, II Timothy 3:1, Ephesians 6:12, I John 5:19). The implication of these verses and Trump’s words is the same: it is right to be very afraid.
2. Might is right. By far the trait Trump most values is strength, not justice or peace or equality. His measure of success is his money, not his history of how he has treated people. In the Bible, Jehovah God as a role model repeatedly displays his strength, above all. He sends plagues to Egypt to demonstrate his power (Exodus 7:14—11:10), drowns the earth to punish sin (Genesis 6:7), directs the Jews to slaughter all of Jericho (Joshua 6:21), and scolds a suffering Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1-41). The heroes of the Bible—Moses, David, Samson, Elijah, Jesus—were known for unusual power. Jesus not only performed miracles, he single-handedly drove all the merchants from the temple (Matthew 21:12,13). The ultimate image of Jesus is a future one of victoriously returning to Earth with his army of angels (Matthew 24:29-34). With Trump, appearing as a strongman appears to outweigh questions about his business dealings, prejudice or lack of experience.
3. A savior is needed. Trump has made his campaign entirely about himself. It is not a movement of people working together to effect change. His language is about himself and his personal ability to solve problems entirely. He wants people just to trust him, that he is their voice. This is a familiar Christian theme (as well as any other religion offering a savior). There is a deep assumption that one day the savior will return and solve all problems. Believers should just be on the lookout for that redeemer (Luke 12:40, Matthew 24:40-44, Luke 21:34-36). Just as significant perhaps is the disappointment in what Jesus accomplished the first time. He is said to be the “savior of the world,” yet the world is far from saved. (This may explain why conservative Christians seem so angry, especially at Christmas.) Trump appears to be rising to the occasion with special appeal to evangelical voters.
4. Simplistic thinking is adequate. Trump is not known for the depth or complexity of his analysis of issues. To solve immigration problems, he thinks it would work to “build a wall.” To deal with trade deficits, he recommends defaulting on loans. The simple approach to foreign policy is to look out for Number One. In Christianity, the deep assumptions are also very simple. They are all about black-and-white notions of good and bad, right and wrong. The God of the Old Testament demanded complete obedience with no exception, even when the ark of the covenant was falling to the ground; a man tried to catch it and was struck dead for touching it (I Chronicles 13:10). Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me" (Luke 11:13). The Christian message of salvation is quite clear—you go to heaven or hell. Trump seems to make no place for nuance in policy development.
5. Obedience is key. Trump supporters respond with mass assent to his words and actions. They don’t question or discuss behaviors that in the past would be alarming to Americans—his remarks that are racist or misogynist, his shady dealings with Trump University, or his past obsession with the birther movement. In the Bible and in fundamentalist Christianity, one does not question the authority of God. Obedience is by far the highest virtue. One of the earliest stories in the Bible exalts Abraham for obeying God enough to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22). This story is told in church as an example instead of the abhorrent morality it represents. Other stories of obedience and disobedience permeate the Bible (Book of Jonah, Acts 5:1-11). Thinking for oneself is not permitted. Nor do we see people thinking for themselves at Trump rallies.
6. Violence is okay. Trump condones and promotes acts of violence with his remarks. An assumption in Christianity is that violence is okay if it serves a good purpose, i.e. God’s purpose. Stories abound in the Bible of God acting violently when crossed. Individuals can be struck dead (Leviticus 10:1-3) or a town can be hit with fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:4,5). The disobedient can be buried alive or burned (Numbers 16:32-35). Even babies and old people can be killed (Psalm 13:9, Ezekiel 9:5,6). Moreover, the god of the Bible frequently rages, thundering and scolding (Deuteronomy 31:17, Ezekiel 7:8). His wrath is a constant threat (Isaiah 13:9, Romans 2:5). Jesus describes violent punishment in hell (Matthew 13:50) and the book of Revelations provides a cataclysmic horror story of God’s judgment. These images all coalesce in the subconscious to give permission and authority to be violent. It is a small step to find justification, especially when paired with a savior strongman.
7. Prejudice is acceptable. Apparently Trump considers it okay to be racist and sexist and ablest. In the Bible and in the deep assumptions of Christianity, these attitudes are common. The conquest of Canaan included genocide sanctioned by God and intermarriage was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 7:2,3). The disabled were considered unclean by God (Leviticus 21:17-21). In the New Testament women are told to submit to their husbands and be quiet in church (Ephesians 5:22-24, I Timothy 2:12). Homophobia and slavery are also endorsed in the Bible (Leviticus 18:22, Ephesians 6:5). If these Bible stories and biblical attitudes are seen as having God’s stamp of approval, we should not be surprised some Christians feel a familiar resonance when Trump expresses similar attitudes. Trump actually quotes the Bible when convenient, attempting to give himself the appearance of spiritual authority.
8. Earth is dispensable. Trump doesn’t believe in climate change. He has said it is a hoax. This position is unfathomable given a reasonable trust in science. However, in deep Christianity, science and rationality give way to apocalyptic vision. The Bible clearly predicts the Earth will end (Matthew 24:35, I Peter 4:7, II Peter 3:10) and this is a belief strongly held by Christians and nonbelievers alike because the concept is deep in the public subconscious. Even in art, there are many images of the Earth’s destruction. For Trump and his followers, the end times is a convenient way of avoiding responsibility for the Earth, even if not explicitly espoused.
9. Exclusive self-interest is moral. Trump is distinctively isolationist. He wants to avoid involvement with other countries and concentrate on “making America great again.” In fundamentalist Christianity, there is a surprising selfishness in the focus on personal salvation, i.e. getting one’s ticket to heaven (Philippians 2:11,12). It is not an ethic of working collectively for the common good. In the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples they are special because they are not of this world (John 15:19). With manifest destiny, America was considered God’s chosen country—better than all the rest. Trump is also promoting an extreme form of American exceptionalism. He has no moral problem with promoting U.S. interests no matter what the geo-political costs.
10. America has lost its way. Trump has become known for his doom-and-gloom description of the state of the nation. He accuses U.S. leaders of running the country into the ground. This sits well with evangelical voters who believe the nation has abandoned Christian principles. A prominent Christian belief is that the founding fathers were devout Christians, but the country has abandoned God. This idea strikes fear and even anger toward “evildoers” because the Bible says whole nations will suffer and be punished by God because of sin (Psalm 110:6, Isaiah 1:4, Romans 1:18). Jerry Falwell even blamed 9/11 on sinning Americans. Trump does a masterful job of directing vitriol toward targets both outside and inside the country while making himself the heroic savior.
The United States has a strong, enduring religious history and culture. A significant core of this is fundamentalist Christianity, with deep assumptions that are unconscious for most people. These assumptions are important to understand and can be enlightening as we try to fathom the Trump candidacy for president. He is tapping into a dangerous level of the worst of our religious tradition, and we need to recognize it.
These aspects of deep Christianity are decidedly dangerous to a modern democracy. The world is complex, not simply bad and dangerous. A leader needs to appreciate this and avoid simplistic analysis. In a democracy, individuals must think for themselves, not defer to authoritarianism. They need to participate freely and with responsibility rather than expecting to be saved from life’s problems. A democracy needs to include everyone; prejudice, hate and violence have no place. Strength of leadership must be tempered with justice and fairness. Finally, a democratic nation must appreciate its context on Earth. It must strive to treat neighbors with respect and honor the critical needs of the planet’s environment and wildlife.
These are not the characteristics of Donald Trump’s America. Rather, Trump’s worldview mirrors the worst and most archaic of Christian assumptions. It is the complete opposite of what we need to live together on a fragile planet, one where our future depends on people from all cultures and religions finding common ground despite our many differences.