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Trump is Promoting a Secular Form of Religious Nationalism
Discussing why evangelicals support Trump, the author points out that bloody conquest and violent apocalypse have been the basic recipe for religious nationalism American-style.
By Philip S. Gorski
Recent opinion polls suggest that more white evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump in 2016 than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Why? Why would white evangelicals pull the lever for a man who is the walking antithesis of most everything they claim to stand for—family values, piety, humility, and forgiveness? A man who has six children by three wives, hadn’t darkened a church door for decades, brags about his financial and sexual conquests, and claimed he’s never done anything he needed to be forgiven for?
No doubt, part of the answer is political polarization and party tribalism. Many evangelicals tell pollsters that they are voting against Hillary Clinton more than for Donald Trump. For them, Trump is just the lesser of two evils. Others are probably voting for the GOP rather than for Trump, himself. They are voting for the team, not the coach.
Still, Hillary hatred and party loyalty can’t be the whole explanation. The Republican primaries featured a number of candidates with rock-solid evangelical bona fides. And yet, a plurality of white evangelicals chose Trump over Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.
Shall we chalk it up to popular defiance of “the establishment?” That’s too easy. Some high-ranking members of the evangelical establishment came out for Trump relatively early on. Jerry Falwell Jr. did. So did Billy Graham’s son and heir, Franklin Graham. The divide between Trump and #NeverTrump evangelicals was vertical, not horizontal. It did not run between the masses and the leadership but cut through both.
There are various interpretations of Trumpism on offer. Reading it as fascism explains its appeal to the white nationalists of the “alt-right.” Reading it as populism explains its appeal to a white working class fed up with the “Washington establishment.” And reading it as authoritarianism explains its appeal to voters with authoritarian personalities. These interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain Trump’s appeal to evangelicals qua evangelicals.
So, let me propose a different interpretation. On this reading, Trumpism is a secular form of religious nationalism. By “religious nationalism,” I mean a form of nationalism that makes religious identity the litmus test of national belonging. By “a secular form of religious nationalism,” I mean one that strips religious identity of its ethical content and transcendental reference. In Trumpism, religion functions mainly as a marker of ethnicity.
The American version of religious nationalism has a very long history. Its roots extend all the way back to the Puritans’ wars with the native peoples during the seventeenth century. The Puritans initially conceived of themselves as a covenanting people—a New Israel in a New England. In the course of these bloody confrontations, some of the Puritans reconceived themselves as a conquering people—conquering a New Canaan from the native Canaanites. Some framed the conflict in apocalyptic terms as well, as a cosmic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
Bloody conquest and violent apocalypse—this has been the basic recipe for religious nationalism American-style ever since. Always simmering on the back burner, American religious nationalism has been brought to boil again and again by the flames of war: during the Seven Years War, the Civil War, the First World War, the Cold War and, most recently, the “War on Terror.”
Nowadays, American religious nationalism travels under the more innocuous sounding name of “American Exceptionalism.” In the three decades following the Reagan Revolution, some small adjustments were made to the old recipe. There was less talk of “blood sacrifice” and more of the “ultimate sacrifice”; less talk of violent “conquest” and more of “exporting freedom.” Religious nationalism for the sensitive palate.
Trumpism is altering the recipe yet again. The rhetoric of blood and apocalypse is secularized, denuded of explicitly religious content. The rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush was still rife with religious allusions: Reagan’s “shining city on the hill,” for example, and Bush’s “the Axis of Evil.” Trump’s speechifying is fully shorn of such talk.
But it is nonetheless full of blood and apocalypse. Consider one particularly revealing—and chilling—example. At his rallies, Trump often recounts a (debunked) story about General John Pershing. After capturing fifty Muslim terrorists in the Philippines, the story goes, Pershing had fifty bullets dipped in pigs’ blood which were then used to execute forty-nine of the prisoners. Pershing then gave the last bullet to the fiftieth man and told him to return to his people. There were no more acts of Islamic terrorism for almost thirty years, Trump triumphantly concludes. It is one of the biggest applause lines in Trump’s stump speech. It evidently speaks to the innermost id of his most fervent supporters.
This same logic underlies Trump’s thinking about terrorism and geopolitics more generally. The old strategies of policing and deterrence will not work, he insists. Harder tactics will be necessary. Ultimately, blood will have to be spilled. For Trump, it appears, blood sacrifice has magical powers. Against this background, Trump’s remark about blood coming out of Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly’s “whatever” sounds more like a Freudian slip than a faux pas.
Trump does not allude to the Tribulation or the Second Coming in the way that old school religious nationalists like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson did. But Trump does portray the contemporary world as an apocalyptic hellscape. There are no demons or angels, no monsters or dragons. Just “real Americans” threatened by hordes of Syrian refugees, gangs of Muslim terrorists, and swarms of Mexican rapists. Trump’s apocalypse is a secular one.
With Christ out of the picture, the role of Messiah is open again. He claims that he and he alone has the power to cast these monstrous minions back into their respective pits, as long as his followers put their faith in him. “Believe me folks,” he often says, “I will do it.” I will deliver you from evil, I will redeem you from poverty, and I will lift you up again above all races. American will “win” again. In Trumpism, the Second Coming of Christ becomes the First Term of the Donald.
To those outside the fold, Trumpism may appear to be an incoherent jumble of prejudice and fear. Seen from the inside, however, its various elements are knit together by hidden logic—the logics of blood and apocalypse. The metaphor of blood connects white racism (blood purity), unrestrained militarism (blood conquest), and no-holds-barred anti-terrorist policies (blood sacrifice). It is the hidden foundation that connects the border wall with promises to destroy ISIS and ignore the Geneva Convention.
The narrative of apocalypse likewise binds together a number of seemingly disparate elements of Trumpism: fears of economic decline, terrorist attacks, and cultural transformation, amongst others. For Trump, though, the source of the danger is not sin but “weakness.” And so, it’s solution is not the return of the “unblemished lamb” bedecked in white robes, but the election of a “winner” all garbed in bespoke. As one commentator quipped, Trump is not running for President; he’s running for God.
Reading Trumpism as a secular version of religious nationalism not only explains why so many evangelicals rallied to Trump, it also sheds light on which evangelicals did so. Not the more pious of the evangelical masses, as it turns out, nor the more theologically astute of its leaders. During the spring of 2016, opinion polls turned up a fascinating finding: an inverse relationship between church attendance and support for Trump. As for Graham Jr. and Falwell Jr., they are political leaders, not thought leaders.
In short, the affinity is not really between Trump and Christianity—it’s between Trumpism and Christianism. By Christianism, I mean Christianity as a political identity denuded of ethical content. Trumpism is a Christianist version of political theology.
Trumpism is often understood as the American equivalent of European neo-populism. There is considerable merit to this comparison. Both ideologies have taken root in the same putrid soil of nativist backlash and economic anxiety. Both have appealed to religious conservatives as well.
But there are also important, if subtle, differences between the American and West European variants. European populists often claim to be defending Western secularity, rather than traditional Christianity. In America, by contrast, religious conservatives typically view “secular humanism” as the problem, rather than the solution. Of course, the defense of “secularism” is little more than a veiled attack on Islam, while progressive intellectuals are often the intended target of the polemics against secular humanism. Still, “religion” has a different valence in the two contexts: positive in the United States, negative in Western Europe. In this regard, Trumpism is probably more like the East European version of neo-populism.
Be that as it may, the advent of Trumpism marks a worrisome turning point in the history of the already worrisome ideology. Loosed from its religious moorings, religious nationalism now floats free of the ethical tether of Christian ethics and political theology with a would-be messiah clinging to that frayed rope. Secular progressives have often wished for the demise of religious conservatism. They imagined that a reasonable form of secular conservatism would take its place. This now looks like wishful thinking.
This appeared at The Immanent Frame.
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