Evangelical Christian icon and fossil Pat Robertson lost it a few days ago. On his “The 700 Club” show on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson had the following to say about Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border between Syria and Turkey, thus exposing our ally Kurds to attack from Turkish forces.
The president, who allowed [Washington Post journalist Jamal] Khashoggi to be cut in pieces without any repercussions whatsoever, is now allowing the Christians and the Kurds to be massacred by the Turks. The President of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.
Robertson may have been confusing Christian ideology with Chinese political and philosophical ideology, since “The Mandate of Heaven” is an ancient Chinese doctrine that only one emperor could rule China at a time and that emperor was divinely favored; there is nowhere in the Bible, that I’m aware of at least, that “The Mandate of Heaven” is mentioned.
Yet many evangelical Christians, over 80% percent of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and continue to support him, have argued that Trump’s surprise election to the Presidency was divinely ordained. My wife was recently at a conference attended largely by evangelicals where a featured speaker made the argument that Trump is the modern-day equivalent of Cyrus, the Persian ruler who freed Jewish exiles to return to their native land after decades in captivity. Evangelicals argue that just as Cyrus, scarcely a devotee of YHWH the God of Israel, served as God’s agent by authorizing Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to the Promised Land and to rebuild the temple, so the narcissistic and morally flawed Trump can advance the causes of the evangelical community—and by extension, the country. Really.
But I suspect that Pat Robertson has something different in mind when he suggests that Trump is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven. For the first time, perhaps there are fault lines in Trump’s evangelical base. If this is the case, he will not be President for much longer—regardless of what happens with the impeachment inquiry. But I’m not holding my breath. People can convince themselves of anything if they try hard enough, including the preposterous notion that Trump’s presidency is divinely ordained.
I wonder what it was about withdrawing American troops from the Syria/Turkey border that caused the old man to “lost his shit” (as my sons would say) on the 700 club the other day. And he wasn’t the only one. Republican senators such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, who have turned deference to and the defense of Trump into an art form, also were sharply critical of Trump’s action. And indeed, it was a horrible decision on many levels, guaranteeing the deaths of many and doing perhaps irreparable harm to American status and interests worldwide.
But why was this the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back rather than, say, separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in cages? Rather than the President’s childish commitment to undoing everything accomplished by the previous administration, just because? Rather than the steadfast refusal to do anything about gun violence? Rather than an overabundance of evidence that Donald Trump is a misogynist, a racist, a congenital liar, a serial philanderer, and multiply accused of sexual harassment and misconduct?
Sometimes it’s helpful to step back from the emotion of the immediate present and take a larger view of the phenomenon in question. I’ve had the opportunity to do that on a couple of occasions this semester in the interdisciplinary course I teach, finding that when it comes to the dynamic of human belief and commitment, the more things change the more they stay the same. Last week we studied John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. Mill was one of the most important and interesting intellectuals, philosophers, and social advocates of the 19th century; this particular text is a clarion call for full legal equality for women in England that was well ahead of its time.
In the England of Mill’s day, women could not vote, they could not own property, they had few if any legal rights, and their very existences were essentially owned by the men in their lives: father, husband, brother, or closest male relative. A woman’s children were the property of their father. Mill knew that although his argument pressing back against these injustices and inequities was strong, he was swimming against a tide that was far stronger than anything mere logic could overcome.
Accordingly, he reflected on what entrenches people in positions and beliefs far more deeply than facts and evidence.
So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it . . . The worse it fares in argumentative context, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach.
We see this over and over again in contemporary debates and arguments, particularly when religion is involved. There are some beliefs or worldviews that are extraordinarily resistant to contrary argumentation or fact. For certain persons of Christian faith, wrapping Donald Trump in the mantle of divine favor requires such conviction. There’s no telling why Trump’s decision concerning the Syria/Turkey border caused Pat Robertson to worry about Trump’s heavenly mandate, especially since other evangelical leaders such as Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham remained in lock step with Trump despite his betraying our allies and exposing them to attack. There is no accounting for worldviews and beliefs that are impervious to logic and immune from argument.
Another recent text in my interdisciplinary course, one we studied a week or so before John Stuart Mill, is Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map. This is a gripping account of a deadly cholera epidemic that broke out in London’s Soho district in 1854. Soho was overcrowded and impoverished; the dominant explanation for the outbreak was the “miasma” theory (the word comes from the Greek word for “pollution”), which proposed that diseases such as cholera are the result of breathing the foul air produced by rotting organic matter. This thoroughly incorrect and debunked theory, held at the time by high-ranking medical officials and much of the general populace, proved to be remarkably resilient even when the dogged research of various individuals living in Soho, including a young physician and an intrepid Anglican minister, provided incontrovertible evidence that traced the source of the epidemic to polluted water sources and pumps.
Among other things, The Ghost Map is an extended exploration of how knowledge grows and progress is made in the face of stubborn and entrenched beliefs that happen to be demonstrably wrong. Johnson writes that intellectual history, more often than not, is
Not the history of breakthroughs and eureka moments, but instead the history of canards and false leads, the history of being wrong. Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work.
“Interesting,” for sure. I would add that, both in 1854 London and in our country in 2019, “dangerous” is an equally appropriate description.
I think it is safe to say that there are no mandates from heaven. There are only beliefs and commitments that lie in various places on the spectrum between “demonstrably true” and “false on steroids.” I would like to believe that sometime in the not-too-distant future, the inexplicable phenomenon of evangelical Christians embracing Donald Trump will be looked upon as a strange chapter in the “history of being wrong,” one that will undoubtedly be the source of endless analysis, documentaries, movies, and miniseries. That’s what I hope. But I might be wrong.
PS: My new book, Prayer for People Who Don’t Believe in God, was released by Wood Lake Publishing on October 1! To get a description of the book, some endorsements, and information on ordering it, go to the “Books by this Author” location in the right hand column on this page, or click here: http://bit.ly/prayer4people