A December 31st 2018 New York Times article titled “Why Trump Reigns as King Cyrus” has a tagline that reads “The Christian right doesn’t like the president only for his judges. They like his style.” I was especially struck by the following lines in the article:
This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.
They want it all. And in Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause, but also satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership.
Various journalists and cultural critics will try and come up with one driving force factor that explains the Evangelical support for Trump. This article brings a degree of complexity to the discussion. No doubt, there are several issues and factors that give rise to such steady support for Trump in certain Evangelical circles (and beyond what can be captured in any one news article).
The Evangelical movement is very complex. In fact, not all Evangelicals belong to the Christian right or are Christian nationalists. Moreover, not all Evangelicals who voted for President Trump did so out of Christian nationalist convictions.
Now why is the Evangelical movement so complex? One reason for the complexity (which involves tensions and inherent self-contradictions between segments of the movement) is because we do not have a Pope or Council of Cardinals. As historian Randall Balmer has argued in his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, we are often driven by charismatic leaders. Given his close ties to certain Evangelical Christian nationalist leaders, President Trump fits this bill as a former reality TV star and business tycoon.
Interestingly enough, we Evangelicals are seen to be grassroots in our orientation. However, as this NY Times article notes, there is a heavy dose of patriarchy involved, at least within the Christian right segment. It is almost as if it is populist on the one hand and patriarchal and authoritarian on the other. Quite a paradox, if not a total contradiction in terms. The Christian nationalist vision, as I perceive it, will employ populist dynamics in support of an authoritarian figure like the “Cyrus” in D.C. They are not satisfied with being a sub-culture, but pursue being the dominant culture at every turn.Given what is perceived as the threat of liberalism, Islam and the fear of Christians in this country soon being hauled away in boxcars (referring here to Tony Perkins’ quote in the Times article), many Evangelical Christian nationalists operate by way of the end justifies the means. The dynamics of trauma and paranoia are very real and dangerous forces today in this movement. It is very difficult for them to distinguish religious persecution from the loss of Christian privilege.
For many Christian nationalists, if Trump is the strong leader with celebrity status, straight talk and bravado who will prevail against the perceived threats of liberalism, Islam and persecution of Christians, then so be it. Again, the end justifies the means. After all, the thinking goes, God used the pagan ruler Cyrus to bring about Israel’s return from exile to the Promised Land.
I will concur with Christian nationalists that God is at work providentially in our nation’s history. Even now, God is at work, perhaps even judging our nation through this presidency (and perhaps through other presidencies, too). As one older Christian put it, “America gets the President she deserves.” One of the aspects in this line with which I resonate is that the nation as a whole is responsible. There is no finger pointing at this or that group. The finger or fingers are pointed at all of us.
My favorite U.S. President is President Lincoln. President Lincoln’s second inaugural address conveys both a profound sense of divine providence and a call for humility which should accompany it. Lincoln understood that the ways of the Lord are mysterious and require a deep awareness of our inadequacy to make proper judgments in God’s stead. The whole nation was at fault—North and South alike—in the Civil War. I fear that such humility is largely missing among Christian nationalists who tend to place blame everywhere else but on themselves, just like President Trump (Some Christian nationalists also provide cover for Trump by claiming that those Evangelical Christians who do not stand behind Trump may be “immoral”). If there were such humility, there would be no bravado, but “malice toward none,” as Lincoln called for toward the close of his inaugural. May God grant us all the necessary sense of God’s providential guidance and of our own inadequacy and frailty to judge on God’s behalf so that as a nation we can move forward together—right and left alike—for the sake of human flourishing. Lincoln put it best:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
May God have mercy on us as a nation, and as Christians on the right, left and somewhere in between, to live out Lincoln’s words in our day.