The Trump Presidency As Religious Cult? Not As Weird As You Might Think
In November of 2017, avid Donald Trump supporter Mark Lee, as part of a panel of Trump voters speaking with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, spoke about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia in the context of religious faith. His comments, which made the rounds on the 24-hour news cycle/water-cooler political discussion loop, were truly astonishing to many. Here’s the one that had people, if not up in arms, scratching their heads:
Let me tell you, if Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, “Hold on a second: I need to check with the president if it is true.” That is how confident I feel in the president.
You read that right. Hold on, Mr. Savior, I have to ask President Trump if what you’re saying is God’s honest truth. Beyond the seeming absurdity of this scenario—Jesus returned just to tell Trump supporters about his connection with Russia?—the expressed faith in Trump above all others (and I am not using the word faith lightly) was duly baffling.
When Camerota pressed Lee for additional context, Lee, a pest control business owner who expressed vague notions of Trump being an advocate of the little guy, America-first, a drainer of the swamp, and a non-politician, stressed his belief that Trump is a good person, and that he (Trump) “has taken so many shots for us.” Presumably, that “us” is the American people, and any backlash is related to jealousy of his constant “winning.” Dude can’t help it if he’s so famous, handsome, and rich—that’s just how he rolls.
Any number of observers might choose not to share Mark Lee’s views. Heck, I sure don’t. Still, as extreme as Lee’s stances might seem, they may not be that far off from other people’s admiration for or faith in the current President of the United States. Reza Aslan, author, commentator, intellectual, and religious scholar, recently authored a video for Big Think about his notion that the Trump presidency is a religious cult. At first blush, Aslan’s comments might seem as grandiose as Lee’s. Trump as a cult leader? And his devotees are the ones who have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid?
For all our skepticism, though, Aslan does make his case in a very well-thought-out manner. First, before we even get to “why” certain Americans feel compelled to hold up Donald Trump, there’s the matter of “who.” Aslan cites a statistic that 81% of white evangelists who voted in the 2016 election went for Trump. That’s pretty significant, especially when considering that’s a higher percentage than George W. Bush received, an actual white evangelical. What else is significant about this figure? Well, for one, 67% of evangelicals of color who voted cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Thus, when Aslan instructs us not to ignore that there is a racial element to Trump’s support, we would be quick to agree that he ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
As to why, however, white evangelicals “acted more white than evangelical” in their backing of Trump, as Aslan and others have put it, one element Aslan points to is the influence of what is known as the prosperity gospel. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that financial success is God’s blessing, and through faith, preaching the word of God, and, of course, generous donations, one’s material wealth will increase. In other words, if the Lord didn’t want you to have that Mercedes-Benz, he wouldn’t have made it so dadgum shiny. This is the sort of Christianity that Aslan explicitly dismisses and rejects, associating it with the likes of “charlatans” like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, but given Trump’s boasts of wealth and ostentatious displays of such, it makes sense that Christians who adhere to this doctrine would back him, even when his spiritual credentials are, er, lacking.
Additionally, Aslan points to Trump’s promises to afford secular benefits to white evangelical groups and other religious affiliations. In Trump’s apparently ambiguous vows to “give them back their power,” Aslan points to Trump’s willingness to defend Christians in their goal of making a stand on specific issues—even if he may not agree with their positions on those underlying issues—as well as his indication of intent, for instance, to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Just a few days ago, Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Treasury not to find churches guilty of “implied endorsements” much as secular organizations wouldn’t be. Never mind that this could help create a slippery slope that allows churches to bypass campaign finance laws and effectually become partisan super PACs. That sweet, sweet support from the religious right is too much to ignore.
Meanwhile, all of this may merely be a prologue to a separate conversation we need to be having about Donald Trump, morality, evangelicals, and the intersection of the Venn diagram of their circles. As Reza Aslan insists, none of the above explains why white evangelicals have gone from a voting bloc that has insisted on a candidate’s morality as a significant qualification for office to one that eschews such concerns—in the span of one election cycle, no less. To reinforce this idea, Aslan highlights the fact that, re Trump, self-identifying atheists were more likely to consider morality as important than white evangelicals. So much for being “values voters.”
As Aslan reasons, this is more than can be reasoned away by talk of race or the prosperity gospel or the Johnson Amendment, and points to a different conclusion: that Trump, his presidency, and his most influential supporters have turned a significant portion of his white evangelical base into a religious cult, and a dangerous one at that. From where he (Aslan) stands, all the signs are there. For one, he points to Trump’s infamous remark that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes as being a kind of prophetic revelation. Aslan also alludes to statements made by Pat Robertson that he (Robertson) had a dream in which God took him up to Heaven and Trump was seated at His right hand—the space traditionally reserved for Jesus Christ—and Robert Jeffress, Robertson’s pastor, who said that he (Jeffress) prefers Trump as a candidate to someone “who expresses the values of Jesus.” Suddenly, Mark Lee doesn’t sound so out of place.
The implications, in short, are scary. As Aslan instructs, cults, particularly when confronted by the realities of the world, do not tend to end well. The Trump presidency, for all its claims of stability and success, by most objective accounts is on the brink of collapse, its central figure “spiraling out of control,” as Aslan puts it, and the subject of regular conversations about impeachment or other removal. In the perhaps likely event that leadership fails, the response for cult followers is often to double down on the group’s mantra, and this creates, at least in Aslan’s mind, a very perilous situation for the country at large. As he closes his address, “The only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.” Ominous, indeed.
Reza Aslan is a religious scholar, and since he often approaches worldly matters from a spiritual frame of reference, even with his treatise on why Donald Trump’s presidency is a religious cult, there would likely be doubters and dissenters on this point. On the right, because so much of politics these days involves taking sides, this is all but a given. Naysayers would undoubtedly highlight Aslan’s Iranian heritage and Muslim beliefs (in reality, his faith is more complex, having been born into a Shia Muslim family, converting to evangelical Christianity, and then converting back to Muslim, all while largely regarding religion as nothing more than a series of metaphors and symbols designed to express one’s faith), as well as his anti-Trump animus (after Trump’s comments on the 2017 terrorist attack in London in which a van struck and killed pedestrians on London, Aslan referred to POTUS as a “piece of shit” and “man baby,” comments that, ahem, didn’t go over too well with then-employer CNN). Never mind that that Aslan is a theologian and literally talks about, thinks about, and writes about this stuff for a living. Because he doesn’t care much for Trump, his opinions must, therefore, be invalid, right?
For the non-shameless-Trump-backers among us, though, there might similarly be a reluctance to characterize the President’s following in terms of a destructive religious cult, since these societies tend to remind us of devices of works of fiction set in apocalyptic times. To this, I submit people may be understating just how abnormal Trump and his presidency are. Besides, as many would aver, we are in the midst of a crisis right now, one primarily borne of climate concerns, but not without worry over its political stability. Trump just pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal without an apparent replacement strategy. Does this make the world safer? Does this instill confidence that the U.S. is a country that honors its agreements and is therefore worthy of trust? On both counts, the answer is a resounding “no,” and that should inspire concern from Americans regardless of their political orientation.
Then again, maybe it’s just that devout Christians can be hypocrites or otherwise twist the Bible to suit their purposes. Phil Zuckerman, a professor at Pitzer College and someone who specializes in studies of atheism and secularity, among other topics, penned an essay shortly after Donald Trump’s upset 2016 electoral victory regarding the role of religion in the election’s outcome. Zuckerman—who also cites the statistic about 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump, as well as 56% of American voters who attend church at least once a week going for the orange-skinned one—points to other disappointing tendencies of the Christian right.
For one, they tend to regard men as superior leaders and reinforce values that support male dominance over obeisant females. They also hate, hate, hate homosexuals and tend to fear and hate other religions, dividing people into a saved-unsaved binary. Furthermore, fundamentalist Christians place a stronger emphasis on authoritarianism, and mistrust and reject the science which clashes with their faith. Or, as Zuckerman frames this, they are a sanctimonious lot, a subdivision of the American electorate that touts morals and yet voted en masse to elect someone in Trump who is the epitome of immorality. As with Aslan’s criticisms, people would be wont to use context to dismiss Zuckerman’s views. He made these comments not long after Election Day, and thus was probably harboring strong feelings at the time of his piece’s publication. Also, he’s interested mainly in secular studies. Maybe he just hates religious types. PROFESSOR, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING.
Maybe, maybe not. Irrespective of Reza Aslan’s invectives directed at President Trump and Phil Zuckerman’s discontent with strong Christians for voting for someone clearly not of the same mold, this sense of devotion to Trump by a significant portion of the American people is startling and disconcerting, especially in light of the comparisons between Trump and Jesus. These are the same kinds of “values voters” who, say, conceive of gun ownership as a God-given right. Fun fact: the right to bear arms is a constitutional amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, not one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Gun ownership increases the likelihood you will violate this precept. How does one reconcile these two apparently competing interests?
One oft-cited biblical passage, Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus is believed to have said that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” may just as well speak to Christ’s existence dividing (as a sword would cut) people based on their belief, if not a faulty translation from the original Koine Greek. Psalm 144 in the Book of Psalms, another quoted portion of the Good Book, has been translated as, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”
This is context-dependent, however. David, in speaking of bodily strength, ascribes true strength to God, and prays to Him to rescue him and his people “from the cruel sword.” In this context, David is King of Israel at a time when war among rival groups is common, and what’s more, the ending of the psalm expresses a hope for peace. This seems like quite a departure from the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which would have you believe in its promotional videos that America resembles a scene from The Purge. Lock ’em and load ’em, ladies and gents. Conflict is brewing, and nothing shouts His love like the cold steel of a .45.
Mark Lee’s pro-Trump comments seemed crazy at the time of first utterance, and a mere six months later, still do. As the Trump presidency wears on, though, at least until anything manifests with respect to impeachment or other means of removal, and as Donald Trump’s support from his base not only holds steady but grows, one wonders whether Aslan’s depiction of Trump as a salvific figure, as something more than an inspiration to those blinded by patriotism, is accurate. For white evangelicals who support him, in particular, Trump’s actions should prompt them to look critically at their set of beliefs and the importance of morality to their worldview. Whether or not the apparent abandonment of their principles holds beyond Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess, and is hard to approach with any sense of faith on the part of those who already don’t believe in him.