A few days after the election, an old college acquaintance wrote me – as “a brother in Christ” – to express his concerns that I was not using my online influence to expose evil, and to “spread the Gospel.”
I appreciated the gesture (and still do). But, I was also flummoxed, since I had not said or written anything about religion in recent days.
What I had done is express my concerns that so many clearly false claims of electoral fraud (many of them originating from Trump’s Twitter feed) were circulating so widely. While noting that no doubt there were true cases of fraud, I had urged people to carefully fact-check the claims they ran across before sharing them.
But to many of my conservative acquaintances, that fact that I wasn’t giving my unqualified support to Trump’s fraud gambit showed not merely that I might be making a political or epistemological mistake, but that I was somehow opposing Christ.
Weird. But then again, Trumpianity is a weird religion.
The spiritual danger of Trumpism
From the get-go Trumpism has been strangely infused with eschatological religious language, imagery and motivations.
Trump is our King David, our Constantine. He is – as the prophets have said – a rebuke to the atheism of the Obama presidency, bringing God back to Washington, and the country back to God. He is the hammer of the Almighty, smashing the diabolical plans of the global elite and their allies in the media and the deep state.
And it is for this reason (and this reason alone) that they have hated him, persecuted him, and driven him by hook or by crook from the White House.
There is, no doubt, a great deal of truth in all of that. But if the linguistic trappings of Trumpism have always been troublingly messianic, things have become only that much more concerning in the heady days since the election.
It is now routine to hear conservative religious leaders justify their absolute certainty that Trump won – or will win – the election with some version of the assertion that “God’s hand is on him.”
As Eric Metaxas put it in a recent cringe-worthy telephone conversation with Trump, referring specifically to his legal bid to overturn the election result, “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty.”
Setting aside the stench of prosperity theology present in the suggestion that God’s favor necessarily translates into political victory, what disturbs me most about these kinds of assertions is the speaker’s conviction that somehow he has direct access to knowledge of God’s will, and that God’s will just happens to coincide with his political loyalties.
As far as I can see, the practical effect of this often starkly apocalyptic language has not been to inaugurate some new era of authentic Christian spirituality in the public square, producing in abundance repentance and the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc.).
On the contrary, too often the effect has been to inaugurate a cult of personality characterized by anxiety, fear and anger, in the process devastating the foundations of discernment, leaving credulous Christians defenseless against the claims of every spiritual and political charlatan who is on the “right side” – starting with Trump himself.
After all, if God’s messengers have prophesied that Trump will win the 2020 election, then to doubt that Trump did win the 2020 election means that you doubt God. And any “facts” you run across that undermine your faith in Trump’s victory must be mistrusted as diabolical deceptions.
Or, if Trump is made in the mold of King David, and if King David could save Israel despite being a terrible sinner, any concerns you have about Trump’s character must be dismissed with a wave of the hand as scrupulous handwringing, unhelpful distractions at a time when what we need are single-minded warriors.
Or, if demons are literally behind voter fraud, then to doubt or even to raise questions about the legitimacy of many of Team Trump’s fraud allegations is to fall for the deception of demons.
And so on.
Within this eschatological view of politics, truth claims are no longer approached as facts to be adjudicated by applying old-fashioned rules of logic and evidence, but rather as tests of loyalty – spiritual loyalty. This produces, in the end, a kind of intellectual and spiritual blackmail: i.e. if you doubt or even question this specific truth claim, it must because you are not, in the end, a very good Christian.
A logician or epistemologist would point out that intellectual humility demands that we admit that we do not know, with anything like certitude, that there was enough fraud to overturn the election result. It’s logically possible that there was, of course. However, the evidence we have is just too scattershot, much of it is weak, some of it is clearly false, and even the best of it has not yet been sufficiently scrutinized or tested under courtroom conditions. As such, there’s a lot of room for debate about just how to move forward.
The true believer, however, will insist that we can have moral certitude, because the left has shown that they are evil, the “children of darkness,” and will stop at nothing. Trump, on the other hand, is fighting on behalf of the “children of light,” and God has willed his victory.
Given this, there’s not really any need to scrutinize the evidence, or to be troubled when this or that fraud claim falls apart (as too many of them have) or when even Trump’s own judicial appointees dismiss his lawsuits with scathing denunciations.
“Have faith,” Trumpists urge the wavering. To lose faith is to be a Doubting Thomas. And nobody wants to be a Doubting Thomas.
A Manichean struggle
As a Christian, I take it for granted that this world is a battleground between principalities and powers, that we are in the midst of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Politics is one arena in which this war between good and evil is waged, and for this reason, our political actions have immense moral and spiritual implications.
Furthermore, it is clear that Trump has often defended and promoted the moral good in his political policies and appointments, whereas an increasingly radicalized Democratic party poses an immense threat to democracy, freedom, and moral and spiritual truth. For this reason, I had hoped for a Donald Trump win.
However, distinctions must still be made.
The theologians say that the angels, as pure spirits, were given a single moment of choice, and that whatever choice they made, once made, was absolute and irrevocable. Obedience or rebellion, goodness or evil, light or dark: once chosen, this was their identity and destiny.
Humans are not angelic beings. We live in physical bodies, in time, and consequently vacillate from moment to moment. We are admixtures. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
But, as our political sphere has become more and more divisive and polarized, and the stakes in play have increased, there has arisen the temptation for Christians to view the temporal sphere as the arena in which a Manichean struggle between the forces of pure light and the forces of pure darkness is being fought, which forces are embodied within opposing political parties and personalities.
Within the dualistic Manichean cosmos, there are no shades of grey. Grey is the color of cowards who have not yet chosen a side.
This is a grave mistake. Good and evil are at work in this world. However, any kind of A-to-A application of the supernatural eschatological language that applies unqualifiedly to the realm of principalities and powers to the messy and mixed contingencies of time-bound politics is fraught with danger and potential for delusion.
I have already alluded to two of the troubling consequences of this error: Firstly, that it makes it impossible to investigate and evaluate facts, because the truth test is instead replaced with the loyalty test – i.e. the question to ask is not, “is this fact true,” but rather, “does it support our side?” If the answer to the second question is “yes”, then the fact must be true.
And secondly, by eradicating any meaningful distinction between our spiritual and political concerns, it leaves us exposed to spiritual hucksters who will happily hijack our profoundest spiritual impulses to advance their political aims.
On that score: Is anybody else as weirded out as I am by the fact that Roger Stone – if you don’t know who he is, just read the introduction to this profile – is currently making the rounds of the Christian speaking circuit, giving his ‘testimony’ to Sunday audiences – a testimony that, as it turns out, is almost indistinguishable from a pro-Trump stump speech?
Or that Lin Wood, a hard-boiled and – to my mind – rather smarmy lawyer who was quoted in a recent lawsuit spewing all sorts of violent, misogynistic, and racist crap, including this gem – “by the time I am through with Taylor Wilson, he’s going to wish all I had done was f**k his wife” – is up there on the stage at the Stop the Steal rally, putting on his very best TV evangelist, name-dropping Jesus and various Biblical figures, all in service of very specific and, I fear, questionable political aims?
Then there’s Trump’s “spiritual advisor” Paula White – a real piece of work.
But there’s more.
This view of politics as Manichean struggle also tends to dehumanize our opponents, who become mere avatars of transcendent spiritual forces. At a minimum, this renders impossible the kind of political discourse and compromise that is the sine qua non of progress in a democracy. The other side is evil, and thus to negotiate with them, on just about anything at all, is to negotiate with the devil. At worst, however, it is the start down the path towards violence.
Which brings me to the worst of the consequences of this error: that it tends to strip down the brakes of our principles. If we are in a state of all-out war with Forces of Darkness, then most – or all – of the ordinary rules of engagement are suspended, and almost anything can be justified. War is hell, and anyone who, on the battlefield, starts quoting from Robert’s Rules of Order, or – for that matter – the Sermon on the Mount, needs a good kick in the rear, and a rifle in hand.
None of this is Christian, of course. All of it partakes, to one degree or another, of the sin of idolatry. Truth trumps party loyalties, every time. Our political heroes are not the savior. Our political enemies are children of God, whom we are commanded to love as ourselves. Politics, political victory, and political power are not the summa bona of either this life, or the next. And even in war, the Sermon on the Mount still applies.
As far as I can see, one impact of this potent admixture of religious zeal and party loyalty has only been to galvanize and to radicalize the progressive left, convincing them of the fundamental misguidedness of religious conservatism, and imparting to them a sense of occupying the higher moral ground and of moral urgency.
For years, conservatives have accused the left of being Communists who have nothing but contempt for the rule of law and the fundamental principles of American democracy. Now, however, we are witnessing the astonishing spectacle of Gen. Michael Flynn, newly pardoned by Trump, publicly calling for the president to declare martial law, and for the military to administer another election. Others are going even further, calling for the arrest and even murder of Trump’s opponents.
“Burn it all down, so long as our guy gets in at the end.” That’s the very attitude we claimed was endemic in the progressive Communist left. And yet, here we are.
My fear from the get-go has been that Trump, whatever good things he did, would in the long run make things worse for social and religious conservativism. A few temporary (albeit alluring) victories…and then the long defeat.
I fear that that is what we are now facing. The political right is in disorder, unmoored from many of its fundamental principles, and floundering in the face of the likely demise of its hero. Trump will not, barring a bona fide miracle, win the election. And yet we haven’t even begun a serious conversation about how to counteract the dangers of a Biden presidency, because our attention is entirely consumed by this cosmic (and, all too often, comic) struggle to win the election.
The furthest we’ve got is to talk about a 2024 Trump run. He’ll come back then and save us. This is delusional. If political salvation is in our future, it’s going to demand a lot more from us than waiting for the second coming of Trump. The very first step is to engage in some hard introspection into what went wrong, and then to begin the difficult work of rethinking and rebuilding a viable and strong religious conservatism with the lessons of the past four years in mind.
Right now, however, I am afraid that instead we are hellbent on eviscerating our moral, spiritual and political integrity, all for the sake of one man, a blip on the historical radar.
Out of misguided loyalty, we’re even willing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The only thing standing between the United States and the most destructive planks of the Biden-Harris administration’s radical progressive agenda right now is U.S. Senate, which could go to the Democrats if the two GOP candidates do not win the Georgia run-offs in January. And yet, days ago, during the “Stop the Steal” rally, Lin Wood urged Georgia Republicans not to vote for the GOP candidates, because, he said, they hadn’t “earned your vote”. Burn it all down.
Trump is a man. He did some good things. But he is also deeply flawed. Right now, we need the freedom to evaluate his doings and sayings on their own terms, not bound by the strait-jacket of an a priori messianic narrative that pre-interprets every twitch of his fingers as a strike against God’s enemies.
Idolatry is the worst sin, because it replaces that which is utterly transcendent, the Creator, which the limited work of the Creator’s hand. It’s time for Christians to ditch Trumpianity and get our boots back on the ground. This world is a war zone between the forces of good and the forces of evil, but we can’t fight if our heads are in the clouds.