By Jonathan Murden
Rev. Franklin Graham pointed out that as Trump began his inaugural speech, it started to rain. “Mr President, in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing.”
Such overtly theological appeals, however dubious, are not unusual in American public life. Yet even in the context of the long entanglement of religion and politics in the US, the piety of Trump’s inauguration was notable. The ceremony featured six faith representatives, a detail consistent with the general prominence of religion in his presidential campaign. That Donald Trump, the serial-divorcee billionaire who appeared on the front of Playboy, would be so popular with evangelicals might seem unlikely, and in many ways, it is true that he represents a different form of political religiosity than we are used to. However, this is merely the reconfiguration of old alliances, alliances that are decisive in understanding the shape of the new regime.
Despite the constant insistence that he is a God-fearing Christian, Trump himself doesn’t seem to care much for religion. His ignorance on the most basic theological questions and apathy on LGBT+ rights and abortion – central issues for his evangelical supporters – have been self-evident right from the beginning. Trump’s God is a vague point of appeal for the greatness of the American nation, and of course himself; notoriously exemplified by his admission that he doesn’t feel the need for God’s forgiveness. The religious leader at the inauguration most akin to his attitude is possibly Paula White, whom some call a ‘prosperity Gospel’ preacher. The prosperity Gospel teaches that God’s blessings are fundamentally material and that God will answer prayers for money or cars, for example, if only your faith is strong enough. You could see this as a form of spiritual trickle-down economics, with God as a benevolent and generous billionaire, perhaps, to his mind, not unlike Trump himself.
Ultimately, however, what really matters is not Trump’s own beliefs, but the manner in which religious forces have amassed around his campaign, and how they will shape his administration now they have brought him to power. Central to this is what is known as ‘the Southern Strategy’, cultivated by the Republican Party since the 1960s to maintain a solid support base with evangelical voters. The significance of abortion and ‘family values’ for Republican evangelicals is well known. But before the early 70s, evangelical voters were largely apathetic on abortion, which was seen as a ‘Catholic’ issue. Rather, the central motivator for the early organisers of the Religious Right was race; specifically, government interference to remove racial segregation in Christian schools, which these figures saw as mandated by God in the Bible. Republican activists used this to gain the support of evangelical leaders, who then galvanised their flocks by centring abortion in the wake of Roe vs. Wade.
It seems that evangelicals largely voted for Trump in the hope that he would appoint a pro-life judge to the Supreme Court, but the white supremacist origin of this voting bloc is helpful for understanding their broader sympathy with his political project as a whole. A combination of this, with good old fashioned American exceptionalism and the supposedly apocalyptic threat of radical Islam, provides a point of unity between traditional theocrats like Mike Pence and figures like Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer. The basic vision such figures adopt is that America needs to act decisively to defend Christian civilisation against collapse into barbarism – whether that be sharia law, liberal feminism, homosexuality, or the end of white supremacy.
There is a prevailing rhetoric in America, appealed to by those on both sides of the party divide, that the United States has a unique destiny in human history given to it by God. Trump appealed to this directly in his inauguration speech, saying, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity … When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.” It is worth noting here the total identification of ‘God’s people’ with America as a nation. Not only has Trump deliberately excluded Muslims from his definition of American citizenship with his recent executive order, but as border police implemented this, they reportedly asked travellers whether or not they were Christian. The prominence of the so-called ‘alt-right’ in those around Trump heavily implies that this theological definition of American identity will be further radicalised as the administration proceeds. It is worth noting that Richard Spencer deplored Trump’s inclusion of a rabbi, Marvin Hier in the inauguration, referring to him as one of “the very worst aspects of American religious life.”
The general attitude of the alt-right to religion appears to be similar to their attitude to Trump himself; for now, it is useful for their aims. What is most theologically concerning is not this manipulation of religion. It is that religion in America does not appear to require a great deal of manipulating to go along with this fascist agenda. Franklin Graham (an enthusiastic Trump supporter), Roman Catholic Cardinal Dolan, and Mike Pence, the Vice President himself, all appear quite willing to be the religious face of Trump’s regime; none of these men are out of place in American Christianity as a whole. The most troubling thing about the theology that foregrounds Trump’s rise is that it is not an aberration, but rather, a well-established form of western Christianity.
Photograph by Alexas Fotos via Creative Commons