Ideology is not the sole bond between conservative evangelicals and Donald Trump. His dictator-lite charisma is essential to his appeal. To the majority of Americans—those who did not vote for him—Trump has all the allure of the boorish boss who takes too many liberties at the staff Christmas party.
But his authoritarian machismo is right in step with a long evangelical tradition of pastor-overlords who anoint themselves with the power to make their own rules—and, in the event of their own occasional moral lapses, assure their followers that God always forgives.
Other forms of Christianity, like Roman Catholicism and many strains of liberal Protestantism, feature formidable Church structures: diocesan councils and synods, hierarchies and protocols that help keep rogues and would-be autocrats in line. In the evangelical world, these institutions are generally much less powerful—or nonexistent. FitzGerald chronicles the imperial ambitions of ministers like the Midwestern fundamentalist William Bell Riley and Jerry Falwell, a prime mover behind the Moral Majority. “Those who had built up their own churches or Bible schools,” she writes,“were rulers of their own fiefdoms.”
Frances FitzGerald, author of “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America,” observes that down through the decades, more than a few of these figures have squelched dissent or scandal with little concern for the opinion of denominational bureaucrats. In a tradition that has always prized “soul liberty” and spiritual autonomy, American evangelicals have sometimes shown a strong preference for leaders who demand unquestioning obedience—and who, like Trump, consider disagreement a form of disloyalty.
Nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in the evangelical subculture that nurtured Donald Trump himself: the prosperity gospel. When Trump was a child, his family attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, pastored by Norman Vincent Peale, a celebrity minister whose influence radiated throughout evangelical circles and beyond. He was one of the most famous proponents of a spiritual style sometimes called the “Health and Wealth” gospel or “Name It and Claim It” faith.
Praying for a new car or a promotion may sound “shockingly materialistic,” FitzGerald writes. But for believers, prosperity theology means that the material world has “a miraculous, God-filled quality.” Its basic tenets appear throughout the Bible—the notion that God answers prayers, rewards believers with worldly blessings, and punishes those who don’t keep the faith. And then, like most heresies, it pushes such orthodox teaching to an extreme. Imagine that your desired reality is true, Peale urged believers. His handy slogan: “Prayerize, picturize, actualize.” Peale, the dean of “the power of positive thinking,” would have understood Trump’s penchant for inventing his preferred reality.
God never goes back on his word. According to many prosperity-gospel preachers, if you don’t get that new job you prayed for, then you didn’t pray sincerely enough, live righteously enough—or give generously enough to your church. The Florida mega-church pastor Paula White, who is frequently called the president’s “spiritual adviser” (and, like him, is on her third marriage), encourages her followers to donate generously to her ministry, and to expect financial returns. “When you give the ‘firstfruits of your increase,’ as the Word says, your ‘barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will OVERFLOW,’ ” her website promises.
Trump perfected his own brand of prosperity ministry in the ad campaigns for the now-defunct Trump University. “I’ll show you how to turn this sizzling opportunity into a tidal wave of profits,” one 2007 newspaper advertisement read. The candidate who specialized in ludicrous promises has continued that magical thinking now that he’s in office, as he vows to create “25 million new jobs” and insists that he can replace Obamacare with “a much better health-care plan at much less money.”
Throughout the 2016 campaign, historians suggested a range of analogies to explain Trump’s growing popularity. Did his momentum resemble the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany? Do his despotic tendencies and sensitive ego remind us of Napoleon? Maybe Henry VIII? Distant echoes are always tantalizing. The truth is that Trump’s victory—especially his popularity among conservative white evangelicals—has sources closer to home. His ascendancy was certainly galvanized by a 21st-century whirl of social media and global economic discontent. But in the end, Trump won over evangelicals—and won the election—because he exploited beliefs and fears with origins deep in America’s past.
SOURCE: MOLLY WORTHEN