Donald Trump and the preachers he resembles

Print More
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka (L) and his wife Melania (R) at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst  - RTX27V8R

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka (L) and his wife Melania (R) at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX27V8R

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka (L) and his wife Melania (R) at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX27V8R

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka (L) and his wife Melania (R) at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RTX27V8R

Many observers are wondering how exactly Donald Trump is winning so much “evangelical” Christian support. Leaving aside definitional quibbles about the meaning of the term “evangelical,” why is this uber-worldly candidate doing so well among these and so many other Christians?

I found my answer while watching Mr. Trump’s bizarre QVC/Trump Steak/Trump Vodka/Trump Doral news conference after his victories Tuesday night. I caught a glimpse of why so many Christians like Trump. My thesis: They like him just as they like the “evangelical” Protestant preachers that in some ways he resembles. They like him because he connects with the religious and cultural trends that these preachers represent.

Intending no comprehensive comparison between Mr. Trump and the preachers I shall now name, here are a few points of resemblance:

(1) Donald Trump resembles health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel preachers like Creflo Dollar. This version of the Christian Gospel proclaims that Jesus intends his true followers to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. The preacher in such churches models the message by personally overflowing with health, wealth, and success. “You too can be like me if you believe like me — and if you support me.” Mr. Trump offers a kind of national prosperity gospel to a people he diagnoses as hungry for such a message.

(2) Donald Trump resembles those who create and lead branded, multi-site, personality-driven megachurches or church networks, like Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels. Trump reminds me of these pastors in their independence, fearlessness, and enormous skill at creating and marketing a brand around themselves and their vision. Trump is himself a brand creator who does not answer to anyone else and has been cultivating and advancing his brand for decades.

(3) Donald Trump resembles preacher-evangelist-showmen of various eras, like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. His rallies are more like football games than lectures or policy talks. In this he resembles every evangelist or pastor who has managed to create a worship experience that by the standards of the time is dazzling, inspiring, and fun, a great show with the coolest music and a thrilling central personality.

(4) Donald Trump resembles evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll and other leaders like him, in that he is an authoritative hyper-macho guy who just might say something off-color or “politically incorrect” — and who is fun (from a certain perspective) precisely because of that possibility. The authentic, uncensored, swearing Christian leader is in right now, and they are not all male — consider the popularity of Nadia Bolz-Weber in Denver. This may help explain why someone like Donald Trump can outmuscle the more puritanical and pious Ted Cruz for many evangelical voters. The younger crowd is especially receptive, and maybe even attracted by a few obscenities.

Without naming names any further, I can say that Donald Trump resembles many preachers in appealing to to an anti-intellectual and anti-elite strand of American (Christian) life. He seems to be a straight talker who doesn’t even bother to write speeches. In this way he resembles many preachers who do not write sermons but simply “speak from the heart.” I notice, by the way, that a higher and higher percentage of books on religion that one finds at the major bookstores are written by people who do not have significant academic training. Celebrity authors now trump scholars of religion — maybe like celebrity candidates now trump experienced government leaders.

It may be precisely because Donald Trump hasn’t gone to Harvard Law School — and doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is — and hasn’t been a governor — and doesn’t speak in modulated NPR voice — that he appeals to those who are tired of being told what to think by college professors and experts. Every time he smashes one of these elite figures into smithereens he wins points.

Donald Trump also connects with a very heterosexual/male kind of authoritarianism in American Christianity. The dominating, take-charge, charismatic male pastor figure (usually accompanied by the requisite beautiful wife) is a staple in many Christian traditions, and there is no question that Trump connects to many at that level.

Strength. Charisma. Manliness. Independence. Toughness. Celebrity. Prosperity. Power. Success. Personality. Showmanship. Like many of today’s most successful preachers, this is what Donald Trump is presenting to voters. It looks like he will win the Republican nomination with it.

The fact that he has demonstrated a kind of temperament, and said a number of particular things, that should have immediately disqualified him from consideration for the presidency is, of course, not a small problem.

  • Junebug

    You covered the bases, Dr. Gushee. Thank you.

    I wish RNS had a place to click “like” so many readers would not feel a need to reply otherwise,

  • Andrea Woods

    I agree. Where along the way did our culture lose the idea of a leader being someone who lifts us ABOVE our little selves to “something more”, a higher moral, ethical, and intellectual level? Why is civility and courtesy now viewed as “political correctness”, behavior to be scorned?

  • ben in oakland

    Religion is a product, sold like every other product. Each preacher and each denomination has its brand that it sells.

    Trump is the ultimate example of the huckster selling his brand. Trump steaks, trump water, trump magazine, trump casinos. trump this and trump that. None of them were actual profit making businesses, just ego extensions of trump. Just like the Moral majority– never either of those things– was a ego extension of Fallwell.

    Trump sounds an awful lot like the kind of religion the religious hucksters are selling. You nailed it, Mr. Gushee.

    In other words

  • Alicein

    David-Great article and well said! Trump like so many so called “Christains”
    today thinks he can just say/do whatever and God will forgive but God will
    only forgive if we Repent which means turn from our sin to follow Jesus so
    people who are mean/don’t bridle tongue,gossip,sell sex/alcohol and have
    multiple marriages, sleep around,gamble/own casinos go to hell along with
    all the greedy coveters who have affairs,get drunk are still are very jealous
    which is why 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 plus 1 Peter 4:1-7/Luke 13 need taught.

  • ben in oakland

    Here ya go, Mr. Gushee.

    Just like he did in 2008 with Obama, Gary Cass and his Christian Anti-Defamation Commission have launched a money beg to tell the world somebody doesn’t love White Jesus. This time the target is Donald Trump.

    Cass:

    “Let’s not sit back and watch as Donald Trump hijacks our faith for his political gain. Our allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, not any particular political party. We need your help to create three powerful videos on why Donald Trump is Not a Christian. Click here to donate today. With your help we can make a difference for the Kingdom of God.”

    If Donald Trump campaigns as a Christian it will bring reproach on the Church because he’s clearly ethically compromised by his own words and deeds. In our video campaign we will document Trump’s spiritual claims, his moral scandals and his vacillating social and political policies.”

    He’s just following the lessons of Das Trump. Find a need. Fill it with nothing. Make money,.

  • MarkE

    As a mainline pastor, I’ve always cast a suspicious eye toward those “ministries” that rely on a personality and name as their identity – “Crefflo Dollar Ministries” or “Kenneth Copeland Ministries.” It seemed to me that they were selling themselves, rather than Christ. This seems to be the same attribute that afflicts the Trump campaign – he’s all about himself, not the good of the nation.

  • ben in oakland

    The same thing could be said of a great many prostitutes.

  • Jack

    Somewhere in between the dying mainline churches and the prosperity gospel frauds is where millions of Christians congregate — sane, unpretentious, mostly evangelical churches led by unassuming pastors who don’t pander to the cultural Zeitgeist on either side.

  • Jack

    Never heard of him, but isn’t March of a primary presidential season a bit late to be raising money for videos he hasn’t even created yet against a candidate? Why wasn’t he doing it earlier this year?

    Reminds me of the Christian Post, which suddenly decided to editorialize against Trump on the last day of February. Gee, thanks CP. Why not wait until Trump locks up the nomination?

    Their reaction to Trump shows that too many evangelicals on all sides are politically incompetent. I don’t blame Russell Moore for not wanting to use the word “evangelical” anymore. There ought to be a place, beyond heaven and hell, called Stupid, where God can put some of these people.

  • Betty C.

    That’s just fanciful thinking. There are NO sane Christians. Religious belief is a mental disorder.

  • Scott Shaver

    Well then, at worst Betty C. Christians join all others including yourself.

  • Scott Shaver

    All the bases indeed. The article gives me the impression that the author see’s no room in Christianity proper for the non-elite and non-intellectual.

    Guess I’ll have to make side-notes in the margins at JN 3:16 etc.

  • Scott Shaver

    Careful Jack….you mind find yourself first in line at that “special place”.

  • Jack

    Well, Scott, by your own logic, that puts us both as candidates for the same spot in the line. That’s what makes “judge not, that you not be judged” so brilliant and interesting. It really means what it says, all the way through. When we judge others for judging, we prove that we and they are ultimately in the same boat.

    To be human is to be in that enormous boat that fits 6 billion people today.

  • Jack

    Betty C, you say that with such casual certainty and finality.

    Of course, you’ve never considered the alternative — that hatred and fear of all religions is a phobia, which itself is a fancy name for a type of mental illness.

  • Pingback: Will God save us from Donald Trump? (COMMENTARY) | CandoGH()