(RNS) 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 this segment of voters?
I found my answer while watching Trump’s bizarre QVC/Trump Steak/Trump Vodka/Trump Doral news conference after his victories Tuesday (March 8).
My thesis: They like him just as they like the “evangelical” preachers that he resembles. They like him because he connects with the religious and cultural trends that these preachers represent:
1. Donald Trump resembles health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel preachers like Creflo Dollar.
This version of Christianity 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.” Trump offers a kind of national prosperity gospel to a people he diagnoses as hungry for such a message.
2.Trump resembles Andy Stanley, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, who create and lead branded, multisite, personality-driven megachurches or church networks.
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. He has been cultivating and advancing his brand for decades.
3. 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 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. Trump resembles the attributes of evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll: authoritative, hyper-macho and prone to say something off-color or politically incorrect.
The authentic, uncensored, swearing Christian leader is in now, and they are not all male — consider the popularity of Denver’s Nadia Bolz-Weber. This may help explain why someone like Trump can outmuscle the more puritanical and pious Sen. Ted Cruz. The younger crowd is especially receptive to, and maybe even attracted by, a few obscenities.
Without naming more preachers, I can say that Trump appeals 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 people who do not have significant academic training write and publish a greater number of books on religion. Celebrity authors now outdo scholars of religion — maybe like celebrity candidates now trounce experienced government leaders.
It may be precisely because Trump hasn’t gone to Harvard Law School — and doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is — hasn’t been a governor, and doesn’t speak in a 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 pulverizes one of these elite figures, he wins points.
The dominant, 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 Trump projects. It looks like he will win the Republican nomination with it.
The fact that he has demonstrated the kind of temperament that should have immediately disqualified him from consideration for the presidency is, of course, not a small problem.
(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He writes for RNS at Christians, Conflict and Change)