Mar 8th 2024

What Fundamentalist Christians See in Trump

 

NEW YORK – Now that Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, it seems fitting to address a source of perplexity that has persisted ever since he arrived on the political scene: How can America’s fundamentalist Christians be so enthusiastic about so thoroughly un-Christian a politician?

This seeming paradox is rooted in Christian fundamentalist thought itself. At its heart is a special code of meaning-making that enables believers to see and hear what others do not. 

Consider the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew (13:16-17): “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” The meaning of these words can be properly decoded only by the faithful. Prophetic signs may well appear to those who see through the lens of faith. The ill-equipped are likely to behold something entirely different, or perhaps nothing at all.

It’s like the figures we see in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting long attributed to Pieter Bruegel. Something miraculous has just occurred: Icarus has fashioned wings of wax that allowed him to soar into the sky, but his flight and disastrous fall (after veering too close to the sun) causes barely a stir in the tide of human events. A plowman continues to plow. A shepherd dozes (as his sheep wander off into the sea). A ship in the distance sails past a boy drowning near its bow. As W.H. Auden writes in “Musee des Beaux Arts,” whether it is a tragic death or a miraculous birth, “everything turns away.” That’s what it’s like for those with eyes that do not see: they calmly sail on.

If you see and think outside the hermeneutic code of Christian fundamentalism, you might be forgiven for viewing Trump as a ruthless, wholly self-interested man intent on maximizing power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. What your spiritual blindness prevents you from seeing is how the Holy Spirit uses him – channeling the “secret power of lawlessness,” as the Book of 2 Thessalonians describes it – to restrain the advent of ultimate evil, or to produce something immeasurably greater: the eschaton (end of history), when the messiah comes again.

In this account, what matters is not the factual truth of Trump’s sinful character, but rather the higher truth that spiritual forces are acting through him – “immanentizing the eschaton,” as the twentieth-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin put it – rendering Trump a divine instrument to stave off the anti-Christ, perhaps to realize heaven on earth. According to this Christian fundamentalist belief, even Trump’s use of totalitarian political means may be justified if that is what it takes to destroy the ultimate evil or usher in the ultimate good.

Understanding this theological framework helps us to recognize the futility of railing against “post-truth” politics. To be sure, the use of disinformation to sow confusion, cynicism, and despair about our ability to discern truth from falsity is a familiar feature of totalitarianism. 

Liberal democracies cannot long survive without a legally protected institutional infrastructure that safeguards the meaningful exercise of free speech. This is what free-speech purists fail to understand when they use First Amendment doctrine to defend illiberal attacks on the electoral process. The goal of such attacks (or “anti-speech acts”) is to jam deliberation – to sow confusion and mistrust – by propagating demonstrably false information upon which others are meant, or are reasonably expected, to rely. Profiting from falsehood constitutes a fraud upon the public.

Nonetheless, those who oppose Trump and his illiberal followers will not succeed if they think the political challenge before them is simply a matter of ensuring the triumph of factual truth over deliberate lies. An even deeper challenge remains. It concerns the very fabric of liberal democracy, a concern the founders of the American republic viewed with such urgency that they made it the subject of the very first words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

When Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker recently wrote in support of the court’s ruling that human embryos “cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself,” he and the court manifestly abridged the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause. It is a testament to the thoroughness of Trump’s ascendancy – culturally, politically, and legally – that adherents of Christian nationalism so brazenly seek to fuse Christian and American identity.

The First Amendment simultaneously protects free speech and freedom of religion, because the framers understood that these values are linked. If state officials seek to justify their exercise of power on the basis of their own particular faith, no fact or argument, no matter how eloquently expressed, logically reasoned, or empirically compelling, will suffice to oppose it. Whether native to faith’s ruling code or a stranger, each will seem blind and deaf to the other.

Over a half-century ago, the US Supreme Court described the “core value” protected by the First Amendment as every individual’s right to participate meaningfully (either as a speaker or a listener) in a “free and unhindered debate on matters of public importance.” When that right becomes a religiously coded privilege, liberal democracy, like Icarus, plunges into the sea.

Will enough Americans take notice and act before tragedy strikes? The answer depends on whether a national consensus still holds concerning pluralism and tolerance as essential concomitants of liberty and equality for all.


Richard K. Sherwin, Professor Emeritus of Law at New York Law School, is the author of When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line between Law and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.
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