30 November 2020

Christianity and Trumpism

I've never before had a guest post on any of my blogs, but today I've made an exception for the following post by David Smith, a retired South African academic and Anglican layman.

The last few years have seen the growth of the Trumpist cult, which some have claimed to be Christian, or at least as something that Christians are not merely justified in supporting, but even obliged to support. But Christian leaders, perhaps fearing the division that might be caused, have said very little about this, and given very little guidance to their flocks. David Smith's plea for such guidance deserves to be heard.

‘What’s on your mind?’ And what disturbs your heart? A concern that has been pursuing me in the past months, but particularly in the last few weeks, is the question of how followers of Christ can be as deeply divided as they are along political lines, without top-level opposition emerging among churches. That at least is my observation, the perspective of a lay-person.

I am not sure how it is connected, but let me start with the rank ‘prosperity gospel’ of various new churches (Bushiri’s can stand for many of them, right down to its ‘enlightened’ self-understanding). There seems to have been from the established churches a decrying of this phenomenon without any strong moves to contain it. Perhaps it would have flourished as it has, whether or not it was effectively anathematised. But the profiles of its leaders – people like Bushiri and T B Joshua, for example, and a host of US-based ‘pastors’ who work chiefly through television and online means – strongly suggest personality cults: not just influence and ‘leadership’, but charisma and grip.

Now, strange as it may seem to extend this rough model to a figure far outside the ‘pastorate’, there appears to be a personality cult among Christians that has taken hold around Donald John Trump that needs to be examined and – if the political lessons of the Book of Revelation are anything to go by – resolutely opposed.

I arrived at this conclusion when I was confronted on social media with the utterances, not of a vociferous right-wing American booster, but of a local young woman, a former student in my university department and someone with whom I had worked in preparation of advanced exams. She seemed at the time like a well-adjusted person and her appointment upon graduation as a school teacher seemed like a natural progression. So I was taken aback, a fortnight ago, to read her mouthing the ‘voting fraud’ agenda that Trump has been promoting, and in very uncompromising terms.

When one of her friends expressed shock at her ‘hurrah’ stance for this unbeatable force, and pointed out that, as the person and Christian she knew, she should surely find ‘reprehensible’ the notions and energies radiating from Trump’s career, she blithely came up with the old line that, while his personal values might be unattractive, the policies he was propounding were fine. In this exchange, she was egged on by her brother, both of them looking to God to vindicate the instrument of his purpose, etc. Only re-election would suffice to fulfil the divine plan. It was no comfort to me to discover soon after that a one-time acquaintance (also a teacher) who has since moved to New Zealand, shared these exact opinions.

I have been assured that there are other South Africans of this persuasion, and that they are not all church-goers. (They are, so far as I know, all white.) But a personality cult maybe cuts across lines like believers vs. agnostics. And it is the Christian support for this man that repulses me. I admit that that goes back a long way, indeed, to the time before he was elected in 2016, so it is nothing new. But it was new to me to realise that it had a foothold in this country, where the president’s policies surely have (at most) tangential relevance. The personality cult diagnosis has become a clich√© among the commentators who are critical of Trump, the White House, the GOP, and those Protestant evangelicals and Catholics who have been rallying to his cause. That doesn’t make the diagnosis less ominous, when one thinks of the modern national leaders who historically have been considered to rule by this special power: Stalin and Hitler in Europe, Haile Selassie (the object of a relatively benign messianic cult), Idi Amin and Mobutu Seseseko in Africa, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (could you call them a couple cult?) in Asia, Che Guevara (a guerrilla leader) and Evita Peron in S America (both divinized by the Left, and by impoverished populations). Narendra Modi appears to have the same degree of hold across India at present. So the list continues...

How are we, members of a politically restrained church, to relate to this? Have the churches that reject this subjugation of believers to personified movements been vocal enough in distancing themselves from this phenomenon? Or is it a temptation to be drawn too deeply into these confrontations, even if it is by way of resisting? When does the time come when the lines of rejection have to be clearly and institutionally drawn? Or is the idea of taking a stand an illusion, the sort of thing that people who feel impotent before this strange darkness try to draw strength from? 

David Smith 

I've shared some of my own thoughts on this in the past -- here, for example Notes from underground: Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020, but I think it is something that Christians should be talking about more.

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