Setting Your Own Rules: The Cult of Trump and Conservative Christianity

The hallmark of the Trump presidency is increasingly casting off restraints. “Letting Trump be Trump” has become the justification for this president to set his own rules, leading to accelerated trampling on laws and policies that get in his way. Lies and bold fabrications have steadily increased with the freeing of Trump’s gut feelings – along with demands for unquestioning loyalty of his cabinet and congressional supporters.

A paradox of the Trump presidency is that the most irreligious president of the last century is being haled in messianic language by fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Jesus, the biblically proclaimed Messiah, spoke of humility rather than public display of righteousness and of loving and forgiving enemies as well as neighbors. Donald Trump, on the other hand, glories in setting his own rules that stomp on political and religious values. Those rules feature shameless self-glorification, even to the extent of using messianic language about himself. Comparing his claims of persecution and suffering to what Jesus experienced is part of Trump’s defense as bullying and smear campaigns are accelerated and any hint of criticism brings crushing responses. Gone is Jesus’s message of loving enemies and praying for those who abuse you, according to Luke 6:27-28, or Paul’s affirmation of that teaching in Romans 12:14.

The political success of Trumpism is undeniable. The really puzzling questions are: Why have conservative Christian groups joined the Trump cult? And how can they idolize the most openly irreligious, immoral, and hate-filled president of the last century?

My purpose is to avoid entirely political issues while suggesting an answer to those questions. Constitutional issues can’t be avoided because they point to legality as a limit to setting one’s own rules. My argument is that conservative Christian groups have made serious errors by rejecting verifiable truth and giving priority to faith as the basis for denying or ignoring scientific, historical, and even constitutional truth. As the nation experiences a serious counterattack on attempted authoritarian rule under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, conservative evangelical Christians still choose to follow a messianic pretender.

The Man for Whom Nothing is Written.

How can conservatives idolize someone whose example undermines their beliefs? One answer was illustrated in the renowned 1962 classic movie Lawrence of Arabia. In an army known for rigid discipline, T.E. Lawrence was a low-ranking insubordinate officer whose exploits were rewarded with burial in Westminster Abbey. In an Arabian society known for fundamentalist respect for the Quran, reflected in the phrase “it is written,” Lawrence committed blasphemy as he broke traditional rules and became known as the man “for whom nothing is written.” In short, he was admired and followed because of success in discarding old rules and spontaneously creating his own. David Lean’s remarkable movie captured the emergence of a charismatic English leader within traditional Arabian clan structure and the narcissistic tyranny that evolved when charisma went unchecked.

The term “it is written” was at the heart of Muslim conservatism. Their attitude toward the verbal sacredness of the Quran exceeded the fundamentalist reverence for the literal truth of the Bible, for their scripture was accepted as the actual dictated words of God in the language of God as delivered through Muhammad. The term Islam means submission to God. To assert, as Lawrence did in the movie, that “nothing is written unless I write it” was blasphemous rejection of submission to the will of God.

Nevertheless, blasphemy was overcome as clan leaders followed Lawrence. Their admiration grew as he pulled off seemingly miraculous victories. Successful but increasingly tyrannical self-promotion kept overruling the reservations of the Arab clan leaders.

The very same dynamics are found in Old Testament accounts of Samson and David. Both are described as charismatic figures who set their own rules as they flagrantly violated social and religious prohibitions for their own pleasure. Samson was looked upon as a leader filled with the Spirit of God, yet he violated his Nazirite vow and loyalty to his own people as he pursued sensual pleasures with Philistine enemies. He was a muscle-bound bully systematically using the strength that was considered a mark of God’s Spirit to celebrate himself and his pleasures. His sins caught up with him as he was blinded and imprisoned after his lover was finally successful in betraying him. The story makes a feeble effort to rehabilitate his claim to charismatic guidance as he killed his tormentors in a temple through a final act of superhuman strength. The ending fails to hide the combination of admiration and loathing of a flawed hero known for misusing powers by selfishly setting his own rules.

The David accounts are filled with ambivalent twists and turns. He was an outlaw fighting with enemies against the leaders of his people. As king, he exploited the Ark of the Covenant to establish a new capital city and claim overall religious leadership at the expense of the priesthood. He was effective in using religion to justify military campaigns and gave the appearance of being pious through his songs or psalms. But his selfish ruthlessness also stood out as he arranged the death in battle of one of his commanders so he could openly claim the man’s wife who was carrying David’s child. He also set an example for duplicity equal to the revenge at the end of the movie The Godfather. During Absalom’s revolt, David fled Judah and near a river crossing was pelted with stones and curses by Shemei a relative of Saul. When the revolt failed, Shemei pleaded for mercy and David granted it. But in his dying words, he urged Solomon to begin his reign by eliminating all enemies – and he specified Shemei. The reprieve was only temporary and enemies would not be given a second chance to curse the House of David.

Even though the account of David seems far more candid than most royal tales, it presents a consistent message. David was “a man after God’s own heart.” He was truly pious despite faults, leading to God’s adoption of his dynasty “forever” as a reward. David seems a more realistic model for Trumpian claims, especially since he has even hinted at being succeeded by his children. But this great man’s ego will not settle for David. No, Jesus himself must be the appropriate comparison for Trump and his devotees.

Jesus does not fit the mold of someone who sets his own rules. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said clearly that he did not intend to undermine the Torah. Rather he sought to fulfill and improve it. He claimed a special relationship to God as he focused on going beyond externalities such as purity rituals and public displays. Motives, actions of compassion, forgiveness, and justice not tilted toward the rich were themes he repeated. He appeared to defy ordinary rules as he exorcised and healed without recognizing technical Sabbath limitations dear to Pharisees. But these encounters were typical of the debates later recorded in Rabbinic texts. They were matters of interpretation, not arbitrary new rules trampling on universally accepted laws.

The Jesus known for healing, proclaiming the Rule of God, and teaching fulfillment of the Torah was the opposite of any charismatic leader who claims the power to set their own rules.

Billy Graham’s Definition of Faith

In his autobiography Just As I Am, Billy Graham is candid about a religious struggle that preceded the beginning of his now famous crusades in major cities. A section entitled “Turning Points” begins with the Los Angeles crusade of 1949 the success of which launched subsequent campaigns. However, the real turning point for Graham – and also for conservative Christians – came through a decision made at Forest Home, a retreat center east of Los Angeles, during final preparations for the first crusade.

Conversations with friends during that week of retreat brought on a crisis, no doubt partly fueled by anxiety over the prospects of the upcoming crusade. The central issue in his mind was the extent of biblical inspiration, which he phrased as “Could I trust the Bible?” He was most troubled by a close friend who recently completed his first year at Princeton Seminary. Graham’s dogged adherence to biblical literalism was challenged by the comment: “Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do.”

Graham did not see the issue as one calling for flexibility – for him it was all or nothing. “With the Los Angeles campaign galloping toward me, I had to have an answer. If I could not trust the Bible, I could not go on. I would have to leave the school presidency. I would have to leave pulpit evangelism.” From the outside, we can see how posing the issue in a way that ruled out flexibility stacked the deck in favor of blind acceptance.

The struggle came to a resolution during a moonlight walk in the adjacent San Bernardino Mountains. Falling to his knees at a tree stump and opening his Bible in the dark, Graham admitted to being overwhelmed by the variety and seriousness of questions about biblical reliability. Then came the denouement: “I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken. At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.'”

The concept of faith had been at the center of all Protestant movements since Martin Luther used Paul’s approach to faith to establish direct believer contact with God using the Bible as a guide rather than the Church as an intermediary. Luther was modified by the Fundamentalist Movement in the early twentieth century which insisted on denying science and any reasonable challenge to the King James Version as literal, unquestionable truth. Faith was transformed from relationship with God to acceptance of biblical content as a prerequisite for relationship.

The scandal of the Scopes Trial in 1925 seemed to undermine ultra-literalism, but it had not been eliminated from evangelical churches in the South. Billy Graham’s success brought new respectability and national support for salvation based on faith that denied mounting evidence limiting traditional ideas of biblical inspiration.

Graham also looked to the way Jesus regarded scripture for support. He concluded that Jesus verified the literal truth of scripture by pointing to Noah and Jonah as reliable stories. This conclusion, which is readily accepted by fundamentalists, betrays the historical ignorance of Graham and his followers. The modern expectation of factuality as part of reliability grows out of the influence of science and modern historical standards – an outlook that was completely foreign to the Second Temple Judaism to which Jesus belonged. Scriptural stories were filled with traditions that were assumed to be true in symbolic and mythical ways because they carried deep truths. Factual accuracy and literal historicity were not part of this outlook on reality – that’s why the introduction of science was initially a shock to traditional modes of truth.

Billy Graham’s decision to use faith that claims guidance of the Holy Spirit as justification for denying scientific and historical evidence became a publicly respectable model as Graham’s crusades and reputation for personal integrity made him the leading public symbol of Christianity in America. Faith became a way of setting one’s own rules by appealing to divine guidance as scientific and historical evidence mounted against overly simplistic and blind denials of publicly recognized truth.

Although Graham’s reputation for personal integrity was sound, he became the launching point for modern televangelism with ever increasing emphasis on fundraising, marketing, and self-promotion. Generations of these evangelists have flaunted personal opulence as evidence of God’s calling. Membership and fundraising have soared even amidst moral and financial scandals that have revealed the extent to which these “religious leaders” set rules for themselves that were at odds with the teachings of Jesus. It is, therefore, no surprise that conservative Christians known for making themselves exceptions to rules eagerly follow a president known for trampling on rules more openly than they do.

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

Conservative evangelical Christianity today is characterized by faith as rejection of verifiable truth, whether it be scientific and historical evidence or daily video and social media evidence that is discounted. Thus, faith has become adherence to overt propaganda. Faith as denial of evidence became a path to “the end justifies the means,” making it possible to see the Holy Spirit in leaders who set their own rules even when daily behaviors are overtly unchristian.

Three years of the Trump administration have fueled a cult of personality based on faith as denial of evidence – a cult fully supported by most conservative evangelical leaders. The external environment has become increasingly difficult to ignore in at least three ways. First, extreme weather events have become weekly realities as scientific warnings became increasingly alarming; yet the Trump administration hides scientific data on official websites and eliminates policies and regulations that mitigated damage to the climate. Second, desperate refugees from wars, failing states, and climatic disasters have flocked to our southern border. New policies demonize them, separate families and children, and imprison them in updated versions of concentration camps. And finally, overwhelming evidence proves the election of 2016 was a cyber version of a Pearl Harbor attack on our electoral process and the basic fabric of our democratic society. Yet the election victor has undermined all the agencies verifying the attack rather than using them to generate necessary public support to defend the nation. Trump turned Pearl Harbor into a three-year event that he seeks to extend through a second term of office.

Corrupt leadership was a consistent target in Jesus’s teachings. Stories about a compassionate Samaritan, an unjust judge, and rich men who mistreated the poor represented criticism of the behaviors of leaders of his time. But the point was made more directly in Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount when he pointed consistently to actions expected of those following God’s rules. The expectation was summarized at the end of the sermon by distinguishing between good trees and bad trees that are known by the fruit they produce. What better way for Jesus to say that actions and their consequences are more important than claims based on blind faith.

Conservative evangelical leaders should have joined public demands for changing at least the three unjust policies I mentioned, but they remained silent or echoed the misinformation and attacks emerging daily from the administration. They remain satisfied with the way their hero is defending their faith by appointing politically motivated judges and oppressing the civil liberties of their opponents in the name of religious freedom as defined by evangelical conservatives.

An Emerging Counterattack

In the final months of 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a devout Roman Catholic, began to lead an impeachment inquiry. In public statements she repeatedly emphasized her prayers on behalf of President Trump and her prayerful reluctance to go beyond investigations to launching impeachment. Her resistance was overcome by the events brought to light by the complaint of a whistle blower within the intelligence community that became public in September. As congressional Republicans and political appointees defended the president, career diplomats and White House officials stepped forward to testify despite direct threats from President Trump.

In the American constitutional system, setting one’s own rules is prohibited when it becomes criminal or when public officials set themselves above the law and the constitution they swore to uphold. This issue has become the basis for the counterattack against Trumpism.

Speaker Pelosi stepped up to fulfill her constitutional duty by leading a counterattack based on evidence and values, not political calculation. Even when the executive branch refused to cooperate at all, witness accounts of corrupt actions at the expense of an ally under attack by Russia began to emerge. The single piece of evidence released by the White House, the record of a phone call, provided direct evidence of wrongdoing that would be amplified and further verified by nonpolitical career officials telling what they knew.

As the House of Representatives looked into dealings with Ukraine, President Trump continued setting his own rules by deserting Kurdish allies to be slaughtered by Turks and Russians. Retired admirals and generals are expected to remain non-political, but Admiral William McRaven decided to join those speaking against violation of essential values. Writing in the New York Times, he complained:

But, if we don’t care about our values, if we don’t care about duty and honor, if we don’t help the weak and stand up against oppression and injustice – what will happen to the Kurds, the Iraquis, the Afghans, the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the South Sudanese and the millions of people under the boot of tyranny or left abandoned by their failing states? If our promises are meaningless, how will our allies ever trust us? If we can’t have faith in our nation’s principles, why would the men and women of this nation join the military?

Admiral McRaven was not speaking to defend Christian values. Duty and honor are patriotic values motivating the witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee and the words of Admiral McRaven. The examples set by those witnesses and Admiral McRaven demonstrate that a time has arrived when values must be acted upon.

Truth and values are being tested against denials based on blind faith. Conservative evangelical Christians remain silent or openly support a lawless president. Duty and honor are military values that are not specifically Christian. But what about defending the weak, standing against oppression, and fighting injustice? Those values derive from the rules Jesus found in scripture and described as essential to God’s Rule.

A prayerful Christian is guiding the House deliberations in response to a president who sets his own rules. All Americans, and especially Christians, should join in praying for an outcome that will reassert truth and justice over propaganda and blind faith.

References:

Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 137-140.

William H. McRaven, “Our Republic Is Under Attach From the President,” New York Times, October 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/17/opinion/trump-mcraven-syria-military.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share.

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Source by Edward G. Simmons

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