This month Franklin Graham said that the election of Donald Trump was an act of divine protection over America. He told the Religious News Service “I think maybe God has allowed Donald Trump to win this election to protect this nation for the next few years…” That protection, he added, would primarily come from better Supreme Court judges.
This is not a new kind of comment from Graham, but where it comes from is often misunderstood by those outside Graham’s particular but popular brand of Christianity.
“Elite” opinions get the role of religion wrong. The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet recently admitted that his newspaper doesn’t “get” religion.
As a first post, I want to develop an aspect of this religion in the context of America’s role in the world.
“God and Guns” Voters
To do that, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. Let’s call him Nick. He lives in the South, but he was born and raised in what some politicians have called “god and guns” country in rural Pennsylvania. He is in his 60s, white with Italian heritage, a retired public school teacher.
Nick has prophetic ability. He saw it coming: the election of Trump. And he saw it coming because he understands the religion of his people. He understood these people because he is one of them. Or he once was. He was first educated at a fundamentalist Bible college after an ordinary Catholic upbringing.
He explains that the dominant mode of thinking – and it is a religious mode of thinking – in people like him is apocalyptic, which predicts that the End Times (God’s final judgment of the world) are near. The Apocalypse has been a theme or controlling image in American culture since its inception. It is, as one writer put it, “baked into the American imagination.”
Apocalyptic Thinking and America
Apocalyptic thinking affects more than just religion; it affects how those who use it see the world.
According to one expert on such language, Tom Thatcher, “Apocalyptic rhetoric creates an alternate view of reality that allows the reader to experience relief and hope in the face of social chaos.”
This may sound benign, even hopeful. But the important part of such thinking is the relationship between chaos and the “hopeful” end to come. In religions like the kind of Christianity predominant where Nick is from, the end is brought into existence by the fervent work of the true believers during the chaos. In short apocalyptic thinking – thinking the world is so hell-bent or headed for divine judgment – propels the work of many Christians to bring about the ‘end times’ through the political process.
They see the “social chaos” – primarily economic, but also moral (i.e. gay marriage, gender boundaries, etc.) – and cast blame on the political and social institutions like government and media, the very sites that could offer stability. Secular government is a sinful idol to many Christians. An example of this is the DeVos family, whose matriarch Betsy is Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Education. Dick DeVos, husband to Betsy, told a group of wealthy Christians that “the church—which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school.” Institutions like public schools can’t bring about the ‘hopeful’ end – only the church and its Christians can. So such Christians seek to evangelize the government, convert it, make it akin to the church, even an arm of it. They turn the idol into a path for God’s kingdom.
In the end, if America has some role to play in the ‘end times,’ it needs some radical change so it can…well, be great. Again. And to his credit, Trump understood the potency of this thinking at this moment in America. He not only sought the vote of such Christians, as all GOP candidates do and did; he spoke of a past akin to the kind of future these Christians want to usher in. It’s the new greatness that will bring the end times.
Who Will Save Us?
Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s speechwriter and one of the strongest Trump critics and now columnist for The Washington Post, notes apocalyptic thinking “leads to a distorted politics.” Institutions are “utterly discredited,” and “normal avenues of political reform are useless,” and many proposals for change are seen as “deck-chair arranging.” In the end, this attitude shouts for, in Gerson’s words, “a deliverer.” A strong leader, akin to the one who will return to judge the living and the dead.
Trump is this strong leader for the “god and guns” crowd. They don’t care that he lies, he exaggerates, he fumes on Twitter, or even that he indulged in some “locker room talk.” They simply think that in these times, in this moment of crisis summoning the End, America – God’s chosen nation — needs a strong leader. This is what is in his “heart” and the other issues don’t matter. This deliverance is what is most important to these Christians, as exemplified by the new vice-president telling Christians to forgive Trump after his comments about grabbing women. Pence said Trump showed “humility” by addressing his past comments.
But the inherent danger in each new appearance of this thinking is that each new “deliverer” must demand even more obedience, sacrifice, or silence for the deliverance to succeed.
And so then the exaggerations, the irruptions of Trump to our democratic institutions, even his “drain the swamp” mantra, echoes back to the “god and guns” crowd their sense that radical change is the only thing that can save us.