Does the Trump phenomenon tell us something about state of American religion?

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by Richard Ostling
The news media are understandably going ga-ga over Donald Trump’s unconventional campaign for president and its surprising success. What would analysts of U.S. popular religious culture tell journalists about the long-term trends this displays, especially regarding evangelicals who are at the heart of today’s Republican coalition?

Some themes to test out:

To begin, a mid-July Washington Post/ABC poll showed Trump is by far the current favorite among white Republicans who identify as evangelicals, at 20 percent (compared with 24 percent among Republicans as a whole). Yet Trump spurns characteristics thatpious churchgoers would have wanted not so long ago. Are those values changing, or is the old-time religion losing its grip on the nationalsoul?

Let’s leave aside Trump’s signature issue of immigration, on which evangelicals hold various views, and turn to this: A campaign joke making the rounds says Trump believes so much in traditional marriage that he’s had three of them. Some figure triple marriage and double divorce undercut Newt Gingrich’s Bible Belt showing in 2012. It’s possible Democrat Adlai Stevenson was hurt by his divorce three years before the 1952 campaign, though he did not remarry. Hard to know since he was up against the Eisenhower tsunami.

Most pundits figured Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce and 1963 remarriage to Margaretta (“Happy”) Murphy doomed his 1964 presidential prospects. The remarried Ronald Reagan broke the taboo in 1980, yet he remains the only U.S. President to have been divorced. Along with that, actor Reagan overcame conservative Protestants’ longstanding suspicion toward Hollywood and the entertainment industry.

Marital issues lead into gender issues. For the purposes of this analysis, we take Trump at his word that he was not referring to the monthly period when he castigated Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after she asked a tough question about his coarse verbiage about women. Both the past remarks and those against Kelly and then sole female competitor Carly Fiorina violated the code of chivalry that has long characterized evangelicalism. Such etiquette is the benign side of what skeptics have assailed as patronizing attitudes toward women.

Another notable evangelical trait has been reverence toward the military and especially troops that suffer wounds, torture, or death. Whatever evangelicals think of John McCain’s politics, he’s the living embodiment of heroism and of severe torture in service to the nation. Yet “Teflon Don,” who avoided military service, seems to have paid no penalty for ridiculing McCain’s heroism in Vietnam.

Yet another aspect of the evangelical subculture is a nicey-nice tone that ‘s sometimes polite to a fault and seeks to cover up conflict and require pleasant discourse. Often Bible passages like Matthew 18:15-17 and Philippians 4:8 are cited in support. This can cause resentment toward reporters who dig up scandal. Yet Trump specializes in lashing out against his critics as idiots, fools, and “losers.”

Also, American church folk traditionally expect would-be presidents to follow conventions of humility and religious rhetoric, whatever their private beliefs. Yet Presbyterian Trump’s trademark of unfiltered candor produced a truly remarkable quote to a July gathering of Iowa religious conservatives. Asked whether he ever asks God for forgiveness, Trump said “I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” He added that in Communion “when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness.” He then doubled down to CNN: “Why do I have to repent or ask forgiveness if I am not making mistakes?”

So, what gives?

A possible hypothesis is that as national politics becomes mere showbiz, evangelicals may be especially enthralled because entertainment modes have infiltrated formerly staid worship services. Trevin Wax of the Gospel Coalition thinks evangelicals appreciate the candidate’s fearlessness in offending “the cultural elite” because they “feel increasingly shut out of important conversations,” though Wax himself laments Trump’s “gutter” rhetoric. Wax notes that whatever the sentiments of grass-roots “family values” voters, there’s no evident Trump support from evangelical leaders and pastors. Southern Baptist social-issues spokesman Russell Moore observes the same.

But then there’s Jeremiah Johnson, a noted prophecy speaker on the Pentecostal-Charismatic circuit. He reports that several weeks ago the Holy Spirit directly told him that although the leading GOP candidate is no true worshipper of God, “Trump shall become My trumpet to the American people” who “does not fear man nor will he allow deception” and will “expose darkness and perversion in America like never before.” All this and more has provided a fat target for commentators who despise religious belief and believers, especially of the conservative Protestant variety.

Stay tuned.

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