When I read the exit polls on November 9, 2016, I couldn’t believe that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump to be the 45th President of the United States. Trump got a bigger percentage of the white evangelical vote than George W. Bush (2004), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012). By one reading of the election, they provided his margin of victory. Polls from late 2018 put white evangelical support for Donald Trump at over 70%.
For over half the country who voted against Trump and continue to protest his presidency, white evangelicals’ support seems natural on the one hand, and contradictory on the other. Yes, he promises to carry out their desired policies –but his personality and actions are so opposed to their beliefs, how could they have voted for him?
I think the answer is all about the man’s personality and actions. While Trump’s persona may be opposed to the “talk” of the evangelical movement, he reflects the “walk”, if not of its rank and file, then of much of its leadership.
First, though, a quick look at the politics involved, or rather, the mixing of religion with right-wing politics. Let us not forget our country was founded by God-fearing Christians such as John Winthrop. He anointed the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a beacon of light and a “City on the Hill” destined to show forth a new model of Christian charity, while massacring Native Americans and killing religious dissenters. Over the centuries, white Christians continued to promote a form of American exceptionalism that supported slavery and genocide. While at first no one political party had a particular sanction from religious authoritarians, over the last few generations, the Republican party has become the party of the religious right. The rise of Republican Christianity can be traced back to the Eisenhower era when Americana-branded Christianity became imbedded as the civil religion of a post-war US of A. During this era, “In God We Trust” was added to the US paper currency, “Under God” became part of the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Prayer Breakfast brought together politicians and pastors in a public display of piety, and evangelist Billy Graham led verbal crusades against the evils of godless Communism.
The Moral Majority was formed in 1979, and took the credit for the election of Ronald Reagan. Since then, conservative Christians have veered from embracing the Ronald to electing the Donald. During the ‘80s as the religious right rose into power Cosby and Roseanne represented beloved sitcoms, and Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street assured us that greed is good. Currently, Cobsy is revealed as a predator, Roseanne as a racist beloved by the alt. right, and … greed seems to still be good. At least some things haven’t changed.
The 2008 election of Barak Obama, coupled with the rise of the “nones,” Americans who professed to have no faith, gave rise to the notion that perhaps this racist, politicized brand of Christianity had reached its demise. However, as Jeff Sharlet has pointed out in his book C Street, while it may be an American tradition to declare religious conflict a thing of the past, religious conflict continues because fundamentalism continues. This new form of fundamentalism isn’t about any specific scriptural belief. It is the Orwellian conflation of democracy with paternalistic authoritarianism, with a religious veneer. In Sharlet’s words, “democracy became redefined as rule by a class of the anointed; religion reduced to the (mistaken) beliefs of other people; law a euphemism for scripture, and scripture itself not just malleable but liquid, easily poured into any vessel – fuel for the long march toward freedom, which is just another word for no questions asked.”
During the 2016 election cycle, this kind of Americana Christianity resurfaced with a vengeance as a counter to the humanist agenda advanced by Barak Obama, who many on the religious right view as un-American and not part of their stream of the Christian faith. A bounty of self-professed Christian candidates running on the Republican ticket could have easily served as the next vessel, so to speak. Add to this the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s connections to the late Doug Coe, head of the Family (aka the Fellowship). So, in choosing a candidate on the basis of their personal faith in Jesus Christ, the faithful had a range of viable options from fundamentalist Christians to mainline moderates.
Trump’s Unholy Anointing
I am the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time. – Donald J. Trump, CBN News/The Brody File (May 20, 2015)
Of all the presidential candidates, Trump was the most braggadocious, including when promoting his faith based credentials. But like so many of Trump’s pronouncements, his claims of Christian greatness appear to be more hyperbole than fact based. Reporters like Wayne Barrett, David Cay Johnston, Mark Singer, Michael Kranish, and Marc Fisher have documented the trials and tribulations of Trump’s professional and personal life. Their reports of Trump’s rise to power document examples of unethical behavior too numerous to count, such as multiple extramarital affairs, not paying and mistreating his workers, discriminating against people of color, hanging with local mobsters, and abusing elderly tenants, ex-wives, and business associates. Throughout these accounts, a portrait emerges of a man-child who appears to value money over his family and friends and lacks any semblance of a personal faith. Yet, despite his personal flaws, which some Christians saw as similar to the blessed King David’s moral transgressions, they anointed Trump over other more traditional Christian candidates as the one who will lead them to their version of the Promised Land.
On the surface, many of those who cast their vote for Trump had reasons that were policy based. For them, Trump’s cabinet, Supreme Court appointments, executive orders, and an advisory board of B and C level evangelical and prosperity gospel leaders represent heaven here on earth. These supporters see the payoff for their votes.
Yet I see something at play beyond these supporters simply getting their political needs met. What I am observing between Trump and his white evangelical supporters appears to be. a phenomenon known as “narcissistic collusion.” To quote therapist Elizabeth Mika: “We see this in leaders who have narcissistic personalities where the grandiosity fulfills a need in their followers, who tend to be narcissistic themselves. So you have this match between the leader and the follower, and there is a strong bond that is not susceptible to reality.”
In their worldview, these Christians believe they are being persecuted by the godless media because they are engaging in spiritual warfare in a quest to preserve the “traditional family.” They see in Trump a kindred spirit, persecuted for his desire to “Make America Great Again.” United in their joint persecution by liberal heathens, white evangelical Christians and Donald Trump bond symbiotically in what can be termed “collective narcissism,” which is defined as an an exaggerated belief in an in-group’s greatness, which must be continually reinforced from the outside.
The central term here is “narcissism.” The term comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who was enthralled by his own reflection. Narcissism is the absorption with oneself to the exclusion of the outside world, leading to treating other people badly in pursuit of one’s own desires. These are some traits most narcissists have in common:
- They lack empathy, and feel uncomfortable with their emotional life.
- They are self-absorbed, always manage to make the conversation about themselves, and frequently interrupt others.
- They have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and will exaggerate their achievements and talents.
- They are hyper-competitive, ambitious, and compulsive with fantasies of unlimited success and a history of making important life decisions with little forethought.
- They believe that they are special or unique, and need to be the center of attention.
- They are preoccupied with how they are perceived by others, and seek out compliments while reacting to any criticism or contrary viewpoints with condescension and anger.
- They have a very strong sense of superiority and entitlement, and will make contemptuous remarks about other people behind their backs.
- They can come across as self-righteous and bulletproof during arguments, as they ridicule, shame, and humiliate their opponents.
- They cannot express compassion, lack interest in others’ feelings and experiences, and don’t respect boundaries. They are envious of others and think others are envious of them.
- They regularly display arrogant and abusive attitudes and behaviors.
- They are easily slighted and will explode with rage and go on the attack when hurt or frustrated with no insight into how their behavior impacts others.
- They are master manipulators who modify and distort the facts for personal gain, and exploit others’ weaknesses to get what they want.
- They engage in “splitting” by blaming negative outcomes on others while taking credit for positive and good outcomes.
- They can be seductive and manipulative, and tend to be overly jealous, controlling, and possessive.
- They lack self-control through actions such as overeating, drinking too much, spending beyond their means, abusing drugs, or engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships.
Not every story a narcissist tells is one of victory. But in the stories of tragedy or failure, there’s an air of entitlement and victimization.
Most of these traits are exaggerations of ordinary ones. We do need a certain degree of self-esteem in order to cope in the world –but that is not the same thing as the self-absorption, self-importance, and so forth of the true narcissist. Ambition is another example: if we didn’t think we could achieve the seemingly impossible, then we’d never achieve significant advances in science, the arts, and other disciplines. The display of these traits in ways that are limited and positive in a person’s life is sometimes called “healthy narcissism.” Also, when we get stressed and emotionally depleted, we can behave temporarily in narcissistic ways. Once we stabilize, we’re capable again of displaying empathy and compassion.
However, those at the extreme end of the narcissistic scale are always or nearly always in this mindset, and so are stuck in beliefs and behaviors that prevent them from truly connecting with others. In addition, many narcissists, especially those who display sociopathic tendencies, appear to lack a conscience. This can make them dangerous for people around them.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one percent of the US population is diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the clinical term given to those deemed malignant narcissists or sociopaths. However, the strict criteria for this diagnosis rules out about another four percent of the population who exhibit many of the signs of extreme narcissism but do not fit the clinical definition of Anti-Social Personality Disorder.
We do not know how many of those who fit the criteria for extreme narcissism are in positions of power and authority in this country. Nor do we know how much of the population wants, or at least expects, to be led by such people. Narcissistic tendencies are however quite prevalent in our leaders, both in politics and in the church as a whole. As we entered the 21st century, books like The Narcissism Epidemic and Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed pointed to the prevalence of narcissistic traits within the US sociopolitical culture.
Trump’s Missional Minions
Narcissists often support each other, as evidenced by some of the most vocal and prominent of the current President’s supporters, whose behaviors mirror his. They may at times mouth appropriate words, but do not walk their talk, as evidenced by ongoing allegations of abuse by pastors who exhibit personal behaviors, including traits of narcissism, very similar to those of our current President.
These behaviors can be most clearly visible in their treatment of those who are not white males of privilege. Even though Jesus of Nazareth’s greatest commandment in the New Testament orders his followers to love their neighbor as themselves, those Christians who supported Trump either dismiss his connection to “alt-right” circles or share similar views themselves. As a case in point, only one member of his faith advisory board resigned after Trump refused to condemn those white supremacists who incited violence at a pro-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA where a woman was killed and two police officers died.
Trump’s alleged treatment of many women, and the support he gets from many Christian leaders even in the face of comments like “Just grab them by the pussy” illuminate the toxic underbelly of. of institutional Christianity: its male dominated power system that defends and enables sexual predation. Evangelicals have a hidden history of predation and sexism that some estimate mirrors that of the Roman Catholic Church. These godly leaders turned a blind eye to reports of Trump’s sexually troubling behaviors, such as ogling of naked Miss Teen USA contestants and bragging about his daughter’s body. Along those lines, these same white evangelicals dismissed US senatorial candidate Roy Moore’s (R-AL) pursuit of teenage girls, and continue to advance a purity culture that shames female sexuality. And Trump and other male-focused evangelicals surround themselves with women who function as “suitable helpers” by standing by their men and demonizing those women who dare to speak out against this patriarchal culture.
This is not about recognizing and avoiding the troubles caused by unethical behavior in general. It is about those who lack the ability to express empathy or compassion towards others, as well as care of the planet as a whole. In Trump and his inner circles, and in many church settings as well, one finds self-righteousness, bullying, vindictiveness, and grandiosity, forms of behavior that make up malignant narcissism, along with elements of sociopathy like criminality, irresponsibility, and a delight at others’ suffering.
To date, most of the material penned about narcissism following the 2016 presidential election focuses on Trump himself. For example, Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes, one of the contributors to the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, labels Trump a “sociopath” and “a very sick individual.” In his estimation, “it is not just bad behavior that people have to lie and cheat the way he does, it is an incapacity to treat other people as full human beings.” Dodes notes that in assessing Trump’s public behaviors using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, he scores at the extreme end of the spectrum.
For those who feel any conversation about a public figure’s mental health should be off limits: In an editorial for Time, Jeffrey Kruger has suggested it may be time to ditch the Goldwater Rule established to prevent clinicians from making public assumptions about the mental health of a public figure. “It’s indeed impossible for anyone but a professional who is treating Trump to say with certainty what his clinical diagnosis is – if any. But when the mental health of one man can have such a profound impact on the lives of 323 million Americans – to say nothing of the 7.5 billion people living on the planet as a whole – it’s irresponsible to not at least have the conversation.”
I would like to shift this conversation though away from Trump and focus on analyzing the society that elected him: specifically, the Christian church and its outgrowths in our society. I view this man’s election as an American religious problem. Maybe that’s just my slant as a religion writer. There are certainly other stories of his election, from Russian Facebook accounts to voter suppression, from mass incarceration of black and brown people to manipulation of the Electoral College system over direct democracy. Those stories are told by others. This story, of churches and their leaders, has not been. The 2016 election and the current Presidency are almost incidental to this issue, though they provide the impetus for my inquiry into how church institutions and how congregational behaviors are shaped by leaders who display narcissistic and sociopathic characteristics.
Allen Frances, author of The Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump, asks the trillion-dollar question. “What does it say about us, that we elected someone so manifestly unfit and unprepared to determine mankind’s future?” In Frances’ estimation, “Trump is a symptom of a world in distress, not its sole cause. Blaming him for all of our troubles misses the deeper, underlying societal sickness that made possible his unlikely ascent. Calling Trump crazy allows us to avoid confronting the craziness in our society – if we want to get sane, we must first gain insight about ourselves. Simply put: Trump isn’t crazy, but our society is.”
While we may disagree on the current President’s sanity, Francis shifts the question to a mass phenomenon: just how crazy is the church, given the overwhelming support Trump still enjoys among white evangelicals? The narcissistic tendencies I witnessed as a journalist over many years while reporting on Christian and other spiritual leaders help me understand in part Trump’s support among white evangelicals: they appear to be conditioned to look for narcissistic behavior in their own leaders. Perhaps they genuinely want this behavior. For whatever reason, their church leaders show the same signs of narcissism as the man they elected President, and he benefited from that similarity. (Note: Yes, narcissism is present in leaders of other world religions. However, given the preponderance of Christianity as the dominant religion informing the US political sphere, I am focusing specifically on those Christian leaders who have a national following in the United States.)
Any academic wants to check her theory by looking at the facts. Unfortunately, statistical evidence is thin in this regard. No survey that assesses the prevalence of narcissism among US Christian leaders exists. In Canada, we have an estimate, which may be useful for thinking about our own country. In 2015, a survey of 420 clergy affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Canada found that 25 percent of respondents exhibited signs of extreme narcissism. Now, Canada doesn’t have the American exceptionalism gene running through their veins. The religious right never really rose to power there. With the exception of a few aberrations like the Toronto Blessing, to date, the faith Canadians possess tends to be of the quieter and more private variety. So, if the number of extreme narcissistic clergy is this high in Canada, how much higher might these statistics be among US clergy?
This all also raises another key question for me. Are those with narcissistic tendencies placed in positions of power simply because they are supported by those of like mind, that is, by other narcissists, by narcissistic collusion and collective narcissism? Or is there more to this story?
While much church conversation is led by those with narcissistic tendencies, I’d also like to address another dynamic in play, which I am calling ‘echo-ism.” In the Greek myth of Narcissus, Echo was one of many who were enraptured by Narcissus. She literally gave her all to Narcissus; only ever able to repeat Narcissus’ words back to him, her identity gradually disappeared. Similarly, many people who do not possess narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies will follow leaders who possess these traits. I understand these ‘echoes’ to be small number of followers of narcissists, compared to those who are involved in narcissistic collusion. However, a small proportion of people still comes to many, many Americans, who may stay in abusive relationships and toxic congregations without realizing they have a way to change. In the original myth, Echo was cursed by the gods; maybe our modern-day ‘echoes’ can break free.
Will those who have been ‘echoes’ stop supporting narcissists? Time will tell, but we’ll never know if we don’t at least try.
Garrison, Becky (2013) Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues (Amazon Kindle).
The Cosby Show (1984–92); Roseanne (1988–1997, 2018) and Wall Street (1987). A brief summary of Bill Cosby and Roseanne Barr’s woes can be found here: https://nypost.com/2018/05/31/disgraced-tv-icons-once-jockeyed-for-ratings-crown/.
Jeff Sharlet (2010). C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (New York: NY, Back Bay Books)., p. 271.
Wayne Barnett (2016) The Greatest Show on Earth (New York: NY, Regan Books); David Cay Johnston (2016) The Making of Donald Trump (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House); Mark Singer (2016) Trump and Me (New York, NY: Tim Dugan Books); and Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher (2016) Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President (New York, NY: Scribner).
See www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-zuckerman-christians-trump-administration-20170811-story.html, www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-05-05/president-trumps-spiritual-journey-delivers-for-the-religious-right, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/religious-freedom-executive-order/525354/, and www.nytimes.com/2017/08/23/opinion/trump-evangelical-business-advisers-charlottesville.html.
This list was culled from these books focusing on the topic of narcissism, psychopathy, and sociopathy. Joseph Burgo (2015) The Narcissist You Know (New York, NY: Touchstone), Robert D. Hare (1999) Without Conscience (New York, NY: Guilford Books), Aaron James (2014) The Narcissist Next Door (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), Jason MacKenzie (2015) Psychopath Free New York, NY: Berkeley), Craig Malkin (2015) Rethinking Narcissism (New York, NY: Harper Perennial), and Martha Stout (2006) The Sociopath Next Door (New York, NY: Harmony).
Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York, NY: Free Press) and Wendy Behary (2008) Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed (Oakland, CA: Harbinger Publications).
thebaffler.com/latest/churchtoo-garrison and www.cnn.com/2012/06/11/us/gallery/pastor-scandals/index.html.
www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-pol-essential-washington-updates-trump-allegedly-told-porn-star-she-1516229027-htmlstory.html and www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/timeline-of-trumps-creepiness-while-he-owned-miss-universe-w444634.
Brandy Lee, ed. (2017) The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books) and www.salon.com/2017/09/12/harvard-psychiatrist-lance-dodes-donald-trump-is-a-sociopath-and-a-very-sick-individual/.
The following books represent a cross selection of works penned to examine the singular reasons for Trump’s ascendency to the presidency: Alan I. Abromowitz (2018) The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump (2018) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, Conrad Black (2018) Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other (Washington, CD:Regnery Publishing), Nathan Bomey (2018) After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books), John L. Campbell (2018) American Discontent: The Rise of Donald Trump and Decline of the Golden Age Hardcover (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press), E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann (2017) One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press), David Cay Johnston (2017) It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), Ronald Kessler (2018) The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game (New York, NY: Crown Forum), Alan J. Light an (2017) The Case for Impeachment (New York, NY: Dey Street Books, Amanda Marcotte (2018) Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself (New York, NY: Hot Books), John Nichols (2017) Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America (New York, NY: Nation Books), P.J. O’Rourke (2017) How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016 (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press), Roger Stone (2016) The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing), Matt Taibbi (2017) Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus (New York, NY: Spigel & Grau), Michael Wolff (2018) Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co.), and Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump in the White House (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster).
Allen Frances (2017) The Twilight of American Sanity (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers), page 4.
Also, one can find these narcissistic tendencies found even among progressive clergy. As I reported at humanist.com, “When given the microphone, these appointed progressive leaders tend to side with those in power who can ensure them a continuing stream of funding and followers. As a case in point, Sojourners, a publication of the eponymous Christian social justice organization, claims to be a champion of the marginalized but refused to run a pro-LGBT equality ad on the grounds that it might offend some of their followers. Along those lines, when medical and legal evidence surfaced that a self-appointed US emergent church leader was abusing his now ex-wife, both Evans and Bolz-Weber [New York Times’ best-selling progressive author/speakers] chose to stand behind this man who has given both of them platforms, endorsements, and other accoutrements needed for one to become a bestselling author.” (See thehumanist.com/commentary/rise-party-nones).” True, one can find other explications, like greed, hypocrisy, and cowardice, for this desire to put one’s personal platform and profits over serving as a prophetic voice to advance the needs of others. However, those who promote a ministry of self over service tend to exhibit narcissistic traits.