Trump and the American Religion

Trump and the American Religion

When Donald Trump tweeted, and ordered his press secretary to report, that the crowds for his inauguration were the biggest crowds ever for any Presidential inauguration, despite the photographic evidence provided by the US Park Service to the contrary, it was many things. It was outrageous. Many said it was a lie. But in a subtle way, it was also a call to faith. It was asking true believers to ignore the empirical evidence, to discount the worldly realities, and to accept a fabulous story on faith alone. Millions of them professed belief. It is not entirely absurd to say that in an at least some way Donald Trump is an American religious leader, or that a truer explanation might be to say that he has tapped a peculiar religious vein that is almost particularly American. The key here is the word, American. Traditional Christianity, with its creeds and organized churches, is different from what Leo Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Harold Bloom have called the “American Religion,” weaving most of our Christian creeds in fabric that is unique to our country. Trump is therefor not like Martin Luther, or the Pope, or John Calvin, but something closer to Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, Ellen Harmon White, or Jimmy Swaggart.

It is important to note that polls have shown that ninety percent of Americans know that God loves them individually, and that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. This is far from anything like Old World Christianity in several important ways. The American Religion is not a sect or denomination. It is more like a set of values and beliefs that may be common to the many post-Protestant denominations that sprung up only on our shores and only in the last three centuries, such as the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Pentacostals, the Christian Scientists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of Christ, this country’s many non-denominational churches, and even to the Southern Baptist sect, which in America is significantly different from the church of its origins in Europe. In a sense, the American Religion is highly personal, arises from within the self, and is anti-intellectual, enthusiastic, “knowing,” and resistant to ecumenical restraints. The very fact that so many denominations have sprung up here is indicative of the American drive toward religious originality, which may in some ways even be shared by the mainstream denominations.

Trying to understand the Baptist concept of “soul competence” is somewhat difficult, for a non-Baptist. But it appears that the believer may “experience” Jesus personally, and be born again without having to learn the creed of his church or even read the Bible. Once saved, always saved. The individual is the church. The spirit enters the believer and she then walks in the world with Jesus. A non-Mormon will have even more trouble discerning all the beliefs of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, but it seems that for that faith it is not so much that God is anthropomorphic but that man is theomorphic. In April, 1844, Joseph Smith proclaimed that God began as a man. Smith himself, and other “saints” may be progressing in death toward a kind of godhead and a world to govern. When the spirit of the Lord enters a Pentacostal, she may speak in tongues or fall into a trance. The focus in these instances seems to be the individual person, and not the creed, the church, or even the text. It may be quaint to say a Christian believes. In America, she knows, and without external input.

Most American fundamentalist Christians of any denomination or of no denomination believe that the Bible is inerrant, meaning that every word in it is the absolute truth, and the word of God. This is less a traditional Christian idea than it is a Muslim one. For two thousand years Christianity was built on interpretations of the Bible. That is why there are divinity schools. Taken on their own, the four Gospels differ over the questions of who was present at Jesus’ execution, what he and those around him said then, and what happened immediately afterward. The Bible is perhaps the best book ever written, the greatest story ever told, and the fundamental text of one of the world’s great religions, but it is also a beautifully poetic work that we read in English, having been translated from Latin, which was translated from Greek, which is the language in which it was written at least a generation after the death of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic. Part of its poetic beauty and its spiritual strength are its many ironies and paradoxes. To say that it is inerrant is about the same as saying one has not read it and does not need to, which may also be the point of “experiencing” Jesus.

A greater percentage of people in the United States identify themselves as being religious than in any other country in the West. This is even more the case outside of the big cities and on the coasts, or to put it another way, it is more the case where Trump got his votes. Many historians have pointed out that the growth of the Southern Baptist Church occurred largely after the Civil War and in reaction to Southern defeat. It is almost as if the driving force of the resentment of Northern military might have turned into the resentment of the mainstream media, which may not be all that different. To say that in many ways Donald Trump is a kind of American religious leader, or that he has ridden that current, may not be all that farfetched.

So, Donald Trump states that he has done more in his Presidency at this point than any other President, and labels The New York Times and The Washington Post as fake news, and out to persecute him. And tens of millions of people act in belief of those statements. Many Presidents and Presidential candidates have made a pact with the religious right, but only one has asked people to take his fabulous statements on faith, and to act on that faith. We may not be living through a real life version of George Orwell’s 1984, but something more along the lines of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

(Gerald Weaver is the author of the novel, The First First Gentleman, August 2016, London Wall Publishing. It is among other things a sly tribute to almost all the novels of Charles Dickens. His well-received first novel, Gospel Prism, was published in May 2015. Each of its twelve chapters paraphrases a great work, by Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, etc. Harold Bloom said it was “remarkable” and “charming but disturbing.”)

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