Donald Trump won the U. S. presidency in 2016, and his many Christian supporters attribute this to the intervention of God. Trump is not a godly man by any stretch of the imagination, but Christian voters have latched onto him because he has publicly adopted four of their most cherished desires: support Israel, oppose abortion, promote (what they call) religious freedom, and endorse the United States as a Christian nation.
Not all Christians are on this Trump bandwagon, of course; in fact, polls indicate that most professing Christians are not. But those who think this way and vote this way are fervent and faithful, especially among Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and some Catholics.
This support and its political success is rooted in long-standing cultural realities.
It began more than fifty years ago with the federal pressure to desegregate schools and empower black people and voters. Often this element of the movement was camouflaged as resistance to (what they described as) an over-bearing and out-of-control federal government. This conviction intensified when the Supreme Court banished school-sanctioned prayer and Bible reading from school. These religious people banded together to form the Moral Majority, under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Sr. They assisted in the election of Ronald Reagan as president and successfully turned Republican all of the southern states that had voted Democratic for decades.
These politically active Christians repudiated Southern Baptist presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. As the cultural shift moved to acceptance of gay life and gay marriage, this Christian wave turned into a tsunami. It gathered force through the presidency of Obama and intensified when the Affordable Care Act mandated that contraception be included in all medical health plans.
The storm erupted in 2016, drowning out the United Methodist Hillary Clinton and lifting the un-churched, foul-mouthed billionaire Donald Trump to victory. He, in turn, encouraged the web of Bible-study groups that have proliferated throughout the White House and other centers of federal power in Washington DC.
This Christian movement now is associated with what is known as the Seven Pillars philosophy of public engagement. Christians need to be decision-makers, they assert, in the seven primary arenas of power and influence: media, education, religion, arts & entertainment, government, family, and business. Some trace this strategy back to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade (Cru) and Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission (YWAM).
Today, much of the movement leadership comes from what is known as Network Christianity, a loose federation of Christian leaders, primarily from Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, many of whom take titles like bishop and apostle. Other leaders include the collection of ministers who constitute Donald Trump’s spiritual advisers.
A 2017 book entitled The Trump Prophesies predicts that Trump will win re-election in 2020, that he will appoint a total of five justices to the Supreme Court, and, a little closer to home, that Trump Republicans will win big in the mid-term elections in the fall of 2018.
However, the success of any particular election does not, and will not, drain the momentum from this still-surging tsunami of religious fervor. These devout Christians see their country slowly spinning away from what they understand as its Christian roots, and they are determined to seize control of whatever power they can to turn it toward their version of what the country ought to be.
For many, especially those who have had little experience with religious fervor, this agenda (and this interpretation of recent events) is not worth their time and attention. As a nation, they assure themselves, we are headed toward a more secular and diverse society, one dominated not by religion but by science and economics.
But some of us have been near this sort of storm before, and we understand what can happen.
I was a graduate student in theology at a Southern Baptist seminary when the entire Southern Baptist world exploded in controversy. The dynamics of that denominational struggle are eerily similar: long running frustration about the direction of the denomination, public speakers whose rhetoric rolled over into demagoguery, and political strategies that galvanized hundreds of thousands of people into unusual action. United Methodists are experiencing a similar controversy even as I write, and grass roots Roman Catholics may not be far behind.
Those who scoff at these religious zealots need a dose of reality, and they can get it by traveling to the Middle East and observe what can happen when a movement of long-repressed, religiously-motivated people decide that political action is their only hope. It can overwhelm our nation with surprising fury; and I for one will not be surprised.
Sad, yes, but not surprised.