Donald J. Trump rode a socio-religious wave to power in 2016, and he may have stretched that luck into another four years in the White House. We are waiting to know the outcome of the election this week, but we have no uncertainty about the enduring influence of the movement he has represented since 2015. It is here to stay for many more years.
This grass-roots movement emerged in the South more than sixty years ago in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education. That momentous decision ruled unconstitutional the widespread “separate but equal” rule for segregating black people from white people and launched widespread efforts to integrate the races throughout the country. It was vigorously resisted by many people, organizations, and institutions.
This resistance to integration and, more broadly, federal authority over local matters, coalesced into an ideology that has had religious, political, and cultural impact for the last seven decades. It surfaced briefly under the leadership of Berry Goldwater in the 1960s and organized effectively into the Moral Majority in the 1970s. It helped topple the progressive leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and elect Ronald Reagan for two terms as president in the 1980s.
Newt Gingrich used it to fashion his “Contract with America” in the mid 1990s, and it surged into political prominence a dozen years later under the rubric of the Tea Party.
But it was the double election of a black man as President and the Supreme Court decision granting marital rights to homosexuals that stirred up the political tsunami that overwhelmed establishment politicians in 2016 and placed the unprincipled, ill-mannered Trump in the most powerful office in the world.
Who are these people and what do they want?
I propose to name the four planks in their cultural platform, some more than others covered with a heavy coating of religion.
First, they are the Left Behind Christians. This signals their embrace of a system of biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism. This originated in the 19th century and features the idea that all Christians will be suddenly snatched from the earth into heaven while the rest of humanity enters into years of chaos and wickedness. This theory of history was influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible, the writings of Hal Lindsey and the fictional series entitled Left Behind. It carries with it the conviction that we are living in the last days of human history. It is popular with many Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians.
Second, they embrace a modern version of Religious Freedom. They disdain government in general and the federal government in particular because of the role that governments have played in shaping modern American life, particularly in relation to race, abortion, and homosexuality. Government efforts to enforce these legal and social norms impinge upon their prejudices and preferences (sometimes called “sincerely held beliefs”) that are often presented with religious justifications.
Third, they are largely White Christians who nurture a nostalgia for the way things used to be for white Christians in the United States, before integration, abortion, gay marriage, immigration and an expansive federal government altered the cultural landscape of our country. They interpret all these changes as (1) a challenge to what they assert as the “original founding vision” of our country and (2) a threat to what they believe is our Christian mission in the world.
Last, they converted to the Roman Catholic position on Abortion (and increasingly, contraception) and organized a pro-birth, anti-abortion movement that has had great success in restricting access to abortion and other health care services. They have done this by focusing narrowly on the plight of the unborn and largely ignoring the conditions of those same babies after they are born. They employ the moniker “Right to Life” but limit its application to those not yet born.
These four elements characterized the quasi-religious movement that is convinced history is soon to be over, that governments are too big and too intrusive, that the country has become too brown, too diverse, and too secular, and that the right to life applies only to the unborn. They want a nation that is more explicitly White, Christian and Straight (although they would rarely admit it). Ironically, they want the governments (local, state, and federal) to make sure it stays that way!!
As unattractive as this seems, this Foursquare Gospel is made foreign by what it lacks: namely, Jesus. In their literature and in their rhetoric, Jesus is rarely mentioned, quoted, and presented as the model for how to think, or live, or respond to the myriad of human situations around us. In this new “gospel” there is no compassionate Jesus, no welcoming Jesus, no Jesus that lives for others and dies for all; there is no Jesus that points the way forward to a beloved community where every person is received and treasured as one whom God has created, loved, and destined for glory. The faith, hope, and love that occupy the center of authentic Christian faith seems strangely absent from this version of the “gospel”.
Even without Jesus, this is the movement that has embraced Donald J. Trump, but his success or failure to win another four years in the White House will not slow down their drive to reshape the country into what they think it is meant to be and to shape its public policies to ensure that it stays that way as long as possible.