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Digging Deeper into Christian Nationalist Messianism
David French is right, but he doesn’t go far enough
I disagree with David French about a lot of things, but I love reading him.
Now one of the resident conservatives at the New York Times, French is one of the few mainstream journalists who really understands American religion, especially conservative Christianity, and sees how religion and politics are so closely intertwined. And he knows (and explains) that most Americans make political decisions not on the basis of policy positions or cost-benefit analysis, but on non-rational factors like community, trust, faith, identity, fear, and hope.
French’s op-ed on Christian nationalism published this week is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the unshakeable appeal of Donald Trump to the MAGA base, which is mostly (though not entirely) conservative Christian. As many have noted, Trump is the most un-Christian ex-president in history: a serial adulterer, sexual predator, vulgar narcissist, proven liar, and, likely, a soon-to-be convicted felon.
But to his Christian nationalist base, he is quite literally a messianic figure: God’s chosen one who will restore Christianity to its rightful position in American society. Over 25% of white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week say they believe this. In fact, as has been clear since 2016, Trump’s personal failings only make the case stronger for these believers. It shows that he is in this place because God ordained it, rather than because he deserves it.
While religion often gets described as about “belief,” French astutely points out how these are emotional positions, not intellectual ones. Drawing on the work of historian of religion Thomas Kidd, French usefully distinguishes between the conceptual ideologies of Christian nationalism on the one hand, and the emotional, even mystical Christian nationalism that actually animates Trump’s supporters. (Obviously, the boundary between the two are porous, but I think the dichotomy is a useful one.) “Actual Christian nationalism,” French quotes Kidd is saying, “is more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance.”
This is an important insight, and explains why you’ll never persuade your Trumpist uncle to change teams. His allegiance is tied up with identity, belonging, and, if he’s religious, God.
But I think French doesn’t take this analysis far enough, so I’d like to begin where he leaves off.
French observes that much of Trumpist messianism is grounded in the visceral, emotional appeal of apocalyptic mysticism and prophecy, such as leaders in the Apostolic Reformation anointing Trump as the chosen one, or individual Christians being told so by the Holy Spirit. And he predicts, in the last line of his piece, that “the Trump fever won’t break… until the ‘prophecies’ change, and that is a factor entirely out of our control.”
But wait a minute.
Prophecies come from somewhere, and they succeed in varying degrees. I can sit here in my Sukkah, where I’m writing these words, and prophesy that the righteous will soon dwell in a tabernacle made of the skin of Leviathan – an actual Jewish myth retold at the end of the Sukkot holiday. But I doubt that prophecy will find many adherents, because it doesn’t speak to any widely and deeply held human needs.
Trumpist prophecies, however, are classic apocalyptic pronouncements that resonate with groups with profound insecurity about the world. And while French omits this point, it’s a key part of understanding the phenomenon, and thinking about ways it might be shifted.
The roots of the MAGA base’s insecurity are many and well-documented: the loss of white Christian hegemony in the United states, globalization, technology, threats to traditional masculinity and ‘traditional’ values (including but not limited to advances for women and LGBTQ people) and the loss of economic security that, since Reagan, has been successfully sublimated by Republicans into anger at cultural elites rather than at the plutocrats actually responsible for it.
The world these people love is indeed going to hell. They’re not wrong about that, even if they are wrong about why it’s happening and whether it’s actually hell or, in fact, the kind of change that can be lived with and even appreciated. No surprise that a large majority of white evangelicals say that the Rapture will happen during their lifetimes. Look, from their perspective, at what the world has become: it’s already the end of the world.
These profound psychological dissonances are at the roots of why Trumpist messianic prophecy appeals so strongly to his terrified, enraged, white MAGA base – just as other dissonances have always been at the roots of messianisms from Jesus Christ and Sabbetai Zevi to Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones. (I wrote a dissertation and book about one such figure, an 18th century heretic named Jacob Frank, so this is familiar territory for me.)
For that reason, I’m not sure I agree with French’s final line, that these prophecies are entirely out of our control. Sure, the ship has sailed and Trump is the captain. But even seemingly unshakeable religious beliefs evolve – witness the changes in attitudes toward LGBTQ people among younger evangelicals – especially if spiritual crises force them to do so.
French simultaneously gives these folks a pass for clinging to some pretty odious, unexamined beliefs about what makes America great – check out Robert P. Jones’s new The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy for a searing Christian self-examination of that – and gives the rest of us no direction forward. Trumpism not just emotional messianism: it’s emotional messianism that resonates with some very specific, deeply held feelings and beliefs.
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And that’s where attention should be focused. This won’t come from liberals like me shouting about equality or justice, but conservative figures – religious leaders, politicians, journalists – doing traditionally masculine things like growing some courage, manning up, and speaking truth to power. Trump is a liar – that is not what Christian masculinity is about. Owning up to the truth of American racism isn’t wokeness or “critical race theory” – it’s recognizing our collective sins and opening to the possibility of forgiveness. Climate disaster isn’t some hoax or natural phenomenon (as a majority of Republicans say it is); it’s human selfishness, pride, greed, and arrogance, and it’s against the will of God. Is there really a War on Christmas, for God’s sake? Or do Christians need to find some moral courage again, some backbone not to cower in the face of opportunistic demagogues who exploit fears for their own ends?
These are just a handful of examples. More broadly, there needs to be a real spiritual reckoning among Christian conservatives that, again, is not going to come from people like me, but which could come from people like David French. French has rejected this apocalyptic insanity at significant personal cost. Others can too.
Prophecy has roots, and that means it can be uprooted. Repentance is possible.