“Mr. President, in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing. And it started to rain...when you came to the platform,” said Reverend Franklin Graham in his inaugural benediction before President Donald J. Trump.
Graham, President of Samaritan’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was one of six, predominantly Christian spiritual leaders praying on January 20. It’s his firm conviction that the election was the work of divine providence.
“I believe,” Graham told Fox News, that “in this election, no question, God’s hand was in it.”
That more ministers participated in Trump’s inauguration than ever before, or that a man not known for religious fervor found Jesus when he needed evangelical support most, should never be a surprise. Faith and power frequently consort and Christianity, in general, has always held an awkward relationship with power. From Trump’s America to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, conservative Christianity once again has a seat at the table. But why people of faith have flocked to these obviously flawed men may be surprising. Both Trump and Putin have portrayed themselves as protectors of the devout, casting themselves in the mold of ancient Biblical figures so familiar to churchgoers.
But what does this President and faith leaders—especially evangelicals—get from this mutual back-scratching? Does it fill a particular gap?
“One of the strangest trends in the American presidency is the persistent need for the president to be connected to religion in some way,” says Rachel Blum, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Miami University of Ohio. “It is almost an unwritten requirement that the president profess Christianity.”
Heads of state in the West frequently embrace a religious tradition, but as many know, in recent decades in America, this political influence largely comes from the uncentralized evangelical right.
It wasn’t always this way for evangelicals.
In the 1740s, evangelicalism emerged as a revivalistic transatlantic phenomenon, frequently setting themselves against the image of hierarchy found in the Church of England and Rome.
In the 19th-century, evangelicalism became a rural, populist, and democratic movement and by the 1920s, it was over-run with separatist fundamentalists. Evangelical leaders saw a need to be involved in public life, successfully becoming a national force that by 1976, Newsweek was heralding the “Year of the Evangelical.” America elected the born-again president, Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, President Reagan won the trust of evangelicals, paving the way for the rising religious-right and “Moral Majority.”
“Although Christians in America exerted extreme influence on the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Blum, “the effect of that period went both ways. The Republican Party became the party of God, but evangelical Christians also became Republican.”
Among Republican presidents, Donald Trump’s supposed religious affections differ significantly from previous office holders. By any measure, he was the least likely candidate to have ministers like Graham singing his praises.
“Trump’s considerable appeal to Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists seemed weird during the early days of the campaign,” says Dan P. McAdams, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. “After all, the guy knows almost nothing about Christianity, and his life is hardly a model of Christian virtue.”
Blum agrees. “Trump has been historically cagey about [religion]...which is fascinating given the way that religious voters, leaders, and groups rally behind him.”
Trump’s profile stands in stark contrast to the life-long faith of Carter and even the guarded Christianity of other Western leaders, like that of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran minister.
Merkel is sometimes criticized for her welcoming policies on refugees, a “misunderstood Christian mission,” as Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University, calls it in Foreign Policy. “She has thrown down a moral challenge to her own people,” writes Mueller, “and, in particular, for the 61 percent of Germans who identify as Christians actually to live their faith.”
While she opposes discrimination of LGBTQ persons, even reminding Trump of her position, she stops short of offering equal marriage rights—a point connected to her faith, but over which she is frequently criticized. There is little doubt, however, that her faith informs her governing and is a genuine part of who she is.
Trump is different. Known worldwide for divorces, lawsuits, conspiracy theories, serial lies, and boasts about sexual assault, he is an enabler of classism and racism and the embodiment of everything that evangelicals—purveyors of so-called “family values”—should rally against.
But they don’t.
Unlike Carter and Merkel, Trump’s faith is one of convenience, more reflective of another leader he deeply admires: Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is Putin whose closely held secret personal life is full of rumors, but who is frequently suspected of—though never directly linked to—the death and silencing of critics. (The latter point that doesn’t seem to bother Trump; when Bill O’Reilly recently called Putin a “killer,” the President said he respected Putin and brushed it off.)
The Russian Orthodox Church plays first chair to the Kremlin’s conducting of Russian domestic affairs—even playing a part in foreign affairs. The Orthodox Church is a pillar of his statecraft, enabling him to control the faith narrative of his people and giving him the needed propaganda to justify his annexation of Crimea, support in Syria, and even spread Russian religious influence in Western Europe.
As Masha Gessen, author of the biography The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, says he “wants a Russia that will become the traditional values capital of the world.”
With the support of the Russian President, the Orthodox Church’s opposition to gay rights and to freedom of expression are codified. Evangelization outside of the Church is now legally banned in Russia without a permit and severely restricted, giving the Russian Orthodox Church a place of primacy.
That sort of bully pulpit speaks not only to Russia’s devout public, but to American evangelicals who support Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies. It was Trump’s inaugural spiritual leader Franklin Graham who—while explicitly noting that he was not endorsing Putin—once praised his harsh policies as having a moral standard “higher than our own.” A request for comment from Graham by The Daily Beast was not returned.
There is little reason to see Trump’s embrace of religion—and in this case, evangelical Christianity—as serving any other purpose than the Orthodox Church does for Putin. And while the religion of Reagan should be wary of the Russian President, and a potential American Putin, there are strong reasons for their embrace of Trump.
His strong authoritarianism makes up for his lack of sanctified spirit. Yes, as a candidate, Trump’s initial courting of evangelicals began with his awkward foreplay at Liberty University, and his forced sanctimony belies a man who is always trying too hard to annex the evangelical world, but his strategy continues to work and he fills that power-shaped hole left in the heart of American evangelicalism after President George W. Bush.
“Over time,” says McAdams, “it became apparent that he shares with many conservative white Christians a conviction that the world is inherently evil and chaotic and that only a strong leader can save good people from the perils all around.”
“Evangelicals may seem to be rallying around Trump,” says Blum, noting that keeping this “Republican coalition” together means spinning things as a “threat...to the Christian way of life.” In this case, she says, “Trump is a sort of savior.”
“Savior” may sound strong, but it may not be far off.
Some evangelicals have compared him to Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who, the Bible says, God used to return the Jews back to their homeland after a long exile. He’s also been called a new king David, the famous Israelite ruler with many flaws, but said to be “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).
In other words, as these flawed sinners were tools of God, so also he will impart his blessing and authority to President Trump.
Noting Trump’s flaws and where he runs contrary to facts is not likely—as many have discovered—to change minds bolstered by a formidable unconscious bias. For now, they may remain “theologically incorrect,” says cognitive scientist Jason Slone, author of Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t and professor of literature and philosophy at Georgia Southern University.
Psychologists, adds Slone, frequently look at the brain like a computer, that is, as an “information-processor,” that happens to have “two very different operating systems.” The first is “irrationality” and it is “fast, automatic, unconscious, emotional, and prone to reasoning errors.” The second is “slow, conscious, effortful, accurate, and ‘rational.’”
“So how a person thinks and behaves,” he adds, “is largely determined not by what they believe, or what they believe they believe, but rather by which system is operating.” It is when “humans feel threatened” that the first system engages and the second shuts down.
As it turns out, this right-wing authoritarianism finds a stronghold when people are threatened, and according to McAdams, it is most-frequently associated with white religious fundamentalism. He notes that while many later supported Trump reluctantly (e.g. party reasons) during the general election, early support was driven by right-wing authoritarianism.
“Right-wing authoritarianism,” says McAdams, “is a pattern of attitudes and values revolving around strict adherence to society's traditional norms, submission to authorities who personify or reinforce those norms, and deep antipathy (to the point of hatred and aggression) for those individuals who are perceived as violating the traditional norms of society.”
He notes that in studies evangelical Protestants score “significantly higher” on right-wing authoritarianism “than Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews.
From his first days in office, the President is already signaling that the White House is open for church business by signing executive orders on abortion, that target refugees from Muslim countries, and nominating the conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch.
He is paying his tithe to evangelicalism.
And this worries Christians and other faiths who do not share these values, as well as organizations, like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose work is dedicated to keeping the wall of separation solid and tall.
“The president, like every other American, has the right to engage in the private religious practice of his choice,” says Americans United’s director of communications, Robert Boston. “But the president must realize that he is the leader of a diverse nation consisting of people of many faiths and those of no faith…under our system, the president is a secular leader with no religious duties.”
Trump sees things differently. As he recently told GOP leaders at a retreat: “We are blessed by divinity and honored by history with the task of preserving this great republic and expanding its blessings to every single American.”
Boston believes the President is “devoid of principle” and an opportunist. “Such a person is quite capable of giving the Religious Right what it wants even if he doesn’t believe it himself. Indeed, that is what makes him so dangerous.”
Americans United already has a list of problematic issues they see on the horizon, including the President’s promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars houses of worship from partisan endorsements. “In the modern era,” adds Boston, “efforts by politicians to use religion—usually augmented by a side of nationalism—to unify people aren’t just offensive; they are the hallmarks of a demagogue.”
What America will look like in four years remains very uncertain. But what is clear, is that for now Trump feels he’s got a divine stamp of approval. This does nothing to curtail his ego or to stop his momentum. In his eyes, he is a man after God’s own heart.
In fact, in his own version of the inaugural rain story—one unsupported by the facts—Trump paints himself like a relatively minor biblical Moses crossing the waters of the Red Sea.
“It was almost raining,” he told the CIA dramatically, “…but God looked down and said, ‘we’re not going to let it rain on your speech….’” He adds “it stopped immediately, it was amazing, and then it became really sunny, then I walked off, and it poured right after I left.”
With that professed belief—that God and America is on his side—he, his Republican comrades, and evangelical reformers may believe there is no reason to stop their march toward theocracy. Then we’ll see just how strong that wall of separation really is.