The roots of Trump’s religion

The former president’s rallies are the theatre of religious revival. But what are his underlying beliefs?

December 23, 2023
All for show: Donald Trump holding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington during his presidency in 2020. Image: Geopix / Alamy
All for show: Donald Trump holding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington during his presidency in 2020. Image: Geopix / Alamy

It is feasible Trump will be back in the Oval Office in less than year. Yet when I mention to colleagues that I have been researching Trump’s religious faith, reactions vary from mild scoffing (“I thought he was his own religion?”) to bafflement and surprise. But Trump has a faith. 

Let us start with Trump’s inauguration. Not many people will have heard of Pastor Paula White, but she was one of the clergy nominated to pray for Trump at his inauguration in 2017. Pastor White is a leading exponent of the (so-called) “health, wealth and prosperity” movement. She preaches the “prosperity gospel” which teaches that God wants people to be rich, and that he makes them wealthy as a blessing. Conspicuous wealth is evidence of God’s personal reward for those with faith.

Paula White teaches that God rewards “faithful” people who invest in God’s promised providence. You invest by making deposits—your faith, prayers and gifts of money to God. If you want to be healthy and wealthy, all you need do is give and believe—very hard—and your heart’s desires will come true. This is a spiritual Ponzi scheme. Punters believe that the more they invest, the greater their likely rewards.  

Other clergy selected by Trump to pray for him at his inauguration included the conservative Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, outspoken on pro-life issues; and the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the more famous evangelist, Billy Graham (deceased).  

It was Franklin Graham who told millions of America’s evangelicals in 2016 that they could vote for Trump with a clean conscience, since Trump was comparable to the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus from the Old Testament. Cyrus the Great was an all-conquering Persian king. Around 550BC he overthrew the tyrannical Babylonians who had persecuted the Jews, driving them into captivity and stripping them of their freedoms and customs.  

Having conquered the Babylonians, Cyrus released all their captives. Moreover, he respected the traditions and religions of the lands he captured. His regime offered liberation and devolved government to former captives of Babylon. Cyrus also ruled with a lean, decentralised administration.  

For American evangelicals and fundamentalists, the government of Cyrus, 2,500 years ago, was one that worked to the advantage of all its subjects—and especially God’s chosen people. Cyrus is the only foreign ruler referred to as “Messiah” (literally “His anointed one”) in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 45:1), and is the only non-Jewish figure in the Bible to be given this accolade.  

In claiming Trump is Cyrus, Franklin Graham was saying that Evangelicals and fundamentalists could now rid themselves of a once dominant, centralising liberal hegemony and reclaim their religious freedoms. They could do this by voting for someone who doesn’t share their evangelical faith and values. Trump is presented as simultaneously pagan and the messiah-ruler.  

Washington DC is often portrayed in evangelical press and social media as a simulacra of a centralising Babylon. And you don’t need to be a genius to work out that Trump is the Cyrus who delivers all God-fearing Americans from that awful prospect of the Whore of Babylon (Book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18) living in the White House. “Drain the swamp” and “lock her up” were implicit religious rallying calls, not just injudicious hate-speech. These were the chants of the self-proclaimed righteous—chants that swung across the bandwidth of rage, hate and exuberant joy. 

My academic colleagues in Washington think we might be on the edge of America ceasing to be the United States. This might be the precipice of some world-ending global crisis. But in their own nation, some Americans openly wonder how the US can hold together when assertive right-wing politics and religion will seek to use their political power to control law and order. They openly question whether the union can hold together when secessionists literally take the law into their own hands. 

My academic colleagues all have friends or relatives who believe that such an apocalypse is a welcome prospect, since it will lead to the second coming of Christ. Pragmatically, some Christian groups think that anything that brings this moment closer is to be encouraged. If a second Trump presidency hastens the second coming of Christ, for many evangelicals and fundamentalists, that is a vote winner. 

References to the end of the world pepper the Old Testament (eg, Book of Daniel) but find their most fulsome expression in the Book of Revelation (the last book of the New Testament). The apocalypse forecast by the writer (John, exiled on Patmos, 1st century CE) envisages a day at the end of time following all-out war (Armageddon) when God will decree the fates of all individual humans according to the good and evil of their earthly lives. The term “apocalypse” is normally used in theology to refer to the world's state during the post-historic era of God's overt (apocalyptic) one thousand year-reign, immediately preceding the end of the world.

In such thinking, chaos and social meltdown are essentially ordained. In fact, the more chaos the merrier, since if the world really does implode, then the return of Jesus to wrap up history will have been realised. Polarisation is mesmerising here, and the Trump circus seems to provide a cocktail of sharply contrasting emotional states and values. His rallies are a heady mix of rage and joy, celebration and condemnation. The speeches, which are highly reminiscent of feverish sermons at a revivalist rally, combine damnation and salvation, dark and light. 

The medium is the message. However, the messages need to be noted, since they codify the enduring power of Trump’s appeal. Put bluntly, they reach back a century to the kinds of political speeches one might have encountered in early emergent fascism of Italy or Germany, which played on aspects of sacred symbols, rituals and civic religion in order to fuel nationalism and justify racism.

Trump rallies are the theatre of religious revival. The joy of these events allows followers to forget the fuel of fury that otherwise propels them outside the rally. Critics of Trump usually only see the fury. But to understand Trump’s appeal, and the Maga movement, the key ingredient is revivalist joy.

The role of white evangelicals in this revivalist circus is critical. Historians of religion know that religious revivals promise a golden future, yet do so by seeking backward-looking legitimacy. Somewhere in the past is a perfection that the present and future desperately craves. One might imagine that the threat of a climate crisis could reach back to the idyllic pre-fall Eden. 

But it doesn’t. It heralds the hope that the world will deteriorate even faster, and that its destruction will mark a new beginning for those who are “saved”. Yet as pollsters in a Pew Research survey recently discovered, white evangelicals actually have very few problems with the science and mathematics of climate crisis. 

What evangelicals reject is the perceived Trojan horse of the climate crisis concealing the alien forces of inclusivism, wokeism, left-wing liberalism, and a whole army of values and ideas they want to reject. This is a case of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. 

The Pew Research survey also found that many of those self-identifying as evangelicals are infrequent church attenders. They attend monthly, or perhaps only quarterly. As cultural, rather than credal-committed evangelicals, they of course retain their zeal and passion, but lack a religious community to berth it in. Their faith is configured through a handful of major gatherings rather than the day-to-day business of putting belief into practice in a more conventional community of worship, and more likely to manifest itself on triggering social subjects than coalesce on core Christian doctrine.

Lacking the inherent moderation and conversation of local faith communities, the rallies become instant hotbeds of entertaining and specious conspiracy theories, outlandish ideas and even extremism. Lacking a Christian community, cultural evangelicals are easy prey for core-base recruitment to the Maga movement, and for Trump to woo. When Trump lost the presidency in 2020, it was this group that increased their financial support for him. Franklin Graham suggested that Republicans voting for Trump’s impeachment was akin to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

With America split on so many issues, and the 2024 election already finely poised, how do we explain, once again, the possibility that a small group of white male evangelicals might hold the keys to the White House next November?

Here, we are faced with a panoply or white male preachers who may well have significant sway over enough voters in southern and midwestern states to tip the balance on election day. The influence that religion has on politics in swing-states cannot be underestimated. Highly charged rallies that blend religion and politics play extremely well in vast swathes of traditional American communities. 

Donald Trump’s use of his political rhetoric can be traced to the specious peculiarity of his religious roots, namely an alloy of positivist-pragmatism, individualism and the consecration of capitalism as an ideal vehicle for Christianity. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) was the pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church. He presided at the wedding of Donald and Ivana in 1977 and was a pastor to Donald’s father. Peale wrote the best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, which launched the motivational thinkers’ industry and remains a bestseller.

Peale’s book and its spin-offs also shaped the ministry and marketing of numerous Christian evangelical and fundamentalist movements, built on the pillars of confidence, expectations of exponential growth and realizing your dream, ambitions and vision. The Power of Positive Thinking shaped the Church Growth Movement (which blended contemporary secular strategies on targeted sales and marketing techniques with mission tactics, to maximise tailored bespoke expansionism) the health, wealth and prosperity movements, and many other expressions of capitalist-friendly evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The hypothesis is simple: believe fully, have faith, and it shall be so. A fully positive will can ultimately reify your goals. Name it and claim it.

We need not guess how Donald Trump’s mantra—“Make America Great Again”—will eventually pan out. The president believed the vision. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t his fault. It was yours. Not enough people had faith; too many doubted the vision. Trump will cast the blame upon the faithless doubters.

Trump’s interior religion is a Political-Spiritual Ponzi Scheme, and his politics flow from this. Opportunism, pragmatism and positivism are the lessons Trump learnt from Peale’s pulpit in New York, which he attended regularly. Operators of Ponzi schemes bedazzle investors with promises of quick returns that are abnormally high. Ponzi schemes rely on a constant stream of new investors. When the cashflow runs dry, the scheme implodes. 

The implicit religion of America is branded on every dollar bill: In God We Trust. Godly providence and worldly prosperity are spiritually entwined for many Americans. Politics is the vehicle for making the union a reality. Trump is a natural progeny where intercourse between God and mammon is unquestioned.

Aurelian Craiutu has argued that moderation is not an ideology, but rather a disposition. It is a composite of character and virtue that does not divide the world into light and dark, true and false, good or bad. But moderation does not accept everything as equal and valid. It does not split the difference between racism and inclusion. It accepts that some opinions and ideologies are irredeemable and should be decisively rejected. Moderation works at unity and harmony. It accepts that on our own, we cannot be entirely right or good. We need each other, to value and cherish our differences and resolve our disagreements if society is to progress. 

Trump’s quasi-religious political revivalist rallies are not arenas given over to celebrations of mildness and moderation. Nor will Trump’s rallies cease to prophesy (and deliver) the breakdown of ordinary social order. For Trump’s followers seeking salvation and vindication, it is literally the case that societal breakdown only serves to demonstrate just how right Trump is. 

The nightmare, then, is that the hope of a civil society rooted in reasoned moderation will finally be overrun by forces of hate and rage weaponised with unprincipled fervor and zeal. Armageddon and the Trumpocalypse merely show the ends justify the means. Who would have imagined that such a crucial 21st-century American election would tap into speculative prophesies from an exiled mystic within a cave on the island of Patmos during the 1st century? Back then, in John’s Revelation, it seemed the end of the world was near. 

Therein lies the hope. Two thousand years on, Armageddon and the apocalypse are still pending. What Trump and his followers anticipate may not come to pass. A nightmare scenario is only the mind preparing and planning for awful fears that probably won’t transpire. Do try, if you can manage it, to sleep well over the next year. We will need to rest before the test.