I’ve been puzzled for a long time why people, especially conservative Christian people who seem to be decent human beings, enthusiastically support Donald Trump, our current president. My thinking stems from my own experience of being brought up in an evangelical, fundamentalist space.
I grew up with ultra-conservative, missionary parents in a small community of believers who thought they were the only people who understood “life” properly. Especially relevant to the theme of this essay is their understanding that political leaders are in power because God willed it. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Nothing happens in the political arena (or anywhere else) outside of God’s will which is perfect even though we may not always understand God’s strategies.
Along with supporting leaders that are in power because none other than God placed them there, there’s another piece that informed my parents about the world, a place they understood as inherently evil and corrupt, therefore, alien. “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I [Jesus] have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19).
However, that doesn’t answer the question as to why so many Christians today see our current president as a savior. My premise is simple: We create God in our own image. The more alienated and powerless we feel in relation to the wider culture, the greater likelihood that we will be drawn to an authoritarian figure who assures us that he (usually a “he”) has things under control.
The following song, “This World is Not My Home,” was (and may still be) popular among conservative, evangelical Christians who believe the world is out to ensnare and destroy them. Consequently, there’s an aura of paranoia about them as well as a longing for acceptance and belonging in some by-and-by. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJP5XGFbcUQ]
There are many communities such as the one my parents found themselves in. They’re not all in agreement one with the other, however, the one thing they do have in common is that they see themselves as apart from, not a part of society/culture.
My parents supported an authoritarian Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to his bitter end (and beyond). “Such a fine Christian gentleman and look how the press is smearing him,” became their mantra in those days leading up to Nixon’s resignation after being accused of obstructing justice.
John Kennedy (1917-1963), somebody with whom they vehemently disagreed (he was Roman Catholic, for heaven’s sake!), became president of the U.S.A. presumably because God ordained it. There was this tacit understanding that God’s ways are not our ways and so they lived as best they could, chafing under “ungodly” (meaning the endorsement of social programs) leadership. When Kennedy was assassinated shortly after taking office, my father was convinced God used a human instrument to “get our country back on the right track.” At least Lyndon Johnson (vice-president who became president upon Kennedy’s death) wasn’t Catholic!
Another puzzle piece comes from popular mythology informing us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. When some people don’t achieve “what I’ve accomplished with old-fashioned hard work,” they find an ally with our current president who goes after people they believe “drag our country down”—immigrants, the poor, and non-white people. “I made something of myself. Why can’t they?” There’s no thought given to the structured inequality built into our institutions, laws, and policies.
My parents were committed to being as separate from the world as possible. They refused financial assistance from the British Hospital where my youngest sister was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, backing up that decision with Scripture: “…they [disciples] went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles” (3 John 1:7). The disciples did not accept support from those outside the chosen inner circle. My missionary parents followed their example, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
I generally don’t find memes or copied Twitter posts floating around Facebook to be helpful—or even accurate. There are exceptions, of course. Corey Reynolds, someone I do not know, posted the following on Twitter:
Here’s the truth; Trump’s supporters don’t measure his success by what he does for them, they measure by what he does against people they don’t like, that’s why they see him as being “successful.” This is why they will NEVER abandon him. His tormenting of “others” sustains them.
I think Corey Reynolds may hae unlocked (at least partly) the reason our current president garners such support. Donald Trump embodies characteristics so many evangelical, fundamentalist people attribute to their God. Their God is authoritative. “I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt, and thou shalt know no god but me: for there is no saviour beside me” (Hosea 13:4).
Their God is also capricious. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (I Samuel 15:3).
It’s an in-group/out-group mentality. “They” belong outside your protected circle. “They” are not part of the chosen few. In the cult-like community that raised me, “they” are “of the world” (alien). Have nothing to do with them. When our president puts his weight against people you believe are not up to snuff, it’s easy to believe he’s on your side which, of course, is God’s side.
Most people, I dare say, have not had the upbringing I endured. However, I do think the God my parents worshiped has seeped into the fabric of our society so when an authoritative person comes along promising to slay our “enemies,” it feels right. Corey Reynolds gets it. “His [Trump’s] tormenting of ‘others’ sustains them.”
Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.