A supporter waits for Donald Trump to take the campaign stage in Wildwood, New Jersey (Preston Ehrler/Sipa USA/AP Images).

“God made Trump.” So Trump’s platform, Truth Social, now declares. And He made him for a divinely appointed mission. This is actually the more discreet form of the new blasphemy. Some of the former president’s base now treat him like the son of God. It is a mistake to see Trump only as a political leader. In 2024, he is also a cult for Evangelicals who no longer want to be Christians or churchgoers constrained by the Bible or a community of fellow believers. He has liberated them from the Bible, or from biblical morality, which is evidently too great a burden. Their new religion consists of participating in ritual acts where Trump tramples on that old morality in some new and shocking way, intoxicating his supporters with the thought that they, too, are now free to trample on these values. 

In a January 11 front-page story published just before the Iowa caucus, the New York Times described these Evangelicals who no longer go to church and instead religiously follow Trump, who never goes to church. Given that Trump’s appeal is all about resentment, something like this was bound to happen. Like elite education, biblical morality was just one more thing about which Trump’s followers could be made to feel bad or looked down upon. So many of them are enraged at being judged, even by the Sermon on the Mount. I was a stranger and you welcomed me? That sounds like Biden. Even if such biblical morality is by now much weaker than it once was, it is still there, as an irritant. Trump relieves his followers of this sense of shame. By elevating a leader who violates every commandment, MAGA has become a new religion—and like any other new religion, it has created a burst of energy. The old Evangelical Christianity was not quite the right vehicle for Trump. Its replacement is better because it excises the moral element altogether. 

Erik Erikson’s classic religious study, Young Man Luther, argues that a new religious leader can arise by working out an identity crisis in the culture. Of course, Trump is no Luther, and he is certainly not working through any religious crisis of his own. But his cult ends the embarrassment of following Jesus, of taking as a model someone whose mission ended in failure, and whom Trump would call a loser. Instead of following Jesus the loser, Trump’s followers seek someone who can win “bigly,” and claim to have won even when he’s lost. It’s in Trump’s interest that his supporters leave the churches. Doing so strips them of even the small social capital that comes from attending church. He wants them isolated, with no connection to each other, and with no trust in anyone but him.

Tocqueville famously celebrated American individualism. But Tocqueville believed it was biblical morality that kept this individualism from going off the rails. He was worried that, without our churches, we would become so isolated from each other that we could no longer govern ourselves. He warned it would be difficult to operate free institutions without certain “habits of the heart” that came not just from engagement in New England town meetings but from biblical religion. The same warning was taken up by Robert Bellah and his colleagues at Berkeley in the Reagan-era classic Habits of the Heart (1985). By then, the individualism that had worried Tocqueville in the 1830s had gone much further, while biblical morality had become much weaker. Using interviews with ordinary Americans, Bellah and his colleagues tried to show that even decent people had trouble explaining their generous impulses as anything other than a form of individualism; even an act of charity could be justified only as a form of self-care. At the same time, Bellah and his colleagues argued that Americans were becoming more isolated from each other, especially as they left their churches. In the decades since the publication of Habits of the Heart, that isolation, especially in Trump country, has gone much further. This isn’t just because people are losing trust in our institutions, but because, even in Trump country, people have lost their trust in each other. The House GOP majority is a case in point: it does not trust itself. Members of the House Freedom Caucus don’t even trust each other. Like Trump himself, they all see political treason everywhere. Yes, the Evangelical churches are emptying out partly because of pressures from the surrounding secular culture, and partly because these churches are just political anyway—and so there is no longer any need for them as churches. But it’s also partly because of the increasing isolation and distrust evident everywhere in this country. Voter after voter in the Times article looked forward to Trump assuming absolute power so he could save them from their fellow citizens.   

As Tocqueville made clear, our New World equality had its dangers. If we Americans became so isolated from each other that we were incapable of running free institutions, we might easily turn to a dictator. As he might have pointed out if he were with us today, the emptying out of the churches in the New World took longer than in the Old World, but it is more politically destabilizing here than it has been over there. People in rural Iowa now want the Leviathan. How ironic that a republic conceived in a distrust of concentrated power by Federalist and anti-Federalist alike would now have so many hoping for a strongman to protect them from their neighbors. If there is hysteria over migrants, who seem so far off, it is because they are stand-ins for people living next door, or down the street, or in those blue states far away. Unable to act, the MAGA base has decided there is no alternative but to vest absolute power in Trump. And if people are really incapable of operating free institutions, what’s the point of keeping them? Both the House and the Senate are bogged down by gridlock. The House Freedom Caucus, which revels in dysfunction, seems by its very existence to make the case for someone who can dispense with the niceties of democracy and get things done. Of course, that someone is Trump.

Tocqueville wrote, “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo American society. In the United States religion is therefore commingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism; whence it derives a peculiar force.” Well, we have forgotten. The Left has forgotten; the Right has, too. Now that Trump himself has become a kind of religious leader, he is liquidating the authority of Evangelical ministers. There is no longer any need for them, as they merely offer more secular political ideology, and as Trumpism itself has become more like a real religion. The secular Left may take satisfaction in Trump wiping out the churches, but they shouldn’t: Trump grows stronger by atomizing everything around him and leaving his supporters with no alternative to him. This makes him a bigger threat.

Now that Trump himself has become a kind of religious leader, he is liquidating the authority of Evangelical ministers.

As a Catholic, I can take some comfort in the fact that Trump has yet to liquidate the U.S. Catholic Church. To the extent that right-wing Catholicism has also become a kind of secular political ideology, one centered on the issues of abortion and sexuality, you might expect some conservative Catholics to dispense with the Church, too. After all, once you’ve joined the church of Trump, God’s anointed, there is no longer any need for the Church or the bishops, many of whom have given Trump their indirect blessing. These bishops might come to rue their pact with Trump, who took them up to the mountaintop and showed them all the kingdoms of the world, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and promised them power over it. They just had to support him—it didn’t have to be too obvious—and so they lifted their clerical robes and did. 

Of course, the bishops got nothing for any of this. Even the repeal of Roe was pointless. The number of abortions is up because people are more insecure. And what the bishops did not bargain for was Trump offering himself as an object of religious devotion, a new god for a new faithful. He is not fully there yet, but he is on the way, and this idol is being funded by alumni of Notre Dame. How are the bishops supporting Trump? First, they are pushing out Catholics who are anti-Trump. This is a terrible thing all by itself. As a friend of mine puts it, “They are depriving people of the consolations of the Church.” This is just what appalls Pope Francis. But what the bishops fail to realize is that as the Catholic Church gets smaller, Trump gets bigger. The weaker the Left—and the center—becomes within the Church, the more vulnerable the Right becomes to capture. 


Two years ago, I read a book by Timothy Egan, A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith. At that time, Egan was still writing a weekly column for the New York Times. He was well known for books on American history, such as The Worst Hard Time, a history of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. This book was different. In A Pilgrimage to Eternity, an account of his footsore walk across Europe, Egan confronts his own Catholic past and mulls over why he left the Church. This is not St. Augustine’s Confessions, or even a true spiritual autobiography; Egan seems more like a workaday reporter reporting on himself. Still, it was a puzzle why he was doing this long walk in the first place. Sure, maybe in midlife, Egan was just in a dark wood, like Dante at the start of The Divine Comedy. But it wasn’t clear to me just why he was in a dark wood. Then he made a passing reference to Trump, and all at once I knew: “He is doing it because of Trump.” Yes, that was it! Trump was president when Egan made this walk, and Egan was looking for an explanation. He wasn’t able to understand. I’m not able to understand. Secular humanism does not understand. Nevertheless, there is an increasing use of the word “evil” on the Left. As a Catholic friend of mine says, “It’s interesting, under Trump, how people we know, not Catholic, are using what is a religious term.”  

At Easter, it is customary for the priest to lead the congregation in renewing their baptismal vows. “Do you believe in God?” “I do.” And so on. Call and response. Then comes:

“Do you renounce Satan and all his works?”

“I do!”

I now like to add, prayerfully:  “And I didn’t vote for him in the last election!”

Though I haven’t walked to Rome like Egan, I have done one thing I once would have found it hard to believe I’d ever do: pray for my country. It’s like praying for the New York Yankees or giving money to Harvard Law School. Sure, maybe pray for poor Botswana, or El Salvador, or the homeless in my own city, but not for the overweight, overprivileged, hard-hearted United States, richest country in the world. Well, I do pray for it now. It’s in a dark place and maybe headed to some place darker. Even if Trump loses this fall, there may soon be someone worse than him.    

I have done one thing I once would have found it hard to believe I’d ever do: pray for my country.

At least as a liberal Catholic, I can enjoy having, however fleetingly, both the president and the pope that I want. It reminds me of my childhood, when a liberal Catholic (Kennedy) was president, and a liberal Catholic (John XXIII) was pope. I’m back in the sixth grade. Yes, it’s too bad that both will soon be gone. But that was also true back then. And it is also true for me. For now, Biden and Francis have at least one thing in common. Both are confronting a religious crisis. This is not your grandfather’s gerontocracy. These old guys can’t just be caretakers; they have to take on prophetic work. Each in his own way needs to start a “project state.” I take this term from a history of the twentieth century by the Harvard historian Charles Maier, The Project-State and Its Rivals (2023). It’s a term for certain periods during the twentieth century when the state—whether it was the United States in the New Deal or totalitarian regimes abroad—was trying not just to govern but to change the moral character of its citizens. That’s what Biden would like to do: restore the moral character of the United States in which he grew up, a country in which religion still helped to form our patriotism. A country Tocqueville might still have recognized. But even if Biden himself still goes to church—sometimes even in the middle of the week—most of the rest of us are not going. Like it or not, 2016 marked a decisive break in our history. The old balance that worked in Tocqueville’s America and was still working, more or less, ten years ago, now seems to be gone. This balance meant that even some GOP politicians could work as responsible members of an opposition party, capable of bipartisanship. But it’s gone, and will be for a long time, perhaps forever. It is now too late to heed the warning of Bellah and others. We have had the crash they were predicting—a complete loss of our shared moral compass, a demonstrated incapacity to govern ourselves. Maier’s title includes both the project state and its rivals, and its biggest rival is capitalism, which changes moral character too. Such a change gave rise to Trump, who is taking the change further still. It is Trump, not Biden, who has been more successful in shaping the moral character of the American people.

That’s not to say all is lost. After all, there is prayer. And, of course, even as Trump’s base has grown, a majority or near majority resist. But those who resist need a “project state” to counter Trump’s, one that will make all of us better people—a better people. The pope seems to be ahead of Biden in recognizing there must be a new way of moral engagement in a culture that has long ceased to be in any way Christian or even religious. It seems to me that Pope Francis has at least two big ideas.

The first is to live and let live—not to proselytize, but to accept that we are no better than others and leave them to make the best decisions they can for themselves. It is to stop being so clerical and hierarchy-ridden and go out to where people are to serve them, not to convert them. That’s the project for the Church, and it should also be, in a different form, the project for the Left and those who resist Trump.

The second big idea is to think of religion in a new way, a way that adds a religious obligation to protect nature and to oppose capitalism in order to preserve the beauty of the world. In a secular culture, this is the way people are most likely to apprehend God. In some secular form, this should be our new FDR-like project of the state, too: to make America great again by preserving its amber waves of grain. This would be a patriotism based not on the marvel of our Constitution, which is no longer a marvel, or on the old boast of being the world’s leading democracy, which we are not, but on loyalty to the land we share.

But not just to the land, also to each other. In this increasingly secular culture, we still have to smuggle back in some kind of religion that is not the worship of power, or of Trump. True religion, St. James writes, is caring for widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unspotted from the world. It is a self-sacrificing love, generosity, forgiveness, to check our off-the-charts individualism. Trump, and our response to him, seem to have cut the last tie with this kind of religion. And that’s why, for the first time in my life, and to my surprise, I find myself praying for our country.  

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Thomas Geoghegan is a lawyer in Chicago and author of The History of Democracy Has Yet to Be Written (2021).

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