For months now, the most persuasive criticisms of Trump have come from intellectual leaders of regular political conservatism, especially some former members of previous Republican administrations—David Frum, Peter Wehner, and Michael Gerson. These stalwarts of limited government, compassionate conservatism, and family-based communitarian ethics did not recognize their own party in Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his lack of compassion, and his thrice-married, casino-owning, Playboy-flaunting, penthouse narcissism.
Frum goes on regular Twitter rants—the salutary kind—about Trump’s lack of policy expertise or his foul temperament. Wehner has used his perch at The New York Times to do the same, recently offering a dire assessment of the coming years: “A man with illiberal tendencies, a volatile personality and no internal checks is now president. This isn’t going to end well.”
But Gerson has been the most consistently eloquent and incisive Republican critic of Trump’s character. As a temperate Wheaton grad who coined “compassionate conservatism” and shaped Bush’s soaring first inaugural address, Gerson rejects Trump with the passion of one whose life’s work risks being undone. Lines from that inaugural 16 years ago could now be directed against Trump himself: “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment; it is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. … Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency, which give direction to our freedom.”
Gerson infused Bush’s rhetoric with both civil religion and Biblical spirituality. While many of his lines could be considered evangelical dog whistles—notably the clever “wonder-working power” aside during the 2003 State of the Union address—other religious sentiments were meant for everyone. Consider the peroration of that 2001 inaugural: “We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet, his purpose is achieved in our duty. And our duty is fulfilled in service to one another. Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today, to make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life. This work continues, the story goes on, and an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” These phrases express American civil religion as well as any in our history: a combination of human duty and deference to divine will, exceptionalism and universalism, capped off with the invocation of the Exodus and Promised Land motif so central to the American mythos.
Today Gerson pivoted from his regular political criticisms of Trump and turned to address his fellow Christians in the age of Trump. His column is a sermon, and self-consciously so. He believes that his “brethren,” the “white evangelical Christian voters” who loyally supported Trump, are “in grave spiritual danger.”
Christians must reject Trump’s nativism, ensure he preserves religious liberty for minorities, and delegitimize any attempts to unite Trumpism with Christianity. “Christians need to remember that — throughout the cautionary tale of Western history — when religion identifies with a political order, it is generally not the political order that suffers most. It is the reputation of the faith.”
A few months ago, there would not have been much evidence for these fears. Trump had neither wrapped himself in Christian religiosity nor even pandered to evangelical Christians to the degree now expected of a Republican presidential candidate. Sure, he went to Liberty University and courted Falwell, but his convention address was literally godless and its only noticeable ad lib was to admit he didn’t deserve evangelical support. On the campaign trail, he feigned no familiarity with Christianity, nor could he even admit that he had ever once asked for forgiveness. After all, this is a man who, when asked last year about God, answered by talking about the amazing deal he made buying a golf course.
Prior to his inauguration, I had been hopeful because “Trump shows no interest in religion at all, even the basic civil religion of ‘God bless America,’ citations of the Psalms, and the self-sacrificial ethos of public service.” But that seemed to change on Inauguration Day, which was, all of a sudden, infused with particularistic religion. I lost count of how many prayers referred to Jesus Christ specifically, but Time’s Elizabeth Dias counted at least four. And though Trump himself couldn’t manage to valorize self-sacrifice for a greater good, a Christian value which he does not endorse, he did muster the gumption to quote a Psalm and invoke God three other times in his address.
So who is Trump’s God, as read through the inaugural? In one section of the address, God is the “almighty Creator” of the heavens, whether viewed from Detroit or Nebraska—nothing noteworthy there.
But the other substantive invocation of God is significant, unusual, and frightening: “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear—we are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”
Here Trump encompasses both the “law and order” emphasis of his convention address and the fulsome nationalism of his inaugural address in a newly theological guise. Trump’s God, it turns out, is much more specific than the universalistic, almost deistic Creator of the starry night. In these lines, Trump’s God is an extension—even a projection—of the American military and law enforcement.
If our civil religion is heading that direction, toward theologically grounded militarism and policing, then we Christians really are in grave spiritual danger.