Cults are forever being born. Cults also die, but very slowly. Some sects in India still worship Dionysus, God of Wine and Mirth (and bacchanalian sex) among the Greeks of 2,600 years ago.
The cult of Donald Trump might last throughout our lifetime and, perhaps, beyond. Thousands of “evangelicals” (Protestants within Christendom) will see to that.
Strange, you say, for fundamentalist believers in Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments of the Bible (“Thou Shalt Have no Other Gods Before Me”)? Indeed, exceedingly strange. Exceedingly sad. The conservative (but mainline) rural American Protestant church, which my Grandfather helped build by hand, and in which I grew up never encouraged such a sycophantic, cult-like following. They, like me, perhaps like you, good Christians and good Americans, were disgusted when confronted with the recent bizarre televised spectacle of evangelical preacher, Andrew Brunson, hugging Trump (Kanye without the F-bombs?) in the Oval Office.
He “read” a prayer, referring to notes, asking God for “supernatural powers” for Trump. Followers of both men (and Trump himself) probably already assume he has such powers. Trump, immediately after the prayer, demanded to know who Brunson and his wife voted for! Real class! Will Trump bring down this religious and political force (25 percent of Christians in the U.S., according to Pew Forum) or will they bring him down with them, in their appalling mangling of Christian beliefs? They are in political power at the national level; they have had such power before, but at state and local levels (Texas, anyone?)
Will they waste it on a non-evangelical, such as Trump, merely based on his appearances and pseudo promises? Will he continue his pandering? Will they continue their obsequious adulation? Probably. He has delivered on his promise to turn back the 1973 Supreme Court decision upholding the 9thAmendment, the right of privacy, announced in Roe v. Wade. But many evangelicals (thank God, not all) ignore his lack of knowledge of the Bible (“Two Corinthians,” remember?) and his dismissal of Holy Communion (“Oh, I take a cracker and a sip of wine, and that’s enough”). They were well exposed before his election, losing the popular vote by 3 million, but winning the archaic electoral college vote. He also confessed in public that he never confessed to God, nor asked forgiveness.
Trump’s disrespect for other religions, ethnic and religious groups, for women, for military heroes (Captain John McCain) or military who gave their lives (Captain Khan), even for the physically handicapped, was also readily apparent. Followers of the cult were not bothered. That is one of the key ear-marks of cults, the willingness to adore and follow the supreme leader, no matter what, to ignore his sins—the real and fictional “Elmer Gantrys” — even to die for him, a la Jim Jones.
Most of the studies of cults indicate a few things in common: 1) opposition to critical thinking; 2) exaggerated, loyalty to a supreme leader; 3) an “us-vs-them,” polarized attitude; 4) obsession with money—constant solicitation, coziness with big donors; 5) assurance that the “end justifies the means” (Boze Herrington, The Atlantic June 18, 2014; and Robert Liftone, Harvard Medical School, “Cult Formation,” 1980). Research in Psychology Today, concludes leaders of cults are notorious for their notions of grandiosity and are “hypersensitive” to criticism. Remind you of anyone?
Comfortable with these behaviors? Few of us are. Increasingly, some in evangelical churches are squeamish, rethinking and resisting against “pack behavior,” against unwavering obedience to a secular leader in Washington, a grifter for decades. This push-back (partly) comes from a refreshed rereading of Holy Scripture (Jesus in the Temple with the money-lenders, etc.) The hypnotized, the blind cultists, place more stress on Old Testament passages of God’s wrath and punishment. They ignore New Testament admonitions to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to “forgive seven-times-seven.” They know, but ignore the Truth. They can reform, but it depends on leadership from well-educated ministers, also on what is in a believer’s heart.
Amid this turmoil and division, other Christians, and less hard-hearted evangelicals (their number, 22 percent within Christendom), struggle with how to explain their angry brethren. How, they wonder, can they support leaders (Trump, Moore of Alabama, et. al.) whose values and actions make a mockery of evangelical ideals? Trump, “a self-confessed sexual predator, a man of multiple marriages and mistresses, a businessman engaged in casinos, a man of xenophobic tendencies” hardly fits the bill of religious savior. (Ken Stern, “Can Evangelicals Dance with the Devil and Not Get Burned?” Vanity Fair, July 3, 2018).
For many Christians, the answer is: Evangelicals ARE getting burned. If they continue blindly to support the cult and its erstwhile leader they will, in the end, turn good Christians and good Americans away from their churches, perhaps away from religion itself. The call has gone out: “it is time to decouple the identification of the church from particular political platforms” (Rev. J. D. Greear, head of the Southern Baptist Convention). The damage already done is severe. We will see, November 2018 and, again, November 2020 who “hath ears to hear . . . “(Matthew 13:9, New Testament, Holy Bible).
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Rembrandt’s Moses with the Ten Commandments.