One of the questions vexing the mediocre punditry of American discourse is how Donald Trump—a former star of the tabloids with a track record of scandal and little history of religious affiliation—is polling so well with evangelical Christians. Poll results vary, but Trump consistently has 20 to 30 percent support among Christian conservatives. The numbers are impressive considering his opponents include Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee. Recent reports indicate that many evangelical leaders are uncomfortable with Trump’s candidacy, but the most recent national poll has Trump at 24 percent among white evangelicals (although Cruz has recently pulled ahead of Trump in Iowa, thanks in part to the evangelical vote.)
But Trump and America’s religious right are not as different as one would think. If any corner of American Christianity encourages narcissism, it’s conservative evangelical Christianity.
One of the oddest traits of many deeply religious people is their self-professed humility even as they claim to understand the plan of the creator of the universe as well as their own special role in its development. The late Christopher Hitchens perfectly summarized the brand of arrogance that wears the mask of modesty: “Don’t mind me—I’m only on an errand for God.”
Despite the attempt religious believers often make to monopolize morality, it turns out that teaching children they are the center of the universe is not healthy. A large study recently published in Current Biology, found that the more religious the child, the less likely they are to behave altruistically with peers. In fact, religion in children correlates strongly with selfishness and mean-spiritedness. In the study, children were given stickers and instructed to share them with their classmates. The religious children shared far fewer stickers.
Of course, religion-affiliated charities like food banks demonstrate that the influence of faith is, like most things, complex and contradictory. But the Christian right in America has a long history of encouraging narcissistic, intolerant ideology.
Trump, meanwhile, is the rock bottom of Republican decline from a political party with a coherent policy agenda to a loosely connected network of nativists and extremists. The party’s loss of credibility is the predictable outcome of its transformation into a vehicle for the self-promotion and theocratic advocacy of white evangelical Christians. In order to appeal to evangelical voters, candidates like Carson and Cruz have to project narcissism and selfishness. They do it very well, but Donald Trump is the demagogic master of it.
Having perfected his personality through years of reality television performance, Trump is able to successfully sway evangelicals to his side, despite his lack of Christian credentials, because narcissists take comfort in each other. His meanspirited attacks on minorities, disabled reporters and women who disagree with him do not subtract his support: quite the opposite. It actually makes him more appealing to those who, like the children in the study, believe they are special and that those who are different are inferior.
Ominous signs of GOP evangelical narcissism have appeared in the past two election cycles. First, there was the walking disaster of Sarah Palin. Then there was a revealing moment during Clint Eastwood’s infamous empty chair speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. The legendary actor and filmmaker proclaimed that, “We own this country.” The crowd went wild.
Evangelical Christians believe they are a persecuted minority because anything less than total ownership is unsatisfactory. God blesses America, and God has selected them to carry out his will. “Making America great again” will require the execution of God’s plan through the exclusion of those who do not share the religious vision of America as a white Christian paradise.
America, as anyone familiar with the foundation of the country and the Enlightenment philosophy of the founders knows, was never intended to be a religious nation. Republics are given to fluctuation and variation. They change according to the will of the people, and no group, religious or otherwise, can claim permanent residency in the corridors of power.
Good governance is a push and pull process in which compromise and negotiation are essential. Compromise and negotiation require an acknowledgment that no one has all the answers. Evangelical Christians do not worship a God that compromises and negotiates. They worship an all-knowing, all-powerful deity whose will is infallible and unquestionable. A believer cannot neglect even the smallest aspect of God’s plan, which is why extremist candidates gain popularity in the Republican primaries, while candidates with anything sensible to offer cannot gain momentum.
Trump claims to have perfected the “art of the deal,” but at this point all his incoherent policies offer are absolutist positions, resting on a premise of ethnic and national superiority. Under his presidency, he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States, make Mexico pay for a wall at the border, shut down parts of the Internet, kill the family members of suspected terrorists, and without explanation as to how, bring all the jobs back from overseas. His failure to offer specifics on some proposals, and his dismissal of constitutional restraints on other proposals resonates with a constituency that believes “through faith all things are possible.”
Barry Goldwater telegraphed the entire decline of the Republican Party in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan first began welcoming evangelicals into the room. The senator warned that, “If and when these preachers get control of the Republican Party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know. I’ve tried to deal with them.”
Arthur Miller once remarked that Christian conservatives don’t want a president. Instead, they “ache for an Ayatollah.” Right now, they have Trump.