It has long been presumed that America is more Christian than Europe. But it’s a myth. Of course, way more people go to church in America. And you can’t become president without holding up your floppy Bible and attending prayer breakfasts. But what the Donald Trump phenomenon reveals is what several intelligent Christian observers have been saying for some time: that a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing. God was hacked by the American dream some time ago. “The evangelical church in America has, to a large extent, been co-opted by an American, religious version of the kingdom of the world. We have come to trust the power of the sword more than the power of the cross,” writes Gregory Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation.
On the whole, I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief. If people say they are Christian then that’s good enough for me – unless we are talking about school places or running for office. Then it’s worth a little more scepticism. So with Trump, who has done so much to peddle the ridiculous birther conspiracy about Obama’s nationality, there is a considerably less ridiculous re-birther question. “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian,” said the pope of Trump’s faith, “… if he says these things, this man is not a Christian.” Likewise, the head of the US Presbyterian church into which Trump was baptised said: “Donald Trump’s views are not in keeping with the policies adopted by our church.”
Not in keeping is putting it mildly. It’s not even that he tries and fails. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” he says. No, Trump doesn’t even begin to model Christ in his life. On the poor, on appealing to fear, on telling the truth, on sexual ethics, on (not) loving his enemies, on making greed his God, Trump models the anti-Christ.
But none of this makes much of a difference to Republican voters who have long been linked with evangelical Christianity. Trump waves his Bible around – though he is unable to name a single verse from it when asked – and talks a lot about making America great again and the threat from Islam. And that speaks volumes about what sort of faith it is that Republican believers actually believe in. Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.
America itself has long been its own civil religion. Church and state may be separated, in theory. But if the state itself is deified, then the church has already capitulated. The 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution did away with church establishment. But it also insisted that “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.”
When the Pilgrim Fathers got in their little boats and sailed to the new world, they took with them a narrative that had begun to build in England, that the protestant English were actually the chosen people. America, then, was to be the new Israel. The pilgrims had landed safe on Cannan’s side, the promised land. The original 13 colonies in North America “were nothing other than a regeneration of the twelve tribes of Israel” as one American newspaper put it in 1864.
In other words, America became its own church and eventually its own god. Which is why the only real atheism in America is to call into question the American dream – a dream often indistinguishable from capitalism and the celebration of winners. This is the god Trump worships. He is its great high priest. And this is why evangelicals vote for him. But the God of Jesus Christ it is not. The death of God comes in many diverse and peculiar forms. In America, it is the flag and not the cross that takes pride of place in the sanctuary.