As we now understand, white evangelical Christians form the core of Donald Trump’s support, despite the president’s abundant and well-publicized personal failings. A recent poll by PRRI revealed that 75 percent of white evangelicals support Trump, apparently an all-time high. This group that has long insisted that a president’s “moral character” was of primary importance has evidently and abruptly changed its collective mind.
This article was originally published at Salon
It is hardly breaking news that Trump would fail the moral and ethical standards of all the world’s major religions. One much-discussed question in political science and religious studies is how Trump’s evangelical supporters reconcile Trump’s behavior with their supposed Christian values. Is their support for Trump purely transactional, because he and the Republican Party are willing to advance certain public policy goals? What role do racial animus and social-dominance behavior play in the relationship between evangelical Christianity and Donald Trump? Is there literally nothing the president could do that would cost him their support?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Reza Aslan. He is the author of three books on religion, including the bestseller “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” He holds a divinity degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is now a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is perhaps best known to the public as host of the CNN documentary series “Believer,” which was canceled last summer as a direct result of Aslan’s profane tweets attacking President Trump.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast.
How do you think this moment with Donald Trump came to pass? How was this man able to win the White House?
The United States has been undergoing a profound identity crisis over the last decade or so. In many ways, the election of Barack Obama was a clear indication of what that crisis looks like. Partly, this has to do with the changing racial and religious landscape in the United States. Demographers tell us that the United States of America will sometime, in the next couple of decades, become the first nation on Earth to be majority minority. For many of us that is a cause for celebration. It is in part what makes this country so unique and miraculous.
For many Americans — particularly those white Americans who have in one way or another benefited from the privileges that come with their particular skin tone — this is a very scary thing. It’s becoming more and more difficult to say with certainty what it means to be “American.” As everyone knows, the easiest way to identify yourself is an opposition to another. Thus, a large swath of Americans feel as though their very identity is under attack. They are desperately looking for scapegoats, for opposing forces to help them define who they are.
Now here comes this racist, sexist, lecherous, pathologically lying fascist who very clearly outlines for them who they can scapegoat and blame. In many ways, what Trump has done is to tap into an existential crisis of a foreboding lack of self-identity that is eating away the heart of American culture. He galvanized that support in order to launch himself into this disastrous presidency. The real issue here, the real shame of it all, isn’t those who agree with Trump’s racism and sexism, xenophobia and fear-mongering. No, the real shame of it all is those who disagree with Trump but for whom his many horrible traits were not disqualifying and ultimately those voters also felt the same way.
The villain in this story as far as history is concerned is not Donald Trump. The real villains are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
History will be the hardest on the “never-Trumpers” and “mainstream Republicans.” Trumpism took decades to come to fruition. The Republican Party and the conservative movement did not become this extreme overnight. They run away from this fact because they may not like Trump personally, but he is enacting the policies most Republicans want.
Well, this is the funny thing. He is not actually giving them what they want. Right? I mean certainly they can say, “OK, after a year of desperate trying, they put together a tax bill that is now profoundly unpopular.” Nevertheless, it would have been much easier for them to get what they want with literally any other Republican as president except for Donald Trump.
He is actually making the Republican goals much more difficult to achieve because of his rank incompetence. If you ask me why people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are kowtowing to Trump, it is because they are scared shitless. That’s why. It’s because when we speak of Trump’s base, what we are talking about is a rabid, radicalized, violent group of white nationalists and extremists who are going to make anyone who in any way disappoints their dear leader pay with their careers.
America is also suffering from a profound lack of moral leadership. Where are the leaders, either on the left or right who are willing to stand up in the public square and say what Trump and the Republican Party are doing is wrong and unacceptable?
This failure of moral leadership has created a permanent stain on the United States, and certainly on our government. I don’t think we recover from this. I know that’s an extraordinary statement. I think that there’s still an opportunity to remove this man from office, if not in the next year and a half, certainly in the next election.
I think there is an opportunity to reverse some of the moral rot that has become a fixture of our political process as a result of his election. But I don’t think, as a country, we actually get over this. This goes to what we were saying a little bit earlier. Partly, this timid behavior of the GOP has to do with fear. But there’s something else going on here too. To be honest, it’s something that only an immigrant like myself can truly give voice to. You see, I come from a country that was one country one day and a completely different country the next. [Aslan was born in Iran.]
Most people around the world have that kind of experience. Look at Turkey: Six years ago, Turkey was a thriving pluralistic democracy with freedom of thought and religion, freedom for minorities. Yes, it had certain problems. All countries have problems. But by no means was it the totalitarian, authoritarian country that it is today. That happened almost overnight. I think there’s this mentality among a lot of Americans that our political system here is permanent: Well, hell, we’ve survived 200-plus years. So, that means forever, right? Our democratic norms and our institutions are forever and nothing could ever affect them. OK, so we have a fascist for president, but eventually he’ll be removed from office and we don’t really need to worry about it because the system corrects itself.
No it doesn’t. There is nothing extraordinary or unique or permanent about the American system. It is hanging by a thread right now. For instance, a refusal to even consider the possibility of protecting the special counsel investigation from interference by a president who has openly said that he is going to interfere with it is a sign of how perilous the country’s democratic norms are right now.
Those little decisions create the possibility of a permanent crack in the system. I think most Americans just think that it’s inconceivable, that it’s impossible that the system itself can be fundamentally broken because they don’t live in that kind of world. But ask any immigrants to the United States and we will all tell you the same thing. Nothing is permanent. Everything can fall apart overnight if you are not willing to do whatever it takes to fight for it.
The country is one 9/11-style terror attack from the end of the American experiment as we know it. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s the reality that we face under this government.
Some of Trump’s most slavish devotees are white evangelical right-wing Christians. How do you make sense of their loyalty given that Trump violates almost every rule and norm of moral living as dictated by the world’s major religions?
First of all, you are right in the sense that this is a movement among white evangelicals. Let’s just make that absolutely clear. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. That is a record. That’s more white evangelicals than voted for George W. Bush — who is a white evangelical by the way. But 67 percent of evangelicals of color voted for Hillary Clinton. These are people who ostensibly share the same theology, the same beliefs, right? The same core ideas about scripture, but just have a different skin tone. That was the dividing line of whether you supported Donald Trump or not.
First and foremost, let’s not beat around the bush. Race had a huge role to play in the support of white evangelicals for Donald Trump. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I mean that’s the only way that you can make sense of how evangelicals flipped in the course of a single election cycle. In other words, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, white evangelicals went from being the group in America that was most likely to say that a politician’s public morality matters to being literally the group in America least likely to say that a politician’s public morality matters.
These are people who like to call themselves “values voters.” How did that happen? We cannot pretend that race wasn’t a huge role in that dramatic transformation. That, as many, many people have written about, is a process that started long before Donald Trump, with the insidious racism at the heart of white evangelical Christianity.
But I think, more than that, there is the pernicious influence of the “prosperity gospel” in white evangelical Christianity that charlatans like Joel Osteen have been preaching, where material prosperity is a sign of God’s blessings and favor. This is the single most anti-scriptural version of Christianity you could ever come up with. Nothing could be further from what Jesus actually preached than “God wants you to be rich.” There’s literally nothing that can get you any further from Jesus’ preaching than that statement.
And yet this prosperity-gospel narrative has so thoroughly infiltrated American evangelical Christianity, to the point where — when confronted with Donald Trump, a man who is the incarnation of everything Jesus preached against, a man who is the living embodiment of every “whoa” that came out of Jesus’ mouth, a man who couldn’t be further from the teachings of Jesus and the values of Christianity than any politician that I can imagine. And yet Trump got this enormous support not just because of the racism, but primarily because these white evangelicals have been prepped to think that if you’re rich, it’s because God loves you.
Therefore, Trump never had to prove his spiritual bonafides the way every other Republican nominee for president has had to before, because all he had to do is say, “I’m rich,” and that’s the end of it.
What is the thought process involved in reconciling this distorted and bizarre set of beliefs?
You have to begin with one very important postulate about religion that I think most people, religious or not, do not understand or cannot really fathom because it seems counterintuitive. But it’s just a fact that people do not so much derive their values from their religion as they insert their values in their religion. I think many people, particularly non-religious people, believe that religious people are almost like automatons. , The scripture tells them X, Y and Z and then they go and do X, Y and Z. That’s not how it works.
Scripture without interpretation is just words on a page. It requires someone to interact with that scripture for it to have any meaning whatsoever. As I always remind people, in our own history in the United States, 200 years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only use the same scripture to justify their different viewpoints, they use the exact same verses to do so. That is the power of scripture: It’s infinitely malleable. You go into it with your own values and prejudices and biases and then you can withdraw from scripture anything you need in order to justify those views.
It’s not extraordinary to think, “How in the world can someone read the Bible and walk away from it saying that we should take wealth away from poor people or we shouldn’t allow health care to those who need it.” Well, it’s not extraordinary, actually, because again you are bringing your own values and inserting them into your scripture. You’re not necessarily deriving your values from scripture.
You are one of the few people who is willing to speak plainly and directly about Donald Trump and the threat he poses to American democracy. Why do you think so many pundits and other prominent voices are afraid to speak truth to power in this moment?
I lost my show because I spoke the truth about this man. There are unquestionably very real consequences and a very real price to pay for speaking truthfully about Donald Trump. Again this goes back to what I was saying regarding American views about our system. There’s this notion — and this is part of the reason why my CNN show was taken away from me — that you have to respect the office even if you don’t respect the man. This is part of American political culture. And yet we’re talking about a man in Trump who is shitting on the office on a regular basis. Right? But we have to respect the office.
I think what happens, in this attempt to maintain political norms in the face of someone who has overturned all of those norms so disastrously, are, for example, these arguments about whether we should refer to Trump’s lies as actually being what they are — which is lies — and not as “untruths,” “mistakes,” “alternative facts” or some other verbiage. A wise man once said that the only reason our system in America works is that it’s based on the notion of shame. A lot of what we think are legal restrictions on the office of the presidency are not actually legal restrictions. They’re actually moral restrictions that the founders didn’t bother to put in writing because they simply assumed that shame would keep a person from abusing the powers of the presidency. They did not recognize the possibility of an absolutely and utterly shameless man being in this position.
But Donald Trump’s power comes from the fact that he has no shame whatsoever, and yet we in the media continue to treat him with a level of respect that his office deserves, all the while watching him overturn all those moral norms. It’s time to stop pretending that this man and situation are normal. It’s time to treat Donald Trump as an enemy of the state, which is what he is.
There has literally not been a single major crisis that our country has faced in the last year and a half. What happens when this government is confronted with a real crisis? We are on the precipice right now. If we are not willing to do whatever it takes to overturn this moment, then we deserve what’s coming to us.
A thought experiment: If this right-wing Christian fundamentalist or fascist movement were to get its way, how would America be different on a day-to-day basis for the average person?
It would be a country that looked enormously like a Christian version of Saudi Arabia or a Christian version of Iran. Nearly one-third of Americans can be defined as Christian nationalists. That is, by the way, more than 100 million people. Let’s just keep that in mind for a minute. More than 100 million Americans believe the country is a Christian nation that should be predicated on Christian values and where religious minorities have rights — but rights determined under Christian law. That is the country we are moving towards. That is not the United States that our forefathers thought to create.