When Donald J. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, took the stage at Liberty University on Monday, he ascended the podium in a wake of fundamentalist fairy dust strewn by Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the man who once was the face of the religious right, and who helped propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
Not only did Falwell compare Trump favorably to the late Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr.—a comparison Trump deemed “an honor”—but also to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Never mind the cognitive dissonance there: Where King battled to break down the walls of Jim Crow, the elder Falwell made his mark as a segregationist.
Oh, and don’t forget Jesus. The younger Falwell compared Trump to him, too.
Which actually makes a bit more sense than the King comparison, if you consider that, as Sarah Posner has posited at Religion Dispatches, Trump is running a messianic campaign. Only in this case, the messiah, of course, is Trump himself.
Just weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses, where evangelicals form a substantial portion of the Republican base, the Falwell not-quite-an-endorsement is quite a boon to the angel-hair-coiffed candidate, given that U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was said to have had the evangelical vote all but sewn up in the Hawkeye State. But in the most recent poll of likely caucus-goers by Gravis, Trump is leading Cruz by six points.
Things got even better for Trump on Tuesday, when former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who hails from the opposite end of the evangelical base (she’s Pentacostal) gave the Donald an outright endorsement in a linguistically groundbreaking speech.
Among denizens of mainstream media, you’ll often hear a tone of incredulousness at these developments. How is it that the foul-mouthed, thrice-married Trump is becoming the darling of some of the religious right’s most prominent leaders?
The Washington Times’s S.A. Miller put the question to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council:
[Perkins] credited Mr. Trump’s success with evangelicals to his brash disregard for political correctness.
“If you think across the country of a segment of the population that has been more throttled back by political correctness or targeted with political correctness, it’s evangelicals,” Mr. Perkins said.
Gary Bauer, a former FRC president and current chairman of a right-wing political action committee, chimed in that Trump’s candidacy is drawing together various constituencies of the GOP base, adding: “I would throw into that mix his full-throated war on political correctness [as] something that I think crosses a lot of these lines.”
On the right, the term “political correctness” essentially means a perceived proscription on speech that demeans groups of people based on the basics of their identities: African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, women, et cetera. It’s an expression of resentment over a changing order of society, one in which people in those various groups assert their right to lay claim to positions, whether of power or mere citizenship, previously reserved only for white Christians.
Of course, no one represents the politics of resentment more clearly than Palin. Speaking, one assumes, of liberals, Palin said this in her Trump endorsement speech:
They stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, ‘Just chill, O.K., just relax.’ Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had. They need to get used to it.
But there’s another aspect of the Trump phenomenon that makes him so appealing to right-wing evangelicals: his wealth and authoritarianism.
References to America’s Puritan roots abound in assessments of our culture, and right-wing evangelism is often said to have stemmed from those roots. Embedded in that DNA is the gene of Calvinism, one that has undergone a rather horrible mutation. While I’m hardly a John Calvin fan-girl, I will at admit that in his formulation of his principles, Calvin at least attempted some accommodation of the common good. But the populist Calvinism that has since engulfed much of American culture, both inside and outside the religious right, has jettisoned that piece of it, along with calls for the wealthy to exercise thrift and sexual morality, leaving only Calvinism’s veneration of the rich and damnation of the poor as its tenets.
In Calvin’s view, according to Chip Berlet, the longtime researcher of right-wing populism, there was nothing a human being could do to up his or her chances at getting into Heaven. God picked for you at birth for either the up or down path. Those tapped for celestial upward mobility were deemed “the elect.”
As Sara Diamond, the great chronicler of the rise of the religious right, wrote in Z Magazine in 1995:
Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper.
Consequently, people of means are seen to be reaping the rewards of their electitude, while society’s unfortunates are believed to have been relegated to their lowly place by the Almighty Himself.
In the mind of the populist Calvinist, then, Trump is one of God’s “elect,” a billionaire because he is one of God’s great men on earth.
You’ll find echoes of this idea in the theology of the group known as “The Family” or “The Fellowship,” which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and supports some of the most corrupt dictators on the planet. (Jeff Sharlet’s outstanding reporting exposed the group’s influence on Capitol Hill.)
For the record, let me say that the Pentecostal tradition to which Palin belongs is antithetical in many ways to traditional Calvinism. Yet, through the influence of the philosophy of Christian Reconstructionism (which theologized both capitalism and segregation along Calvinist thought lines) throughout the religious right, it’s fair to say that Calvin’s big-man theory of redemption holds sway in that religious universe.
Add to that the veneration of patriarchy and the strains of authoritarianism that characterize the religious right, and it begins to dawn on one just why Trump so appeals to the self-appointed guardians of the so-called “real America.”
So when “real America” goes to vote in Iowa, Donald Trump, who couldn’t properly cite a Bible verse in his Liberty University speech, may just edge out Ted Cruz, son of an evangelical preacher.