How religion changed the presidency—and vice versa
Evangelical Christians are abandoning their core beliefs to follow a cult leader, says Reza Aslan.
Reza Aslan is an internationally renowned writer, commentator, professor, producer, and scholar of religions. His books, including his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world. He is also a recipient of the prestigious James Joyce Award. His newest book God: A Human History (2017) is out now.
Aslan’s first book, International Bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, has been translated into seventeen languages, and was named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade by Blackwell Publishers. He is also the author of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age (originally titled How to Win a Cosmic War), as well as editor of two volumes: Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
In 2006, Aslan co-founded BoomGen Studios—the premiere entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Middle East—which has provided an array of targeted services ranging from strategic messaging to grassroots marketing to publicity and social media outreach, to producers, studios, and filmmakers—including Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, Netflix’s The Square, Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Weinstein Company’s Miral, Discovery and TLC’s All American Muslim, and National Geographic’s Amreeka.
Aslan’s degrees include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University (Major focus: New Testament; Minor: Greek), a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University (Major focus: History of Religions), a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.
Aslan is a tenured Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside and serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary and The Yale Humanist Community, which supports atheists, agnostics, and humanists at home and abroad.
Reza Aslan: Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the previous election. That’s a record. That’s more white evangelicals than voted for George W. Bush—and George W. Bush was a white evangelical.
This makes no sense to people, especially when you consider that Trump is not just the most irreligious president in modern history, that his entire worldview makes a mockery of core Christian values like humility and empathy and care for the poor; That this individual who couldn’t even name a single verse in the bible when asked to do so, and yet - and yet - received a record number of votes by white evangelicals.
Scholars of religion—normal, rational, people—have been trying to figure out why. Why? What happened?
And I think that there’s a couple of things to keep in mind.
Number one, it’s white evangelicals. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, but 67 percent of evangelicals of color supported Hillary Clinton.
Now, these are people who believed the exact same thing, whose only real difference is that.. is the color of their skin.
So let’s not ignore the fact that there is a racial element to this support.
Jim Wallace, the head of the Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group, said it best when he said that these white evangelicals “acted more white than they did evangelical.” And I think he’s right.
The second reason I think has to do with the pernicious influence of something called the prosperity gospel, which has gripped the imaginations of white evangelicals.
This is that version of Christianity preached by these charlatans like Joel Olstein and T.D. Jakes, the essential gist of which is that God wants you to drive a Bentley, that what Jesus really wants for you is material prosperity—and indeed that’s how you know God has blessed you, is by your material prosperity.
Many white evangelicals looked at Donald Trump, and what they saw was a wealthy man. And that wealth, as far as they were concerned, was just a sign of God’s blessings.
And so that freed Trump from having to do what every other candidate, certainly every other Republican candidate for president has had to do, and that is: actually prove his spiritual bonafides. Trump never had to do that. All he had to do was just keep talking about how rich he was. And for a large swathe of white evangelicals that was enough.
Thirdly, Donald Trump did something that no other president, not even any Republican president courting the evangelical vote ever did. He expressly promised secular power to these white evangelical groups.
In his speeches to them and in the conferences that he had, both private and public, he very clearly and very explicitly said that if they voted for him that he would give them “their power back,” even if he didn’t agree with their pet causes that he would just allow them to have those causes.
And you can see as president he’s talking now about removing, for instance, the Johnson Amendment, which is an amendment that prohibits preachers and churches from actually engaging directly in politics and preaching politics from the pulpit. It’s why they get to keep their tax break. No one has ever thought about removing this requirement until Donald Trump.
And now he is very seriously moving towards allowing churches to take part directly in political activism as churches.
But none of this, none of this explains the most important phenomenon about white evangelicals in America, and that is this: In the span of a single election cycle, white evangelicals have gone from being the group in America that is most likely to say that a politician’s morality matters to the group that is now least likely to say that.
Atheists in America think that a politician’s morality matters more than white evangelicals in America do—White evangelicals who continue to refer to themselves as value voters.
This is a phenomenon that can’t be explained by just looking at the prosperity gospel or looking at racial matters. What you’re seeing is a gigantic group of Americans who are fundamentally overturning their core theological beliefs that public morality matters. And the only explanation that I have for it is that Donald Trump has turned a large swathe of white evangelical Christianity into a cult, into a religious cult, a dangerous religious cult. All the signs are there.
Donald Trump functions—as he himself admitted when he said offhandedly that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters—he has become a kind of a prophetic divine character.
Pat Robertson, the head of The 700 Club, a very influential white evangelical, literally said that God took him in a dream up to heaven and he saw Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God.
You know who actually sits at the right hand of God, according to evangelicals? Jesus Christ.
In other words, Pat Robertson is saying that Donald Trump is essentially Jesus Christ. In fact, that’s not that weird.
His own evangelical advisor, a pastor by the name of Jeffers, said not too long ago that he would prefer Donald Trump as a candidate over someone who “expresses the values of Jesus.”
So what we are seeing now is that these white evangelicals—not all of them but a fundamental core of them—have essentially latched on to Donald Trump as almost a salvific character. They don’t just follow him. They don’t just agree with him. They almost worship him.
And my fear is that, as we know from our very recent history, cults, when confronted with the realities of the world, can often end in catastrophic ways. We have a presidency that is deteriorating, a president that is spiraling out of control.
We have open conversations now about the 25th amendment and impeachment. We have multiple investigations and the possibility of indictments at the highest level.
This is a presidency that is in danger of completely disintegrating. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t also a religious cult.
Because when a religious cult begins to deal with this kind of situation, when their cosmic ideas are suddenly butting up against the reality of a failed leadership, they tend to double down. And that’s why I think that we’re in a very dangerous place as a country right now. Because the only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.
Are fundamentalist Christians a dangerous religious cult? Possibly. The controversial author and religious scholar Reza Aslan posits that President Donald Trump has much of his evangelical fan-base believing that he's somehow been anointed by God to become President. Nevermind the Russian election scandal, his affairs with porn stars and unwarranted sexual acts towards women, or his inability to remember even a single Bible verse when asked. Evangelical Christians are abandoning their core moral beliefs to follow, as Reza suggests, someone who exhibits every trademark of a cult leader. And that should terrify anyone on either side of the political spectrum. Reza's latest book is God: A Human History.
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