The Church of Trump: How He’s Infusing Christianity Into His Movement

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The Church of Trump: How He’s Infusing Christianity Into His Movement


Former President Donald J. Trump, long known for his impromptu and erratic stage performances, now tends to end his rallies on a celebratory note.

Soft, thoughtful music fills the venue as silence falls over the crowd. Mr. Trump’s tone becomes reverent and somber, causing some supporters to bow their heads or close their eyes. Others raise their open palms in the air or murmur as if in prayer.

At this moment, Mr. Trump’s audience is his congregation and the former president is its pastor as he delivers a roughly 15-minute finale reminiscent of an evangelical altar call, the emotional tradition that concludes some Christian services attended by participants oblige their savior.

“The great silent majority is rising up like never before and under our leadership,” he recites from a teleprompter in a typical version of the script. “We will pray to God for our strength and our freedom. We will pray for God and we will pray with God. We are one movement, one people, one family and one glorious nation under God.”

The meditative ritual may seem out of step with the loud epicenter of the country’s conservative movement, but Mr. Trump’s political creed is one of the clearest examples of his efforts to turn the Republican Party into a kind of Trump church. His insistence on total commitment and loyalty can be seen at every level of the party, from Congress to the Republican National Committee to ordinary voters.

Mr. Trump’s ability to convert his followers’ passion into piety is crucial to understanding how he remains the undisputed Republican leader despite leading his party to repeated policy failures and being charged with dozens of crimes in four criminal cases became. His success in portraying these prosecutions as persecutions — and in baselessly warning that his supporters could be targeted next — has fueled enthusiasm for his candidacy and put him in a position to once again capture the White House.

Mr. Trump has long defied conventional wisdom as an unlikely but irrefutable evangelical hero.

He was married three times, was repeatedly accused of sexual assault, was convicted of business fraud and never showed much interest in religious services. Last week, days before Easter, he posted a commercial-style video on his social media platform touting a $60 Bible, copies of some of the country’s founding documents and lyrics to Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA”.

But as Mr. Trump strives to maintain support among evangelical voters and portray his presidential campaign as a battle for the soul of the nation, he has largely been careful not to speak directly in messianic terms.

“This country has a savior, and that’s not me — that’s someone much higher than me,” Trump said in 2021 from the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Dallas, whose congregation includes more than 14,000 people.

Nevertheless, he and his allies have come ever closer to the Christ comparison.

Last year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican and a close Trump ally, said that both the former president and Jesus had been arrested by “radical, corrupt governments.” On Saturday, Mr. Trump posted an article on social media headlined “The Crucifixion of Donald Trump.”

He is also the latest in a long line of Republican presidents and presidential candidates who have put evangelical voters at the forefront. But many conservative Christian voters believe Mr. Trump has surpassed his predecessors in providing for them, pointing in particular to the conservative majority he installed on the Supreme Court that struck down federal abortion rights.

Mr. Trump won overwhelming majorities of evangelical voters in his first two presidential elections, but few — even among his rally attendees — explicitly compare him to Jesus.

Instead, Trumpians are more likely to describe him as a modern version of Old Testament heroes like Cyrus or David, morally flawed figures chosen by God to lead profound missions aimed at achieving long-overdue justice or resisting existential evil.

“He was definitely chosen by God,” said Marie Zere, a Long Island commercial real estate broker who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C., in February. “He’s still surviving, even though all these people are after him and me. “I don’t know how to explain that other than divine intervention.”

For some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, the political attacks and legal perils he faces are downright biblical.

“They crucified him worse than Jesus,” said Andriana Howard, 67, who works as a restaurant food manager in Conway, S.C

Mr. Trump’s solid and devoted voter core has formed one of the most enduring forces in American politics, giving him a clear advantage over President Biden when it comes to galvanizing supporters.

According to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 48 percent of Republican primary voters are enthusiastic about Mr. Trump becoming the Republican nominee, and 32 percent are satisfied but not enthusiastic about that outcome. Only 23 percent of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about Mr. Biden as their nominee, and 43 percent were satisfied but not enthusiastic.

The intensity of Trump’s most committed supporters also played a role in the former president’s campaign decisions, say two people familiar with internal deliberations. His team’s ability to rely on voters to cast their ballots without additional prompting means that some of the money that would otherwise be spent on turnout efforts can be invested in field workers, television advertising or other ways to help Mr. Trump .

But the Democrats also see an advantage. Much of Mr. Biden’s support comes from voters who deeply oppose Mr. Trump, and the president’s advisers see an opportunity to lure moderate swing voters into supporting Mr. Biden by portraying Mr. Trump’s movement as a cult-like creation, that seeks to restrict abortion rights and undermine democracy.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a key Democratic ally of Mr. Biden, pointed to an increasingly aggressive online presence in the president’s re-election campaign that sought to portray Mr. Trump as prone to religious extremism.

“There is a huge opportunity here,” Mr. Newsom said in an interview. “Trump is so easily defined, and he reiterates that definition over and over again. And Biden has a campaign that can now weaponize that.”

Mr. Trump’s intertwining of politics and religion is not a new phenomenon. Christianity has long had a strong influence on American government, and most voters identify as Christian, even as the country becomes increasingly secular. According to Gallup, 68 percent of adults said they were Christians in 2022, up from 91 percent in 1948.

But as the former president tries to establish himself as the one and only Republican leader, religious undertones have permeated his third presidential campaign.

Generously worded fundraising emails in his name promise unconditional love while asking for donations starting at $5.

Even more than in his past campaigns, he portrays his 2024 candidacy as a fight for Christianity, telling a convention of Christian broadcasters that “just as in the battles of the past, we still need the hand of our Lord. “

On his social media platform in recent months, Mr. Trump has shared a courtroom-style sketch of himself sitting next to Jesus and a video repeatedly proclaiming, “God gave us Trump,” to the country respectively.

The apparent effectiveness of such tactics made Mr. Trump the first major politician in the country to succeed in separating character and policy with religious voters, said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah University, an evangelical school in Pennsylvania.

“Trump has split the core between character and policy,” Mr. Fea said. “He did it because he is truly the first to listen to their complaints and take them seriously. Does he really care about evangelicals? I don’t know. But he has formulated a message that speaks directly to them.”

Trump rallies have always been something of a cross between a rock concert and a tent revival. When Mr. Trump first began ending his rallies with ambient tunes, many associated it with similar theme music from the QAnon conspiracy movement, but the campaign distanced itself from that notion.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said in a statement: “President Trump used the end of his speeches to draw a stark contrast to the last four years of Joe Biden’s disastrous presidency and lay out his vision for getting America back on track.” to put legs.” Rail.”

But the change has helped make Mr. Trump’s rallies a more aesthetic, church-like experience.

A Trump rally in Las Vegas in January began with a prayer from Jesus Marquez, an elder at a local church, who invoked scripture to proclaim that God wanted Mr. Trump to return to the White House.

“God is on our side — he is on the side of this movement,” said Mr. Marquez, who founded the American Christian Caucus, a grassroots group.

And at a rally in South Carolina in February, Greg Rodermond, a pastor at Crossroads Community Church, prayed for God to intervene against Mr. Trump’s political opponents, arguing that they are “trying to steal, kill and destroy our America.” “.

“Father, we are gathered here today in unity so that our nation can return to its greatness,” Mr. Rodermond continued, “and, God, we believe that you have chosen Donald Trump as the instrument in your hands for that purpose .” .”

But some Christian conservatives are reluctant to join their brethren in clearing a direct path from the ornate doors of Mar-a-Lago to the pearly gates of heaven.

Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public affairs department, said Mr. Trump’s rallies had veered into “dangerous territory” as preachers used Mr. Trump’s closing and opening prayers to describe Trump as heaven-sent.

“Claiming divine authority or the support of God for a political candidate means that that person cannot be challenged or opposed without also defying God,” Moore said. “This is a violation of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.”



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2024-04-01 09:00:46

www.nytimes.com