“He hath put down the mighty from their high seat. He exalted those of low degree, but the rich he sent away empty-handed.” -Mary of Nazareth, c. 3 A.D.
I recently spoke with two friends and described a person without using names. The challenge was for them to identify the person using my description. One friend was a Political Science senior at Middle Tennessee State University; the other, an area Baptist minister.
“I’m thinking of a man whose admirers greatly impacted world news in 2016,” I began. “He drew a lot of criticism from the educated class for being a rabble rouser, and more than once even suggested that laws should not be enforced or abolished which hurt the common man. His followers included passionately religious people even though he was considered a heretic. His diehard opponents declared they would rather choose a known criminal than tolerate him any longer.”
“Donald Trump,” my political science buddy interrupted. “Has to be.” He was wrong.
“Jesus,” my pastor friend answered. And he was correct.
Hear me out on this. The significance of evangelical support for Donald Trump’s campaign, even in a year as chock-full as this one of unprecedented historical happenings, should not be underestimated or ignored in all the books that will be written about this landmark year. Amid the unforeseen plot twists and hairpin turns from January to November, none were more unexpected than Puritanism’s greatest legacy, the American Protestant electorate, showing up in droves for a thrice-married serial adulterer whose wealth was built on the casino industry and whose religious philosophy he summed up with, “I’ve never had the need to repent.”
What could have possessed them to do such a thing?
The answer, even if most of them do not realize it, is as old as their religion itself. Since the day two millennia ago when a construction worker from a poor-trash town showed up and began talking about God’s love for every single person while eating dinner with prostitutes and farmhands, followers of Jesus the Christ have been suckers for a good populist uprising. It is instructive that every major revival or stirring of Christian sentiment in the West has been accompanied by political revolution as well.
“Christianity has been a faith of, by, and for the common people.”
The early church was subjected to the greatest religious purge in Rome’s history; the itinerant preaching monks of the Middle Ages were influential in the Crusades; Martin Luther directly inspired the German Peasants’ Revolt; Elizabeth Tudor’s church reforms resulted in the Battle of the Armada, while her successor James Stuart’s Calvinist-fueled theory of Divine Right ultimately brought on the English Civil War; John Locke’s ringing vindication of God-given individual rights was read by an estimated one-third of American colonists during the American Revolution era; it was the Second Great Awakening which precipitated America’s Civil War by making slavery a moral crisis before it became a political one, and so forth.
From its founding by a carpenter who “Had no place to lay his head,” Christianity has been a faith of, by, and for the common people. It is woven into the fabric of the faith. The Way, as it was called by the Sanhedrin, was a sect mainly popular among slaves and women, and whose holy scriptures warn the wealthy that they will find it more difficult to escape damnation. Men, public office holders, and the well-read were the least likely to convert and most likely to scoff at Jesus’ followers in the New Testament period.
This long populist tradition, in turn, created a narrative pattern which University of Tennessee scholar Matthew Smith referred to as, “The narratology of traditional Jesus-storytelling,” and it continues to have a permanent impact on culture.
The West, as a thoroughly Jesus-haunted place, is unique among world cultures with the way it has traditionally given such free reign to the potential for individualism and maximally democratic movements within the context of a given period. Thus, American Christians, who from their cradles grew to love a man who socked it to the powerful, fell for the Trump campaign so hard because it coincidentally mimicked such deeply culturally ingrained elements of the Greatest Story Ever Told. It is not hyperbolic to say that many American Christians thought of Donald Trump as messianic in that sense because, to them, his campaign’s story felt that same way even if they did not consciously recognize the connection themselves.
On December 31, there will be historians out of touch with middle America who will remember their genuine surprise at evangelicalism’s wild ardor for a candidate more fitted for the confessional box or the mourner’s bench than for the choir loft. They will offer up the standard excuse of cognitive dissonance to explain away what seems to them a contradictory political love affair, and sadly, that will probably become the standard historical explanation.
“…Realize that this populist potential was set in motion centuries ago.”There is a much better explanation, and one that actually fits with what we know. Rather than wondering how so many believers in the United States could enthusiastically hit the red button for Donald Trump (twice, many of them), I remember the democratization of American Christianity and realize that this populist potential was set in motion centuries ago. Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t come to fruition much sooner than it did.