The Face of Christian Authoritarianism: Giving to Trump What Is Trump’s

How American Christianity moved from right-wing activism to outright idolatry in the Trump era

The Face of Christian Authoritarianism: Giving to Trump What Is Trump’s
“And he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
-Matthew 22:20-21, New International Version

Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s. I think about this passage a lot lately when considering Donald Trump’s Julian ambitions and the capitulation of much of American Christianity to those aims.

The interpretation of this injunction to which I adhered as a young Christian was always that giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s did not entail giving very much at all. Pay taxes, obey laws, engage in public service, sure. However, leaders and governments do not warrant much in the way of devotion in and of themselves. To my younger mind, this was always both the liberal and the doctrinally sound position.

States can demand and even extract more extreme devotion from individuals, but they often do so through coercion and distortion of fact. Individuals should guard their freedom and their faith against this. But, as much as the degradation of American evangelicalism in the Trumpian era has been noted, the evangelical world I came up in was already shaped by the knotty entanglement of faith with right-wing and nationalistic politics.

And I think that the transformation of the institutions around which I grew up can shed additional light on the way this kind of view has faded among American Christians and has become replaced with an idolatrous form of Christian nationalism—a nationalism that is now being forged into a cult-like worship of Trump alone.

Growing up in the churches of Christ, it was common to hear the refrain that we were called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” On one hand, this was commonly used to evoke generalized ideas of showing Christ and being light in a dark and wicked world where sin abounds. I was raised with the common expectations to abstain from alcohol, practice virtues like chastity and purity of mind, and to demonstrate a Christlike attitude. But within this aphorism, there is also the idea that this world and its petty, temporal traditions and institutions are not our concern. We are not meant to participate in them.

A product of the Restoration Movement of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, this spiritually monastic attitude once governed the great majority of congregants.

As James A. Harding, the namesake of my undergraduate university, wrote in 1903,

Yes, we are to pay taxes. Any foreigner can do that. We are to submit to the civil authorities in as far as a foreigner, as subject of another power, can do it. We are to overcome by gentleness, by meekness, by teaching the doctrine of Christ and by living according to it. But let us have no part nor lot in Satan's governments, the governments of this world.

For many prominent leaders in the churches of Christ, this thinking applied to political participation as common as voting and carried through to the question of military service.

J. N. Armstrong, president of the Oklahoma-based Cordell Christian College, faced threats against his safety for his pacifist opposition to World War One. Armstrong later became the first president of what was then called Harding College on its formation in 1924.

As a teenager, I took strongly to these by then moribund traditions. Although I had a passionate interest in politics and political activity, I refused to say the pledge of allegiance on the grounds that it violated the Bible’s prohibition against idolatry. When Army recruiters pitched military service, I politely said I couldn’t actively participate in anything that could bring the end of another person’s life because it violated my duty to God. However, I did vote in my first election once I was 18.

My views have changed substantially since those days, but I highlight them because they were sincerely held beliefs drawn directly from traditional tenets of my faith. It was precisely because I was a devout member of my church that I said and did those things.

But the actual church environment I grew up in was already quite far removed from such doctrine. Had I not grown up with a father schooled in the pre-World War II politics of the churches of Christ, perhaps I wouldn’t have adopted these positions. By the time I was an adolescent in the church, they were highly uncommon and, frankly, seemed a bit weird to most of my peers.

This remained true when I arrived for college at Harding University in the late 2000s, housed in a freshman dorm named for the aforementioned J.N. Armstrong. In telling the story of the transformation of both the churches of Christ and of Harding itself, it’s essential to talk about another man and another president of the school: George S Benson.

When Benson became Harding’s second president in 1936, he found the school in dire financial shape. He set about raising money by appealing not only to alumni and churches but to corporate leaders and American business. Benson espoused a commitment to constitutional conservatism and free market principles, and he quickly became a prominent right-wing voice across the heartland.

His efforts went well beyond the restoration of Harding’s financial health, which he accomplished with speed. As former Harding professor and historian Paul D. Haynie details,

In the early 1940s, Benson established the National Education Program (NEP) on the Harding campus; its goal was to promote Americanism, patriotism, and the free enterprise system. The NEP sponsored Freedom Forums for high school students around the nation. Benson hired former Disney cartoonist John Sutherland to produce cartoons about the free market.

Benson’s efforts drew national attention to Harding as a nerve-center of hard right politics. In a 1961 Newsweek article titled “Thunder on the Far Right,” which proclaimed “…what M.I.T. is to engineering and Harvard is to law, Harding College is to the far right.”

Writing for the Texas Observer in 1970, Dudley Lynch noted the Bensonian rebranding of Harding and its wider meaning for the American right:

In the Benson years, however, Harding's list of benefactors has taken on the appearance of a cross between Fortune magazine's five hundred biggest American corporations and the subscribers to Progressive Farmer. Many of America's largest corporations have come to Harding's support, and in generous measure, as have numerous foundations and wealthy individuals and thousands of dollar-a-week contributors, mostly Bible Belt farmers and shopkeepers grateful for Harding's espousal of their own simplistic view of God and country. When Benson retired as Harding president in 1965, the college's assets approached $25 million. They have continued to grow. For the radical right, Harding's success has meant tons of pamphlets, leaflets, newsletters, newspaper columns, speech reprints, school curriculum outlines, and flannel board presentations; a multi-million-dollar library of films, filmstrips, and radio tapes; the "Benson Boys," a speakers' bureau ready to go any place to excoriate communism anywhere at the drop of a crusade contribution; and an immensely popular set of indoctrination seminars in the form of Harding's flag-waving Youth and Freedom Forums.

And so my faith-world had, before I was born, been radically altered from a belief that Christians should, at best, be wary of state power to one that embraced American patriotism as a tenet of holy living. The Harding of my day was populated by many people who in no way fit the bill of “radical right” and who were and remain dear friends and mentors. But there is also no denying that the molecular structure of the school was altered under Benson and that the continued attachments to conservative politics, business, and Americanism that surrounded me in my time there were his legacies.

What’s a king to a god?

On a recent episode of the New Yorker’s podcast The Political Scene, Jane Mayer observed that “There are a number of sort of self-styled preachers who have popped up—self-styled evangelicals—who basically have elevated Trump to a deity.” This sentiment is not new, but the observation has had growing power of late.

A recent ad made by Trump supporters called “The Dilley Meme Team” entitled “God Made Trump,” offers a spin on the famous “So God Made a Farmer” ad from the 70s. The video practically anoints him and his candidacy as divine, with narration like, “On June 14, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God gave us Trump.”

This reflects both the intensity of feeling and the increasing deification of Trump within certain Christian circles—at least, self-professed “Christian” circles. It’s a trend that ought to be viewed as utterly catastrophic to secular and believing individuals alike. American Christianity under Trump is sagging beneath the weight of its political occupation and the rapacious ego of the man to whom it has surrendered.

As David French recently put it in his column for The New York Times:

The result is a religious movement steeped in fanaticism but stripped of virtue. The fruit of the spirit described in Galatians in the New Testament — ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ — is absent from MAGA Christianity, replaced by the very ‘works of the flesh’ the same passage warned against, including ‘hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions’ and ‘factions.’

Appearing on MSNBC’s Alex Wagner Tonight ahead of David’s piece, his colleague Michelle Goldberg echoed his concerns and added, “I think that in some ways you could see this as a new religion…there’s a point at which Christian nationalism departs so much from the tenets of traditional evangelicalism that it just becomes a new faith.”

I agree in full with these concerns. As a point of connection, David attended and now holds a visiting professorship at Lipscomb University, another churches of Christ-affiliated institution and one with intimate ties to my own alma mater.

That school’s namesake, David Lipscomb, warned Christians that “to vote or use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these. To do so is to do evil that good may come. This is specially forbidden to Christians. To do so is to fight God’s battles with the weapons of the evil one. To do so is to distrust God.”

This view conflicts with the way contemporary evangelicals often speak of politics and government as a means of exacting the will of God. And, if the man you are voting for is himself a god-like figure, such admonitions lose their power entirely. And that is the landscape being described by French, Glasser, Goldberg, and many other commentators, as well as a growing body of public survey data. A large body of his supporters essentially equate their evangelical identity with their support for Trump. And, as data from Pew Research shows, he actually grew his support from White evangelicals in 2020 as compared to 2016.

And Trump is happy to capitalize on this. On a livestream with Amanda Grace of Ark of Grace Ministries, his son, Eric, claimed, “there’s no way in the world [Donald Trump] could have been where he is today without the intervention of God.”

Historian Tom Holland, in his thunderous account of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, observes of the rise of Caesar Augustus to total power: “Submission to the rule of a single man had redeemed their city and its empire from self-destruction—but the cure itself had been a kind of sickness. Augustus, their new master had called himself, ‘The Divinely Favored One.’”

The cult of the emperor became a marker of the new Rome, the Rome of Divus Julius. On the worship of Caesar’s successor, Augustus, Holland explains:

At once a man and a god, mortal and immortal, Augustus Caesar stood at the centre of the fastest growing cult the world had ever seen. The very name awarded him by his countrymen proclaimed his ambivalent status as a human being who had simultaneously partaken of the divine. 'Augustus is what our fathers call anything holy. Augustus is what we call a temple that has been properly consecrated by the hand of the priests.' To worship him as a god was to consecrate one of the great convulsions in world history. His rise to power amid the implosion of Rome's traditional republican form of government was an authentically transformational moment.

Trump presents himself much in this way. He is divinely ordained and also perhaps divine himself. He is a vessel but also he is the one who is petitioned. His divine glory, like Caesar’s, is the glow of his conquests—over globalism, over the deep state, over the woke. To echo many other commentators, what, really, is Trumpism at this stage if not its own kind of faith or cult? There’s a syncretic quality to this worship of Trump, drawing in decades of televangelist preachings and infused with the apocalyptic Gnosticism of modern conspiracy theories from QAnon to The Turner Diaries.

Historical allusions abound for Trump’s grasping authoritarianism, and all of them are invariably limited in their utility. But the evangelicals who support Trump have imbued him with a mystical divinity. And, while I do not mean to overextend the analogies presented here, this element of his appeal and enduring political power remains perhaps the most troubling.

Money-changers in the temple

All of this is supercharged by the way Trump and Trumpism are fed by sinews of grift. Mayer’s “self-styled preachers” are the evangelists of a faith darker and more vulgar than previous movements  like the prosperity gospel could ever have been. Wealth pumps through these systems, enriching many who are willing to peddle a gospel of MAGA.

Megachurches and other evangelical leaders received significant financial relief during the pandemic, according to reporting from Reuters. The interlocking relationships between power, money, and Christianity in modern America are central to this moment of transformation in evangelical churches in the Trumpian era. Tim Alberta explores all of this in rich detail in his new book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. In explaining the rise of what he calls an “evangelical industrial complex” to Kara Swisher, Alberta said “you can’t discuss the whole Christian complex here, the modern evangelical movement, without thinking about the financial incentives.”

In one of the most grotesque examples of this phenomenon, there is the prayer coin marketed by Lance Wallau and Jim Bakker that Jack Holmes reported on for Esquire in 2019. The coin, which was sold for $45, featured Donald Trump’s profile alongside King Cyrus, the ancient Persian ruler who returned the tribes of Judah out of exile. As John Fea observed at the time for Religion News Service, this comparison between Trump and Cyrus aligned with the view of many evangelicals that Trump is, despite his own highly questionable faith history, an instrument of divine action. Of course, this coin was not currency but rather, as Wallau put it, a spiritual “point of contact” for believers. Yet the imagery, of Trump’s face on a gold coin, is still irresistible here.

It was Caesar’s face on the coin that prompted Jesus to allow that what was Caesar’s was owed to him. But the coins were propaganda, a device for circulating ideas—specifically the idea of Caesar’s divine power and authority—and the identity of Caesar himself. As Arturo Russo of Numismatica Ars Classica has said, “In an era when communication through the media was virtually nonexistent coins were the most important means of political propaganda…” Yet, as Tom Holland writes, the presence of Caesar’s face on Roman currency was a newer invention, having begun with Julius Caesar: “Within Augustus' own lifetime, no living Roman had ever appeared on a coin minted in Rome; yet by the time of his death, the face of Caesar had become familiar in even the remotest corners of the Empire, wherever money might be handled, and taxes demanded.”

In the early-modern and modern eras of nation-state development, money has continued to play such a role for state authority. The iconography imprinted on the coins and bills passed from buyer to seller reaffirm the centrality of the nation or empire to which those citizens owe their allegiance.

So again we can see how giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s keeps the state, in all its earthly tawdriness, at arm’s length. And we can see how money itself helps to fuel the transfiguration of holy things into the profane. George S. Benson saved Harding financially, but in many ways he helped to create an institution that would be unrecognizable to figures like Harding, Lipscomb, and Armstrong. Across the country, evangelical leaders are embracing the activities of Trumpworld in ways that alchemically alter the very nature of the faith. Trump has been set up as a figurehead, and the worship of him, his mission, and his achievements threatens to not only poison the well of evangelical Christianity but to unleash hideous new violence.

Looming threats

While I have changed significantly since my time growing up in the churches of Christ and since my time at Harding, my mind and personality were undeniably informed by this upbringing. I still carry a stubborn individualism and skepticism toward top-down orthodoxies.

The cult of Trump offers little room for either, even if it pretends to have commitments to liberty and anti-establishmentarianism. I am in many ways now an outsider. But I come from America’s religious heartland, and I have dedicated my career now to engaging with and understanding the dynamics in the rural, post-industrial, and peripheral landscapes where the most hard-edged populisms have emerged to menace liberal democracy.

The decline of faith as a social adhesive and the rise of the Trump cult in many of these places in America makes 2024 all the more dangerous. This essay has not been an exercise in historical analysis but rather a feeling out of the moment from the perspective of someone reared in a particular corner of evangelicalism. And I hope that it has some clarifying power. America will need to confront not only Trump and Trumpism but the belief system that upholds them if we are to salvage our democracy.

Featured image is Abundant Life Church, by Mitchell Laurren-Ring