08 March 2016
The gospel of Trump?
Many prominent figures on the "religious right" oppose Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. They seem as baffled as anyone over Trump's success so far. Here is a self-evidently decadent celebrity who flaunts a foreign trophy wife, and yet he polls strongly among religious conservatives despite efforts to anoint Senator Cruz as their secular messiah. Of course, although Cruz is a Southern Baptist -- his Cuban father was born Catholic but was "born again" in this country -- some religious conservatives may look at his name and assume otherwise, and the coincidence of two Cuban-Americans competing with Trump does seem to be triggering some nativist backlash. But Trump's appeal can't be explained entirely by the negatives of other candidates. Some speculate that, in spite of his lifestyle, Trump's promise to "protect Christianity" inspires loyalty in believers who feel beleaguered by Muslims, secular humanists and so on. Yet one doubts whether Cruz or Rubio, at least, would be any less zealous in defending a constituency on which all Republicans depend. What I want to know is if anyone has attempted an exit poll asking whether primary or caucus voters believe in the "prosperity gospel." I suspect that the numbers would correlate pretty strongly with support for Trump. One Washington Post writer has picked up the scent, and a google search will reveal a number of stories from last fall about Trump attending a prayer meeting with preachers identified with the prosperity gospel. To such people, Trump probably would look like the Lord's anointed. Since Puritan times, many Protestants have felt that material success proves you one of the Elect. The prosperity gospel is a decadent form of this faith, little more than magical thinking. All you need to do is pray and give to the pastor and God will make you prosper. Voting for Trump is even easier: he doesn't ask for donations and all you have to do is vote a couple of times and America will be great again. Of course, not all Trump's followers are Protestants, much less the sort of Evangelicals or Pentecostals who espouse the prosperity gospel. But it may be helpful to think of the Trump campaign as a secularization of the prosperity gospel, an appeal to faith in Trump's powers with a promise of material rewards in this life, in the form of renewed American prosperity. Skeptics' questions about how Trump will accomplish this are irrelevant to the faithful, since for them his past success is sufficient proof of his ability to accomplish what he promises. It would be good for Trump if more Americans thought this way. Were he elected, and were he to fail to deliver on his promises, he could simply tell the people, as the marks of the prosperity gospel must, that their faith wasn't strong enough.