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Sun 20 September 2020
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As President Donald Trump embraces the extreme Christian fringes, Reverend Joe Haward looks at the radicalising role of religion and nationalism among the US right

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The Flag and the Cross

Huge numbers of evangelical Christians voted for President Donald Trump in the presidential campaign of 2016. Their show of support highlighted the path American evangelical Christianity has long been walking, and so, in many ways, should be of little surprise. 

In the wake of 9/11, criticism of the American military reaction, and refusal to identify with the so-called “war on terrorism,” amounted to unpatriotic behaviour, a disavowal of natural loyalty.

Yet American theologian Stanley Hauerwas did exactly that, losing friends as a result. Hauerwas, writing in his memoirs, said that an American flag draped over a cross in a church sanctuary is an act of idolatry. For many American evangelicals though, loyalty to one’s nation and loyalty to one’s faith are bound together in perfect harmony. To attack one is to attack the other, and Trump appears to understand this deeply held belief. 

They turn into a woman and then they sleep with the man and collect his sperm.

 Evangelist Stella Immanuel, MD, on aliens in a 2013 sermon

At his inauguration speech Trump declared, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’”

Allegiance to America and America’s faith are the hallmarks of the Trumpification of the Evangelical Right. Yet evangelicalism’s adaptation to the rise of national pride is nothing new.


How Nationalism became a Religion

In the latter part of the 19th Century through to the mid-20th, evangelicalism had to find its way as the power and force of such voices as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud rose to offer a radical alternative to traditional Christian understanding and beliefs. Alongside this, nationalism grew as the impact and effects of the First World War decimated optimism and hope within Europe.

An entire generation became angry, disillusioned, and restless, a deep sense of having been betrayed by the governments they had willingly fought and sacrificed for. The results were an exhausted and disillusioned population, overcome with grief as millions of their nation’s sons never returned home. Many of those that did come home could not forgive those who had sent them to the trenches.

From the ashes of the so-called Great War came the belief that Nation was stronger than the broken promises of religion. Thus the figures of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, emerged, declaring the restoration of national pride, and the reclamation of the former glory of their respective nations, destroyed by elitists and their war. 


Rapture and Apocalypse

After World War Two, with Hitler’s defeat, and belief restored in the American dream, evangelicalism found a way back into the American consciousness, gathering love of nation and religion together, encapsulated by the work and ministry of Billy Graham. His political and social influence reached the White House, a pastor and preacher to Presidents for fifty years, providing counsel and ensuring the conservative evangelical vision had a voice in the ear of whoever sat in the Oval office. 

Graham’s evangelical convictions are rooted in the work of the 18th Century American revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, considered to be the father of The Great Awakening and evangelicalism. He believed that “a great and wonderful event” had occurred, never before “heard of in any land,” urging listeners to flee from “the wrath of God” that was ready for “unrepentant sinners.”

Evangelicalism has four defining features: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, yet one cannot ignore the significant influence of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) upon American evangelicals today. An Anglo-Irish preacher, Darby developed dispensationalist theology, an ideology that provided the foundations of the Left Behind series, created by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and selling more than 80 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1995. 

Darby believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent and would involve a succession of revelatory moments called The Rapture, The Tribulation, and The Glorious Appearing. Darby’s theology had a very specific interpretation of the Bible, drawing heavily from the books of Daniel and Revelation. His views gained significant popularity in the United States during the latter part of the 19th Century during a time of social, economic, political, and religious uncertainty. 

Today, as in Darby’s time, many evangelicals choose to identify with Old Testament images of Israel, believing themselves to be a persecuted minority surrounded by godless enemies who seek the eradication of God’s faithful people. There is the firm conviction that God will reward those nations who proclaim Jesus as Lord with spiritual blessings. Trumpian evangelicalism thus pursues and promotes triumphalist and nationlist ideology.


Son of a Gun

Donald Trump’s recent endorsement of Stella Immanuel, the doctor and Christian pastor who claimed hydroxychloroquine was a cure for COVID-19, and claimed women can be impregnated by ‘demon sperm’ in their dreams in a 2013 sermon, points still further to the role Conservative evangelicals have in American politics.

In Trump, they see a strongman, someone who will defend their cause and fight for their rights. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas puts it, “Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.” Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes evangelicals, “felt they were under attack, and the strong guy promised to defend them. And he has.”

For many American evangelicals, America is a nation that needs to turn to their God in order for God’s favour and blessings to flow, and the long awaited “prophecies” to be fulfilled. Although support for Trump is beginning to flag, many still regard him as the channel through which America can return to its holy and glorious place on the earth.

As such, they believe that the enemies of God will burn, if not in this life, then the next. The paranoia, hate, and division from many evangelicals strike a contradictory tone to the Jewish peasant preacher who declared that love of others, especially our enemies, was the highest of all goals. 

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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