Many people were shocked by the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters this week. I was not. As my colleague John Pavlovitz said: “It was sickening. It was infuriating. It was disgusting. The only thing it was not was surprising. Not to anyone who has been paying attention. We’ve been trying to tell you this was coming for more than four years.”
As a number of psychologists have suggested, Trump displays the characteristics of a garden-variety narcissistic personality, the kind of person for whom authoritarianism comes easily and empathy does not. His response to losing the election followed a typical narcissistic script.
Trump’s authoritarian attempt was poorly planned and executed, expressions of the same lack of discipline and competence he has displayed in his handling of Covid-19 and many other challenges. But the vulnerability of the United States to even a ham-fisted authoritarian attempt serves as a cautionary tale to all, especially because the authoritarian followers he has activated will not simply evaporate. The risk is all the greater because Trump has a queue of would-be authoritarian imitators ready to fill any void he leaves, and they may have the discipline and competence he lacks.
As a Christian, I am especially grieved by the role Christians have played in Trump’s con artistry. The words, silence, and example of well-known Evangelical leaders like Robert Jeffress and Albert Mohler (both leading Southern Baptists), Paula White, Bill Johnson and Pat Robertson (charismatics with large followings), Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham have led Christians to love and support Trump as an almost messianic protector and liberator. Notable Catholic leaders have also declared their faith in Trump including Texas bishop Joseph Strickland.
But the silence of tens of thousands of pastors, priests, and bishops may be even more damning: by going about their business as if a slide towards authoritarianism were not worth addressing strikes me as the mark of hirelings, not true shepherds.
In a recent extended essay The Second Pandemic, and my newest book Faith After Doubt (Hodder & Stoughton) I summarised recent research into authoritarianism and how authoritarian attempts work. Social psychologists, following the work of Bob Altemeyer, have found that about a third of all human populations can be described as potential authoritarian followers. In the presence of stress, shame or fear, they can be activated. Race and religion play a significant role in their activation.
In the United States (and other countries as well) authoritarian movements are often fuelled by white supremacy. White supremacists often prefer authoritarianism to democracy because true democracy affirms the equality of all people, whatever their race. Authoritarian leaders easily stoke racial animus to divide societies and aggregate followers in a culture war. Christian supremacy is often linked to white supremacy in authoritarian movements. White Christians may be ashamed to admit to white supremacy, but they see Christian supremacy as something to be proud of. Non-white Christians may also support Christian supremacy.
Surprising numbers of Christian leaders in the US support white Christian supremacy; overtly, tacitly or subconsciously. Surprising numbers also celebrate “biblical manhood” which is really a toxic masculinity that easily expresses itself in authoritarian leadership and followership. (Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne explores this phenomenon brilliantly.)
By teaching their members to submit to strong-men leaders like Trump, even associating God’s favour and sovereignty with their dominating tendencies, these Christian leaders have whitewashed Trump’s authoritarianism with moral legitimacy. By teaching uncritical obedience (often by quoting Romans 13:1-4 and ignoring Romans 12:1-2), by prophesying divine favour, by shaming and demonising opponents and by pardoning or minimising Trump’s offences, these Christian leaders have domesticated and groomed adherents so they can be deployed as loyal and adoring subjects in Trump’s service.
That’s why in video footage from this week’s insurrection attempt at the US Capitol (which was coordinated with similar displays at some state capitols), you’ll see zealous Trump-Christians carrying ‘Jesus Saves’ signs, and raising crosses and sporting T-shirts with Bibles on the front of them. Tragically, too many American churches have become aggregators for Trumpist organisers, rendering sincere but gullible believers tools in Trump's delusional power-grab.
Faith is a Christian virtue, but credulity is not. Faith can be life-giving, but it can also become cancerous. When it does, it needs strong chemotherapy. You can call it critical thinking, discernment or doubt, but whatever you call it, many Christians in America (and no doubt, our sisters and brothers elsewhere) need treatment, and everyone needs the preventative medicine of good spiritual preparation.
Brian D. McLaren is a US-based Christian author, activist and former pastor. His new book, Faith After Doubt (Hodder and Stoughton), is available now
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