Donald Trump, the Theologian


“True, the Republicans had recently nominated Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism made many evangelical Christians anxious, and before him John McCain, a man of little obvious religiosity. But Trump was a different kind of figure: Not merely lukewarm or unorthodox, but a proud flouter of the entire Judeo-Christian code — a boastful adulterer and a habitual liar, a materialist and a sensualist, a greedy camel without even the slightest interest in squeezing through the needle’s eye.” – Russ Douthat, “Trump’s Christian Soldiers”, the New York Times, March 10, 2016

There is a rush among liberals to determine which narrative best explains the stupefying rise of Donald Trump:

Key economic voices within the progressive fold cite Trumpism as the inevitable byproduct of wealth disparity;

There’s the camp that holds the near-total corporatization of America as a major catalyst in the ruffian billionaire’s ascent to power;

And more than a few liberals credit Trump’s once unfathomable presidential putsch to residual tea-party culture and its utter disdain for career politicians not named Scott Walker or Paul Ryan.

Spot on and intertwined as these working theories are, there is also a manifest if unconventional religious element to Trump’s quest for the presidency – a sorcerer’s stew of individualism, capitalism and religion owing more to an elitist theology from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s than the blustery fundamentalism that has until recently permeated the GOP.

It was 1935 when the Rev. James Fifield – dubbed the “Apostle to Millionaires” for his select ministry to southern California scions – enlisted his flock in a robust campaign to derail Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Fifield’s call to religious arms was based on an unapologetically free-market reading of the Christian scriptures as set against the progressive Social Gospel popular earlier in the century.

Framing his very public attacks on FDR as those of a persecuted true believer, Fifield used the liberal push-back to reinforce his flush followers’ sense that they were the real victims of the Great Depression: “We may be called unpatriotic and accused of ‘selling out’, but so was Jesus.”

His prosperity gospel endorsed by the vast majority of his Congregational church, Fifield set his sights on creating a potent political arm for his theology. Aided by influential conservatives from the auto, steel, oil and film industries he formed Spiritual Mobilization, a platform for what historian Kevin Kruse terms Christian libertarianism.

In his 2015 book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse traces the efforts of Fifield and other high-profile Christian libertarians as they curry political favor over the next two decades.

Kruse notes that Spiritual Mobilization early on recognized the utility of print, radio and television in reaching beyond Chamber-of-Commerce Protestant business owners to Capitol Hill and by 1952 the Eisenhower White House, where Fifield and his cohorts were received by sympathetic audiences including the president himself.

Once embedded in the circle of administration lieutenants, it was a simple matter for Spiritual Mobilization to offer concrete proposals for the religiously-minded Eisenhower’s consideration – chief among them the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as our official national motto appropriately printed on our currency.

By the end of Eisenhower’s eight-year presidency, Christian libertarians had made their brand of anti-Social Gospel/pro-prosperity theology a public-square theology – not evangelical (too ant-intellectual) and not Catholic (too beholden to the pope) but a staid and stately faith columnist Kim Phillips-Fein christened “laissez prayer”.

Kruse and other observers of modern American religious movements have made much of the connection between Spiritual Mobilization and the Religious Right, correctly crediting Fifield’s movement as the prototype for the evangelical/fundamentalist coup begun in the 1970s and until recently assumed a Republican given.

But we are courtesy of Trump witness to an off-the-hook election cycle in which after four decades of evangelical/ fundamentalist theological dominance of his adopted party, a rouge Republican candidate for the presidency has by accident of being himself ushered into the GOP a renaissance of Christian libertarian principles.

Picking a president always involves variables even astute political prognosticators cannot predict. But this campaign has been breaking brackets from the get-go.

By all measures Donald Trump should have been a footnote in the annals of presidential races. Instead he is among the last still standing in this wackiest of all primary season, defying and at points redefining how and who his party will worship.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2016

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