When last year CNN fired sometime commentator and full time religious studies scholar Reza Aslan for tweeting that Donald Trump was a “piece of shit,” one was left to wonder if it was because he employed a profanity in describing the President of the United States, or merely because he committed the journalistic heresy of stating the obvious. Whichever it was, one cannot also help but wonder if CNN knew not what it did. For it was also about that time that Aslan put his perspicacious finger on the not-so-obvious reasons why “the Donald” has gathered unto himself so rabid a following, and how, after all this time, that following appears to have remained bafflingly loyal.
The good news is the aforementioned following we are concerned with here is at least confined to the pulpits and pews of white fundamentalist Christians. Were it not for Aslan, the question of why Trump should gain such popularity with such a group might remain an ostensible head scratcher. But for this recipe for Dragon Stew, Aslan actually provides us with a plausible dragon: Donald Trump is a religious cult.
That cult comes compliments of something called “the prosperity gospel.” The idea goes that the more righteous a man is, the more God blesses him with material wealth. Trump’s ostentatious trappings of wealth are the obvious proof that God must think Trump a pretty groovy guy.
Some of the cynical among us noticed that “the prosperity gospel” started to appear right around the same time that the dorsal fins of the big-haired, Rolex-wearing televangelists started to cut the water. Mansions needed sanctification, luxury cars and private jets required the consecration of Elijah’s chariots of fire. The prosperity gospel gave the perfect fit.
“But none of this … explains the most important phenomenon about white evangelicals in America,” Aslan says, “and that is this: In the span of a single election cycle, white evangelicals have gone from being the group in America that is most likely to say that a politician’s morality matters to the group that is now least likely to say that.”
In other words, the cult of personality surrounding Donald Trump has managed in a single election cycle to convince good people that doing bad things is okay. The last time we witnessed a phenomenon like that was when a community of Americans settled in a little regarded country called Guyana led by a little known evangelical named Jim Jones. This time the stakes are much, much higher.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.