Donald Trump, Evangelicalism, and the American Prosperity Gospel

The polls are now closed and the results from Super Tuesday and Super Saturday are now in. After already decisive wins in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, Donald Trump has been declared the winner of the Republican primaries in the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Senator Ted Cruz claimed Oklahoma, Maine, Kansas, and his home state of Texas. Dr. Ben Carson finally dropped out of the race after trailing woefully behind for months. Senator Rubio and Governor Kasich are holding on for dear life.

Political pundits are reporting that no Republican candidate in the history of the Republican Party has won as many state primaries across the board as Mr. Trump. Both New England moderates and Southern conservatives have cast their votes for the New York businessman.

If Ronald Reagan was known as the "Teflon President" it would seem that Donald Trump is certainly the Teflon candidate. With 384 delegates won, we can be all but assured that the brash, flamboyant, special needs mocking, xenophobic, and openly misogynistic real estate mogul that America loves to hate, Donald Trump, will be the Republican Party's nominee for President of the United States of America.

In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, and of Twitter and You-Tube overnight celebrity, in some ways the political ascendancy of a media savant like Donald Trump should come as no surprise. What may be surprising to many, however, is just how much support Trump has among evangelical Christians.

Despite Trump's financially flashy lifestyle, his biblical illiteracy, and his morally objectionable past, his early wins in Nevada and South Carolina showed significant support from evangelical Christians. He was even able to secure the highly coveted endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr. the President of Liberty University. His Super Tuesday wins in Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee have shown his dominance in the "Bible Belt" even over candidates like Senators Cruz and Rubio who come with more tried and true evangelical bona fides. What is behind this evangelical support?

Simply put, evangelicals are tired of losing and they want to win. They don't care about his values. They don't care about his qualifications. They don't care about whether he has a personal relationship with Jesus. They just want to win. And they don't seem to mind that this dogged thirst for winning, blessing, prosperity and power is completely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

Embedded in the theology of many evangelicals is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It is more than the hackneyed image of a sweat-drenched televangelist on the television screen cajoling old ladies and poor people to phone or mail in their last dime on the latest prayer cloth or anointing oil. It is a way of thinking that is actually more fundamentally, inextricably yet subtly intertwined with the American dream than we may think. Tied up in what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic, it comes out of a belief that is actually tied to notions of white supremacy, the assimilation and annihilation of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans. It has been called many things in our history; from "manifest destiny" to "American exceptionalism." I call it the "American prosperity gospel".

Put simply, the American prosperity gospel preaches that God has chosen and ordained us to win. As long as we put our head down and work hard, we deserve, or are essentially owed a blessing from God. Donald Trump would probably say it like this: "We're winners". Understand of course, that this is but the American version of Christian nationalism that was true for all European colonial nations. So when our leaders say, "God bless America" we are all to understand that if God has chosen and ordained us to be the most prosperous nation on earth, anyone or anything that stands in our way must be jettisoned, assimilated, kept out, or destroyed. Trump's version of nationalism is just more overt.

Until the last 50 years, this "chosen" group who follows Trump was also much more overt and explicit in the ways they amassed their wealth, built their universities, constructed their neighborhoods with race based covenants, erected walls around their country clubs and churches, and built their country on the backs of Native Americans , indentured whites, and ultimately African Slaves and their descendants. Nearly every wave of immigrants in this country's history competed with one another to be more "American" than the last, pledging their allegiance to success and the idea of "whiteness", vying for their place among the chosen.

But what happens when the blessings you have been promised do not materialize? What do you do when the people who own your jobs- people like Trump and his golfing buddies no less - have shipped your job oversees? What do you do when it seems that only a few are blessed from your hard work, while others who you view as undeserving begin to prosper? Where do you turn when it seems you have been chosen for hardship and suffering rather than for the blessings and prosperity you were promised?

First, you get very, very angry. Next you throw any of your espoused "values" to the wind and you starting looking for what you believe your god has promised you: a winner. In Donald Trump, many Americans who have suffered most under the global skills and jobs realignment in the last 35 years, see something that they have always wished they could be: rich and powerful.

This is the what is deceptive about the American prosperity gospel. The secret promise of the American prosperity gospel is that once you have become rich enough and highly connected enough to the people that "matter" you can basically do, or say, whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want. For evangelicals supporting Trump, it seems to also suggest that if you're rich enough, you can even be mean and downright nasty too. And, especially in the age of the internet, this is the altar at which far too many Americans worship. It is also an altar at which many evangelical Christians are increasingly tempted to worship.

Moses was only gone for a day to receive the ten commandments, but by the time he returned, he found the Israelites dancing around a god they had made of gold. It seems that God's people have always had a penchant for what is flashy, shiny and new. Indeed, strange things start to happen when impatience results in idolatry.

So when it comes to evangelicals and Donald Trump, let's be clear. It is not about the God of the Bible at all. It is not about values. It is about winning. And it is about a uniquely American understanding of God-ordained winning that I can only describe as the American prosperity gospel.

It matters not that Mr. Trump's main character attributes seem to revolve around coarse talk, pride, the love of money, fear, or the suspicion of neighbor rather than the love of neighbor. It matters not that he stokes anger and hatred. It matters not that Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors, to be peacemakers, and to even love their enemies. It matters not that Jesus actually calls upon his followers to expect hardship, suffering, persecution, poverty and pain and to bear such things with humility, love, and grace. It matters not that the abundant life Jesus teaches about is the abundant life found only in him and not in the gods of this world.

No. What matters most is that Donald Trump promises prosperity to a group who believe that they are chosen for prosperity. This is a group that increasingly believes that the American gospel of prosperity has left them out and they are willing to do anything to get the blessing they have been promised. Out of their ire, fear, and impatience, they are willing to do anything to win. Anything. Maybe even worship an idol.