Monday night, amid the intensification of scandal surrounding the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia, President Trump made time to participate in the “ultimate selfie.” In the background of a photo taken by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, Trump is talking to two major evangelical leaders: prosperity gospel proponent Paula White and Baptist pastor Jack Graham, who prayed for Trump in a much-tweeted “laying-on of hands” earlier this week.
Jeffress’s selfie was taken during an impromptu meeting with Trump and a number of high-profile evangelical figures who were invited to the White House but not necessarily expected to meet the president.
Meanwhile, though the White House faced a barrage of questions about Donald Trump Jr.’s conversation with Russian operators this week, Trump sat down with controversial televangelist Pat Robertson as his first one-on-one interview with a non-Fox News interviewer since early May.
The contents of the interview were likewise somewhat counterintuitive. The interview hardly focused on religion itself, as one might expect, aside from a cursory mention of Trump’s desire to abolish the Johnson Amendment. Instead, the interview seemed to be an opportunity for Robertson to throw Trump softballs over Russia as he told the president, “I want you to know there are thousands of people praying for you and holding you up all the time.”
One reading of Trump’s meetings with several evangelical leaders this week is that he’s simply playing to his base, as he always has, reminding evangelicals once more that he’s their “unwavering ally.”
Yet the optics here are far more extreme than they have been previously. It’s one thing for Trump to send Vice President Mike Pence to a Focus on the Family event. It’s another thing entirely to be pictured receiving the “laying-on of hands,” a prayer tradition that is particularly, though not exclusively, associated with Pentecostal traditions of faith healing (it is, for example, less far often associated with Trump’s own stated denomination of mainline Presbyterianism).
Likewise, Robertson isn’t just any controversial Christian preacher but one wedded specifically to an apocalyptic tradition of interpreting the arc of history as directly traced by God. To put it simply: He believes bad things (destructive hurricanes, diseases) happen because God gets angry at humans’ sinful actions, while also simultaneously subscribing to the notion that historical chaos is itself desirable insofar as it points to an ideal end: Christ’s second coming and reign on earth.
Within the general contours of Robertson’s theology, any political chaos can be understood eschatologically — with reference to the “end times” — and within a cosmic context. It’s a necessary battle between good and evil, one in which the forces of Christ will ultimately prevail.
Simply sitting down with Robertson, of course, doesn’t mean Trump (or his handlers) believes such a theology. Yet by embracing the optics — Trump welcoming the idea that being “prayed over” serves as a rhetorical countervailing force to an FBI investigation — Trump and his handlers are dog-whistling. By appealing not just to his evangelical base but to a theological, even apocalyptic reading of history, and Trump’s role in it, Trump is not merely legitimizing alternative facts but, more dangerously, writing alternative sacred history. He is cast a religious martyr, or someone who, though assailed on (in their view, bogus) legal or circumstantial grounds will be vindicated through divine favor.
Many religion writers, including ThinkProgress’s Jack Jenkins, have written extensively about Trump’s creation of a new kind of civic religion, blending his natural egotism with religious rhetoric that both fires up his base and legitimizes the extremity of his actions. As Jenkins puts it, Trump “appears to be arguing that America will be protected by God because he is president.” He can pull out of the Paris climate agreement; he can host a fundraiser at his own hotel. To Trump’s supporters who subscribe to his nascent, implicit political theology, his actions are legitimate because they’re his actions. His success is evidence of God’s favor; his actions, in turn, are justified by his prior success.
But this week, Trump has gone even further, essentially creating a double narrative of his Russia troubles. Rather than legitimizing himself legally, he is legitimizing himself spiritually. He paints himself as a victim of “fake news,” one for whom public photo ops of prayer meld without distinction into condemnations of the mainstream media. Trump’s choice to be interviewed by Robertson at such a politically delicate time plays neatly into that narrative.
Trump’s bold embrace of certain evangelical leaders — and his implicit legitimization of their philosophy — may be more troubling than it first appears. By cleaving his audience so neatly into a dichotomy of “fake news” and “honest Christians,” Trump is signaling to his evangelical supporters that the crisis of his presidency is not simply another entry into political history, but a step toward the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Pat Robertson made a name out of perpetuating a particularly extreme version of the theology that God directly acts in human political history
Robertson embraces the view that God specifically reacts to whether he is pleased or displeased with individuals or governments. For one example, Robertson famously said Disneyland welcoming private LGBTQ group bookings for “gay days” could cause natural disasters. An endorsement from (and of) Robertson, therefore, can also be seen as a tacit endorsement of a particular understanding that God regularly interferes in human affairs.
Biblically speaking, particularly in the Old Testament, there are plenty of examples of God doing just that, but Robertson is nevertheless extreme among Christians for the intensity of his emphasis. He, like a small subset of evangelical Christians, embraces dispensationalism, or the idea that human history is divided into particular “eras” according to God’s plan, culminating in a second coming and, in some traditions, a thousand-year reign of peace.
As Anbara Khalidi, a former research associate in theology at Wadham College, Oxford, and an expert in apocalyptic American theology, told me, Robertson essentially “expects conditions on earth to deteriorate until the point at which Jesus will return to rescue his 'saved' before the true years of apocalyptic deterioration,” a philosophy she described as “pre-millennial dispensationalism.”
She continued, “Trump's polarizing effect on American politics therefore fits neatly into Robertson's prophetic framework, which paradoxically anticipates chaos as a manifestation of God's control over human history. Provocation of the liberal media, energetic self-justification, and unapologetic dominion over an ultimately doomed planet are the hallmarks of premillennial dispensationalist preachers like Robertson, rendering him the natural choice for an exercise in Trump's self-promotion.”
In other words, Robertson’s worldview helps explain Trump — as well as Trump’s chaotic relationship with Russia and with the press. By placing Trump’s scandal in a wider apocalyptic context, Robertson creates a sense of logic to Trump’s behavior and potential scandals. Whether they agree with Robertson’s views, observers are invited to do more than dismiss Trump’s waning popularity, or potential collusion, as “nothingburgers,” because of how they fit into his broader context.
In this case, Trump’s decline, in some respects, is considered a good thing: as evidence of a divine hand in the world. If Trump is under attack by the liberal media, he’s just playing into some evangelicals’ interpretations of biblical ideas of the good king whose circumstances are against him. He’s the “suffering servant” of the Book of Isaiah. We can see this dynamic, too, in the tweets of those who visited the White House on Monday — like pastor Jack Graham, who likewise cast his presence at the White House in the language of spiritual warfare.
We are fighting massive spiritual battles in the world and the warfare is prayer— Jack Graham (@jackngraham) July 12, 2017
Robertson, Trump, and a potentially dangerous narrative
Now, most evangelical Christians aren’t dispensationalists. Few people are likely to be convinced that Trump is a divine instrument who weren’t already prone to thinking so. But by conflating religious identity, a narrative of legitimacy on the part of Trump, a narrative of delegitimization of the press, and biblical interpretations through which those already prone to defend Trump can bolster their existing defense on a cosmic scale, Trump is doing more than holding on to his base. He’s mobilizing them. If the worst happens, and Trump does find his presidency under threat, he can rely on supporters who not only think the media is peddling fake news but also see that news as an apocalyptic threat to their fundamental identity as believing Christians.
Yet in both Protestant and Catholic circles, some — including representatives of Pope Francis — are wary of this kind of rhetoric. In an article last month by two allies of Pope Francis, the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa in La Civiltà Cattolica, both warned against an easy binary division of politics or religion “that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil.” Referring to apocalyptic evangelicals, they write:
“Theirs is a prophetic formula: fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon, a final showdown between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. In this sense, every process (be it of peace, dialogue, etc.) collapses...And the community of believers (faith) becomes a community of combatants (fight).
Such a perspective can be dangerous. It raises questions like, if the world is doomed, why should we care about the niceties of Trump’s health care policy? while transforming the mucky business of politics into an apocalyptic blockbuster: a thrilling “good and evil” battle that Trump’s base can get behind. And, more unnerving still, it could legitimize violence in defense of Trump’s wavering presidency.
This isn’t necessarily Trump’s conscious doing. It’s the (Catholic) Steve Bannon, after all — with a tendency toward apocalyptic narratives and inclination to stoke absolutism — who seems a more likely architect of such a strategy. In fact, that’s why he’s called out specifically in La Civiltà Cattolica’s text.
But whoever is behind it, the seemingly “family-friendly” optics of Trump’s newfound religiosity are far more unsettling than they are conciliatory. After all, the only way to go from here is apocalypse.