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How one strain of macho theology leads to a church choir singing "Make America Great Again"

The history of “muscular Christianity” goes back a century before Trump.

President Trump Participates In The Celebrate Freedom Rally At The Kennedy Center
Donald Trump and Pastor Robert Jeffress at the Celebrate Freedom rally
Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool via Getty Images

“In America,” President Donald Trump told adoring crowds this weekend, “we worship God, not government.”

The answer, from thousands of supporters? “USA! USA!”

Speaking at Baptist megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress’s Celebrate Freedom Rally, Trump came across equal parts politician and would-be messiah.

The First Baptist Dallas Choir sang a song of praise — equal parts hymn and political manifesto — called “Make America Great Again” (pastors can download lyrics and sheet music for worship services).

Meanwhile, at this event in Washington, DC, to honor military veterans, Jeffress cast Trump’s election as divine fiat. “In recent years, there have been those who have tried to separate our nation from its spiritual foundation,” he said. “This has caused many of us, especially Christians, to wonder, ‘Is God finished with America?’ Are our best days over? Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?” Not so, said Jeffress. “In the midst of that despair came November the eighth, 2016 … because it was on that day that God declared that the people — not the pollsters — were going to choose the next president of the United States, and they chose Donald Trump.”

Ultimately, Jeffress concluded, God had decided to give America another chance to become great (again), characterizing Trump’s victory as a divine mandate effected through the efforts of the faithful. “Because Christians understood that [Trump] alone had the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in,” he said. Trump’s own words, though, had somewhat less rhetorical flourish: "The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I’m president and they’re not.”

Trump’s conflation of religion and politics may not seem so surprising — after all, few politicians in recent American history haven’t resorted to religious rhetoric from time to time. But what’s particularly striking is how intensely Trump the man rather than, say, Trump the Republican or Trump the increasingly pro-life president, figures into the religious right’s comeback story. Trump’s legendary ego, history of sexual misconduct, and theologically dubious behavior (from the infamous “pussy grabbing” video to his ex-wife’s now-retracted rape allegations to his cheating scandals to joking about encouraging Marla Maples to get an abortion) are well known. Nonetheless, at this event, Trump was the object of — to quote the event’s breathless press release — "multiple standing ovations, spontaneous applause and flags being waved in euphoric patriotism,” and those joyful chants of, “USA!” “USA!”

Vice President Mike Pence seems a natural representative of evangelical Christianity: He’s a soft-spoken family man, prone to meandering, folksy digressions about reading his children bedtime stories with a wife he calls Mother. Trump and his blustering braggadocio seem less so. Yet not just his ostensibly conservative policies but his most extreme actions seem to provoke the adulation of certain strands of the religious right. On Sunday, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. weighed in on Trump’s now-infamous Twitter attacks on Mika Brzezinski, celebrating the fact that “we're finally getting back to a bold leader who's willing to speak his mind."

But a closer look at a few trends in evangelical Christianity in America could help explain the genesis of some of Trump’s success: namely, his perceived masculinity.

Gender — and the successful performance of that gender — is integral to many self-identified evangelicals on the right. It’s tied up with how they feel about marriage equality, transgender bathroom access, and LGBTQ issues more generally. It’s tied up with their thoughts of feminism. It’s tied up with how they feel about the economy — a valorization of a bygone age when men were men (and could make a decent living doing manly blue-collar work). It’s tied up with how many feel about the discourse of political correctness, perhaps the greatest example of “feminization” of the public sphere.

Nor is it limited exclusively to religious discourse. For example in 2014, when Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal hit its peak, Fox News analyst Brit Hume defended Christie: “I would have to say that in this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct, kind of old-fashioned tough guys, run some risks.”

The conflation of virility and Christianity, and the valorization of a certain kind of machismo as the ultimate way of being “Christian” in the world, is hardly new. In fact, it derives from yet another era when social change, the development of technology, and the anxiety over a man’s place in the world (and particularly a white man’s place) made white Christianity a particularly reactionary force.

“Muscular Christianity” arose from the works of Victorian novelists of the British Empire like Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, author of the rugged boarding school saga Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It was the idea that a good Christian man, in service of queen and empire, would, as one contemporary author, Cotton Minchin, pointed out, “go through the world with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.” It celebrated the English boarding school, the gym (the YMCA, after all, began as a religious institution), and anywhere men could learn to be men. While Victorian churches themselves often tended their rhetoric toward the feminine — wives were the “angels of the house” in charge of keeping their wayward husbands pious — this brand of Christianity gave men a place at the communion table.

“Muscular Christianity” is about religion, of course, but it was also about identity. It celebrates a vision of masculine heroism deeply rooted in a colonialist view of what Christianity wasn’t (i.e., Islam, Hinduism, or any other non-Christian practices you might find around the British Empire). You might turn the other cheek, but you could also throw a punch.

The trend found its way into American Christianity through such evangelicals as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday. But in the past few decades — in response to the rise of feminism and other analogous cultural changes — it’s become even more central to evangelical Christian discourse: a kind of gendered theological answer to the language of political correctness as a whole.

Scott Lively of Defend the Family, for example, has been calling for a similarly robust masculinity in the church since 2011. "The church and this nation cry out for a revival of masculine Christianity, which is to say that we church leaders need to stop being such, for lack of a better word, sissies when it comes to social and political issues,” Lively said. “We need to spend as much time confronting perpetrators as we do comforting victims. We need to do less fretting, and more fighting for righteousness. For every motherly, feminine ministry of the church such as a Crisis Pregnancy Center or ex-gay support group, we need a battle-hardened, take-it-to-the-enemy masculine ministry.”

Theologian and writer John Piper simply states, "God gave Christianity a masculine feel.” It’s the mentality that reaches its zenith in the best-selling evangelical Left Behind books, which transform the apocalypse into an action thriller for Christians to show off their fighting prowess. (In the 2014 film adaptation, the hero is played by Nicolas Cage.)

In this paradigm, Trump’s would-be dominance makes more sense — it’s not a bug, but a feature. His misdeeds are obliterated by the intensity of his masculine ego. Even among the more secular alt-right, Trump has been memed into the “God-Emperor,” or an over-the-top rendering of his unapologetically dictatorial persona. And it’s what, among the participants of Robert Jeffress’s concert, makes him the ultimate patriot and the ideal Christian leader, someone who represents the epitome of what they say Christianity should be: bold, brave, fighting against the “feminization” of the political, religious, and discursive spheres alike.

Thus when Jeffress says, as he did in a press release, that “[m]illions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance — perhaps our last chance — to truly make America great again,” he’s speaking to a wider conflation of “alpha-masculine” values with Christianity.

This is not the only historical strand of Trump’s religious nationalism, of course. He’s more than willing to play along with wider, even apocalyptic accounts of direct divine interference: from the “Cyrus” imagery of the "unwitting vessel" that helped reconcile him to the idea — propagated by Jeffress — that God is granting his favor to America because of Trump, something that Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress has written about extensively.

Trump is certainly indebted, too, to thinkers in his inner circle like Steve Bannon, who subscribe to the dominionist trend in Christianity, which envisions God’s apocalyptic plan for a Christian future playing out directly in world affairs (and requires Christians to prepare the way for the Second Coming by helping to create a theocratic state).

It would be easy, of course, to dismiss the celebrants at the rally as unquestioning followers. It would be easy, too, to say that there is something specific about Christianity (or religion more generally) that makes it easy to bend in the service of seemingly noxious ideologies. But if the development of “muscular Christianity” shows us anything, it’s that culture and history shape religion just as much as religion shapes everything else.

Whether you think Trump’s been hitting or missing the mark, he’s generally been able to do one thing right: home in on and capitalize on precisely on how people think, feel, and worry. In this, he resembles less the plucky, virile Christian future soldiers of Tom Brown’s Schooldays than their villain, school bully Harry Flashman. Flashman, who was spun off into a parody series by George MacDonald Fraser in the decidedly un-Victorian late 1960s and ’70s, is a coward and a drunkard, a rogue callously indifferent to the plight of natives and his fellow soldiers alike: everything wrong, in other words, with the colonialist ideals of empire. Still, dumb luck — and a nose for being in the right place at the right time — gets Flashman out of sticky situations unscathed, and usually (unfairly) heralded for being the hero of the operation.

Life may not imitate art. But as long as Trump is willing to put up even the most halfhearted effort to don the mantle of the God-Emperor, few among his supporters will be tempted to go looking for the flab under it.