“You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount,” Arcade Fire sang. Indeed, it’s hard to see how a movement whose founder was executed and whose earliest leaders were martyred can be held up as an advertisement for worldly success.
Yet that is just what some Christian pastors do — pastors who promote the “prosperity gospel,” the credo that their faith can make you rich not only in heaven but on Earth. It may come as no surprise that one of the earliest prosperity gospel preachers, Norman Vincent Peale, was the childhood pastor of one Donald J. Trump.
Prosperity is a message Trump has been cultivating ever since.
The message that Trump shares with these preachers — the sermon of relentless and remorseless triumph, of uninterrupted glory in personal and professional affairs — is scarcely recognizable in the gospel.
Jesus and the apostles embraced a life of service over earthly glory. Early believers — whom the second-century critic Celsus characterized as “foolish and low individuals” — often embraced the name-calling rather than resisting, since it meant that those who observed their good behavior would credit God rather than them.
Trump’s worship of triumph flies in the face not only of Christian history, but of theology. Failure is intrinsic to Christianity.
The doctrine of original sin says that we are born failures, and the doctrine of sanctification implies that even after we put our faith in Christ, we don’t stop failing. The pervasiveness of sin is crucial for establishing the centrality of grace. Within this cradle-to-grave framework, failure is built in as a perpetual feature of the Christian system — not because God is uninterested in our success, but because spiritual failure is the instrument through which we come to sense what the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called our “absolute dependence upon God.” Thus, when Trump declares that he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, he is rejecting the central mechanism by which God has enabled fallen humanity to be made new again.
Christian doctrine teaches that until the final phase of salvation — at which point God will decisively remove our inclination to sin — we will continue to experience weakness of will, a phenomenon the ancient Greeks called “akrasia.” Although this weakness is not exclusive to Christianity (for example, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill once noted that people “pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good”), it is particularly agonizing for us Christians, as the Apostle Paul details in chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans. We wish we weren’t burdened by such a heartbreaking inability to follow God’s commands. Because we often have only a second-order desire for God (“I want to want God”), as opposed to a first-order desire for him (“I want God”), we constantly face spiritual frustration.
But Donald Trump isn’t burdened. He isn’t frustrated. He is the radiant, Platonic ideal of showy materialism. The problem is that Trump’s brand of materialism enshrines as its chief value what the Christian gospel finds most offensive: a triumphalism about one’s worldly successes.
There is a Trump Tower-sized contradiction at the heart of the prosperity gospel. Prosperity is certainly “good news” for Trump — the best news, we could safely assume he would say — but it’s utterly antithetical to the Christian gospel. Wealth is not spiritually toxic, but a supreme love for wealth is. The love of money, status and worldly success is necessarily repressive of virtuous living.
There’s a reason that Socrates, in Plato’s “Apology,” grouped these values the way he did: “Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” Look at the first set of associations — these are all highly valued by Trump. Yet these, according to Socrates, choke out a desire for wisdom, truth and genuine personal betterment.
We see the shallowness of valuing possessions over relationships time and again in our modern world — it’s splashed across the front pages of our tabloids every day. Our rampant consumerism flattens our horizon of what is meaningful, equating happiness with owning stuff.
Christianity rejects the excessive self-exaltation and self-promotion that Trump peddles. Christianity requires weakness and failure.
If we already had the best brains, the best minds, the best words, the best properties, the best people, the best everything — why would we ever need God?
Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy at Florida International University who has previously written for Acts of Faith about Pope Francis’s view on Trump. Follow him on Twitter @bernybelvedere.