In President Trump’s war of words with North Korea lies a key to understanding some of the religious dynamics of the Trump era. It has to do with the character of God.
During the ongoing public back and forth with North Korea, the president Tuesday said the country would “be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” if it threatens the United States. Later in the day, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers blessed the president’s rhetoric, saying “God has given Trump authority to take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Bible gives rulers “full power to stop evil … to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment, or evil punishment” to stop “evildoers,” Texas megapastor Robert Jeffress told The Washington Post.
Many Americans recoiled at this image of a threatening, authoritarian God.
Jeffress told The Post that a Christian writer asked him: “Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?” The sermon is an epic collection of Jesus’ sayings that have to do with turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and the hell that awaits people who judge or are angry. “Absolutely not,” Jeffress said.
Views of God have become a fault line tearing through American religion, dividing people who emphasize God, and by extension morality, as being about authority, power, loyalty, drawing lines and setting rules from those who focus on God as loving, nonjudgmental and forgiving. Both attributes are found in scripture of major faiths. Researchers have found that people who see God as more authoritarian are more likely to condemn others and to say being a good person means teaching others your morals and converting them to your faith view.
In recent decades, popular culture has favored the Benevolent God, eclipsing the reality that the Authoritarian God is very alive in America and always has been. The most popular Jesus art on Pinterest shows him laughing, smiling in a field of pink flowers and cuddling lambs. Billboard’s top Christian songs portray God as a friend and lover, associated with positive things. “In love, in freedom … bursting in living color,” sings Hillsong in “Wonder,” now at #11.
These two concepts of God as either benevolent or authoritarian shed some light on why Trump’s often harsh language to some seems blatantly sacrilegious, basically a disqualifier for a pious person, while others see it as an expression of hard power – a type of power that to them God approves.
These senses of God aren’t a conscious, thought-out thing. It’s not like religious conservatives watch Trump’s talk about “major losers” and himself as a winner, or about revenge, and think: “That’s so religious.” But they are statistically more likely to be comfortable with the idea of a God who can be angry and a vengeful God and perhaps with a president like that, too. We have pragmatic policy reasons we like certain leaders, as well as highly primal, emotional ones. Progressives last year cheered Pope Francis when he said, indirectly, to Trump: “Christians don’t build walls.” They felt good in their gut when he crafted the image of a welcoming God.
Since 2005, a team of sociologists at the Baptist school Baylor University has been studying this issue of God’s character. Of the four types of God — authoritarian, benevolent, critical and distant — they found initially that authoritarian was by far the biggest group, at 31 percent. They repeated the survey in 2014 and found Authoritarian God and Distant God — one who is not really involved in the world — polling about even at 30 percent.
A book coming out this fall called “God Is Not Nice” explores the history of U.S. popular views on God’s persona, and argues that the image of God as “undemanding” really rose in the last century or so. God became a good senile grandfather, author and theologian Ulrich Lehner says. We are no longer shaking in awe, with an open mouth, left speechless, he writes. However, there are different kinds of awesome Gods, says Lehner, who calls Jeffress’s argument that the ends justify whatever means “not theology.”
Many who see Trump and his supporters as irreligious do not interpret the president’s remarks and behavior as strong, but rather immoral. They point to him releasing a video of himself pretending to bash a journalist. Or smiling as he tells a police audience they don’t need to “be too nice” when putting suspects into vehicles (Trump’s spokeswoman later said that was a “joke”). Or commenting to France’s first lady on her body.
Last week, at a Trump rally in West Virginia, much of the merchandise could be viewed as either exhibiting toughness and strength, or crassness and cruelty, depending on which side of the Angry or Benevolent divide you fall on: Trump and guns, phrases like “suck it,” and perhaps the most popular image: A cartoon president urinating on a snowflake — the symbol to Trump-lovers of liberals, the weak.
This is not to say that every religious conservative who supports Trump approves of his behavior.
“We like some of the policies and the social agenda, but man, we don’t like how it’s packaged or how it comes across,” said the Rev. Gary Hamrick, pastor of Cornerstone Chapel in Loudoun County, Va., where many congregants are Trump voters. “I tell people: ‘Just take it like you would fish, just spit out the bones.’”
Even so, the issue of Trump’s suitability for religious conservatives emerged as far back as 2012, when the businessman gave a motivational speech to thousands of students at Liberty University.
At the end of the 35-minute talk, he toys playfully with the crowd, saying he has two core points he always closes with: Get a prenuptial agreement before you get married, and — here he raises his voice — “get even.”
“Don’t let people take advantage — get even. If nothing else, people will see that and say: ‘I’m going to let [those people] alone because they are tough customers.’ I always say it, but I won’t say it to you, because this is a different audience.”
Trump pauses. “You don’t want to get even, do you?” He smiles. “Yeah, I think you do.” His remarks were met with laughter.
Johnnie Moore, now an informal faith adviser to Trump, was a pastor at Liberty in 2012 and had invited the businessman to speak on campus. He fielded media calls after the talk, challenging the appropriateness of Trump’s advice. Moore responded in an essay for Fox.
“Is it heretical to believe God is, and God wants us to be tough? Hardly. Read the Bible. It’s filled with God pursuing justice, settling scores with folks who messed with him, or who mess with his people,” Moore wrote.
Moore, who now visits the White House with a group of conservative evangelicals offering support and advice to Trump, said the God of the Bible is a contradiction — somewhere between hellfire and brimstone and fully compassionate. “We live in the tension,” he said.
Moore is typical of religious conservatives who view Trump as strong. In their minds, Barack Obama’s emphasis on globalization, compromise and what they viewed as relativism added up to weakness. Such people see America as divine, as blessed in a particular way by God, as a place with a destiny that must be fought for by a country that is strong and unapologetic. Many religious conservatives who support Trump view this war as not just a political one, but a cultural and spiritual battle as well, against encroaching liberal values such as gay rights, reproductive rights, secularism and the expanded presence of non-Christian culture, particular of Islam.
Where might the Authoritarian God of the Trump era take us?
Paul Froese, a Baylor sociologist who has led the God’s character research, said people’s religious instincts are woven into their understanding of the roles of authority and morality in the broader world. In other words, people who view God as authoritarian tend to believe that top-down authority is necessary and legitimate, “and in this way, anti-democratic structures can appeal to them,” he said. (Such people also tend to see God as male, he said.)
“Authoritative God people are like Trump in that they might not use the words ‘winner’ and ‘loser,’” he said, “but there are sinners and the faithful, and sinners get what they deserve and faithful should be first in line.”