The faith of Trump’s misplaced trigger
(RNS) – The fiberglass statue of former President Donald Trump, recently filmed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), has been mocked as Trump’s golden calf. It was also the first icon of Trump’s religion of the lost cause.
It has long been evident that the civil war cast its long shadow over the Trump presidency.
The symbolism was visible to everyone from the Unite the Right rally against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville in 2017 to the insurgents carrying Confederate battle flags through the halls of the US Capitol on June 6. Trump made it his own to work to ensure that the monuments and the names of Confederate generals are kept on military bases.
The message became clearer as the tenure progressed: just as southern white people went to war to protect their slavery-based way of life, so white conservatives were involved in a proto-civil war to protect a way of life marked by structural racism. In Proud Boys versus Black Lives Matter, Trump left no doubt which side he was on.
And then there was the role of religion.
White evangelicals’ support for Trump demonstrated a Christian nationalism that harks back to civil war-era southern nationalism. Back then, the leading ideologues of the southern way of life were clergymen – representatives of an interdenominational evangelicalism that dominated the region during the antebellum period.
For them, the defense of slavery was existentially linked to a defense of Christianity against ungodly egalitarianism. As the prominent Presbyterian god Benjamin Morgan Palmer put it in a famous Thanksgiving sermon on the eve of the war:
(I) In this great struggle we are defending the cause of God and religion. The spirit of abolition is undoubtedly atheist. However, the demon who erected his throne on the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, who abolished the Sabbath and worshiped reason in the person of a whore, survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are just the type are. Disguise must be worn with a people as generally religious as Americans. but it’s the same old worn disguise of human rights advocacy. From a thousand Jacobean associations here, as in France, the decree has been issued that hits God by attacking all subordination and laws.
After the war, many of the same clergymen transformed this belief into a religion of the lost cause, which, as historian Charles Reagan Wilson points out in his seminal 1980 study, Baptized in Blood, became the civil religion of southern white people.
“In the southern myth, the Christian drama of suffering and redemption was incomplete: the Confederation lost a holy war and there was no resurrection,” writes Wilson. “But even after the defeat, the clergy insisted that the Confederation had led a righteous crusade.”
Through the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, this crusade was commemorated and celebrated across the south with ceremonies and memorials that Trump & Co. wanted to keep in place.
And the evangelical leaders who supported him and continue to support him sound like nothing else than the southern nationalist clergy of yesterday.
“The Democrats are really, if anything, against the faith,” said Franklin Graham a few months before the 2020 elections. It’s a socialist party. They want socialism for this country. “
“We will not give up this fight,” said Eric Metaxas Trump in a radio interview after the election. “This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened to our nation … This is God’s fight even more than our fight.”
Benjamin Morgan Palmer is smiling somewhere.
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