Why Christians Under Siege See a Cyrus in Trump

A recent Vox column by JournoList founder Ezra Klein produced a flood on top of the already-steady stream of articles from the corporate leftist media chiding Trump-supporting Christians for being poor exemplars of the faith. Christians should be wary of such articles in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, as they are clearly designed to breed apathy and second-guessing among Catholics and evangelicals—critical voting blocks for conservative candidates. It is important to expose the general illiteracy of critics like Klein about the Christian tradition and to call out their depictions of Christian conservatives, which are nothing but self-soothing caricatures.

One “news” outlet that piled on with Klein was Rolling Stone—apparently not deterred by their multiple journalistic embarrassments over the last few years from tilting at political windmills. (Though I do commend the recent work of Matt Taibbi, which is a refreshing departure from the tired ’60s-progressive orthodoxy in the magazine’s typical political coverage.)

In an essay called “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump,” Alex Morris explains her process of “unlearning” her family’s conservative Christianity, tossing out the familiar pabulum that any embrace of conservative politics as they exist today is tantamount to a rejection of Christian values. The argument is supported with the usual quotes from deeply concerned academics and transcribed conversations with the tragically dimwitted Christians in Morris’s family.

Not surprisingly, she never turns up anyone who actually “worships” Trump in the religious sense as the essay’s title suggests. She only manages to find a bunch who see Trump as a useful advocate of Christian cultural objectives. And although Morris claims to have sympathy for these people, what she feels is more like pity. She writes from a privileged cultural position, lamenting that religious conservatives believe things that she knows are indisputably, self-evidently wrong.

Over at the Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen picks up a quote from Rick Perry in which the former Texas governor basically said “Trump’s not perfect, but neither was King David.” Cohen explains to his readers that he will “take this [comparison] at face value” and attempts an apparently-serious scholarly demonstration that a 21st-century New York billionaire has little in common with a Jewish king living in the Middle East 3,000 years ago.

With Cohen’s credentials, he should know better than this. Never mind that Perry clearly did not mean for anyone to “take [his statement] at face value”—it gets Cohen to where he’s going. It allows a scolding of Christians sympathetic to Trump’s agenda: “When [the faithful] use [their beliefs] to excuse, or worse, glorify their political patrons, they are, as it were, building altars on the high places to Baal, and bringing the souls of their followers that much closer to the fires of Moloch.” Unlike Morris, Cohen doesn’t see Christians mistaking a mere man for the Messiah. To take his (clearly metaphorical) claim at “face value,” they are mistaking false, bloodthirsty pagan gods for the true one.

To return to Klein, like Kylee Zempel at The Federalist, I, too, was surprised that he gets it mostly right. I quote Klein at length:

[M]any conservatives—particularly Christian conservatives—believe they’re being routed in the war that matters most: the post-Christian culture war. They see a diverse, secular left winning the future and preparing to eviscerate both Christian practice and traditional mores. And they see themselves as woefully unprepared to respond with the ruthlessness that the moment requires. Enter Donald Trump. Whatever Trump’s moral failings, he’s a street fighter suited for an era of political combat. . . . He is the enemy they believe the secular deserve, and perhaps unfortunately, the champion they need.

On the whole, the essay criticizes Christian voters’ embrace of identity politics, where the interests of their particular group are elevated above concern for the common good. But this is an odd turn, given that Klein’s website Vox routinely gives implicit and explicit endorsements of identity politics and precisely this kind of political calculus.

Devout Christians are undeniably correct that left cultural elites increasingly have utilized institutional power to diminish the force of Judeo-Christian values in American life. This is patently obvious, so I won’t provide any examples. As evidence of his claim that we are now in a “post-Christian” society, Klein notes that when asked for adjectives that best define Christianity, young Americans most often chose “antigay,” “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” He calls this a “branding problem” for Christianity. The term “branding problem” suggests that these criticisms reflect the reality of Christianity in America. When a company has a “branding problem” it’s up to them to fix it. They need to change how they market the product. They need to be better spokespeople for it.

By characterizing the Christian faith as a market commodity, Klein suggests that Christians aren’t living up to the demands of consumers. And this may be true: as Zempel adeptly notes, if what consumers are demanding of Christianity is a vocal endorsement of left progressivism, it likely won’t—and probably can’t—reach the “market.” But Klein never takes account of an obvious reality that must enter these calculations. When we find that young people have a negative view of Christianity, to what degree are those perceptions a product of the daily, relentless criticism and mockery that Christianity receives in mass media and popular culture? If Christianity has a “branding problem” it’s in large part because (as a mouthpiece for left progressive secularism) the mass media has a Christianity problem.

In short, Klein wants Christianity to become something different—presumably a faith that affirms left-wing orthodoxy on most issues, chief among them the idea that unlimited personal autonomy and a state apparatus that falsely guarantees against the inherent risks of a radical individualism is the highest end of politics and the only mark of a just society. But there is no way Christianity can fulfill that demand without rejecting the timelessness of its truth.

Nevertheless, Klein gets something right—we are most certainly living in a “post-Christian” context. Zempel bristles at this assertion, but I think it is important to recognize this reality, if only so that people sympathetic to the faith (thinkers like Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen) can begin to sketch strategies for living a Christian life in a place and time that discourages it in a variety of ways. These strategies were familiar to many Jews and Christians who lived the events of the Old and New Testaments, but they are mostly unknown to Americans today.

It is also important to acknowledge that a “post-Christian” America doesn’t mean an America without Christians, and it certainly doesn’t mean a “post-Christian” world. As the number of believers wanes in the West, the influx of newly faithful people in places like Africa and Asia ensures that the total number of Christians is at an all-time peak. Thank God for that. But orthodox Christians are unquestionably becoming a minority in the United States, and it is instructive to note that as Christians’ minority status becomes clearer, the minority-friendly Left only grows less tolerant of it.

So, no—conservative Christians don’t “worship” Trump. No, Alex Morris—they don’t see Trump as the Messiah. No Eliot Cohen—they don’t see him as a new King David. To agree again with Zempel’s excellent piece, no Christians who I know see Trump as a religious figure at all. To the extent that some of their zeal for Trump looks like religious fervor, it must be added that this kind of political enthusiasm isn’t a right-wing phenomenon. Obama’s 2008 candidacy was explicitly messianic in character, and Democrats around the country flocked to see the godman prophesy on a podium with a Latin slogan, between plastic columns.

If we must compare Trump to some biblical figure to understand how conservative Christians regard him (and we probably shouldn’t), there is really only one character that makes any sense: Cyrus the Great, first king of the Achaemenid Empire.

Cyrus lived from about 600 B.C. until 530 B.C., and although he wasn’t a Jew, his deeds were foretold by the prophet Isaiah who did call Cyrus “messiah”—not the Messiah, but a messiah, a person anointed and ordained by God to carry out His will. Although the Jews in the ancient Near East had flourished in Jerusalem, at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. they found themselves dwindling in power, besieged by warring imperial factions on all sides. The city fell to Babylon and the victors brought the people out of Judah, a period of exile called the Babylonian captivity.

Decades later, Cyrus conquered Babylon. He was a true multiculturalist—he let conquered peoples keep their long-standing traditions and beliefs as a means to achieve peace and stability in his growing empire. He allowed the Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and their holy city—and he allowed them to build a wall to protect it from siege. These events are chronicled in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and are well-attested in other historical texts.

The state of American Christianity today is not unlike that of Judaism in the time of Nebuchadnezzer: they are dazed by abrupt cultural changes and besieged on (almost) all sides. American Christians don’t find themselves driven out of their metaphorical Jerusalem into a new land—they find themselves still at home, but under a new order—a home that is increasingly difficult to recognize as such. They are not exiled from their nation, but from their culture. The Jews didn’t “worship” Cyrus.  But they did love him. They loved him not because he was a Jew, but because he found a place in his new empire to let the Jews be Jewish.

Similarly, conservative Christians don’t “worship” Trump. As pragmatists, many of them recognize that it is unlikely the United States will ever elect a devout Christian to the nation’s highest office again. Under those circumstances—forced to choose between a leader who is not one of them (but who recognizes and defends their contributions and their rights in a pluralistic nation) and a leader who is openly hostile to them and their values—it’s not a difficult decision in the voting booth. I hope that Klein would agree that to make the opposite choice would be sheer stupidity. Orthodox Christians have watched for decades as the culture has turned against them. Is it any wonder that they are happy to find a Cyrus who sees their vulnerability and promises them a wall?

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage

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