In his most recent column in truthdig.com , Chris Hedges points out that removing trump from power would leave the “yearning of millions of people, many conditioned by the Christian right for a cult leader.” Let’s look at the evidence of a close and causal link between the Christian “right” and the trump cult, making no mistake that the followers of the current president comprise a full-blown cult.
The most obvious link is the massive and charismatic composition of the two leaders. Even with specific names (Swaggart et al) we can all point to times and places in our lives when such captivating public speakers held sway over crowds of almost literally mesmerized fans. In my own life, such an evangelist came to our little town from the Northern Ireland town of Balleymena, near Belfast. Evoking, and undoubtedly mimicking his own idol, Ian Paisley, this little man, clad in his black Nehru jacket framing his clergy collar and bands, filled the pews for several years in a previously modest, quiet, reflective, warm and friendly church with his homiletic rhetoric. Always outlined in three pivotal points, (evoking the Trinity to make what he said seem more holy), this man spewed venom against the Roman Catholic church, (just as Paisley did for decades in Northern Ireland), spurned make-up for women, dancing for adolescents, movies for all, and wine and alcohol for adults.
Impeccably combed neat grey-black curls lay on his rubric forehead, while “ten-dollar” words poured from his silver tongue, as he glided from behind the large pulpit raised on a six-foot dias elevated above another two-foot raised platform from which he served communion, first to his right in full view, and alternatively to his left. His five-foot frame was a commanding presence with a presentation style that vacuumed cheques from wallets and purses, clarion chimes from one affluent newcomer, fresh paint from a cadre of willing volunteers, dock-side fleets of cars for Sunday summer evening theatrics and testimonials. “Saved,” “born-again” and “turning your life over to Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour” were his three rallying cries….and the muscle and larynx he interjected into his conversion “calls” were intimidating to some, shaming to others, spiritual medication to others for the pain of “sin” in whatever form it had been committed.
Little did he know, or more tellingly, would he have cared, to learn that Roman Catholic adolescent boys hurled stones at the heads of the youth who attended his church as they swan at the town beach, so penetrating and denigrating was his religious bigotry, in the name of Jesus Christ, as he understood Him. It would have been impossible for anyone, young or old, living in the town at that time, mid-fifties to late sixties, not to be fully aware of the division this little martinet was sewing in our little town. He very quickly magnetized four men to his Session, the church council’s designation at the time, where they joined others, including my father, who had served for decades previously.
In the only incidence in memory in which my father ever uttered an unkind word about another person, I once heard him quietly strip the spiritual, holy garments from those four men, calling them, “The Four Just Men!” in his dry and biting ironic sarcasm. Who knows their motives for rallying around this cult leader, but clearly, church growth in both dollars and adherents had to be one of their primary impulses; all four were (are?) engaged in business in the little town and were building those empires as the cornerstones of their legacy. Others, also private businessmen, joined later, underlining the strong enmeshment between the business culture and the church model.
Charismatic leaders, no matter what they are peddling, are renowned for their magnetic presence before a crowd. And when they are peddling a theology of sin, fear, hate and a kind of righteousness that wreaks of superiority and perfectionism, setting the “Saved” apart and above the “unsaved,” they are dangerous not only to those “saved” but also to all the rest. “Cult” wears a few faces, all of them smelling of the abuse of power:
· a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object
· a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing, a cult of personality surrounding the leader(s)
The blurring of “veneration” for a saint, for example, with the excessive enmeshment (admiration, adulation, sycophancy) with another person illustrates the complexity and the ambiguity and the “cover” implicit in many words in our language. And it is to the elimination, avoidance, denial and betrayal of all ambiguities that this evangelist dedicated his professional ministry, all in the name of “saving” the heathens in our little town. At sixteen, after what I then considered his most odious homily (bigoted and narrow, without any supporting evidence from scripture) I departed, and never returned, except for a wedding to my first wife. (My parents had struggled to remain!)
Whether this decade-plus long experience when I was especially impressionable was designed to equip me for a later chapter inside the church or not, it clearly shaped my attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and practice of ministry. My “DNA” has been in a conflict with all of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Christian “born-again’s,” if for no other reason than I never have accepted the notion that God, in and through His Son, Jesus Christ Resurrected, never wanted, expected, demanded or rewarded a permanent infantilizing of those who choose to worship as disciples. Uncertainty, acceptance of ambiguity, puzzling over meanings, both textual and experiential, reading, praying, reflecting, conversing, singing, weeping, rejoicing, learning and growing in all of the ways that we are capable of developing…..these seem a more grounded, perplexing, challenging, and loving set of guideposts for anyone searching for God. And without any cognitive, atmospheric, metaphysic, philosophic, psychologic, political, historic or liturgical mapping to “point” the way into the mind and the heart of God, I prefer the process, and the accompanying humility and even desperation of the search in and through the dark nights of the soul, the dark caves of the Shadow, the dark wounds of inevitable, persistent and toxic enemies, and the unbelievable joys that surprise us at every turn in our pilgrimage to a relationship with the ineffable.
Jonestown, and the massacre there, was devoid of uncertainty, ambiguity, puzzling. Similarly, the trump iteration of “cult” is devoid of uncertainty, ambiguity, puzzling, reflection and collaboration, not to mention the humility that necessarily and inevitably accompanies the approaches the spring from such uncertainty. Similarly, a loud voice, perhaps charismatic to some, singularly ‘convicted’ of the righteousness of its pontifications, totally immune to and alienated from all sensibilities of others, especially those others who do not ‘drink the kool-aid’ being served, or who do not advance the “cause,” narcissistic in the extreme, of its high priest strides the globe like a colossus, exclusively in its own mind.
And for every cult, there is the essential component of a willing, compliant, child-like and ignorant (in the ignosco, I do not know, sense) army of followers. So easy and almost facile to depict a “cult” leader; the army of followers, on the other hand, is not so readily captured. Idealistic, aspiring, often angry, unconscious of their Shadow and its projection onto the leader, disdainful of all opponents who cannot and do not see the world “as we do” and therefore are almost to be pitied, certainly scorned, and often shown little more than contempt. How else could a cluster of alienated outsiders, willing to shed all vestiges of their scepticism, while burying themselves in their contempt for the “other,” manage to agree on membership in the cult? Requiring little if any “supportive” dogma, ideological pillars, or theological tenets, these people are more like moths to a lamp, effervescently eager to rush to the “light” whereupon they almost immediately “die” in the dark below. Their’s is not so much a conscious sacrifice as a blind devotion to an image. Like Tristan and Isolde, two lovers addicted to the idea of love, cult conscripts have fallen in “love” with the idea of the power they believe they have inherited through their joining. Not knowing of the concept of enmeshment, they are vulnerable to their own blindness and the magnetism of their chosen leader.
Some might call them desperate, each in their unique and individual way for their own emptiness to be filled, they are satisfied by their coherence and membership, their shared activities, and their constant and repeated exposure to their leader who is above reproach, in their eyes.
Having lived in the shadow of their own self-loathing, they emerge into the light of the leader, believing that he (and history is almost, if not totally, devoid of female cult leaders) provides the missing light, hope, promise and deliverance they crave. The complex causes, reasons and cultural themes that put them in their own darkness remain outside both their understanding and their curiosity. Immediate gratification of the kind that collapses time in their search for a kind of panacea, or nirvana, is a compelling force that drives them into the fold of the cult. New recruits to a new movement, gang, group of specially saved or newly protective club, too, have a frenzy about their devotion to the cult. And they want to evangelize their friends and colleagues with an energy and an enthusiasm that overwhelms many of their prospective convert.
Ironically, given the feeling of strength and conviction of their membership in the cult, they are paradoxically anxious, insecure and defensive when they are challenged, and especially when their leader is defamed. It is as if the centrifuge of the criticism’s pull draws them even closer to the leader and to an even deeper and firmer commitment to the cult, unless and until…
Like the frog in the boiling water, unaware of the danger it faces, until it is too late, they often “come to their senses” in that they see how hollow are the cult culture and code and even the depth of character of their leader. And as history discloses, they eventually unravel, sometimes after prolonged propping by the leader and the resources he can command, also often quite prodigious, given the desire of benefactors to be part of something “big” and different and successful, at least on the surface.
Similar to a diet craze, there is an initial loss of weight, accompanied by exuberance, or in the case of the religious cult, an emotional high, a spiritual rebirth of sorts, leading to the “born-again” application and the commitment to recruit new converts. In the case of the trump cult, there is an entertaining fascination with how unscripted and out of the box his rhetoric, his defiance, his disdain for the establishment, the power of the his person and a kind of euphoria that seems to be “freeing”. And in the American context, where “freedom” is the license plate on every car, (although only New Hampshire’s reads, “Life Free or Die”), there is a desperate consuming aspiration (really an hollow emptiness) for throwing off all vestiges of constraint, government control, and hot-button words that epitomize such body-constraints like socialism, globalism, scientific evidence, and filing the void with a wild-west frontier-like lawlessness. And if the leader is prepared to appear to be promising an archetypal freeing from the “Egypt” of their enslavement (especially and ironically with the demographic numbers turning their white history into a brown future) millions are more than willing and eager to climb aboard the freedom train.
“Manifest Destiny” is one of the more notable memes in American history, needing both a new frontier and a willing army of seekers, whether it be to the west coast, originally, to the moon, or to the promised land, dependent on the latest Barnum and Bailey huckster. Just like that Balleymena evangelist, trump epitomizes the latest iteration of the huckster, propped up by a new band of “just men” (and a cadre of women) who need him as much or more then he needs them.
And unless and until their respective needs atrophy, dissipate morph into a new mature individuation, their enmeshment will only drag both leader and cult further into the slough of personal and, in this case, national, history.
The religious ‘right’ is ironically named, given its venal and heinous toxicity, in its own name and in its profound influence on the trump cult. It is not now, and never was ‘right’ in the righteous sense, except in its own mind. Pat Robertson’s recent prioritizing of the $110 billion immediately and $350 billion over ten years in arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the deliberate and premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-defected opponent by the Saudi regime, is only the latest manifestation of the vacuity of their faith.