“Trumpism – The Emergence of an Ideological Cult?”
As a pastor, I try to stay out of politics. Religion is often divisive enough, let alone add politics to the mix. Likewise, I have no joy in poking around in my people’s political affiliations. But occasionally there is a time when I must for the sake of conscience and faithfulness break silence to preserve the integrity of my call. Since people hate when preachers “get political,” I thought I would take a look at Donald Trump from a “religious” perspective. So here goes…well whatever.
If Donald Trump were espousing a rhetoric of religion, he’d be considered the leader of an emerging cult. That alone should cause us to pause and think deeply about the interior condition of our country and our souls. To blindly be swept up in the fascination and propaganda of Trump’s machine could very well mean the giving away of our souls to the abyss and desolation of religious, ideological, and political nihilism…or nothingness. It is nothingness that could steal our souls.
Cults gather around a charismatic leader, one that often emerges from out of “nowhere” as an answer to the prevailing despair felt by many. Their charm, boldness, and brazen promises endear them to the hearts of those seeking a “messiah-like” figure, someone to save them from this wretched place. Their brilliance and power is not found in appeals to reason or intellect but to emotions and tugging on heartstrings, emotions frazzled by a culture of crisis, division, uncertainty, and “lostness.” They swoop in with the promise to gather “all” under their wings, shielding them from all that’s wrong (whether the “bad” politicians, the lying media, or by building a wall.)
When the hearts of a critical mass have been captivated, the cult leader moves to a spiritual control of the imagination. They say little of substance, but what they do say they say with a vigor and passion making it appear as though there are only two choices, perdition or their way. They become the only viable option. Their control and manipulation of truth is insidious. They ensure that all other voices are doubted. Everyone else lies. The cult leader is the only one that can be trusted. The cult leader is the final arbiter of truth. “You can trust me,” they say, “because I’m the only one with your best in mind.”
They take on the martyr complex, the cult leader against the world. All naysayers are members of the establishment who refuse to accept the cult leaders’ hope. The media, pundits, and other politicians (all of which are needed by the cult leader to spread his version of truth) have in mind to crucify him. They begin to tout, “All voices of truth must suffer.” However, he assures he has the power to overcome the forces of deceit that launch attacks.
They lay the groundwork for a systematic dismantling of all freedom and forms of public discourse that call into question the agenda of the leader. They begin to quarantine their followers from outside influence. Trump has already said he would seek to immediately modify libel and slander laws to ensure it is easier to sue the media. How long until he prosecutes bloggers who disagree with his policy or restricts freedom of assembly in protest to his programs? He’s already said he wishes he could censor the internet. He seeks to limit religious freedom, first for the Muslim, but in taking on the Pope, how long before he levies attacks against pastors and Christian faith communities that refuse to buy his version of truth? Their restriction of freedom is always done “for good of the people.” People need to be protected from themselves.
They use religion as a means to serve their ends. Playing upon the emotional and psychological power of religious language, symbols, and traditions, they “take on the role” (the cult leader shifts identity to meet the needs of the time) of religious participant and even one who “reads the bible more than anyone else.” No regard is afforded to the disparity between one’s espousal of faith and the lack of congruence in life and example with that espousal.
They seek to discredit, dismantle, or destroy supposed adversaries like school-yard bullies. Their rhetoric is taken from the playgrounds of America. Others are “dumb, stupid, weak, basket-cases, chokers, or failures.” They play on the physical characteristics of others in hopes of picturing opponents as cartoon characters that can be easily dismissed.
They operate in the realm of dualisms. They are “good” and others are “bad.” They know the “truth” while everyone else “lies.” The rhetoric will intensify as time goes on, as hearts are captivated. They will begin to talk in terms of “righteous” and “evil,” as well as “light” and “darkness.” A person’s place on the dark side of the dualism will give the leader all the right they need to silence, demean, or eliminate opposition.
There is an apocalyptic vision at work, a rhetoric of the absolute. Like quoted in a recent speech, they are the only ones able to take us into the “promised land.” The cult leader is ushering in a new age of peace, harmony, and prosperity, a world built in the image of the creator, in this case the cult leader or demagogue. Any means are justifiable in accomplishing this end. Those that align themselves with the leader are a part of the true remnant of all that is good, true, and right, while others have already chosen their own demise.
As a pastor, I am amazed that what would be condemned outright if this were an extremist religious cultish sentiment would be tolerated in the name of partisan politics. It speaks to the soul of our country and each of us individually. Fear makes us the prey of alluring leaders who promise the world, but we must remember this is a world they’ve fashioned to serve their own agenda. Religiously we would call this the supreme case of idolatry.
We are better than this.
As a country we are better than this.
We’ve fought too long in the preservation of freedom from tyranny and narcissistic leaders. We’ve refused to give our souls away to substance-less leaders who “make it up as they go.”
We must refuse the temptation to acquiesce to the culture of crisis. We must refuse to drink the kool-aid. It is time to shake off the stupor of fear and reclaim the spirit of courage that has long been part of our culture and society. It is time to say no, not now, not ever!