SUNDAY, MARCH 26TH, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
I guess one should not be surprised, in an age of alternate facts and alternate truth, that alternate Christianity exists as well. Reminiscent of the days of medieval Christendom, today’s alternate Christianity tries to link patriotism, politics, and governmental power and call it the Gospel.
Televangelist Pat Robertson, whose pulpit is The 700 Club, the flagship of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is a strong advocate of alternate Christianity. In February he declared, not so surprisingly, that Donald Trump is God’s anointed leader and that those who criticize him are really operating against God and God’s plan for America. He even described Trump’s critics as Satanic. Franklin Graham, the son of the world-famous Baptist minister Billy Graham, echoes Robertson when he says it was “the hand of God,” rather than Russian hackers, that put Donald Trump in the White House.
White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in support of Mr. trump, ignoring of course the candidate’s widespread rejection of traditional Christian values, like honesty, compassion, and sexual self-restraint. They have alternate beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, science, climate change, and of course issues of gender and human sexuality.
These evangelicals find alternate Christianity attractive because of their desire for a strong, even quasi-dictatorial leader who promises to keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and “progressives” in their place. Alternate Christians are ethnic and tribal. They are nostalgic about a 1950s America; and they worry about the demise of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in the United States. They believe the president’s assertions that, under him, (white) Christians will once again have power. They enthusiastically support his right-hand man on the National Security Council, Steve Bannon, who has called for a coalition of Christian traditionalists to wage a holy war against Islam.
Bannon is a strange fellow and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, who is convinced Pope Francis is a dangerously misguided, heterodox, pro-Islamic, and alarmingly socialist pontiff. In a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon warned: “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…..We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islam, and Islamic fascism.” He also condemned “the immense secularization of the West” and an increasing secularism among millennials. (The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, by the way, have praised the president for appointing Bannon to top positions in his administration. Makes sense. Steve Bannon is a hardened racist and a white supremacist sympathizer.)
Today’s alternate Christianity is no small thing. It is worrisome; and supporters of alternate Christianity should not be quickly dismissed. In some ways they are quite pious. Their piety however resonates poorly with authentic Christian faith. It echoes better with an exaggerated American civil religion: a rather sectarian form of conservative white American patriotism. Evangelical alternate Christians resonated strongly with the new president, when he proclaimed January 20th, the day of his inauguration, a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” President Trump is the alternate Christian savior. And how strange it is that so many evangelicals continue to support him, even when that requires their looking the other way, when confronting his hypocrisy.
Patriotic devotion or patriotic adoration? In Christian theology worshipping that which is not God is called idolatry. History shows of course that idolatry can be quite an impressive form of devotion. History shows as well that idolaters usually end up condemning and killing those who call into question their “god.”
Mr Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian. He says he will make Christianity great again. Frankly, I think he and his faithful followers identify more with Norman Vincent Peale, one of Trump’s former friends, than Jesus of Nazareth. That’s our contemporary American challenge. Just as we need to carefully sift alternate facts and alternate truths, we need to sift and point out the false beliefs of alternate Christianity.
Norman Vincent Peale was immensely popular in past WWII America, especially because of his 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale’s message misrepresented Christianity, offering a self-centered personal happiness approach to life: more love yourself than love your neighbor. He was more influenced by Christian Science and his own fascination with psychiatry than by the message of the Gospels. Christianity in Peale’s preaching was a set of self-stroking success-oriented beliefs: more energetic narcissism than altruism. “There is a real magic in enthusiasm,” Peale once said.”It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” Trump’s followers, wearing their make-America-great caps, have adopted this strategy and applied it to the country, ignoring racism, poverty, and “the losers.” Their gospel is looking out for number one.
I can understand why Donald Trump considered Peale his friend and mentor. (Peale also presided at Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana Trump in the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.) What Trump admired in Peale, who died on the day before Christmas in 1993, was Peale’s religion of success and personal fulfillment. The people who flocked to Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church were, like Trump’s parents, wealthy and success-driven CEOs who thought very positively about themselves. When Donald Trump looks at the world, he needs to see himself on center stage. “When I think I’m right,” he once said on 60 Minutes, “nothing bothers me.” And on another occasion, “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.”
And so here we are, three weeks from Easter. Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t quite fit the alternate Christian model. He was not self-centered. He did think positively about other people. He did not categorize some people as “losers.” He raised up the downtrodden. He ate with publicans and sinners. Those whom society shunned, Jesus touched and healed. The Bible that Jesus read, believed, and preached, the Hebrew Bible, bears strong witness to the same principles. The God of Israel condemned those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:7)
Alternate facts are fiction. Alternate truth is falsehood. Alternate Christianity is a fiction, a convenient fantasy, and a very dangerous falsehood.
“Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)