There have been many words used to describe President Donald Trump’s volatile campaign, but “religious” is rarely one of them. Despite successfully wooing white evangelical leaders and votes, the business mogul was roundly criticized by everyone from conservative Christian leader Russell Moore to Pope Francis for his infamous missteps regarding matters of faith.
But if Trump’s inauguration and the days immediately following are any indication, his administration is shaping up to be far more religious affair.
Trump slid into “God-talk” several times during his inaugural address, so much so that TIME called the swearing-in ceremony “very Godly” and noted that his use of religious rhetoric was “unusually blunt.” The Washington Post even suggested that his speech was his “most religious” yet, as the businessman almost never quotes scripture with such confidence (when he cited a Bible passage in front of evangelicals during the campaign, for instance, he bungled the delivery).
In some ways, this is normal. So-called “civil religion”—the use of religious references or terminology in political rhetoric—is a common part of the presidential rhetorical toolbox, so it seems logical that Trump and his speechwriters/advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller would adopt it. President Barack Obama, sometimes a “theologian-in-chief,” regularly cited scripture in his speeches, as did George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and virtually every American president ever.
But Trump and his religious surrogates aren’t just lifting up general religious platitudes. Rather, the president’s inauguration—especially his inaugural address—ushered in a revival of an old but controversial American theological tradition, amended for a new era: Christian nationalism, Trump style.
When “God’s people” really means “patriotic Americans”
Trump’s first overt reference to the divine came in the latter half of his inaugural speech, when he was opining on the virtues of patriotism. After promising to “reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism” in order to “eradicate” extremists, he declared that when someone “open[s their] heart to patriotism, there is not room for prejudice.”
He then added, “the Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
Let’s set aside for a moment the historical fact that patriotism has long been co-opted as a tool for prejudice, and focus on how Trump is referencing Psalm 133 here. His broader point—that societies function better when people are unified—makes sense generally. But things take a sharp turn when grokking what Trump is communicating theologically.
Take Trump’s use of “God’s people.” He didn’t have to use this phrase, since it varies depending on the Biblical translation— it’s “God’s people” in the New International Version, but others read “kindred” (New Revised Standard Version), “brethren” (King James Version), or “brothers” (English Standard Version). It’s also not clear if he or his speechwriters understand the original Old Testament/Hebrew Bible meaning of the term, which was specifically referencing the Jewish people.
Regardless, Trump parrots “God’s people” anyway, implying that all Americans — or at least all Christian Americans — are somehow chosen by God. And more importantly, he intentionally conflates the spiritual unity of “God’s people” with patriotism, merging commitment to country with a devotion to the Almighty.
This is not a new idea. Ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 313 CE, innumerable Christian leaders (and politicians) have spouted spiritual nationalism or jingoism in the pursuit of power. The American expansion westward—and the subsequent subjugation of the Native Americans—was justified using theological concepts of “manifest destiny,” for example, and modern China has a habit of promoting state-sponsored versions of Christianity that meld patriotism and religious devotion.
Trump parrots “God’s people” anyway, implying that all Americans — or at least all Christian Americans — are somehow chosen by God. And more importantly, he intentionally conflates the religious unity of “God’s people” with patriotism, merging commitment to country with a devotion to the Almighty.
These efforts have been vociferously opposed by both liberal and conservative theologians and thinkers for centuries. There are numerous arguments against the approach, including the fact that the Christian/Jewish God explicitly forbids religious nationalism in the Biblical 10 Commandments, when God tells believers not to put any gods/idols—country or otherwise—before the divine (Jesus said something similar).
Others simply call religious nationalism by another name: heresy.
Yet the Trump administration’s steadfast commitment to a “Christian America” framing was all but confirmed on Friday, when Prosperity Gospel preacher and Trump spiritual adviser Paula White delivered a prayer during the inauguration.
“Let your favor be upon this one nation under God,” White prayed, referencing the Pledge of Allegiance. “Let these United States of America be that beacon of hope to all people and nations under your dominion, a true hope for humankind.”
This interlacing of nationalism and faith was quickly flagged by experts. Peter Manseau, author of “One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History,” told the Washington Post that Trump’s inauguration rhetoric reflected a “desire to fuse the languages of faith and nation.”
“A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart,” the statement reads. “Our Constitution is written on parchment, but it lives in the hearts of the American people. There is no freedom where the people do not believe in it; no law where the people do not follow it; and no peace where the people do not pray for it. There are no greater people than the American citizenry, and as long as we believe in ourselves, and our country, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Trump as a divinely ordained, supernatural ruler?
Trump didn’t invent American Christian nationalism. Leaders of the Religious Right have spent years promoting the idea that America is a “Christian nation,” and entire religions such as Mormonism—which views the U.S. Constitution as a divinely inspired document—have already baked similar theology into their dogma.
But another paragraph of Trump’s inauguration speech hints that he and his advisers are crafting a new version of this America-focused Christianity—one that keeps Trump at the center.
After suggesting there should be “no fear” while he is in office, Trump assured Americans they will be safe because they will be protected by the military, law enforcement officials, and God.
It’s not uncommon for presidents to praise the might of the American military, which is, without question, the most powerful fighting force in the world. Nor is it unusual for people of faith to implore God to protect the United States and its citizens—both liberal and conservative religious groups pray similar orisons each week.
But Trump drags both concepts into a very different—and highly unusual—theological space: he appears to be arguing that America will be protected by God because he is president.
Granted, the phrasing here is vague. But the conviction of his construction—that God will protect Americans now—raises questions. Was America not protected before Trump, when Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 and sparked a brutal Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history? Did God turn a blind eye to the land of free when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941? Did the divine simply ignore us all when terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, murdering nearly 3,000 people?
Does this mean that presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George W. Bush just weren’t good enough to curry God’s favor?
But Trump drags both concepts into a very different — and highly unusual — theological space: he appears to be arguing that America will be protected by God because he is president.
Trump didn’t answer these questions in his speech, but he didn’t have to. His bevy of religious surrogates glossed over them for him on Inauguration Day.
On the morning of his inauguration, Trump attended a traditional service at St. John’s, an Episcopal Church directly across from the White House. He chose megapastor and devoted supporter Robert Jeffress—who also happens to endorse anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim, anti-Mormon, and anti-LGBT theology—to deliver his sermon.
The title of his homily? “When God chooses a leader.”
“As the prophet Daniel said, it is God who removes and establishes leaders,” Jeffress said. “God has raised [Trump] and Vice-President-elect Pence up for a great, eternal purpose.”
He went on to argue that God elevates great leaders, gifting them with seemingly supernatural powers to achieve impossible goals and defy all those who oppose them. Trump, he says, is one such leader.
A similar sentiment was echoed later that day by evangelist Franklin Graham, who delivered a prayer shortly after Trump spoke.
“Mr. President in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing,” Franklin said, a bizarre claim directly contradicted by the Biblical flood God used to wipe out almost all of humanity in the book of Genesis. “And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”
[Jeffress] went on to argue that God elevates great leaders, gifting them with seemingly supernatural powers to achieve impossible goals and defy all those who oppose them. Trump, he says, is one such leader.
The idea of God-chosen leaders is an old one, rooted in scripture and dating back to a theological concept known as the “divine right of kings”—or that leaders (specifically monarchs) are chosen by God, and thus beholden to no one but God. Despite the constancy of Christian nationalism in American history, there is a rich history of patriots opposing this idea: Thomas Paine, for instance, dedicated a healthy part of his landmark “Common Sense” to debunking the concept.
Yet an atmosphere of divine selection surrounded Trump’s inauguration all the same (although, thankfully, he has yet declare himself immune to the democratic process). And while preachers have lauded any number of past Commanders-in-Chief, few if any presidents have packed their stages with those who flaunt it, or inculcated their speeches with such self-righteous claims.
An uncertain theological future
This kind of theology has obvious pitfalls, of course. After all, if America does endure another terrorist attack during Trump’s tenure, does that mean God has turned against Trump?
Meanwhile, his message is already sparking backlash among some observers. Michael Peppard, associate professor of theology at Fordham University, railed against “Trump’s God” in a recent post for the Catholic publication Commonweal, noting that his rhetoric paints the divine as “an extension — even a projection — of the American military and law enforcement.”
“If our civil religion is heading that direction, toward theologically grounded militarism and policing, then we Christians really are in grave spiritual danger,” Peppard wrote.
But Trump, flanked by his menagerie of loyal faith leaders, is already preaching a nationalist gospel from the largest of pulpits. And while the exact parameters of this developing theology remain to be seen, it’s clear a revival of American Christian nationalism is on the horizon—with Trump as its high priest.