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The True Faith

Bible-thumping for fun and profit, but mostly profit.

Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, says a prayer for former U.S. President Donald Trump after he addressed the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee on September 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The closest I get to liking Donald Trump is when he evinces contempt for those who idolize him.

I feel guilty about that, as one shouldn’t sympathize with con artists. But you know how it is with scams: At a certain point of extreme gullibility, the mark starts to seem more contemptible than the person preying on them. If you’re still falling for “Nigerian prince” emails in 2024, the problem lies chiefly with you, not with the flimflam man responsible.

The sheer laziness with which Trump has courted evangelical voters since 2015 has always betrayed a degree of sincere disdain for them that’s unusual in a man not otherwise known for honesty. It would have been trivially easy for him to brush up on Christian dogma after he entered politics in the name of convincing the Republican base that he’d seen the light after a dissolute adulthood. But … he couldn’t be bothered to do so.

He’s never cared enough about the faith espoused by most of his supporters to even pretend to take it seriously.

That’s how we ended up with him once famously rendering “2 Corinthians” as “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians.” And listing “an eye for an eye” as his favorite Bible verse instead of something from the Gospels. And admitting at an evangelical forum that he couldn’t recall ever having asked for God’s forgiveness.

A man who lies like he breathes somehow can’t get motivated to lie persuasively about being pious, even as a gesture of minimal respect for his own fans. That’s remarkable. And insofar as most evangelicals have shrugged it off and rolled over for him anyway, my sympathies lie more with him. He’s been sending them the political equivalent of “Nigerian prince” emails for nine years; if they haven’t wised up yet, that’s a problem with them more so than with Trump.

How can it be that they haven’t wised up, though?

I always assumed that if the American right were to embrace an authoritarian spouting Christian platitudes, that figure would labor to feign authenticity. He would teach himself to quote scripture by chapter and verse and provide all the right answers to questions about his relationship with God when asked. Evangelicals would be able to sniff out a phony, and would righteously despise him for his cynicism in trying to exploit their faith. So he’d need to present a convincing portrait of a follower of Jesus to earn their trust.

That assumption was naive. Let’s talk about the “Trump Bible.”

The “Trump Bible” isn’t actually a Trump Bible. It’s a Bible published by singer Lee Greenwood that, in addition to the Good News, includes the text of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, and, uh, the handwritten chorus of Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA.”

It is, however, officially now “the only Bible endorsed by President Trump!” And yes, per the New York Times, Trump will be getting royalties from each purchase.

This video should play on a loop for eternity in a special exhibit at the eventual Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Casino:

The next time someone on the right scoffs at claims that Christian nationalism is rising, remind them that the Republican nominee for president is now hawking a version of the Good Book with an American flag on the cover and the country’s founding documents reprinted inside.

My first thought upon watching the sales pitch is that it distills the man to his essence in a way few Trump sound bites do, simultaneously sinister, amusing, grossly hypocritical, wincingly kitschy, and dripping with raw hucksterism. On the last point, one of my editors marveled at how his intonations in selling a Bible aren’t meaningfully different from the sort of pitch he uses when selling steaks—or mugshots. And during Holy Week, no less!

But that makes sense, no? When you’re trying to move “product,” you want to strike when public demand is high.

My next thought was that this is a downright scintillating illustration of the point I made last week about there being two sides to Trump’s political persona. One side is radically illiberal, overflowing with conspiracy theories and vows of revenge when he’s back in power. The other is coldly transactional, willing to bargain away almost anything if he concludes that the deal will redound to his personal advantage.

The “Trump Bible” plays like a parody of the dichotomy. It’s obviously being marketed to political radicals, the sort of Christians who’ll relish the word of God just a little bit more knowing that this version of it has been blessed by Donald Trump. And it’s just as obviously mercenary to a ludicrous degree, a remorseless cash grab even by the usual Trump standards. If he’s going to hawk nationalist Bibles to his evangelical fans at 60 bucks a pop, he might as well go for the big money and start selling MAGA-branded golden calves.

The fact that some of the revenue he earns from this very pious gambit is likely to go towards legal expenses in a matter related to his dalliance with a porn star or towards compensating a woman whom he was found liable for sexually abusing is the icing on the evangelical cake. Come to think of it, the only other time I can recall Trump touting the Bible in public was during his infamous photo op in 2020 after protesters were cleared by force from Lafayette Square. The Good Book, as something to be monetized or to be wielded as a cudgel against political enemies: Like I said, it’s the man distilled to his essence.

My third thought was that clips like the one above make a certain sort of shrewd strategic sense.

That seems counterintuitive since many Christians will recoil from it, and Trump can’t afford to alienate Christian voters seven months out from an election. But I suspect that any evangelical who’d hold a little light grifting involving the Holy Bible against him is already long gone, wandering in the Never Trump desert with the likes of David French and Russell Moore

And Trump is fine with that. His first political priority, even above maximizing his chances of reelection, is purging the Republican Party of anyone who would question his right to rule. He doesn’t want independent-minded Christians in the GOP any more than he wants the traditional conservatives who preferred Nikki Haley in the primary. He’ll win without them—and if he can’t, he’ll at least have consolidated his power over one-half of America’s political establishment in the process.

In that context, whether by design or by happenstance, the “Trump Bible” operates as a sort of litmus test for evangelicals who have stuck with him this far through thick and thin. You won’t abandon me if I make a mockery of your faith, will you? No, of course you won’t.

I see it as an analog to the point he made in 2016 when he boasted that he could shoot someone without losing votes. The reaction of Republican primary voters to the four indictments filed against him last year essentially vindicated that boast; go figure that if they’re willing to indulge him in crimes, he might reasonably assume that they’re willing to indulge him in brazen sacrilege aimed at lining his pockets amid a cash crunch.

It’s a loyalty test, as practically everything in a cult of personality is. He’s testing their faith—in him, not in Christianity. And insofar as those two faiths conflict, he expects them to choose more wisely than the Frenches and Moores of the world have. Those who refuse will find the doorway to exile from the Republican Party that-a-way.

Hawking Bibles emblazoned with an American flag during an election season suggests he’s very confident about how they’ll choose.

I don’t blame him.

Last week, the aforementioned Russell Moore published a piece for Christianity Today that began with this provocative line: “I guess Ned Flanders goes to strip clubs now.”

Ned Flanders, for younger readers who don’t know, is the prim and pious goody-goody neighbor on The Simpsons. He’s a comic stereotype of devout Christians that’s grown outdated and anachronistic over the million years that the show has aired, Moore notes. As evangelicals have contorted their moral beliefs to accommodate Trump’s leadership, they’ve grown more vulgar themselves. What was first normalized as a matter of political expediency has gradually been normalized in personal sensibilities as well.

“If The Simpsons were written today and wished to make fun of evangelical Christians,” he writes, “would the caricature be someone inordinately devoted to his family, to prayer, to churchgoing, to kindness to his neighbors, to the awkward purity of his speech? Or would Ned Flanders be a screaming partisan, a violent insurrectionist, a woman-ogling misogynist, or an abusive pervert?”

The devolution of evangelicalism in the Trump era is itself an interesting mix of radicalism and transactionalism, mirroring Trump’s personality. Many Christians made a cynical bargain with him in 2016, suppressing their moral discomfort and offering him their votes in exchange for guarantees that he’d enact their agenda, starting with limits on abortion. Insofar as his poor character and irreligiosity troubled them, some may have idly hoped that their influence over him, and the influence of figures like Mike Pence, would turn his heart toward God in time. He might be remade in Christianity’s image.

That transaction didn’t pan out the way they’d hoped. For many, Christianity has been remade in his image.

Turning the faith’s holy book into a nationalist prop in his latest infomercial pitch is the least of it. Go read this Reuters report on the many radicalized evangelical broadcasters who now speak of Trump in messianic terms as the leader in a battle between good and evil, his many alleged crimes and many, many unrepented sins notwithstanding. (“The hand of God is on him and he cannot be stopped.”) Some of his rallies lately have apparently opened with video from social media influencers claiming that, on the day Trump was born, God looked down on his “planned paradise” and anointed the newborn his “caretaker.”

Comparisons to Jesus Christ aren’t unheard of. A few days ago, Trump himself promoted a message on Truth Social from a fan noting the coincidence of New York State trying to seize his property during Holy Week.

I’m not sure he could have pulled all of that off had he posed as a true-believing, Bible-quoting Christian as a newbie candidate in 2016. Posturing as a serious evangelical would have signaled his own belief, however insincere, that ultimate authority still belongs to God. Doing so would have reinforced the primacy of Christianity in evangelical political life.

That’s not what Trump wants. He craves personal obedience. To the extent any Republican discerns a conflict between serving him and serving God, there’s no question which he thinks they should choose.

In hindsight, his refusal to even feign interest in his supporters’ faith may have been his way of establishing “ground rules” for his leadership of the right. Yes, he would support parts of their policy agenda, however grudgingly; yes, he would pay lip service to their faith, reading from “Two Corinthians” when asked to do so; but, culturally and politically, evangelicals would need to accommodate themselves to him, not vice versa. This was a transaction, not an earnest religious conversion. He wouldn’t—or couldn’t—pretend otherwise.

Evangelical Republicans could render unto God what was God’s by following Christian morality privately so long as they rendered unto Trump what was Trump’s by following his morality in public life. That meant radical loyalty, nothing more or less.

Once they accepted the terms of that transaction, they all but assured that someday they’d be forced to defend him hawking patriotic Bibles or shooting someone on Fifth Avenue or committing 91 crimes or trying to stage a coup. They’ve kept up their end of that bargain.

The true faith that Trump has inculcated in the modern right is the idea that religion is ultimately just another element of tribal identity with himself as the head of the tribe.

The tribe is the basic political unit in any nationalist movement, which invariably concerns itself with the question of which tribe should properly make the rules that govern the nation. That’s why ideological nationalism so often degrades into racial- or religious-based nationalism: Eventually the true tribal motive asserts itself and turns overt.

I suspect that helps explain the phenomenon Moore described of Ned Flanders types transforming into strip club enthusiasts. It’s not just a matter of aping Trump’s own attitudes toward women, it’s an expression of tribal solidarity. Trump’s movement is driven by nostalgia for America before it was ruined by “wokeness”; flouting feminist norms by acting like a horndog is a small act of rebellion against the liberal tribe that dominates the political establishment. Insofar as that conflicts with Christian morality, that morality must yield.

No wonder, then, that Trump would feel comfortable tangling up Scripture with the founding documents and slapping flag iconography on the cover. Those are all tribal signifiers of the right against the godless, lawless, unpatriotic left. To nationalists, they have no meaning of any consequence apart from their tribal symbolism. So why shouldn’t they be conflated?

To see how obnoxious some members of the Trumpist right are willing to be in treating religion as a tribal weapon, consider how the phrase “Christ is King” is being used by Candace Owens fans to protest her recent departure from The Daily Wire. Owens’ commentary on Jews and Israel eventually (emphasis on eventually) proved too repulsive for a site whose most famous face is Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew. Shapiro has promoted populism tirelessly for the past eight years, up to and including hosting fundraisers for Donald Trump, but the pro-Owens goons now hooting “Christ is King” at him online are suddenly keen to remind him that he’ll never truly be a member of their tribe.

The passions that drive nationalists aren’t about ideological nationalism any more than they were about ideological conservatism during the Tea Party era, and it’s very amusing to watch true ideologues confront that reality as the “Christ is King” episode plays out. Between this episode and Ron DeSantis’ fate in this year’s presidential primary, the New Right is getting some hard lessons about how much the grassroots they claim to speak for truly cares about populist policy versus tribal identity.

Tribalism is the true faith, one with its own peculiar catechism. Adherents of traditional religions warrant a simulacrum of respect so long as they also serve the one true faith and none if they don’t. That’s what Trump is offering with the “Trump Bible”—a simulacrum of respect toward the nominal creed of his own congregation, which has served him loyally. That’s all they’ll get from him, and to all appearances that’s all they want.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.