Holy Week has been hijacked by the spectacle of white evangelicals crying over their savior Donald Trump. The former president was charged by a Manhattan grand jury this week with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. While the indictments are related to hush money Trump allegedly paid to cover up affairs and improperly recorded as business expenses, some supporters see this as Trump’s passion play. That is, they see his prosecution as a persecution, as a punishment Democrats are inflicting on him because he was their chosen one, the messiah who gave them power.
Trump’s arrest may be a first in American history, but for evangelicals who support him, it is the fulfillment of their prophecy of persecution for Trump, for whom many of them have shoved aside Jesus to praise. But this new passion play, which is centered around alleged adultery and payoffs, isn’t anything like the story of Jesus. This week’s story revolves around alleged behavior antithetical to Christian belief, behavior that has historically been anathema to evangelicals: adulterous sex — with a porn star, no less — and lying. Yet, white evangelicals are still supporting Trump.
A group of Trump-aligned evangelical pastors came together on a call to pray for Trump’s victory after his arraignment, and James Dobson, the evangelical pastor who founded “Focus on the Family,” prayed that God would “restore him to influence and power.” But the support for Trump goes far past mere prayers for him.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., said Tuesday, “President Trump is joining some of the most incredible people in history being arrested today. Nelson Mandela was arrested, served time in prison. Jesus! Jesus was arrested and murdered!” Anna Perez, the host of a show called “Wrong Think,” said in response to Trump’s Tuesday arrest, “President Trump would take a bullet for me. President Trump is taking a bullet for me. President Trump is prepared to take a bullet for all of us. What he’s is doing is Christlike. I never thought that before today ... He’s literally going to prison for us.”
Comparing Trump to religious and political martyrs is both laughable and frightening. Late last month, Joseph McBride, attorney for some Jan. 6 defendants, tweeted that Donald Trump is just as important to the United States now as Martin Luther King Jr. was the month before he was assassinated in 1968. Tuesday, on the 55th anniversary of that assassination, McBride tweeted: “MLK: April 4, 1968” and “TRUMP: April 4, 2023.”
While it may be hard to believe that Republican politicians, MAGA devotees and white evangelicals would say such things on the anniversary of King’s assassination and during the week leading up to Easter, I assure you that such statements are in keeping with the intertwined persecution narratives and grievances of the Republican Party and white evangelicals.
Trump has long known that by playing upon their fears and their grievances, he can manipulate evangelicals into abandoning their principles. They want the world, but especially the United States and its government, to be shaped by their religious beliefs, which are not compatible with traditional Christianity.
Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Undertow,” said it best when he described Trump’s indictment and arrest as the third stage of the theology of the Trumpocene - The Age of Martyrs. That age, he says, began with the killing of Ashli Babitt at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But now Trump has shoved her aside to heave himself onto the cross of persecution.
This devotion to Trump isn’t mere loyalty to the Republican Party. It is religious fervor. Trump and the GOP have fused their fortunes together to become a religion of grievance and retribution. It’s why Trump’s last public appearance before his indictment was in Waco, Texas, where the Branch Davidian Compound engaged in a fateful standoff with the U.S. government.
Trump knows his followers want a theocracy. Look at the laws being enacted in places like Florida and Texas. The banning of books, the erasure of abortion access and the targeting of trans children and drag shows represent the deployment of wedge issues that has been a part of the evangelical and Republican playbook since the late 1970s. Trump himself is so adored because he gave them Supreme Court justices and judicial appointments at a level no other Republican did.
Make no mistake: Evangelicals aren’t leaving Trump. Far from it. In fact, he now embodies the white evangelical penchant to believe that they are a persecuted minority. Now that the president who gave them three Supreme Court justices has been arrested, their embrace of him is stronger than ever. They have elevated Trump to a godlike status, one whom they worship even with more fervor.
For other Republicans hoping to contest him for the presidential nomination in 2024, good luck. You’re going to need it. MAGA Jesus is not dead. He is rising in the polls and may be impossible for any Republican to beat.