With each day bringing more vexing news about the US presidential election, you may have overlooked some troubling election events rolling across Europe. There, like here, right-wing populist movements similar to MAGA mania are gaining momentum. The truth is, “vexing” and “troubling” aren’t heavy enough words for what’s going on on both sides of the Atlantic — “alarming” is more like it. 


In Germany and France populist parties (the AFD and National Rally, respectively) founded on nationalism, Euro-skepticism, and rabidly anti-immigrant sentiment are ascendant. In our country, a rising right-wing party — call it either the MAGA movement or the Republican Party since the two are indistinguishable — shares the anti-immigrant and nationalistic tendencies of its European counterparts. 

(When I began writing this piece, I included the UK in my list of countries where the populist right is ascendant. After yesterday’s elections, when  Reform UK failed to be a factor, I removed Britain from the list of countries where the populist right is on the rise. But I could have included Meloni’s Italy or Orban’s Hungary if I was looking for more evidence of the trend.)


Members of these right wing parties feel they’ve been shafted by the liberal establishment, especially by its failure to halt the flow of immigrants into their homelands. They pine for an earlier time when Germany was for Germans,  France for the French, and America for Americans. The role racism plays varies from party to party, but it’s safe to say they all long for a whiter future.


Our MAGA/Republican movement embraces an element that sets it apart from European populist parties, and not in a good way: the Christian right (oxymoron alert). Without the Christian right (I call them White Evangelical Christians or WECs), we would not have Trump. The numbers tell us that. In Europe, religious extremists aren’t a factor in electoral politics, but here they play an outsized role in statewide and national elections. 


So, what kind of “Christians” sign up to support, more or less hook, line, and sinker,  MAGA/Republicans? And what attracts them to the movement? 


Note that I put quotation marks around the word Christians above. Anyone can self-identify as a Christian. Even Trump gets away with it. It is easy and usually unchallenged. Whether such self-identification absolves you from following the teachings of Jesus — non-violence, concern for the poor, kindness to strangers, meekness, servanthood, etc. — is an entirely different question. In the interest of Christian unity many Christians are loath to call out other segments of Christendom because Christ  taught against being judgmental. Remember the parable of the prostitute who Jesus saved from stoning? (“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”) A worthy lesson to be sure. But I can’t share my thoughts about  Christians who support Trump unless I put aside my reluctance to criticize other segments of the Christian world. So here goes.


To begin with, let me tell you who Trump’s evangelical supporters are not. I don’t think they include many Roman Catholics. (See footnote.)  Neither can one blame Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, or Presbyterians for propelling Trump to power. Each of these denominations has enough institutional discipline and integrity to avoid political activism in elections. So if it isn’t Roman Catholics or mainstream Protestants who populate Trump’s evangelical army, who is it?


It’s thousands of large and small churches not organized under a single denomination that mostly operate as independent entities. They typically identify as evangelical and/or Pentecostal. They include the mega-churches you’ve seen on TV, whose weekly attendance ranges from 10,000 to 44,000. These  churches are huge, glitzy, and as much about entertainment as about gospel or sacrament.  Indeed, they’re light on the gospel and sacraments and heavy on preaching by a charismatic evangelist/preacher who leads his (because it’s usually a man) flock like a modern Pied Piper. He’s probably married to what some might call a trophy wife and he might travel in a private jet. Here is a link from CBS listing the largest of these mega churches:



According to AP VoteCast, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020 and a full 40 percent of votes cast for Trump were by white evangelical voters. He cannot win without them. They are responsible for giving us Trump in 2016 and they aim to do it again. 


So what attracts this Christian subset to Trump and MAGA/Republicans? For some it started with the abortion issue, but I’m not convinced that’s what galvanizes them. I think Trump reminds them of the gospel they hear on Sunday —  the gospel of prosperity. Their leaders, those neatly coiffed snake oil salesmen who lead worship services under glaring TV lights, look prosperous and hammer the message home to the throngs in the pews that their allegiance to the mega-church will soon be rewarded.


I’m reading a book called The Undertow by Jeff Sharlet. Its subtitle is Scenes from a Slow Civil War. Sharlet spent months visiting the kind of churches I’ve described. One of them, the Vous Church in Miami, is led by a hipster named Pastor Rich Wilkerson and his strikingly telegenic wife, DawnChere. Pastor Rich gained fame after officiating at the wedding of celebrities Kanye West and Kim Kardashian years ago. Author Sharlet was talking to one of Rich’s loyal followers, a man named Brandon, at the church when he noticed Brandon’s car, a gray Mercedes E550 convertible. The following exchange ensued: 


“Nice car,” I said. Brandon stepped back and admired it. “I am so blessed, man,” he said. “God gave me a Mercedes.”


That is the prosperity gospel in a nutshell.  It may have begun with Trump’s favorite minister, Norman Vincent Peale, whose book The Power of Positive Thinking still sells well decades after its publication. The prosperity gospel enables its adherents to enjoy the trappings that money buys with no guilt. Indeed, prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, thus “God gave me a Mercedes.” Another, perhaps unwitting, promoter of this twisted theology was John Calvin, who preached the doctrine of predestination. One’s prosperity is a sign that he or she is among God’s elect — predestined to thrive on Earth and in Heaven. The prosperity gospel allows believers to dismiss the troublesome parable about the rich young and the perils of wealth: “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” 


Adherents of the prosperity gospel revere slick-talking phonies like Wilkerson, Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen. They pay no mind to the message of challenging thinkers like social activist Dorothy Day or civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  


Not all churches in the Christian right’s orbit are as big as indoor sports arenas, like Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. Most are smaller congregations whose members are openly pro-gun, pro-flag, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and pro-Trump. Jeff Sharlet’s book mentioned several of them. They dot our nation’s countryside like measles. Congregants see Trump as an avenging angel put on Earth to set things right before it’s too late. (Or maybe to set things white?) Many of these churches are led by charismatic pastors who answer to no one. They hector, shout and urge congregants to be generous when the collections plate is passed. This army of pastors, along with their mega-church counterparts, have proven that they can deliver votes for Trump. He’s indebted to them and refers to them as “my evangelicals.” One hand washes the other.


As we watch electoral politics in Europe and the US play out, there’s a tendency to lump populist right movements together — Le Pen = Farage = Orban = Trump. But Trump is an outlier, beholden to a large and vocal subset of the electorate, the WECs. They’re essential to his continued existence on the world stage. If Trump is re-elected, hold them responsible.



Backing Trump isn’t the only evil being done by WECs, as I’ve written previously. They’re giving Christianity a bad name. You can already see the consequences; many young people have stopped seeking and have rejected  religion altogether. Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion’s role in American politics and society, was mentioned in The Washington Post in an article headlined, “Here’s What the Christian Right Wants from a Second Trump Term.” 


If Trump wins and the policies conservative Christians seek are enacted,  Prothero predicted a decline in Christianity in the US at a time when the nation has been rapidly secularizing. Partisan politicization of religion is driving Americans away from it, he said, and that will continue. 


Isn’t it the height of irony that a group of people who self-identify as evangelical Christians are creating atheists?


While some high-profile Republican Roman Catholics support Trump (think Bill Barr, Leonard Leo, Clarence Thomas, and the majority of Supreme Court justices), Roman Catholics are not the die-hard right wingers that are driving MAGA/Republicans. Furthermore, Roman Catholic bishops are notably liberal in terms of social justice issues, the death penalty, etc.

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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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