Trump and the Puritans
By James Roberts and Martyn Whittock
Biteback, 320pp, £20/$29.95
“God wanted Donald Trump to be president.” That is how Sarah Sanders, the former White House press secretary and a vocal Evangelical, explained President Trump’s close relationship with the Christian community. Unfazed by his divorces, alleged extramarital affairs and uncouth remarks, followers of Christ bet all their cards on President Trump. In this book, subtitled How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House, Roberts and Whittock explain why they have not been disappointed.
The book is written for a British readership, and the authors begin by highlighting instances of British interference in American politics, as when the Guardian newspaper encouraged its readers to flood American voters with anti-conservative messaging. This is followed by instances of British censorship of American voices, such as the refusal of British venues to host a tour by the missionary Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son).
Roberts and Whittock try to discern a continuum between the Puritans of the Mayflower and modern-day Evangelicals. They argue that “the mantle of Puritan heritage has shifted geographically [from New England] to the southern states and the Midwest”. They hasten to add that it is “not due to the direct transmission of ideology through an established church”, but “more a massive contribution to the idea of ‘American-ness’ ”. The assertion may be tenuous, but it is a necessary contextualisation for their aim: anchoring the 45th president of the United States in the tradition of the settlers.
While President Trump is not a devout churchgoer by any stretch of the imagination, his rhetoric is full of Judaeo-Christian flourishes. Roberts and Whittock do a good job of quoting from his speeches and highlighting his recurring references to American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. However, they fail to mention that he probably does not write those speeches. More interesting are his “off script” moments, such as when he compares himself to George Washington.
Roberts and Whittock explain how, in terms of policy, President Trump is in line with Evangelicals on abortion and Israel, the two most important issues for them. His administration’s stance on abortion is further buttressed by Vice President Mike Pence’s personal commitment to life. Pence seems to be especially useful in quelling the fears of doubters. With regard to Israel, Roberts and Whittock explain the significance of Christian Zionism in US political discourse, its historical ties to millenarianism and its impact on realist policies in the Middle East.
When it comes to immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Roberts and Whittock suggest most are Catholic and thus “the wrong kind of Christian” for Evangelicals. As far as the border wall is concerned, the authors argue that it is seen by Evangelicals as a barrier against liberal culture, a metaphorical shield against the secularisation of America.
Roberts and Whittock are correct to emphasise the lasting legacy of President Trump’s judicial appointments, and their appeal to the Evangelical community.
This is probably the most obscure topic for British readers, who may not understand the subtleties of district courts or circuit courts. Still, their point is that those judges are originalists (believing that the words in the US Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written), and they will rubber-stamp the Evangelical stance on abortion and religious liberty. This alone may be a good reason to re-elect President Trump.
The book fails to mention the dehumanisation of Trump supporters by secularists – not only the usual suspects but also by the intelligence community, which is supposed to remain apolitical. Moreover, President Trump’s repudiation of the international order could have been further explored by Roberts and Whittock. The book does mention Christian nationalism as an offspring of Puritanism, but many Evangelicals who spend much of their time on missions around the world may find themselves at odds with Trumpism.
Another area of omission is President Trump’s upbringing at First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the influence of the Rev Dr Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Peale seems to have defined the Trump entertainment brand, while his time at a military school and early career as a developer gave him the foundation to develop as a businessman. The Trump family arrived in the US relatively recently – in the 1880s on his paternal side and the 1930s on his maternal side. Thus the reference to Puritans may only be understood in the context of Americanism.
Still, Roberts and Whittock’s book is insightful, well-written and sure to appeal to both devotees and sceptics of President Trump. Recommended reading before a dinner party.
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