Anyone familiar with the ritual called the State of the Union is also familiar with the fact it invariably ends with the exhortation “God bless America.” Few are probably aware of the fact that the first president to utter it was none other than Richard Nixon, who “dropped the phrase during an attempt at damage control for the burgeoning Watergate scandal on April 30, 1973.” God did bless America at the time, if only by ridding the country of “Tricky Dick.” Yet, it is probably fitting that it was Nixon who first came up with this phrase. Nixon represents something that is fundamental to the human condition, at least in its American form: the drive to succeed, no matter what, the force of self-delusion [“I’m not a crook”] and the fundamental hypocrisy that is central to the American experience.
Nixon marks the origins of much of what is wrong today in the United States. It was his so-called Southern strategy — the appeal to the worst racist animus of white voters in the South — that not only won him the election, twice, but which marked the Republican Party for decades to come. Donald Trump owes his victory in the presidential election of 2016 to a large extent to Richard Nixon — a victory that has poisoned the country beyond repair.
Trump’s callous response to some of the worst calamities in recent history, from the disastrous impact of Covid-19 to the hellish wildfire inferno engulfing the western states, suggests that God has been looking less than kindly on his “city upon a hill” envisioned to represent a model of Christian charity, as John Winthrop put it in 1630. In fact, one might even suspect that God has come to hate it — that he hates it so much, in fact, that He allowed for the election of Donald Trump, the worthy heir to Richard Nixon.
Nixon, of course, was a crook. But compared to Trump, he was one of Woody Allen’s “small-time crooks,” little more than a minor league player. At the same time, however, he prepared the ground and paved the way for the current president who has made the appeal to white anxiety and resentment central to his administration. Trump, of course, has gone out of his way to invoke God’s blessing, waving the Bible [albeit upside down] in front of a church “he rarely attends and whose leaders and congregation work against the policies he trumpets,” in a craven attempt to play to his base: the dwindling number of fundamentalist Christians who consider him their last bulwark against an increasingly discombobulating, if not threatening, reality.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS
Donald Trump is the epitome of the stereotypical American, boisterous and narrow-minded [“still the greatest country in the world”], hypocritical to the max [waving a Bible while boasting that he can grab any woman by her private parts and get away with it], and completely oblivious to how the rest of the world regards the US these days [“we should have more people from Norway” at a time when no Norwegian in his or her right mind would want to move to a “shithole country” like the US]. At the same time, he is reminiscent of the playground bully who runs away crying, like Scut Farkus’ toadie, Grover Dill, in A Christmas Story [“I’m gonna tell my dad”] — when somebody dares to stand up to him, particularly if it is a woman.
The United States is still the most [practicing] Christian nation among advanced Western democracies. In the most recent Pew survey on religion in America, around two-thirds identified as Christians. To be sure, this was substantially lower than just a decade ago. Yet compared to Western Europe, it is a remarkably high level. This, however, is only part of the story. What is considerably more important is the fact that a substantial number of Americans insist on taking the Bible literally, as the absolute Truth, even if that truth runs against not only science but even common sense [who in their right mind would believe that Jesus walked with dinosaurs?].
Now, one would expect that those who profess to be genuinely dedicated Christians would follow what the good book teaches. Basic exhortations such as don’t lie, don’t cheat, be kind, compassionate and merciful toward your fellow sister and brother, independent of their ethnic background, economic circumstances or sexual orientation. And, above all, be humble and don’t take the moral high ground with that smug self-righteousness, which is particularly irritating in the eyes of the Lord, whom America’s dedicated Christians claim as their ultimate authority.
As is written in Isaiah 64:6, “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” Or, as Jesus once put it, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” [Luke 6:37]. For the self-righteous, such sentiments are alien. The self-righteous are hypocrites who condemn others in order to show that they are morally superior. The Pharisees are a prime example of this kind of smug self-righteousness, which Jesus condemns in the most scathing terms.
In the United States, the equivalent are TV “evangelists” such as Pat Robertson, the host of the “700 Club,” a Christian news and TV program with an audience going into the millions. Or, there are Christian “leaders” such as Jerry Falwell Jr, the disgraced former president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, whose sexual shenanigans were too much even for evangelicals who have no qualms supporting a president who has boasted of getting away with…
And, there are TV and radio commentators such as Tucker Carson at Fox News, who is still trying to figure out how to find his way out of Trump’s backside, and Rush Limbaugh, famous for dismissing Covid-19 as nothing more than the common flu and, later on, after tens of thousands of Americans had died from the respiratory disease, charging that following medical experts and wearing masks was “un-American” and nothing “compared to the way we have overcome enemies and obstacles in our past.”
It would be easy to dismiss the likes of Robertson, Falwell Jr, and Limbaugh as somewhat picturesque if unhinged cranks were it not for the fact that their impact on ordinary people has been, and continues to be, far more pernicious than Covid-19 could ever achieve. There are good reasons to suspect that the Trump administration’s position on Covid-19, global warming and climate change, and white-on-black racism derives from a common root: the belief that the end is near. I am not referring to the end of Covid-19, or the end of the American empire, but of the end of humanity — the end of the world as we know it.
FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY
In my former life, I had the opportunity to spend a year as an exchange student with a “fundamentalist” Christian family in Texas. They were some of the most generous people I have ever had the opportunity to encounter. They lived their faith, and it showed. The also introduced me, a Bavarian Catholic who had spent the past eight years of his life in a Catholic boarding school, to a world largely informed by the scripture’s teachings.
For the first time, I was confronted not only with some of the major Old Testament prophets such as Daniel, but also with the Book of Revelations and its exegesis. Here, the most important book at the time, at least among true believers, was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold millions of copies. The book was very much informed by the Cold War. In Lindsey’s exegesis of the Revelations, Gog and Magog, the “forces” from the north threatening Israel, is the Soviet Union attacking Israel with Mi-24 helicopters [John’s giant locusts]. After Gog and Magog’s annihilation, there will be a war “between the Western powers and the Chinese, which will culminate in the end of the world in a thermonuclear blast.” So much for Hal Lindsey.
Nevertheless, the book was turned into a film, with Orson Welles, of all people, serving as the narrator. Both book and movie are based on John’s Apocalypse, which tells of the tribulations visited upon humanity heralding in the end of the world, the last judgment. True believers, of course, most of them Americans, were spared the pain. They were snatched from the earth in a process of divine kidnapping that swept them up into heaven from where they could gloat — the rapture. Evangelical writers, always eager to make a buck from the gullibility of true believers, turned the narrative into a series of books, Left Behind, which scared the daylights out of lukewarm believers and turned the authors into millionaires. This might sound funny, ludicrous, kooky, off the deep end were it not for the fact that it appears to inform major figures in Trump’s inner circle.
One of the central dogmas among those who believe in the truth as revealed by John in the Apocalypse is that the end of history — and, the return of Christ — is contingent on the Jews rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. For a long time, this was inconceivable, given the fact that the site of the temple is occupied by two of Islam’s holiest shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Until Trump, American presidents have shied away from sanctioning Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem. Diehard evangelicals have lobbied for decades that the American government do whatever possible to hasten the process. Presumably, this would allow the Jews to rebuild the temple. This, presumably, would entail destroying the Muslim shrines, which, in all probability, would trigger an all-out confrontation with the Muslim world.
But in the self-contained world of American “dispensationalism,” Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem was, therefore, widely seen as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Trump himself acknowledged that the move was largely “for evangelicals” rather than Jews who appeared to be rather unenthusiastic about it. But then why would they, given the fate that according to evangelicals awaits many of them during the time of tribulations? Hint: a large number will be “purged out and removed” — a euphemism, I guess, for saying they will go straight to hell.
With Donald Trump, staunch believers in this kind of apocalyptic tales have assumed influential positions in the administration, above all Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who is a Seventh-day Adventist, a Christian sect that holds that “almost all evangelical Christians will soon join with Satan to oppose Jesus Christ.” It stands to reason that their views on history and reality have had some influence on policy. Take, for instance, the environment. According to “rapture theologists,” the earth was given to humanity for its use. Therefore, environmentalism is nothing but “blasphemy.”
According to one of the most influential “theological” voices in the White House, humans will not destroy the planet because God will “continually renew the face of the earth until He forms a new heaven and a new earth in the end times.” In any case, given the imminent approach of the end of the world, the destruction of the natural environment is hardly of vital concern.
In a similar vein, Trump’s lackluster response to the coronavirus pandemic might have something to do with the fact that among evangelicals, Covid-19 has been seen as a boon. As a leading contributor to the Trump campaign has put it, “The kingdom of God advances through a series of glorious victories, cleverly disguised as disasters.” In response to the pandemic, “millions of Americans” were turning to Jesus Christ, in the process augmenting the pool of likely Trump voters.
In less than two months, the American electorate is going to vote for the country’s leader. Evangelicals will be a major force; so will be other Christians, including Latino Catholics. As it stands now, there is a chance that Trump will get re-elected as a result. Evangelicals will be voting for Trump, but not because they believe that he is model Christian. Quite the opposite. They will vote for him because they believe that he is “God’s tool.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election, polls revealed substantial numbers of white Protestants believing that Trump was “anointed by God.” They also revealed that only a very small minority thought he was elected because God approved of his policies.
Given what the Gospels have to say about Christ’s positions, it is fairly unlikely that God would approve of Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” or his more or less tacit support of racists and conspiracy theorists. This leaves only one alternative: God chose Trump to punish America for its blatant hybris, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. The Gospel tells us that God “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16]. Today, it seems that God hates America so much that He brought Donald Trump down upon it so that it understands the full extent of his wrath. Forget about God blessing America. He has better things to do.
— First published @ Fair Observer [©Fair Observer & Hans-Georg Betz]