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Inside the Trump cult

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Here’s a passage from an interview NPR’s Terry Gross did with Tim Alberta this week. Background: Alberta spent his whole childhood inside, both metaphorically and literally, an evangelical Protestant church in Brighton, Michigan, an essentially all-white small town not far from Ann Arbor, where is father was the pastor for decades. His father grew the church from a few hundred to several thousand members.

TIM ALBERTA: Of all places, I am [in 2019] on the set of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and I’m being asked about Trump’s relationship with the white evangelical movement. This question – the million-dollar question of, how? How is it that this guy, of all people, came to be the champion of this movement? – and really trying to unpack some of these schisms and the divide inside the church that was growing more apparent by the day. And here I am doing this very delicate dance on the set of the network because, as I said, I really had been quite reticent to criticize the church as a whole. And I really was trying to make the point about some of this unhealthiness inside the evangelical movement without, like, throwing down the gauntlet, so to speak.

And the interviewer was pressing me deeper and deeper on, you know, the – just how damaging these schisms could be. And by the time I walked off the set, I’m saying to myself, oh, boy. Like, I really blew it. Like, why am I holding back here? Why don’t I just say what I’m really thinking? Because what I’m really thinking is that the American evangelical church is approaching a moment of crisis here, and something has to be done about it. And as soon as I walk off the set, I’m looking down at my phone, and I have all of these missed calls. And my dad had collapsed from a heart attack and was dead.

TERRY GROSS: Of course, a very upsetting, tragic moment in your life. At the memorial service for him, you got a lot of heat from people who you’ve known – who you’d known all of your life. Tell us some of the things – well, let me back up and say that Rush Limbaugh started quoting you and assailing you on his radio show. What was he saying about you?

TIM ALBERTA: That’s right. You know, so the book that I had written was in the news. My dad died less than two weeks after that book had come out. And so, you know, Rush Limbaugh was on his show describing some of my unflattering characterizations of Donald Trump and of the evangelical movement. Trump himself was tweeting about my book. I was getting a lot of threats, a lot of nasty email, a lot of criticism from right-wing media. And so when my dad died, you know, I go home to Michigan for the funeral. And the day before the funeral, we’re having the visitation inside the sanctuary of our home church, where, again, you know, my dad had been the pastor for over 25 years. It was home for us.

And as I’m standing in the sanctuary with my brothers greeting people, suddenly I’m having folks come up to me, and they’re talking about Rush Limbaugh. And I didn’t even know why at first. And then I’m sort of piecing it together. Oh, I guess he must have been kind of ripping me on his show. And then there were more people, and then there were more. And some were arguing with me about Rush Limbaugh, some were confronting me about Donald Trump. People were asking me if I was really still a Christian, if I was on the right side of good versus evil. There was a – just – and all the while, of course, my dad is in a box a hundred feet away. And, you know, I’m there in shock, 72 hours after he’s passed, you know, having barely slept all week, trying to mourn and trying to process all of this. And I’ve got people who I’ve known for most of my life, known me since I was 5 years old, who are instead of hugging me, instead of crying with me, instead of just trying to wrap me in love at that moment, they’re wanting to argue about politics.

TERRY GROSS: And they’re insulting you.

TIM ALBERTA: They’re insulting me. And, you know, as I write in the book, it was clear in that moment that for them, they didn’t see a hurting son. They saw a vulnerable adversary.

TERRY GROSS: And if they saw that in you, the son of their pastor, you, who many of them had known your entire life, that – what about people who they don’t know? How easy is it to dehumanize them and just make them into the enemy?

TIM ALBERTA: Well, that’s a great point. And this is where – listen, you know, Jesus said that the two great commands are to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. And this was just a moment where it became so clear to me that, like, this thing has tilted so far off of its axis that, you know, it’s one thing to try to minimize or explain away the hostile approach to this secular world, even though I think that that is in and of itself completely unbiblical and un-Christlike. But this was something different – altogether different, Terry, to your point. This is inside of the church, to a fellow believer, taunting and mocking and hurting someone at their moment of great vulnerability, and over what? Over a political disagreement. And that’s – you’re right – I mean, a moment that just sort of opened my eyes to say, boy, if this could happen to me in this setting, then what are we doing out in the world? What sort of damage are these Christians doing?

On the one hand, it seems incomprehensibly cruel to launch vicious personal attacks on a man you’ve known since he was a little boy, at the funeral of his father, who died unexpectedly three days earlier.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly explicable, if you take into account that these people are utterly unhinged members of a delusional and dangerous cult, which is what white evangelical Protestantism has become in this county. These people believe — literally believe, in the same way I believe that Brighton is 19 miles due north of Ann Arbor — that Joe Biden et. al. are minions of Satan himself, that real Christians in America are about to be persecuted out of existence, and the only thing standing between the triumph of an apocalyptic Satanism and the survival of the Real America is Donald Trump, who — again quite literally, I can’t emphasize that enough — has been anointed by God to save Real America from falling into the hands of Satan’s followers, of which Joe Biden is currently the most important.

I mean if you believed this — really believed it — then attacking Tim Alberta at his father’s funeral would not only be forgivable, but virtuous and brave and a sign of your ultimate devotion to God, aka Jesus Christ, and the instrument of Christ’s ongoing battle with Satan on Earth, Donald J. Trump, the imperfect vessel through whom God’s grace is now being manifested, in ways that remain invisible to the heathens (“We preach Christ Jesus, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness).”

I believe a massive mistake that many liberals and leftists make is to fail to take into account that tens of millions of Americans support Trump not because they’re “bad people” in some generic psychological/ethical sense. This reduces the deepest structural forces in our society into a matter of defective individual character. Leftists ,of all people, should recognize the absurdity of such an analysis. Rather, a very large number of Trump supporters genuinely hold beliefs about the nature of the world that logically entail unwavering support for Donald Trump.

This is Trump’s white Protestant evangelical base, and these people aren’t going to magically disappear one day, despite their own belief that they actually will. How to co-exist with them is, shall we say, an increasingly complicated problem.

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