Is Trump a Cult Leader? Reza Aslan, Assailing White Evangelicals, Makes the Case April 18, 2018

Is Trump a Cult Leader? Reza Aslan, Assailing White Evangelicals, Makes the Case

The devil must be tearing at the space-time continuum, because for once, I agree — sort of — with Reza Aslan. (To understand how rare that is, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

Aslan, in this new Big Think video, builds the case that Trumpism, as filtered through today’s evangelical movement in the U.S., is essentially a cult.

In the span of a single election cycle, white evangelicals have gone from being the group in America that is most likely to say that a politician’s morality matters to the group that is now least likely to say that. Atheists in America think that a politician’s morality matters more than white evangelicals in America do — white evangelicals who continue to refer to themselves as value voters.

What you’re seeing is a gigantic group of Americans who are fundamentally overturning their core theological beliefs that public morality matters. And the only explanation that I have for it is that Donald Trump has turned a large swath of white evangelical Christianity into a cult, into a religious cult, a dangerous religious cult. All the signs are there.

Donald Trump … has become a kind of a prophetic divine character. Pat Robertson, the head of the 700 Club, a very influential white evangelical, literally said that God took him in a dream up to heaven and he saw Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God. You know who actually sits at the right hand of God, according to evangelicals? Jesus Christ.

Aslan’s got more.

[Trump’s] own evangelical advisor, a pastor by the name of [Robert] Jeffress, said not too long ago that he would prefer Donald Trump as a candidate over someone who “expresses the values of Jesus.” So what we are seeing now is that these white evangelicals — not all of them but a fundamental core of them — have essentially latched on to Donald Trump as almost a salvific character. They don’t just follow him. They don’t just agree with him. They almost worship him.

Seized by paroxysms of pessimism, Aslan concludes that

This is a presidency that is in danger of completely disintegrating. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t also a religious cult. Because when a religious cult begins to deal with this kind of situation, when their cosmic ideas are suddenly butting up against the reality of a failed leadership, they tend to double down. And that’s why I think that we’re in a very dangerous place as a country right now. Because the only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.

That all hits home, but I have to say that, to me, any brand of orthodox Christianity doesn’t appear fundamentally different from, say, Scientology, or the faith of the Bhagwan’s Sanyassins (be sure to watch the amazing documentary Wild Wild Country on Netflix if you haven’t already). The same is true for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism. I think any sufficiently severe religion may reasonably be called a cult. That’s because in all of them, observable reality takes a backseat to magical thinking; critical thought is unwelcome, even blasphemous; inanimate objects and/or “ghosts” are worshiped as if they possess supernatural meaning or even consciousness; exalted leaders, gatekeepers, and ordinary believers alike create strongly-enforced irrational in-group behavior that serves to isolate them from distrusted out-groups; etc.

However, I also realize that the term cult isn’t a particularly elucidating label. We can’t really agree on a precise definition, so it’s easy to dismiss belief systems that are alien to our own by using the cult putdown.

That’s not to say that I think Aslan is wrong here at all, just that I’m afraid that the cult designation (from him or from me) ultimately isn’t very helpful. What is gained, after all, by calling a group of admittedly highly irrational people a cult? Do we understand them better when we brand them like that? Are we in a better position to modify their behavior? Are we better equipped to live with them in our midst? I’m torn. Maybe, by using the word, with its slightly smuggish baggage, we only create more distance, more tribalism, more possible strife, and less understanding.

One more thought: I agree that Trump is in a special class of awfulness, but it’s not the first time that white evangelicals have readily and massively lined up behind political leaders with questionable Christian principles. If we hadn’t had Trump, Aslan could’ve performed roughly the same philippic for 2001-2004-era George W. Bush, who was then at the height of his popularity and powers. In fact, a scribe at the Daily Kos beat Aslan to it, with a story titled (wait for it) “The Cult of George W. Bush.”

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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