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One Nation, Under Trump

Trump appeals to evangelicals because he is one

Say this for Ted Cruz, R-Uncanny Valley: It appears New York agrees that their values do not align. Donald Trump's decisive victory in Tuesday’s primary has torpedoed Cruz’s mission to earn enough pledged delegates to win the Republican nomination outright. Yet the Cruz team seems eager to advertise the loss -- Trump winning New York, they presume, could hurt him in places such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Nebraska, a.k.a. Sarah Palin's "Real America" and where Cruz still hopes to shore up a strong second-place finish. The problem for Cruz is that Trump has been winning in Real America just fine, steadily picking off the very voters on whom Cruz staked his entire campaign: evangelical Christians.

That someone as adulterous, profane, and ostentatiously ignorant of religion as Donald Trump could appeal to evangelicals is a Great Mystery of this political cycle, a question of faith even more confounding than the exact nature of his hair or the size of his hands. Yet there it is. Wisconsin was the first state where over half of the evangelical vote broke for Cruz. Prior to that, in 13 of the 20 primary states where exit polls were conducted, Trump beat Cruz among evangelicals by an average of 18 points. By contrast, Cruz won evangelicals in just six states, by an average of 12. (They tied in Arkansas.)

Theories about why this is happening abound. Maybe evangelicals are prioritizing politics over religion (for once). Maybe Trump represents a secular version of the "prosperity gospel" (in which wealth is a sign of divine favor). Maybe the evangelicals supporting Trump aren't really all that evangelical.

Embedded in all of these arguments is the presumption that whatever brings Trump and evangelicals together, it's not religion. It's not based on mutual spiritual communion. He's fooling his voters, or they're fooling themselves -- the mystery pundits have sought to solve is in explaining the mismatch, the attraction of opposites. How is it that evangelicals have embraced someone who is so clearly not evangelical?

What if the explanation is simple? What if Trump is an evangelist? Not for Christ, of course — but for Trump?

"Evangelical," theologically, is a more nebulous term than most secular Americans realize. Evangelicals can disagree on substantive points of Scripture (including the timeline and nature of the Second Coming), style of worship, and even what constitutes evangelical behavior -- they're split almost 50-50 over drinking, though have a mostly united front against yoga. (They can be loose, but rarely flexible, I guess.)

What they have in common is the narrative of their faith. The word "evangelize" is rooted in the Greek term for "bringing good news," and, at its heart, evangelism is a how-to manual with a reality-show-level transformation at the end. Modern evangelism has given that story a specific shape: There is a conversion experience, usually accompanied by miraculous changes -- the impossible made possible. There is a gratitude for Christ's specific and personal sacrifice. There is unshakable faith in the correctness of the Word delivered from on high.

Wondrous sights? Laying one's life down for a greater cause? Inerrancy? The evangelical narrative is Trump's narrative.

Call it Trumpism -- a barnstorming revival religion with only one real article of faith: Trump changes everything. Trumpism asks us to imagine the whole country as a convert. There will be a Before Trump and an After Trump. And once we have accepted Trump into our lives, miracles will follow! Even his language is familiar: He will save jobs, save the country, save money. He will change America's standing in the world by virtue of his presence alone. He doesn't explain how he'll achieve these things, because the mechanics are beside the point. To ask how he'll bring the steel jobs back to Pennsylvania or deport 11 million undocumented immigrants is to ask for an electron spectrograph of water changing into wine. The key is Trump. In one town hall, his complete response to the question of, "Do you have any thoughts on what will happen to Social Security in the future?" was this: "We're going to save Social Security. We're going to save it." It's hard to find a more certain expression of belief in things unseen.

To outsiders, Trump's extravagant martyr complex might seem itself sacrilegious and bizarrely hypocritical. He presents himself as all but omnipotent on the one tiny hand (he alone can bring peace and prosperity!), yet, on the other (also incredibly small) hand, he is buffeted by negative ads and, far from charting his own destiny, is running for president at the urging of Just Plain Folks. These discordant notes harmonize when heard as part of the evangelical hymns about sacrifice, the way a savior lays down his life and redeems us all.

Obviously, Trump's sacrifice is not corporeal but capital. It is not physical, but it's no less real: It's in the donations he's turned down and the deals he's walked away from. He's even said he'd refuse to take a salary as president. When he cries out, "Nobody has ever, ever in the history of politics received the kind of negative advertising that I have,” he's not admitting that he has the worst negatives of any candidate ever polled, he's showing us his wounds. He soldiers on — not for his sake but for yours!

Even Trump’s gross self-assurance dovetails with the evangelical mind-set: Contradictions in Scripture, after all, can be another test of faith. Don't disregard one teaching for another, but find a way to make them harmonize. And so Trump may contradict himself, but he's never wrong. He never even misspeaks! He is only taken out of context, or he was just quoting someone else, or he was not prepared for the question, or maybe his earpiece malfunctioned. Or whatever it is you thought he said, he didn't say it at all.

Trump is no Christian evangelical. But he is an evangelical nonetheless. His religion is one of self-worship, but it's the shape of his belief system and the way he talks about it that resonates with evangelicals. I don't mean to argue that they worship Trump himself -- though at times Trump seems to think that. It's more that they hear in Trump the same kind of narrative they tell themselves, like a familiar song in a different language. And at Trump's rallies, they even sing along.