April 26, 2018
As the already mountainous evidence of Trump’s immorality, or amorality, steadily grows, the commentariat is searching for a way to explain how he retains any Christian support. Michael Massing places Trump in a religious tradition with its origins in the pointed, sometimes vulgar rhetoric deployed by Martin Luther against those he considered enemies of the true faith. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argues that the term “evangelical” must be reclaimed so that we can see how far Trump-friendly evangelical leaders depart from American evangelicalism’s greatest moments: its 19th century support for social reform and abolitionism. The historian John Fea coined the term “court evangelicals” to deride those Christian leaders intoxicated by their proximity to power, offering Trump the absolute loyalty he so desires while compromising their moral principles.
While white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump, that support was even stronger among the subset of evangelicals who practice charismatic Christianity. Some of Trump’s most visible support from Christian leaders has come from charismatic preachers such as Paula White. Charismatic Christians emphasize gifts of the Holy Spirit, “charisms,” available to believers and witnessed in worship services. These gifts include the ability to prophesy, to speak in tongues, to heal the sick, and for some, to handle snakes. Charismatic Christianity is the second largest type of Christianity globally, just behind Roman Catholicism.
Trump, the brusque New Yorker, seems at quite a distance from Appalachian snake-handlers or megachurch healers, but there are affinities that go beyond pragmatic political alliance. After all, Trump clearly has something like charisma. According to the sociologist Max Weber, charismatic authority is found when norms derive from an individual perceived as having extraordinary characteristics rather than from tradition or from a codified legal system. Weber formulated his account of charisma by learning from his theologian colleagues studying the gifts of the Holy Spirit and applying their insights to the secular analysis of politics – even though the social scientists that now use charisma rarely consider the term’s religious origins.
Trump indisputably flouts legal norms and traditions, and his oft-mentioned conflation of his self with his office suggests a view of authority as issuing from his person. But does he have extraordinary characteristics that resemble supernatural gifts? Obviously he thinks he possesses such characteristics: he reports possessing “one of the greatest memories of all time,” an IQ that is “one of the highest,” the personality of a “very stable genius,” a superior knowledge of the economy, the military, politics, and even the Bible, and of course incomparable business acumen. In a sense, an objective measure of extraordinary characteristics is irrelevant: charisma functions by fueling a narrative about the extraordinary. That narrative matters more than whether the snake-handler is occasionally bitten, the “healed” go back to their hospital beds, or the “tongues” spoken are gibberish.
When we think charisma in politics, we usually think eloquence, perhaps eloquence embodied: Franklin D. Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. The rhetorical heights of their speeches have little in common with Trump’s boastful proclamations and tweeted jabs. However, charisma is always relative to a context. What appeared charismatic centuries ago, or decades ago, or, in our age of rapid media evolution, even a few years ago does not appear charismatic today. Just try teaching Cicero to college freshmen. Moreover, charisma is relative to a medium: the charismatic silent film actress could fall flat in the era of talkies, and what charisma looks like in a scripted drama of the 90s is quite different than that of today’s reality TV stars.
In short, when the relevant media are Twitter and cable news, not network television, presidential charisma looks quite different. Whether we like it or not, Trump has an extraordinary gift for expressing himself via tweet, a gift harnessed to secure his personal authority over against norms derived from tradition or bureaucracy. Charismatic Christianity, too, embraces the authority derived from extraordinary gifts over against institutional forms of Christianity or traditional religious norms. To staid Episcopalians or Catholics, charismatic Christians can appear ignorant, chaotic, and vulgar.
While charismatic Christians are now classed as a subset of evangelicals, a dialectic between charismatic moments and institutionalizing moments has long infused American Christianity, and American culture as a whole. The revivals that swept the nation in the early nineteenth century featured all sorts of strange, supernaturally-inspired responses: trances, uncontrollable laughing, barking like dogs, and running in circles. The spiritual energy expressed there would come to be institutionalized in what are now cornerstones of mainline Protestantism: the Methodist and Baptist churches. The hotbeds of religious charisma were, a few years later, centers of abolitionism, a movement pioneered by fringe activists and prophets like John Brown and Sojourner Truth that would eventually move to the center of American politics with the Emancipation Proclamation.
When we focus on charisma, Trump’s electoral success appears far less surprising. He defeated a candidate who lacked charisma and who was committed to the norms of the status quo. The narrative around Obama, especially in 2008, was also driven by charisma: an extraordinarily gifted man whose candidacy represented a turn against institutional norms through the symbolism of his blackness. George W. Bush had his own sort of charisma legible to those in Middle America in 2000, in stark contrast to Al Gore’s uninspired competence and embrace of bureaucracy. And there was Clinton and Reagan and Carter. Obviously American politics is more complex than such a story allows, but the impulse toward charismatic (even more than populist) politics is worth pondering, particularly when we attend to the ways that charisma looks quite different as contexts vary.
Once we understand political charisma as inextricable from religious charisma, we can access religious resources to make judgments about charisma. Charismatic Christians have thought long and hard about how to discern whether some extraordinary ability is a gift of the Holy Spirit or a gift of the Devil. Does a gift lift us up toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, giving us a new perspective on the ways the world is sinful? Or does that gift merely advance worldly interests? Further, charismatic Christianity at its best affirms that extraordinary gifts are available to all, and those who possess such gifts are charged with opening others to them. This charge, to evangelize, breaks boundaries of race, class, and gender.
The origins of modern charismatic Christianity are found in Los Angeles during the first years of the twentieth century. The black preacher William J. Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival where Christians who were white, Asian, Latino, and black, rich and poor, old and young spoke in tongues and witnessed miraculous healing. This does not sound like a Trump rally, but it also does not sound like a Bernie Sanders rally. It sounds more like Occupy Wall Street, like the Women’s March, like airport protests against the travel ban, like protests against racial profiling at a Philadelphia Starbucks. In grassroots social movements we find democratic charisma, not authoritarian charisma, not the Devil’s charisma. Discerning the difference is one of the fundamental challenges of American life.
Vincent Lloyd in an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova and a senior fellow of Religion and Its Publics.