HISTORY shows that certain kinds of high-profile personality can manipulate their supporters into giving them unswerving support despite proof of gross corruption and failure. Nevertheless, the support that Evangelical Christians give to the 45th President of the United States is extraordinary. Here is a man lacking moral compass and grace, who is proud to embrace the status of having been “chosen by God”. I want to reclaim the honour of the label of “Evangelical”, which I wear, too, as a British Christian.
Demagogues are always narcissistic figures who exude overweening but somehow attractive confidence and an enviable sense of entitlement. Thus, however obvious the cognitive dissonance of supporters in relation to the reality of their saviour-idol, the idol still wins their votes.
Human susceptibility to dangerous dogma and vicious prejudices was explored by American psychologists in the wake of the Second World War, and the “F” scale (also called the Fascist scale) emerged in 1947. It provided words to express what happens in human minds; but, sadly, it offered little to suggest why it happens.
If political history can illustrate how personalities such as President Trump rise to power, and psychology can provide insights into the nature of voters, I would contend that theology can help, too. Indeed, to track the rise of 19th-century American fundamentalism is to identify a key pillar on which the Trump administration rests.
THE Christian Right emerged during the Carter presidency, led by conservative fundamentalist luminaries such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye. All were products of a century of Christian fundamentalism shaped almost entirely by one publication: C. I. Scofield’s annotated reference Bible, first published in 1909.
The Scofield Bible is an edition of the Authorised Version produced by a “theologian” of distinctly bogus credentials. Five generations of American conservative Evangelicals have devoured it with commendable intensity, interpreting scripture through the distorting lens of C. I. Scofield’s page notes, with their focus on J. N. Darby’s theory of dispensationalism.
Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, read the Bible in a way perhaps influenced by his legal mind. An Anglo-Irish figure who was hugely influential in America, he was a dynamic preacher active in the 1830s when interest in eschatology was high. He propounded his dispensationalist ideas, embraced Zionism, and developed the imaginative theory that we know as Pre-millennialism.
Darby undoubtedly had good intentions, but he was an unfortunate mix of highly eloquent man of influence and dogmatic non-scholar. Wanting the highest view of scripture, he taught that the Bible was a perfect inerrant unity dictated by God in which each book had equal weight. Thus, his understanding of prophecy became locked in the Old Testament and the Zionism that he found there, plus the odd notion that prophecies already fulfilled would continue to be fulfilled into the future.
The publicist Scofield was encouraged to promote it using the ideal tool: a Bible regarded as “inerrant in its autographs”, read through the golden spectacles of page notes telling readers what to think. The results down the generations have been baleful.
Scofield’s history is that of a huckster, in the US meaning of the word; but the hagiography won: 21st-century readers still laud him as a great man of God, and his notes as inerrant, like the scriptures that they put into a dispensational context.
I SUGGEST that those readers and their offspring are the “American Evangelicals” that we read about. They are not like British Evangelicals — or, indeed, the many American Christians who are wary of the word, distancing themselves carefully, aware that the nuances are challenging for media and public alike.
The UK has Evangelicals of many hues. Rarely politicised, they seek to be “bringers of Good News”, and a few might espouse the Scofield Bible. The current generation of American conservative Christian voters has, however, in the main, a deep Scofield/Darby mindset, shaping opinion and politics, because the Scofield Bible still sells strongly in the Bible belt 110 years since its publication.
This may explain why LaHaye’s alarming Left Behind series of novels was such a raging success in the 1990s, topping the New York Times bestseller lists in the immediate wake of 9/11, which was itself seen as an end-times event prefiguring a Darbian rapture of all “the chosen”.
Similarly, President Trump can never be acknowledged as a demagogue by his followers: rather, he is someone who understands their worst fears, real or perceived. His incoherent speeches and Twitter sound-bites twist facts, broadcast lies, and foment prejudices that are readily swallowed by supporters who have been fed a diet of web misinformation and biased cable news, powered by advertising revenue.
Thus, conservative Christians see him as God’s man who resonates with the will of the people to bring the United States back to those glory days before abortion, gay marriage, and global warming, in readiness for the Rapture and the Lord’s return. Others see him as a “Cyrus” figure, as painted in the Old Testament; but that analogy breaks down, too.
Edward Mote’s old hymn was once paraphrased by a wicked friend of mine: “My hope is built on nothing less Than Scofield’s notes and Scripture Press.” I laughed, but maybe I should have wept.
The Revd Mark Rudall is a retired Anglican priest and a former diocesan director of communications.