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Angela Tilby: Trump puts his faith in positivity

16 October 2020


President Trump leaves the White House, on Wednesday, before travelling to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa

President Trump leaves the White House, on Wednesday, before travelling to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa

I HAVE always been baffled about why so many American Evangelicals support Donald Trump. A clue came in the President’s response to his being hospitalised with Covid-19, which he described as “a gift from God”. Not a gift that led him to reflect on his solidarity with other sufferers, or to repent of hosting a large gathering on the White House lawn without precautions the previous week, nor even a gift moving him to gratitude for his recovery. No, the gift from God was, apparently, the proof that he could beat the virus and that we should not be afraid of it.

Several commentators have since pointed out that President Trump’s most significant exposure to the Christian faith was through the ministry of the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale. Trump attended Peale’s church as a young man, and he married his first wife, Ivana, there. Peale taught mental techniques and spiritual exercises designed to strengthen self-belief as a way of mastering the problems of everyday life. Such confidence would enable us to maximise our human potential and free us from suffering. Positive thinking was a way of calling on latent inner powers to transform our lives. There is no such thing as failure. If only we believe we can, we can.

This may be a long way from the faith commended in the Gospels, but it is not so far from other manifestations of American religion, from Christian Science to aspects of Charismatic Renewal. I cannot quite forget the sight of some well-dressed Charismatics at the start of the pandemic standing in a circle with closed eyes, one clutching a Bible like a weapon, noisily rebuking the virus (along with Satan). Add to that a touch of double predestination — the world is divided into winners and losers — and you have the Trump take on religion.

It is an interesting mix of old heresies, spiced up by American can-do culture. First, there is a nod to Pelagianism. You can, you can. By an act of pure free will, in collaboration with God, you can achieve salvation. Then there is a dose of the opposite of Pelagianism: Manichaeism: You can’t, you can’t, affect your fate. The great are bound to rise and America is the greatest. Then, the Charismatic element: Down, virus! I command you in the name of Jeee-sus, thank you, Lord.

And, finally, a double dose of double predestination. I have beaten the virus — which proves I am a winner. You can be a winner, too. Unless you die — which would prove that you are a loser.

Such rambling half-beliefs are almost as potent a mix as the steroids that the President was on when he left the hospital. But they may help to explain why he could still, just, win the election.

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