President Donald Trump was elected to the White House because evangelicals want a Bible-based America, according to the author of new book on US politics.
James Roberts co-authored Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right put Donald Trump in the White House, with historian Martyn Whittock.
Many liberals in the UK as well as the US are still astonished that Trump is President of the United States.
But Roberts, foreign editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, told Christian Today: "Trump appeals to a whole demographic of the US that feels not just disenfranchised but scorned and despised. Hillary Clinton called them the 'deplorables' which finally enabled them to find a unified voice."
He said that right-wing evangelicals, spiritual heirs to the Puritans who left Plymouth on the Mayflower for the New World 400 years ago in 1620, felt their values – faith, family, flag – were relentlessly ridiculed by the media and the Democrats. "They were patriots in a country that regarded patriotism with a supercilious condescension. They stayed true to their beliefs but felt isolated without DC or media support, embattled but with no champions."
He said Trump could not have succeeded without them, but that's not the point. "He saw that they were crying out for someone to hear them and – finally – the man who heard them was Trump. Trump says he's enduring all this endless hatred for them – he could have lived his final years in comfort and luxury with no aggravation but he chose this. Political columnists, most of the global media, think it's all about his ego. But they're wrong. He knows it, and the tens of thousands of people who attend every one of his rallies know it. He speaks for them."
Roberts said the connection between this and the Puritans is biblical Christianity. "The Puritans adhered to the Bible, old and new testaments, and so do the evangelicals. They both want a Bible-based America."
Drawing parallels with Brexit in the UK, Roberts said Trump and the evangelicals affirm all national identities as partners in a global family of nations. "But they reject the supranational, notably in the shape of the EU, and globalism in general. See Trump at Davos this week. So US-UK is a great partnership of independent nations. UK-EU is not because no country in EU is independent."
He wrote the 272-page book, with a further 30 pages of detailed footnotes, after years of following American politics via Twitter. "It was a world view totally differentiated from anything that was happening in England, and I tried to understand how they were thinking. By the time of the 2016 primaries I was very aware of a massive groundswell of support for Trump, even though my own political inclinations were towards Ted Cruz (equally despised by liberals).
"I watched his progress with increasing fascination, and equally started to wonder about Hillary Clinton and what a Clinton presidency would mean for the world. It became obvious that she would be 'owned' by donors to the Clinton Foundation, whose interests did not coincide with those of ordinary people, and certainly not with those of Christians like myself. Her phrases such as 'that is not who we are' and 'we are on the right side of history' struck me as repulsively Orwellian Newspeak – who was she, or Obama, or the Democrats, to attempt to define acceptable identities in this way? It was, I noticed, ok with the mainstream media. To me it was deeply sinister because it tried to circumscribe freedom of thought. And I saw, as I followed the mood and conversation in America, that many people there saw this too. Many happened to be evangelical Christians."
He spent his nights after work taking advantage of modern technology to immerse himself in streams from Trump rallies, or Congressional hearings, or White House events, or press conferences, or watching CNN or Fox, or keeping abreast of the mainstream media hostility to the president, via Mueller et al. He also stayed abreast of the alternative media, with their millions of subscribers. "I was in the UK but in my daily, or nightly, life I was in America. And it was no hardship or sacrifice because that was where I wanted to be. And why? Because I knew then and know now that what was going on was a battle for the soul of America and – by extension, I believe, for the soul of the world.
Roberts added: "The importance of God in all this cannot be overstated. Evangelicals know all about the power of prayer and they know that with prayer God wins. So they pray for Trump in confidence and without stinting."
Regarding Trump's evident flaws, Roberts invokes the Persian king Cyrus in the Old Testament who God used to save the cause of Israel.
"On one level this is a very straightforward comparison. Cyrus was imperfect but was used by God to advance God's purposes for his chosen people. Trump, for his part, has in the past evinced comments that could easily be construed – certainly by his enemies – as racist or misogynistic, his remarks and tweets have been disrespectful, and when he is, as he sees it, unfairly savaged by his opponents, so many of whom seem to be motivated by an irrational hatred, then he is equally savage back. It doesn't look presidential but evangelicals give him a pass.
"But there is more to the Cyrus comparison than this. Many evangelicals believe that Trump is 'the anointed one', that is, a man chosen by God to save America for Christianity. They point out for example that Abraham Lincoln was not as 'godly' as his rival for the presidency in 1860, Salmon P Chase, but the wily Lincoln got the nomination on the third ballot. And Lincoln proved to be the man for the coming time. God knew, and God had intervened."
Observers underestimate the significance of two dates in 2018, warned Roberts: 8 May, when Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and 14 May, when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. And then 3 January 2020 when he eliminated the leader of al Quds, Iran's 'Jerusalem' Revolutionary Guard.
"The raison d'etre of Iran since 1979 has been to annihilate Israel. For evangelical and 18th century Puritans, biblical Israel and America are pretty much the same country. Obama and Kerry did nefarious deals with Tehran, even sending billions of dollars on pallets of cash that were used to fund terrorist proxies in the region. When Trump opened the embassy that acknowledged Jerusalem 'DC' (David's city in Netanyahu's words) as Israel's capital he forged an unbreakable bond with Washington DC and achieved 'political immortality' in the eyes of evangelicals. But it's important to remember that the evangelicals are not the only ones looking at Israel in apocalyptic terms . The Iranians with their 'al Quds' Guard are doing the same."
Looking forward, he said both Trump and the evangelicals want the elimination of the deep State which they see as betraying the true America as defined by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is also described as the "draining of the swamp".
Roberts said: "If the swamp is drained, an economically powerful America will be a benign force for peace and justice across the world, but the interests of Americans will always come first as other nations will quite properly prioritise the interests of their own nationals. America's military will be the strongest in the world but hopefully not have to be used. America will be a beacon of freedom that other peoples, in particular those confined by socialism, will want to emulate."
So has Trump created the New Jerusalem as hoped? And could he win a second term?
"Well he certainly hasn't done yet but I think he thinks that with a second term he could put all the basics in place. What would this mean? Well there are biblical echoes that would resonate with him."
George Washington in 1790 wrote to a Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, quoting Micah 4:4: "Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid" (quoted in Trump and the Puritans page 241).
Roberts said: "There are some essentials that mean Trump's 'plan' is not a Utopian fantasy, the prime one being the way the Declaration of Independence rejects tyranny – specifically then the tyranny of George III of Great Britain; and the Constitution eleven years later builds in safeguards to prevent what went wrong in the French Revolution that led to the terror.
"Knowing that there is always a danger of tyranny, the Founding Fathers devised a system of government based on accountability that meant government would not be allowed to overreach itself, because it has an inbuilt tendency to do so. This is why Reagan said he wanted to "get government off the backs of the people". This is why there is such support for the Second Amendment: the right to bear arms is a safeguard against an overweening government that can use its militias against an unarmed populace. This is why Trump and his supporters say that today in America the choice is between freedom and socialism. In other words, it is the job of government to protect pre-exisiting, God-given human rights. It is not its job to grant them because that is above, or should be above, the pay grade of any government.
"This is why the UK, which, so often unthinkingly, allows so many powers to devolve to the government, finds it so hard to understand America. It comes down to how much you understand and how much you value freedom."
He accepts that Trump has many enemies opposed to a second term, but adds that there is also a whole demographic of people who see themselves broadly as patriots who believe fervently that he is fighting for them, and this is the last chance for America, that is America as God intended, to be saved.
"Can he win in November? Yes. Do I believe he will? Yes. Will that be a good thing? Yes. I'm not a socialist."
Co-author Martyn Whittock offered a different perspective.
He told Christian Today: "If asked do I think the re-election of Donald Trump would be a good thing, I would personally say 'No' : because the wider nature of gospel integrity is currently being seriously brought into question. The prophetic voice should be morally uncompromising and not party political."
He said that clearly, the 1620 Pilgrims and the later Puritans of Massachusetts Bay are not responsible for the events of 2016 or 2020. "What we make of the past is our business and our responsibility. Nevertheless, those who came after them clearly drew on their image and legacy in the most extraordinary ways. They have (posthumously) punched well above their weight and have had a huge input into the cultural DNA of the USA."
He added that something of the idea of "American exceptionalism" (even being an "American Israel") and being a "city on a hill" is a direct legacy of the Puritans, and it clearly still influences the world-view of modern evangelicals.
"The same goes for the idea of a theocratic influence, by faith communities, on a society that officially separates Church and state."
He analysed the moral problem facing US evangelicals as that they have prioritised their beliefs about certain things (such as abortion, Middle Eastern questions) above other issues (such as race, global climate change, international treaties, the moral tone of government).
"I don't think that Christians can pick and choose the moral issues they choose to espouse. And, of course, opposition to gun control and universal health care just gets woven into this as if this was a given. That is the problem of the evangelical right in the USA. As I see it, right-wing attitudes get presented as gospel principles, alongside things that actually are."
Trump and the Puritans is published by bitebackpublishing.com @bitebackpub. Ruth Gledhill is Online Editor of The Tablet.