Going to church with Donald Trump
They’re preaching the same old patriotic claptrap, only dumber this time
U.S. President Donald Trump spent Sunday morning in a place where he knew he would be worshipped unconditionally: The International Church of Las Vegas, a Nevada megachurch affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
On a previous visit in November 2016, Pastor Denise Goulet gave Trump a word of prophecy, lavishing him with praises that the scriptures reserved for Jesus Christ and Queen Esther:
Nearly four years later, Goulet welcomed Trump into the sanctuary again, sans mask, in the middle of a pandemic that the Trump administration mismanaged on a world-historical scale. Once again, the pastoral leadership team swaddled Trump in patriotic psychobabble.
I watched the whole service on YouTube (I don’t recommend it). Another of the church’s pastors, Pastor Pasqual Urrabazo, repeatedly quoted the 1954 Pledge of Allegiance — “one nation under God” — and seemed to be invoking Republican fundraiser Kim Guilfoyle’s wild-eyed RNC speech when he declared, “The best is yet to come!”
During the musical portion of the service, dancers waved silver lamé and rainbow tie-dye flags onstage. At some point during a rambling prayer, they switched over to U.S. flags with the Statue of Liberty superimposed on them, in clear violation of both the the teachings of Jesus and the U.S. Flag Code.
Goulet took a turn at the microphone to shout a prayer:
“Lord, be the wall of fire around the nation of the United States of America, and the glory within that wall,” Goulet said. “We forbid the demonic plans of the enemy to come to pass, and we break forth the plans of God to make America great again.”
These people aren’t rubes. Urrabazo sits on the governing board of the Latino Coalition for Israel and attended a Cabinet roundtable on the White House’s anti-immigrant policies last year. Goulet’s husband, Pastor Paul Goulet, was Ben Carson’s Nevada campaign chairman in 2015 before the winds shifted in Trump’s favor.
I used to think of evangelical churches’ alliance with conservative politicians as a lopsided marriage of convenience: The church leaders offered up their voting base in exchange for the promise of abortion bans and culture-war concessions, while Republicans wielded that mandate to enrich the capitalist class, crush American workers, and pursue an imperialist agenda abroad.
I still see the transaction in largely the same terms. But after watching Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and the new guard of evangelical grifters prostrate themselves before Mammon for the last four years, I can’t help seeing the pastors themselves falling prey to a naked lust for power.
To the extent that Trump has ever expressed an interest in religion, he has shown an affinity for the “prosperity gospel,” a strain of U.S. evangelicalism that portrays wealth as a sign of God’s favor. When Trump married his first wife in 1977, the wedding was officiated by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the quack psychiatrist-pastor who wrote the self-help bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking.
I’m not well-versed in the creeds and doctrines of this particular Las Vegas megachurch, but I heard enough in the Sunday service to detect the influence of Peale’s heresies.
Pastor Paul Goulet, a French Canadian by birth, gave a confusing testimony in which he spoke of his decision to become a U.S. citizen like a religious conversion:
I was in Europe about 5 years ago and I saw what was happening in Europe and I woke up in the middle of the night and I just knew that I had to become an American. I had to start speaking up for values, I had to start speaking up for our future, and I didn’t know that you’d be the answer to my prayers. And our whole church is praying for America, and what does God bring us? He brings us a man by the name of Donald J. Trump, our president. I say God is great and he chose the right man.
It’s not until the end of the service that Goulet gets specific with his praise: Trump fought against abortion access, moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and eased the Johnson Amendment’s penalties on churches for endorsing political candidates.
(Not mentioned on the list, but perhaps implied: The International Church of Las Vegas received somewhere between $350,000 and $1 million via the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic.)
Oh, and: “He’s chosen judges that stand for conservative and JUDEO-CHRISTIAN VALUES! WHOOOOAAAAA!!!” (actual quote)
When Pastor Goulet finally passed the microphone to Trump down in the front row, the president looked a little bored. He said, “I love going to churches,” encouraged the congregation to vote, and complimented the praise team for their showmanship on his way out the door:
“I know talent, and you’re a great talent. Thank you all very much, have a good time, have a good time.”
A common refrain among liberals is that defeating Trump in November will put an end to a sad, ugly chapter in American history. Things will go “back to normal,” and we can all go “out to brunch.”
To them I say that the Trump presidency is not an aberration. It’s the logical outgrowth of all this country’s venal and hateful tendencies. From deportations to wars to environmental degradation to tax giveaways for the rich, Trump is not breaking new ground. His party’s alliance with white evangelical dominionists is hardly new, either.
The historian Kevin M. Kruse tracked the modern myth of a Christian nation to the 1930s in his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Fueled by a religious backlash against the social interventions of the New Deal, the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 marked a dramatic shift. Whereas Harry Truman had attended a quiet prayer service with his family on Inauguration Day 1949, Eisenhower made his church attendance a public spectacle and oversaw a parade led by a float that had “Freedom of Worship” and “In God We Trust” emblazoned on its sides.
Eisenhower took the oath of office with his hand on not one but two Bibles, opened (at the suggestion of his friend the Rev. Billy Graham) to the passages Psalm 127 and 2 Chronicles 7:14. The latter passage remains a staple of patriotic sermons across the U.S. to this day, despite being explicitly addressed to Israel during a time of plague: “… if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
It was Eisenhower who led the charge in 1954 to add the phrase “under God” to the patriotic loyalty oath recited by schoolchildren. Pastor Urrabazo’s incantation of “one nation under God,” repeated ad nauseam on Sunday morning, was quoting a politician, not a prophet.
Maybe Eisenhower was sincere in his faith (who can know?). But the long-term effect of his public piety was that capitalist norms were baptized into Protestantism, and the presidency became an office of spiritual leadership. Several generations of religious conservatives were taught that the world’s problems could be solved by personal faith and a righteous king.
Today it is hard to believe President Trump’s sincerity about any subject except himself. Where once we had a stern-faced Eisenhower delivering stately prayers to bless a domineering empire, now we have a TV-addled president holding a Bible in a photo opportunity the way a bachelor holds an infant.
The players are more clownish than before, but the old alliance still stands. When you make a deal with the devil, he doesn’t forget.
If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, you might appreciate this newsletter about Queen Esther, this podcast episode about Lord Mammon, or this story I told about my experience as a sidewalk preacher.
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My friend Derek Berry hosted me as a guest on the latest episode of the Contribute Your Verse podcast, which you can find in any podcast player or stream on Soundcloud by clicking here. We talked about the writing life, adversarial journalism, parenting, mental health, salary transparency … we talked about a lot. It was a cathartic experience! Derek was a gracious host and a skilled editor of my “uuuummmms” and digressions.
The image at the top is “An angel leading the Crusaders to Jerusalem” by Gustave Doré.