We have seen them come and go, shattering lives and leaving devastation behind. Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, Charles Manson, Keith Raniere, David Berg, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — each had an almost supernatural hold on their followers and led them to tragedy.
Some political leaders have developed cults, too, and assumed totalitarian power. They include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il Sung.
Now, the United States has one. As Politico notes, Donald Trump’s base follows him with such devotion that “even his critics believe it may be fatal to annoy them.”
Social media has created an environment that helps produce personality cults with “the idealized, even god-like public image of an individual consciously shaped and molded through constant propaganda and media exposure,” according to Thomas A. Wright of Fordham University. Public figures use the exposure to create heroic images of themselves.
For example, take Trump’s ridiculous trading cards where he is photoshopped as Rambo, Elvis, and Washington crossing the Potomac. And the former president likely practiced his mug shot in front of a mirror to achieve the perfect petulant expression for his arrest in Georgia.
The 2024 hopeful wants voters to believe he’s being persecuted rather than prosecuted. He has adopted messianic gestures and phrases, telling followers, “I am the chosen one,” and “I am your warrior. I am your justice. …I am your retribution.”
“I’m being indicted for you,” Trump says, as though he’s being crucified. He talks about “the final battle,” and says, “I am the only one that can save this nation.” After his indictment on charges that he paid hush money to a porn star, social media analysts found that “comparisons likening Trump to Christ were among the top online narratives” about the former president. Thousands called him a martyr.
This is causing rifts among conservative Christians. Some appear to prefer listening to Trump rather than the “liberal” teachings of Jesus. Newsweek talked with theologians who “spoke of a dichotomy between theological evangelicals, who are concerned primarily with Christian character, and ‘political’ evangelicals intent on winning the culture war.” The editor-in-chief of Christianity Today worries Christians “are more attuned to Fox News and more attuned to right-wing media and whatever Donald Trump is saying on that day than they are to the historic teachings of Christianity or the scriptures.”
“They see this as spiritual warfare,” explains John Fea, a historian of evangelical Christianity. “Trump is on the side of the angels. In this view, Trump is politically a savior; he is going to restore America, and he will rise from the ashes in November despite the persecution and the suffering.”
Christian nationalists saw Trump’s return to New York for indictment as similar to Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Fea explained, even though Trump arrived by motorcade rather than donkey.
Yet, the Bible contains many warnings about false prophets. Matthew 7:15 warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” Jesus told his disciples, “Take heed that no one deceives you for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” (Matthew 24:4)
A Christian Bible study guide lists the characteristics of false prophets. They are greedy, presumptuous and self-willed. They want to be free of anyone’s authority. They lie intentionally. They are out for monetary gain, talk a lot but say nothing, use alluring thoughts to provoke attention from their audience, and make promises they cannot deliver.
Jesus’s half-brother Jude wrote that false prophets live immoral lives, defy authority, do whatever their instincts tell them, deceive people for money, and care only about themselves. “These people are grumblers and complainers, living only to satisfy their desires,” he wrote in Jude 1:16-23. “They brag loudly about themselves, and they flatter others to get what they want.”
He continued, “But you, my dear friends, must remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ predicted. They told you that in the last times there would be scoffers whose purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires. These people are the ones who are creating divisions among you. They follow their natural instincts because they do not have God’s Spirit in them.”
“One way to identify false prophets is to look at the kind of people their followers are becoming,” writes the evangelical pastor and author David Jeremiah. Trump’s followers include conspiracy mongers, racists, seditionists, and domestic terrorists. Trump and his devotees ignore Jesus’s warning that it’s our job to love and God’s job to judge.
Then there’s Mathew 7:16: “We will “know them by their fruits.” Trump’s fruits include more than 90 felony charges.
Should we be worried about the Trump cult? Experts say about 25 percent of people are sufficient to reach a tipping point for social change. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found 35 percent of Americans view Trump “favorably.”
“(It) is possible for Christians – even mature believers – to be duped by false teachers,” Pastor Jeremiah says. “Without the wisdom and grace of God we’re all vulnerable to deception.” May the wisdom and grace of God be with all of us in the coming presidential election.
William S. Becker is co-editor of and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” and Democracy in a Hotter Time, scheduled for release on Sept. 17. He has served in several state and federal government roles, including executive assistant to the attorney general of Wisconsin. He is currently executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan climate policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.
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