Religion scholar on how Donald Trump has activated "the Christian enemies of democracy"

David Gushee walks through the three stages in conservative Christian engagement with US culture that lead to Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 10, 2024 5:59AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The 2024 presidential election is much more than “just” a political struggle to save American democracy and freedom. It's a struggle between the forces of good and evil. 

In a powerful speech on Monday at Mother Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist terrorist murdered nine Black people in 2015, President Joe Biden framed the 2024 election as a great moral struggle to save democracy, which he described as “America’s sacred cause," from white supremacy and other evils.

“A poison, throughout our history, that’s ripped this nation apart," Biden said,"has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”

In a new essay at Baptist News Global, leading Christian ethicist and scholar David Gushee, who is the author of the new book “Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies,” echoes Biden’s warnings. "We are facing a national cultural, moral and even spiritual crisis that goes beyond the political."

"Quite an achievement, really – for a godless reality TV star and grifter to overcome the central teachings of a 2000-year-old religion in the hearts of millions."

I recently spoke with Gushee. He reflects on the still under-appreciated role that militant Christianity and the Christian right played in the Jan. 6 coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol by Trump’s MAGA followers. Gushee outlines how the Christian right and the neofascist MAGA movement came to be allied with one another in a mutual quest to end multiracial pluralistic democracy as part of an apocalyptic battle. Toward the end of this conversation, Gushee explains how a true Christian ethic is pro-democracy and can be mobilized against the neofascist authoritarian MAGA movement and the Christian right.  

This is the second installment of a two-part conversation. It has been edited for clarity and length.

What did you "see" on Jan. 6? What was the role of Christofascism/White Christian supremacy on that day and in the coup more broadly?

I saw lots of different things. We know from the Jan. 6 trials that there were paramilitary/militia extremists present who had planned for and were ready for an assault on the Capitol even before the infamous rally at which Trump egged on the mob. Mixed in with them were hyper-Trumpists who went to the rally and then when "sent" to the Capitol by Trump, and told by Trump that he would be there with them, they surged that way without a prior plan to do so. Some of them stopped short of entering the Capitol, others kept on going. This was more like riot behavior, a crowd of people losing their moral judgment together.

Extremist Christians were quite visibly present in both the paramilitary type groups (like Proud Boys) and the garden-variety members of the mob. The evidence is that some of them believed they were witnessing or about to participate in a divinely-orchestrated series of events. Many decades of living in an apocalyptic mental universe prepared them to believe that God is doing something special here today and I want to be a part of it. The paradigm of the walls of Jericho tumbling down was explicitly cited by some of these. "God, who does miracles, is doing a miracle today. God, who is more powerful than any human ruler; God, who is all the time battling the cosmic powers of evil, is about to defeat the evil, demonic, illegitimate Democrats, cheating Biden campaign, etc."

I would say that there were different and in many ways mutually incongruous fragments of Christian theology, scriptural sourcing, and spiritual intuitions that brought self-identified Christian people to the Capitol that day. One key piece was a translation of ambiguous language of spiritual warfare to actual hand-to-hand physical violence. If you talk about warfare long enough, some people might eventually become activated to believe they are in a real war.

Are MAGA and American fascism a “Christian” movement? How did Trump and the larger neofascist movement “capture” the Christian right as some have tried to suggest?

I see three stages in conservative Christian engagement with US culture since the convulsive social changes and divisions of the 1960s. 

First stage: 1962-1978. American culture has lost its way. We need to redouble our evangelistic efforts (think Billy Graham) to get people saved and bring them back to traditional Christian morality. We must tell all our neighbors about Jesus. It was not a culture wars strategy, but an evangelism and church missions strategy. This was the faith into which I was converted in 1978.

Second stage: 1979-2008. We need to mobilize for democratic politics in a big way. Let’s build a partnership with the Republican Party, giving them our support in return for their investment in our “traditional values” agenda. This was the Falwell-era Christian right. Ronald Reagan was the first partner on the GOP side, and it brought fabulous results for the GOP (the Solid South in their pocket), great political access and other benefits to the most visible preacher-politicians, but no real change in the direction of liberalizing social change – for example, abortion. It was easy to be disappointed in the results of the relationship and of the direction of democratic politics. 

Third stage: 2008-2020. Barack Obama has now been elected president, twice. Gay marriage has now been legalized nationally by a supposedly conservative Supreme Court. Abortion is still legal. We need a warrior to fight this. No more politeness. Donald Trump comes along as the avatar of white, quasi-Christian cultural resentment, the symbolic and actual anti-Obama, the beginning of a radicalized new stage for the right which includes the (post)Christian right. He’s still a politician elected within a democratic system but has authoritarian tendencies from the beginning.

Fourth stage: 2020-21. When Trump frankly threatens democracy after November 2020, his followers are so welded to him that they go right over the cliff with him. For some, that means vague talk of violence turned actual on January 6. But the paramilitaries were preparing long before January 6. My reading would be you had a spectrum from armed Christian warriors readying for combat well before November 2020, then lots of wannabe “girding for war” Christian preachers/activists speaking an ambiguous language that could be construed as spiritual warfare only or divine interventionist actual violence or actual planned human violence. I think “Christians” with all of these relations to violence converged on the Capitol on January 6. It is important not to miss the apocalyptic supernaturalism that led many forward that day. They didn’t know what was going to happen, but they thought God was about to do something big, 

Trump is now basically proclaiming that he is the Chosen One, a martyr prophet empowered by Jesus and God. Trump is selling pieces of clothes like he is a saint. His followers and propagandists circulate images of him as being some type of Christ-like figure, being anointed and blessed. Several days ago, he released a video proclaiming that “God Made Trump.” Why is this message resonating with his “Christian” followers? To outsiders it looks ridiculous – but they are not the audience.

Trump is not well-educated or well-read, but he is cunning, and he knows how to find rubes and make money off them. He is at PT Barnum levels in that skill. So that is one dimension. Remember that he needs a constant flow of millions of dollars to finance his lifestyle and pay his legal fees.  

I am persuaded by the diagnosis that Trump is a sociopathic narcissist, and he has faced many narcissistic wounds in his life – recently, none more lacerating than losing in 2020. He has only the most superficial knowledge of the Christian faith, but he has a variety of preachers around him. It was probably through them that he got the atrocious, appalling, indefensible idea of identifying his sufferings with those of Jesus. It also sells, so that works. 

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An interesting question for us who watch politics is how this kind of thing happens. The level of irrationality here is something to see. Isn’t it an interesting weakness long-identified in democracies – our political leaders are constantly knocked down, and it is hard for them to retain mythic dimensions for very long. Yet something in many of us yearns, even in democracies, for mythic figures, people whom we cannot just respect but admire and not just admire but feel just a touch beyond that when we think of them or encounter them.

Consider the figures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and more recently, Obama. For some of us, Obama – the first Black president! – created a frisson that went beyond normal democratic politics. Something transcendent, we thought, was happening with him and through him. Who feels that way about Joe Biden? One wonders with trepidation about a second contest between one figure who inspires in some that sense of the transcendent against another candidate who does not. How is that going to go this time around?

When you look at Donald Trump, how do you make sense of him? He is much more than a man; Donald Trump is a powerful symbol.

In 2015 I saw in Donald Trump a lonely narcissist hungry for attention. Then once he opened his mouth, I saw the state of his heart and mind – angry, prejudiced, resentful, ready to dehumanize and demean at a moment's notice, in my view the worst possible type of person to be a major national politician. As he grew in popularity during the 2016 campaign I saw an increasingly skillful demagogue, trying out lines to see which ones worked, building a large and loyal following. I saw him "discipling" his listeners – as he crossed longstanding moral, political, and rhetorical boundary lines, they were free to do so as well.  He was making disciples out of them. Since many of these listeners were Christians, active churchgoing people – I saw (and still see) a tempter, a seducer, discipling supposed followers of Jesus to follow him instead. Quite an achievement, really – for a godless reality TV star and grifter to overcome the central teachings of a 2000-year-old religion in the hearts of millions.

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Consistent with what the Bible says about the descent into evil, I now see in Trump someone with fewer and fewer moral constraints, at the head of an online (and mobilizable) army of supporters who can be deployed for his purposes when he calls upon them. His most ardent Christian fans see him as their champion; I see him as the most dangerous and unChristian politician at least in my lifetime. But in the end, the fact that someone like this is a serious candidate for president once again, even after every bad thing he has done, probably says more about us than it does about him.

The title of your new book is “Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies.” What was the origin of the project? What has the reaction to the book been like?

I first used this title for my inaugural address at Vrije Universiteit (Free University) Amsterdam in May 2022, in which I did kind of a pilot version of the book's ideas. While I was never fully comfortable with using "enemies" in the title of one of my books, and some have criticized that choice, the more I thought about it in terms of both the historical and comparative studies of the book, as well as the current situation, the term fits. There is a long history of traditionalist Christians explicitly positioning themselves as enemies of democracy. Today it tends to be somewhat more veiled, at least in some quarters.

What is the role of those Americans who believe in multiracial pluralistic democracy and the separation of church and state and the rule of law in defending the country against these Christian “enemies” as you have described them and their forces?

The Christian enemies of democracy are those whose reactionary response to unwanted cultural changes and loss of cultural power has now metastasized into support for authoritarian politics, for insurrectionism, for Trump in his latest and most noxious incarnation – with parallels in other countries that I describe in the book. I define democracy in the book in a mainstream way as a tradition that rejects authoritarian rule for popular sovereignty and rejects arbitrary rule for the rule of law. Democracy is the rule of the people under the rule of law. I support the normal understanding of constitutionalism, the rule of law, checks and balances, and so on that are understood as best practices by democratic activists, NGOs, and in well-functioning democracies. This is what must be defended by making a fresh Christian case for why it is the best political system yet developed and why authoritarian government was rejected once on this continent and must be again today. 

The U.S. tradition going back to 1789 made the very wise choice to separate church and state and disestablish religion. This 235-year-old tradition is eroding in some of the states and being explicitly rejected by some major national politicians. I am pretty sure it would not win in a referendum in many of our states. It must be defended. Meanwhile, simmering racism, xenophobia, and tribalism indicate that the 400-year-old struggle over whether this is a nation for all people, or really only for people defined as white, is extremely intense at this moment. 

What will America be like if the Christofascists such as Speaker Mike Johnson were to get their way?

It is not hard to imagine “progress” toward a reality like this: a right-wing version of Christianity is officially or unofficially the law of the land and the mandated curriculum in schools from kindergarten through college. I would not be surprised to see heightened pressure for gay marriage to be overturned by SCOTUS; undocumented immigrants facing even greater cruelty, perhaps even mass deportations; even more pressure and violence against LGBTQ+ people; threats to the independent judiciary, the NGO sector and the media; harassment against political dissidents; a constant environment of rhetorical incitement against, for example, Muslims, key Democratic politicians, liberal activists, civil rights organization leaders, and others. 

What gives you the most hope right now – if anything? What is causing you the greatest fear?

Everywhere authoritarianism rears its ugly head or establishes itself in power, dissidents rise up to say no. Some of them are Christians. They are my heroes – people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, Vaclav Havel in former Czechoslovakia, Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, WEB Du Bois here, Alexei Navalny in today’s Russia. Here, right now: General Mark Milley, Rep. Jamie Raskin, ex-Rep. Liz Cheney. I am given hope by how clearly so many people see what is at stake right now; by how many of the worst candidates were defeated in 2022; how I really don’t think there is a majority for authoritarian reactionary Christianity in the U.S. But my fear is that our democracy really does hang by a thread anyway. 


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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