What an odd place to find ourselves in. Some evangelical Christians, who used to be guardians of decency and moral human behavior, now have to have their clergy explain to them why Trump wasn’t the messiah he’d been touted as for the last four years. A piece in the Los Angeles Times recently described the struggles of one such minister with his congregation that had fully bought into the conspiracy theories Trump promulgated in order to mask his own lack of care for his country and its citizens. Conspiracy theories have become big business in academia with faculty from many departments exploring them. I haven’t seen much in the way of religion departments participating in the discussion, but I think they should. Why? Religions are all about getting people to believe and act in prescribed ways.
Not that religions alone can explain this. Psychologists and sociologists must have some important insights as well. I used to tell my students that not all religions are about beliefs. Some have to do with behaviors—acting in a certain way, regardless of belief, is to be part of it. Certainly that explains part of the membership in the cult of Trump. Many who follow it must know in their consciences that a man who defrauds the government he “governs,” who actively womanizes, and who displays overt racism can’t be the ideal evangelical. Ah, but the conspiracy theories explain it! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, right? You can sure get away with a lot that way.
Religions have a lot to teach us about both strange behaviors and strange actions. Many years ago someone pointed out to me as I was enumerating what I considered odd beliefs of a New Religious Movement just how odd Christianity looks from the outside. When I stopped to think about it, this made sense. The unconventional aspects of the faith had become naturalized because I’d been taught all my life that they were true—unlike all other religious beliefs. Not only that, but I had been taught that accepting them without question was the only way to avoid Hell. Over the years the strangeness became normal. Trump and his conspiracy theories had their way smoothed by an evangelical narrative of unquestioning belief instead of an examined faith. Now many ministers, awaking sober, are having to try to convince their flocks that they’d accepted lies for truths. It’s an uphill battle, unfortunately. Religions, after all, have been about getting followers to believe without questioning, or, apparently, considering the source.