There are many eye-opening revelations in the book just out by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, titled “Disloyal,” and his on-the-record discussions about the book. One of Cohen’s revelations is Trump has absolutely no respect for evangelical Christianity and the preachers he has invited into his offices for photo ops.
There is the famous photo of a group of preachers doing a “laying on of hands” onto Trump with the flashy televangelist Paula White front and center next to Trump. We now learn that after they had left, Trump turned to Michael Cohen and said, “Can you believe that bullsh-t? Can you believe people believe that bullsh-t?”
Some might say, “Oh, Cohen just made that up.” But I have to reply: Why would an unpopular, disgraced, convicted felon make up such a disparaging remark about Christianity — especially when he happens to be Jewish? It’s not as if Cohen has had a hard time finding horrific things to tell us about Trump’s everyday speech, actions and lack of ethics. This particular item is just one tiny speck on a mountain of Trump’s despicable behavior — I’ve read the book and recommend it, if you have a strong stomach.
However, the most important thing to note in this is not Trump’s disdain for evangelical Christianity. The most important thing is, he has successfully hidden that disdain and has succeeded in duping millions and millions of American Christians to be his staunchest supporters. As of July, 90% of American evangelicals back Trump (as per the Democracy Institute/Sunday Express poll), which is actually an increase from 2016.
In relation to the book as a whole, the “that bullsh-t” remark is just one tiny speck. However, in relation to the history of 20th-century fascism, this remark speaks volumes — volumes in the tragic history of how corrupt leaders twist, trash and transform religion to serve their pernicious political goals. Trump is certainly not original in this regard.
Mussolini cut a deal with the Catholic Church in Italy with the Concordat of 1929 and baptized his kids, even though he himself had been a vocal atheist who called priests “black germs.” He realized he needed to have the powerful Roman church “on his side,” so to speak, to consolidate his power. He managed this marriage of convenience masterfully until 1938, when he introduced the Charter of Race against the Jews in Italy. The pope objected strongly to the Charter in an official letter to Mussolini, but by this point, Mussolini’s Fascist Party was solidly in control of the country.
Hitler’s Nazi Party in Germany fostered one and only one type of Christianity, but it became quite popular, especially in northern Germany. The Nazi Party managed to take over the German Evangelical Church Confederation (the largest group of Protestant churches in Germany) from 1932 till 1945, via the so-called “German Christian Movement.”
The “Deutsche Christen” were fanatically Nazi Protestants who were fiercely nationalistic and strongly committed to the the idea of Aryan supremacy. They called their religion “Positive Christianity” after the term’s use in the 1920 Nazi platform. They had a strong interest in Martin Luther’s numerous anti-Semitic writings. Nazi propagandist/philosopher Alfred Rosenberg went so far as to seriously propose that Jesus himself was a transplanted Aryan whose main sacred function had been to rid religion of “Jewish influence” (see “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians & the Bible in Nazi Germany” by Susannah Herschel, Princeton Univ. Press, 2008).
Clearly, Mussolini’s and Hitler’s use of religion was purely pragmatic and political, simply a means to an end. The end was totalitarian dominance of their followers’ lives, minds and institutions. Both of those rulers used a perverted approach to Christianity to foster extreme nationalism: In Germany, it focused on the genetic superiority of the Aryan Germanic people; in Italy, it focused on recalling Italy’s direct connection to the ancient, immensely powerful Roman Empire, one vestige of which was the Roman Catholic Church, still centered in the city of Rome.
Of course, in both countries, the original international and intercultural character of the Christian religion, one of its most essential founding principles, was totally ignored. In point of fact, Christianity’s teachings are diametrically opposed to all the key elements of fascism. In order to obtain the seeming support of Christianity, fascism has to grasp hold of one particular motif or group of Christians, then use that to gain an entrance into the church.
The Nazi Party used Martin Luther’s extreme anti-Semitism as its way into German Protestant churches. Donald Trump has been using the right-wing nationalist strain of American evangelical churches and the extreme right wing of the Catholic Church. Fascism gains strength by carefully creating somebody to hate. For the Nazi fascism, it was the Jews and the leftist Communists. For Trump’s fascism, it is Latin Americans, Muslims and left-leaning socialists of any sort. Fascism is always based on hate, revenge, war and unilateral power. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is based on love, understanding, peace and cooperation.
For those who maintain that religion should have no place in contemporary political and civic discourse, I have a question: We know from the history of the 20th century that fascism is appealing to many, many people — especially when they are living under duress.
Where do we find the vocabulary, the conviction and the ideological armaments to combat fascism? I am not at all convinced that secular humanism is up to the task. There were plenty of secular humanists in Germany in the early 20th century and there are plenty of secular humanists in the early 21st century in America. But Germany ended up Hitler and America ended up Trump.
In the eyes and hearts of their followers, fascist leaders become not only larger than life but also imbued with a semi-divine justification upholding their actions and charisma. We need to remind ourselves that the single biggest reason Roman emperors persecuted Christians was that Christians refused to recognize the divine nature of the emperor.
American Christians are a huge percentage of the American electorate. It is high time all of our country’s Christians realize we are on the verge of veering very far off course. Any political platform based on hate, extreme nationalism and brute power is profoundly unChristian — it is fascism. It’s that simple. We are better than that, and we deserve better than that.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.