8.10.18

Christian nationalism, explained through one pro-Trump propaganda film

Jerry Falwell Jr. is a longtime Trump ally.

The Trump Prophecy, a new evangelical film, wants to convince you God chose Trump.

I sat in an unmarked cinema hall in New York’s Union Square, listening to a group of people praying. We’d just finished watching a screening of The Trump Prophecy, the controversial hybrid docu-drama made in part by students and faculty at the conservative evangelical Liberty University. Images of American greatness — an American flag, an eagle — flickered across the screen. A white man in his 60s sang out verses from 2 Chronicles 7:14:

“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.”

They bowed their heads and thanked God that his anointed one, Donald Trump, was president. Just as the prophecy had foretold.

Scenes like this took place in 1,200 cinemas across the country during a limited release of the film this month. The Trump Prophecy, which played on Tuesday and Thursday nights, has been advertised as an opportunity for prayer groups to come together in an expression of patriotism.

The film — which dramatizes the memoir of a fireman who believes God told him that Donald Trump would one day be president with interviews with prominent evangelical figures about Trump’s greatness — is funded and produced by Charlotte-based ReelWorks Studios, a purveyor of Christian fare. However, Liberty University’s School of Cinematic Arts collaborated on the production, and allowed film students the opportunity to participate in the production.

But The Trump Prophecy is more than a feel-good, low-budget movie. It’s the purest distillation of pro-Trump Christian nationalism: the insidious doctrine that implicitly links American patriotism and American exceptionalism with (white) evangelical Christianity.

Everything about The Trump Prophecy — from its subject matter, to the way it’s shot, to the little details scattered through the movie’s (often interminable) scenes of domestic life — is designed not just to legitimize Donald Trump as a evangelical-approved president but to promulgate an even more wide-ranging — and dangerous — idea.

The Trump Prophecy doesn’t just want you to believe that God approves of Donald Trump. It wants you to believe that submission to (conservative) political authority and submission to God are one and the same. In the film’s theology, resisting the authority of a sitting president — or, at least, this sitting president — is conflated with resisting God himself.

The “prophecy” part of the Trump Prophecy suggests a God who acts in history — and determines authority

The plot of The Trump Prophecy (to the extent that there is a plot) is simple and based on a memoir. Back in 2011, fireman Mark Taylor (Chris Nelson) — suffering from PTSD after witnessing the death of a child in a fire — starts to believe that God is talking to him. Over the next few years, with the help of his supportive wife, Mary Jo (Karen Boles), his Christian doctor Dan Colbert (Don Brooks), and Don’s wife, who is also named Mary (Colette Todd), Taylor figures out that God is telling him that Donald Trump is going to be president one day.

To that end, Don and Mary Colbert — with the help of the Holy Spirit — figure out that God wants them to mobilize their local prayer groups to start a national “prayer chain” to help Trump win the election. This culminates in a thousands-strong plan to simultaneously blast the “shofar,” a musical ram’s horn used in the Jewish tradition, on election night.

The first 90 minutes of The Trump Prophecy are devoted to that story. Or, rather, about 15 minutes are devoted to that story, with the other 75 minutes turned over to filler: shots of Mark and Mary Jo eating muffins at the breakfast-table, or a subplot about Mark selling his beloved father’s boat that goes absolutely nowhere, or 10-second-long closeups of Mark’s eyes.

Banality aside, The Trump Prophecy’s central message is disturbing. It’s not just that Trump himself is part of God’s plan. (However, the film makes several references to Biblical passages about King Cyrus, the Persian king to whom Trump’s evangelical supporters often compare him, and features the Christian writer most associated with this trope, Lance Wallnau.) It’s that God chooses America’s leaders and therefore, any leader who is chosen takes his authority not from the democratic process but from God himself. It’s an ideology that strikes at the heart of what democracy is all about. If God chose Trump, who are we to resist?

The Trump administration has used this very trope. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used Romans 7:13 — a controversial verse that demands that Jewish Christians resist political action against the Roman Empire — to argue that the Trump administration had the political and Biblical right to enforce family separation policies for migrants. Trump’s top evangelical advisors, such as prosperity gospel preacher Paula White and First Baptist Dallas preacher Robert Jeffress, have frequently implied that Trump’s authority is virtually unlimited because his presidency is divinely mandated.

The Trump Prophecy takes this trope to new heights. An inexplicable 30-odd minute “interview” segment at the end of the film features interviews with controversial evangelical historian David Barton (whose books champion the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation), Wallnau, former US Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and other prominent evangelical figures.

The interviewees repeatedly reference 2 Chronicles 7:14. They heavily imply that a humbled people, and a “healed land,” will arise from what one interviewee called “a proper relationship between government and governed.”

In other words: authority good, #resistance bad.

The film’s obsession with authority is coded into every level of filmmaking

The Trump Prophecy’s fascination with authority doesn’t just limit itself to the idea of Trump as president. The movie’s “good” characters are those who accept the idea of hierarchy and authority in other ways.

Take Mary Colbert, the woman who decides to start the Trump prayer chain. We know that she’s a “good” character because she asks the men in her life for permission before she does anything. In what would be a stunning violation of professional ethics, she reads (at Dr. Colbert’s behest) the dream journal his client Mark has provided to Dr. Colbert, in which he’s recounted the prophecy he thinks he’s received, then calls her adult son for advice.

Only with her son’s guidance and permission does Mary come to the conclusion that God wants her to launch this prayer chain, “for all those in authority over us.”

Likewise, we know that Mary Jo, Mark Taylor’s wife, is an equally good woman because she submits to Mark’s authority in the house (literally the only biographical detail we get from her is that she gave up her job as a fire dispatcher for him).

This vision of Christian domesticity, with male heads of household shaping spiritual matters for their female counterparts, is central to the film’s vision of a “good” Christian life: a chain of well-ordered relationships in which wives submit to their husbands, and husbands submit to Trump. The film repeatedly stresses that Trump isn’t just a president, but a commander-in-chief (another inexplicable five-minute montage toward the end features characters we’ve never seen before holding up photos of servicemen and women, presumably their relatives).

The implication is clear: There’s an unbreakable chain of command in God-approved American life, and Donald Trump is at the top of it.

The movie circumvents the figure of Trump himself

One of the most striking things about The Trump Prophecy is how little it’s about, well, Trump. The presidential candidate does not make a single on-screen appearance, and his voice only appears in a few key sequences, such as when Taylor falls asleep next to the television while receiving a prophetic vision, or when he and his wife worriedly watch the Trump-Clinton debate. Almost no attention is given to Trump’s fitness as a candidate.

Indeed, the only vaguely funny sequence in the film comes when Mary Colbert attempts to garner support for her pro-Trump prayer chain from her fellow Christian friends. “He needs a lot of prayer,” one says, before making a folksy joke about his. “I have to confess something,” another says, pursing her lips with concern. “I’ve never much liked Donald Trump.”

That’s all we get about Donald Trump’s character or his fitness for office. There’s a winking acknowledgment that Trump hasn’t exactly lived a life in concordance with evangelical values, but no direct mention of his serial adultery or shady business practices.

We’re supposed to support Trump’s presidency not because he’d be a good president, but because our plucky all-American fireman hero thinks God told him Trump was meant to be president, and thus Trump’s victory “proves” that God is at work in the world. Or, at least, in America.

It’s telling that The Trump Prophecy doesn’t even try to pretend Trump is a good, or even acceptable, leader. In fact, it treats that very question as irrelevant. What matters, simply, is that good Christians respect those in power over them (whether good Christians should also have respected, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is never explored).

The Trump Prophecy unites two very different evangelical models

Another striking element of The Trump Prophecy is the way in which it seamlessly unites two very different models of contemporary evangelicalism. On the one hand, it’s part-funded by the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a traditional bastion of what you might call “old-school” evangelicalism. The kind of evangelicalism Falwell (and his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s current president) represented was political and institutional. Arising out of the Moral Majority movement of the 1980’s, Falwell’s “old school” evangelicalism focused primarily on hot-button social issues, like segregation, abortion, and same-sex marriage, and on delivering appropriately conservative candidates into public offices.

But The Trump Prophecy’s focus on, well, prophecy, and the figures it chooses to highlight in its interview portions come from a different evangelical tradition altogether: what’s often referred to as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), an umbrella term for a loosely-connected network of mostly-Pentecostal evangelical preachers who focus on miracles, spiritual healing, and prophecy. Longtime Trump ally Paula White is associated with this tradition, as are Bachmann, Wallnau, and Barton. The real-life Dr. Colbert, whose self-help and diet books are the subject of some egregious product placement, is also a regular guest on the television shows of Ken Copeland and Jim Bakker, two other evangelists associated with the NAR.

The NAR, furthermore, is frequently associated with a theology known as “dominionism,” or the belief that — in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ — Christians must first transform the world (or at least America and Israel, more on that in a second) into a Christian nation alongside Biblical principles.

The idea of political Christian control of America, in this paradigm, is inextricably linked to concerns about the apocalypse. While the narrative portion of the movie references this only obliquely, the interview portion is much more explicit. Trump is likened to Israel’s ultra-right-wing president Benjamin Netayanhu who, the film suggests, is also chosen by God. The film’s interviewees highlight the importance of a close relationship between America and Israel — the two countries to have “special covenants” — with God, and praise Trump’s controversial decision to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, which many evangelicals see as a necessary step to fulfill various end times prophecies.

While this ideology makes up the movie’s subtext, not its text, it nevertheless underpins The Trump Prophecy’s overall point. Trump isn’t just good because God chose him, or because he is in authority now, but also because he is helping bring us one step closer to the Second Coming.

The Trump Prophecy wants its viewers to close themselves off from other sources of information

One of the most unnerving things about The Trump Prophecy is the degree to which it functions as an echo chamber. Dramatically, of course, this is unsatisfying. All of the characters are faithful, committed evangelical Christians who agree with each other (with the exception of a cameo appearance by coded-liberal, billed as “Aristocratic Woman,” who gets annoyed by Mary Colbert holding up a flight to pray for Trump’s election, and ostentatiously orders a “double Tanqueray martini, extra dirty, three olives” to cope with this unwanted onslaught of Jesus in her life).

But, even more troubling, The Trump Prophecy encourages its viewers to wall themselves off from any information that might challenge their perspective of current events. The news media is treated as a collective source of leftist deceit, with the sole exception of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (whose real-life segments are used throughout the film), a network that doubles as, functionally, pro-Trump propaganda. Medical science is treated as suspicious (Taylor ends up refusing to take his doctor-prescribed medicine for PTSD), with the potential exception of Colbert’s extremely prominently-placed diet books. Nobody in the film takes the time to familiarize themselves with Trump or Clinton’s policies. In one telling scene, Mark and Mary Jo watch a debate between Trump and Clinton, and worry only that Clinton is going too aggressively after their preferred candidate, failing to engage at all with either candidate’s ideas.

It’s possible to dismiss the film as merely “preaching to the choir.” And it’s certainly true that The Trump Prophecy is unlikely to greatly affect hearts and minds. After all, the screening I saw was attended by fewer than 10 people, and even journalists who attended screenings in Liberty’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, reported that it was sparsely attended there.

But the fact that one of the most powerful evangelical institutions in the country has spent time and money on what is, essentially, Christian nationalist propaganda should be worrying in its own right. So too is the fact that so many disparate players in the evangelical world, from New Apostolic Reformation prosperity gospel preachers to “old school” evangelical stalwarts like Falwell and Robertson, have combined forces (with Trump’s implicit approval) into a Trumpist-religious media complex.

The Trump Prophecy is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a terrible movie. But it’s necessary watching as a window into the world of Christian nationalism in America.

For now, for those outside the world of conservative white evangelicalism, that world may be nothing more than a curiosity. But it might not be for long.

source: vox

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