In the aftermath of last week’s bizarre Trump Show at the National Prayer Breakfast, I was texting with a buddy—I’ll call him Mystery Apostle X—who made a pretty great analogy: Donald Trump is to modern conservative politics what the prosperity gospel is the Christianity.
He followed that up by unpacking the analogy at some length and gave me permission to reprint the full thing here. What follows is his very smart take:
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, so Christ said. I don’t know if Trump is going to heaven, or even if he’s actually all that rich, but clearly some people think he’s both.
The president seems equally bullish about his appeal to religious voters, especially conservative Christians. As with women so with votes: the thrice-married magnate grabs what he likes, supremely confident it’s his for the taking.
At the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, his pitch was characteristically counterintuitive. Waiving aside the biblical missive to love your enemies—and Arthur Brooks’ plea to push back on the culture of contempt dissolving our society—Trump eyed the needle and saddled his camel.
“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you. But I don’t know if Arthur’s going to like what I’m going to say.” But say it he did. Love your enemies? That’s hard, and frankly not a lot of fun. Better, Trump mused, to wave the day’s front pages and spike the ball.
That’s a hard sell for an overtly bipartisan event packed with what is supposed to be the nation’s public religious conscience. Yet the applause rolled over him.
Why? How do you reject the premise of Christian charity at a prayer breakfast and carry the room? Maybe it’s a mystery. Or maybe not.
Seeing Trump work the stage, it was hard to miss the archetype.
From the mad hair and man tan, to the restless hands and rictus grin, Trump is that most American of heretics: the prosperity gospel preacher. And cable TV congregations have been hearing this particular good news for a long time now.
The pitch is simple:
God wants you to have what you want! I should know, because I have it! Come get yours too, for a small contribution!
Prosperity hucksters offer a relentlessly simple logic: You, the audience, tell them what you want. And they’ll tell you that you can have it.
If you get it, that’s on them—no one else would have delivered for you. But if you don’t? Well, that’s on you. Maybe you just need to give a little more.
And giving to Trump they are. Fawning tributes from committed pro-lifers: Trump is their “warrior”, the “most pro-life president in history”, his judicial appointments are HYUGE!
Don’t get me wrong, for many it’s a legitimate trade to consider. Yes, Trump is a deeply and publicly flawed guy. But considering, for example, Pete Buttigieg’s belief in abortion up to the first breath, they might reasonably conclude Trump is at least the enemy of the abhorrent as much as of the perfect.
But people making that cold-eyed calculation don’t clap. They don’t shout Amen for a guy who riffs about how immigrants “infesting” the country. People who know they’re making an electoral deal with the devil don’t wrap their arms around him and invite him to breakfast.
No, the people who invite him to breakfast and clap and Amen are people who do not at all think that they are choosing the lesser of two evils. Those folks are all in.
Like the devil quoting scripture in the desert, Trump offers more than a deal for judges: he promises what isn’t his, and offers justification for what you really want.
Like a preacher with a Rolex and a private jet, he beckons you to believe in his vision.
Do you want the reinvention of a manufacturing economy? Just believe, and it will happen for you. Meanwhile, a car plant here and there is enough to keep you putting money into the collection plate.
Worried that the neighborhood is getting a little too exotic? How about a Big Beautiful Wall? Or a couple miles of one anyway. Just give him another four years and he will get you what you want, promise, because God wants you to have it—you can trust Trump on that.
Higher up the grifter’s pyramid to heaven, the same temptation is on offer. Tired of being a bit player at a pro-life non-profit, or a middling political hack? Trump can make you the real deal. Just keep telling yourself, and everyone else, what a warrior he is for the cause—pay no attention to the porn stars, the hush money, or the odd accusation of maybe sexual assault.
Money and influence, power and prestige: all these are yours. All it will cost you is your soul.
This isn’t to say that the conservative Christians singing alleluias to Trump’s name set out to get here. Like most people who fall for a charlatan, they were weak and wounded and desperate when they found him.
Eight years of vindictive attacks under Obama—Who sues nuns to make them pay for abortions? Seriously, who does that?—and the prospect of eight more under Hillary Clinton had a great many people looking for any port in a storm. Trump promised more than a break from all that, he promised to make their enemies cry. And he did. But it’s a direct line from embracing that feeling to cheering a guy who stands up at a prayer breakfast and says, basically, Fuck your enemies.
For all those people, the ones who don’t just hold their noses and pull a level but pay their tithe to the man on the screen, sooner or later you find yourself staring into the eye of the needle.