Trumpism and White Christianity, or: Why You Need to Stop Calling Trumpism a Cult
At the interchange of a small town in Southwestern Virginia, a man who goes by the name “Whitey” runs a business specializing in pro-Trump propaganda. Whitey’s “Trump Store” sits in the shell of a former church, surrounded by Trump signs and flags. On any given day of the week, one can expect to find a handful of pickups and farm vehicles parked outside, often with Confederate flag stickers on their bumpers.
If there were no photographic evidence of the scene, one might be tempted to dismiss it as fake news, or satire from The Onion. But the Trump Store is real. Its doors have been open since September of 2020, and Whitey has given no indication that he’s going anywhere. According to a recent interview published in the Roanoke Times, his end goal is to rebrand his small corner of rural Virginia as “Trump Town,” and for it to become “a Trump-centered tourist destination.” While his enthusiasm is certainly not shared by all in the community, the steady stream of shoppers suggests that he’s also not alone.
Scenes like this have led many to conceive of Trump devotion as a sort of new religious movement. As a scholar of religion, I would agree that Trumpism is indeed a type of religious movement. But, I argue that it is also inseparable from Christianity in the United States, which is the religious context in which it took root and in which it continues to flourish.
The religious dimensions of Trumpism
For the better part of six years, ever since Trump announced his presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, there’s been no shortage of attempts to reckon with the phenomenon often referred to as “Trumpism.” And one of the biggest conundrums is the quasi-religious nature of this movement. Trump loyalists follow Trump as if he were both omniscient and infallible. His name is emblazoned on their clothing, and they flaunt their allegiance to him with flags and yard signs. They adhere to a constellation of beliefs that are to be affirmed and preached without evidence or question; against all evidence, in fact. These range from Trump having won the 2020 election “in a landslide” to the Covid-19 vaccines being the Mark of the Beast or a leftist scheme to microchip the population of the earth.
It should come as no surprise that some have suggested that Trump is a sort of “cult leader.” In a recent CNN appearance, for example, United States House Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) drew a comparison between Trump and Jim Jones, the infamous founder of “The Peoples Temple” movement, who in 1978 orchestrated the murder-suicide of nearly 1,000 of his followers at Jonestown in Guyana.
“You look at Donald Trump,” Speier remarked, “a charismatic leader who was able to continue to talk in terms that appealed to those who were disaffected, disillusioned, and who were looking for something. Much like those who became part of Jim Jones’s congregation.” Speier refers to Jones and Trump as “merchants of deceit,” and to Trump supporters who rioted at the Capitol on January 6 as “members of a cult” because of their embrace of Trump and their willingness to do “anything he wants.”
Speier was part of the small group that traveled from the United States to Guyana in 1978 to investigate possible human rights violations at Jonestown. As she and the others were boarding the plane home, gunmen from Jonestown opened fire, killing five and injuring nine. Speier was among those shot and then left for dead on the runway. Her invocation of Jim Jones is therefore not coming from an uninformed place; she has experienced firsthand the incredible evils that humans are capable of.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily make it accurate or helpful to draw such comparisons.
A change in terms
Scholars of religion have long moved away from the language of “cults,” and for a number of reasons. One of those is that the term is both loaded and unhelpful in facilitating understanding. In short, to call something “a cult” is to make a preconceived value judgment about it and to therefore dismiss it. “This thing is bad, and the people who participate in it are bad.” Or, as Catherine Wessinger puts it, “application of the ‘cult’ category promotes fear in the general public, and dehumanizes members of a group so the wider society may approve excessive actions taken against members, which harm innocents instead of protecting them.”
“New religious movement” is a replacement for “cult” language that’s gained some traction in the field of religious studies. While not perfect, it is appealing because it aims for neutrality in relation to the phenomenon it describes. Was Jonestown a religious movement? Arguably, yes. Was it new, at least relatively speaking? Also yes. So, in this instance calling Jonestown a “new religious movement” would be accurate, at least in theory.
Trumpism and White Christianity
So now we pose an important question: Is Trumpism a new religious movement?
To address this question we return to Whitey’s Trump Store in the old, defunct church in Southwestern Virginia. As we gaze upon this fascinating and unusual scene, it’s both tempting and reasonable to conclude that when we’re dealing with Trumpism, we’re dealing with a new religious movement. The pieces are all there, or at least they appear to be.
But the old church that houses Whitey’s Trump Store prompts us to reconsider the question, as well as the extent to which we can speak of Trumpism apart from white Christianity in the United States. White Christians in the United States are anything but a homogeneous group, but how they voted in 2016 and 2020 suggests that they share more than a little in common in terms of their politics.
From the moment that Trump announced his candidacy, white evangelicals have been some of his most flamboyant and unshakable supporters. The Pew Research Forum estimates that 81% of this group voted for Trump in 2016, for example, and in 2020 that number decreased only slightly, to 78%. But white evangelicals are not alone. From the same Pew study, 58% of mainline Protestants supported Trump in 2016, and 54% maintained their support in 2020. Trump also secured 60% of white Roman Catholic votes in 2016, and 52% in 2020. Put simply: as a group, white Christian voters in the United States are ultimately responsible for the Trump presidency.
White Christian support of Trump eroded slightly between 2016 and 2020, particularly among white Catholics, but the data suggests that the majority of this group held firm. Time will reveal the extent to which this support remains, particularly in the wake of the January 6 insurrection as well as Trump’s absence from social media. But for the moment, Trumpism continues to exist largely within white Christian America.
This does not mean that all Trump supporters are white Christians, of course, and it also does not mean that all white Christians are Trump supporters. Instead, the argument presented here is a structural one. Trumpism found fertile ground within white Christian institutions in the United States, and rather than create a new category for this movement, polling data suggests that Trumpism remains wed to the larger religious groups that enabled it in the first place.
Regardless of where it comes from, I would suggest that the impulse to label Trumpism as a “cult” is rooted in a desire for distance. If Trumpism is a “cult,” then it’s something strange, something different, and most importantly, something other. And as a result, “we” don’t have to own it, understand it, or take credit for it. This is the case whether the label comes from a CNN commentator, a Democratic House Representative, or an evangelical Trump critic.
Those who remain critical of Trump and Trumpism would do well to avoid normalizing the “othering” language of “cult.” Because framing Trumpism as “cultish,” as something separate from white Christianity in the United States, gives those religious communities ultimately responsible for Trump a convenient way to ignore the rot within their own religious traditions, and to distance themselves from him and his followers in the future. It also gives them a way to potentially disavow the disastrous results of having enabled his rise to power.
Instead of framing Trumpism as a new religious movement (or “cult”), I would suggest that it is both more accurate and helpful to think of it as a form of white Christianity in the United States. Trumpism does not exist in any meaningful sense apart from this context; statistically speaking, they are two sides of the same coin.