Coming of age in the 1980’s, I was like many other children raised in this environment who spent each Sunday either in the pews of the church or else sitting on my grandma’s couch watching hours of televangelists warning of evil armies coalescing for the Apocalypse and begging for donations. The satanic forces were legion. They were in the culture. In the movies and television shows and music. There were enemies. Overseas. Amongst us. Literally everywhere. It sounds absurd now, but that was reality. You could turn any corner and find Satan waiting to take your soul. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could ride at any moment and the Antichrist was more than likely alive and well and gathering converts in a foreign, wicked land.
While this paranoid, jumbled reality began well before the 1960’s, it was that decade in which the modern era of white-identity evangelicalism took shape. Jerry Falwell, Sr., a charismatic preacher in Lynchburg, led the charge as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and speed. Falwell’s main antagonist was Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Falwell disparaged at every turn. Falwell’s particular problem with King was the way he used Christianity, and Jesus Christ’s sermons of social justice, to attack the institution of racism.
Falwell was firmly a segregationist. In his sermons he railed against the dismantling of segregated society, calling the racist system divine and bellowing, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” Raised in the segregated south, he was steeped in the tradition of Confederate preachers who sermonized to their flocks in the CSA on the holiness of white supremacy and characterized the Christian god as inherently racist. The Christian faith was so integral to the Confederate cause that public ceremonies ran through with invocations of this racist god and military defeats led to days of religious atonement and humiliation.
The reaction to King’s usage of Christianity as a weapon against white supremacy was to abandon any notion of social justice and progressivism within the New Testament and reestablish the white supremacist notions of Confederate theology. Falwell opened private schools that were openly characterized as “for white students.” The faith focused on accrual of wealth and power, these markers of societal status becoming proof of God’s favor. Through this preaching, white dominance in political, judicial, and economic affairs became denotations of the will of the universe instead of means of racial control.
The religious awe with which Reagan bathed the country was a revival of sorts, and the Evangelical Right embraced him fully, merging his occult beliefs with their veneration of the institutions of wealth and power. Reaganomics radically altered our economy and emphasized top-down markets that prioritized obscene profits over the welfare of everyday Americans. The Religious Right, powered by Falwell’s preaching and the efforts of individuals like Norman Vincent Peale (the originator of The Power of Positive Thinking mindset that championed the prosperity gospel and inspired the likes of Donald Trump, whom Peale knew and officiated his first wedding) turned poverty into a symbol of godlessness.
Wealth and power, meanwhile, were seen as markers of God’s will. That had been the case since Adam Smith laid out our concept of capitalism being guided by “an invisible hand.” If someone was poor, if someone was destitute, it wasn’t the fault of the divine economy. It was their own personal, spiritual failing.
From the depths of this paranoid framing, Donald Trump has emerged as a religious figure, the embodiment of the fusion of contradictions upon which the Cult of the Shining City was founded. He is a poster child of conspicuous consumption; an aggressively wealthy man obsessed with defending the myths of America’s past that most Americans are growing more and more aware are only myths with each passing day. Exalted, sometimes jokingly, as “the Chosen One,” Trump is held by some Christians raised in these traditions as a faulty messiah, a Christ-like figure standing against the evil machinations of alleged antichrists such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom figure prominently in the online marketplace of internet conspiracy theories and email forwards with butchered quotes from the Book of Revelation.
Even now, as the coronavirus pandemic is growing, strange memes and messages are being posted in white-identity, evangelical circles, the roots of which can be traced back to Falwell and the Confederate Christian ideology. They see Trump as standing firm against dark, evil forces. They see the pandemic as a plague from God. A sign of the End Times.
And like other apocalyptic cults, these true believers are not afraid of mass death. They’re more than ready to reopen the doors and let come what may in the following days. When they watch the stock market tick upward, they see the hand of a racist, American God. The Dow Jones gaining points is proof of His favor. They’ll watch the numbers of infected and dying growing as well, and see testament of a world put right.