Donald Trump and his wife Melania visit a Catholic shrine in Washington, DC

After the Capitol riots of 2021, a legitimate return to the White House for Donald Trump was hard to imagine for many. But as the US heads towards elections in November, it looks increasingly likely.

How has he achieved this? According to many analysts, religion has played a key role – but not in the way you might expect.

Trump is paying special attention to conservative Christians in his campaign. In January, a group of Trump supporters even created a viral video – later shared by the former president himself – claiming that “God made Trump” to fix the US. In some deep corners of the evangelical Christian community, messianic descriptions of Trump as a saviour have been circulating for years. At one of his Iowa rallies, a speaker described the presidential election as a “spiritual battle”. That’s without even factoring in the popular QAnon conspiracy, which views Trump as the man who can save the nation from a satanic cult.

Meanwhile, his own Christian credentials are disputed. He rarely attends church. He says the Bible is his favourite book but could not answer when asked to pick his favourite verse. He has said that he never asks God for forgiveness. Insiders claim he has sometimes mocked conservative Christians in private. He is accused of marital infidelities. And yet, according to a recent poll, more Republicans see him as a “person of faith” than President Joe Biden, a devout Catholic and regular churchgoer.

So what is behind Trump’s ability to connect with the religious right? To a large degree, say analysts, it’s about politics rather than faith. “Conservative Christians continue to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump because of his biblical policies, not his personal piety,” Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader and staunch Trump supporter, said last year. “They are smart enough to know the difference between choosing a president and choosing a pastor.”

More than that, for some sections of the religious right, faith itself has become more about politics and culture than about religious practice. As a New York Times article noted in January, “Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority [and] traditional institutions are viewed sceptically.” It’s that identity that Trump has tapped into.

That’s also changing the issues that matter. To capture this group, Republican candidates can no longer focus on single issues such as abortion, but must take more reactionary stances on an array of political and social issues.

David Gushee is a Baptist pastor and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University who has studied the appeal of authoritarian ideologies to the Christian right in the United States. “The old Christian right that’s about values and character and faithfulness to one wife and all that is weakened, almost dead. The new Christian right is about tribalism, Trumpism, and authoritarianism,” he told Business Insider earlier this year.

“In historically Christian-dominated countries like the US, the basic formula is you have a population that is used to being in control of politics and culture,” he added. But their grip has weakened in recent decades, and cultural changes around issues such as abortion, same-sex relationships and feminism haven’t been accepted by all traditional Christians. Some are so disillusioned by the direction that society is going, so “resistant to social changes that they don’t like”, that they’re galvanised by Trump’s authoritarian approach and promise of a return to the past, he said.

The fear is that this toxic mix of religion and politics could present a real threat to democracy if Trump returns to the presidency of the world’s most powerful country – seen by some supporters as sent by God himself.

This article is a preview from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.