I’ve expressed before my puzzlement that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump could win so many disciples among the Christians who make up a hefty portion of the Republican base.
Trump is an insulting, profane, thrice-married, megalomaniacal billionaire from New York City who can’t even pronounce 2 Corinthians correctly. Indeed, he seems to proudly stand for everything the Christian faith supposedly opposes.
And yet a great throng of Christians love the guy.
If you, too, have been scratching your head in wonder at this conundrum, allow me to say this mystery has been solved.
The answer made great sense, too. It even led me to contemplate an ancient divide within Christianity itself.
It came from a poll by Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
He wrote a brief essay for Politico.com about his research.
MacWilliams sampled 1,800 registered U.S. voters from across the political spectrum in an attempt to understand Trump’s popularity.
“I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate,” he said. “Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.”
Authoritarians, a group studied by social scientists for decades, inclined sharply toward Trump.
MacWilliams summarized what it means to be authoritarian: “Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Statistically, MacWilliams found, among those likely to vote in the Republican primary, 49 percent ranked high on the authoritarian scale. That’s more than twice as many as among Democratic voters.
And Trump sings these folks’ love song:
“From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States,” MacWilliams wrote, “Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
Reading this, I experienced an “aha!” moment.
Not all of Trump’s Republican supporters are Christians, I know, but many are. And while religiosity was not the key factor in predicting support for Trump, many self-described Christians, be they devout disciples or only sporadic churchgoers, definitely incline toward authoritarianism.
You see, there’s historically been an emotionally charged split within our faith between disciples who focus on authority and those who focus on freedom, between those driven and riven by fear, and those propelled by hope and joy.
In the Christian vernacular, it’s a spiritual contest between “the Law” (capital L) and “Grace” (capital G).
Christians who lean toward the Law are all about God’s authority, the Bible’s authority, church leaders’ authority, men’s authority, civil authority. They’re the church’s cops and prosecuting attorneys.
They serve a stern God who lectures dryly from above, brooks no dissent and expects them to flog the daylights out of the dense and disobedient.
They thrive on order. They insist on doing things, whatever those things might be, the way they’ve always been done, whether or not that happens to make sense anymore, just because that’s the way they’ve always done them.
They operate largely from their own fear: fear of God’s wrath, fear of being wrong, fear of outsiders, fear of the public’s jeers.
Compared with them, Grace people, of whom I am happily one, are practically God’s do-gooder public defenders -- or God’s loosey-goosey flower-children. (Although I tend toward khakis and a button-down myself.)
Grace people serve a God who is unimaginably merciful, infinitely liberating and surprisingly understanding of every kind of birdbrain.
They believe their job, being his children, is to love all colors and nationalities and faiths and political views and theological quirks. They’re about forgiving their enemies and making peace and and welcoming strangers and helping the poor, no questions asked.
Grace folks drive the authoritarians mad.
And vice versa. We Gracies giggle when we picture them showing up in heaven, only to discover, to their purple-faced dismay, that the Lord let us in as well.
Probably neither side has a lock on the whole truth.
Grace people need a little authoritarianism to keep us from levitating away on shimmering clouds, and Law people need a big dose of Grace to keep them from getting swallowed whole into their profoundly constricted sphincters.
Everything in the Christian faith, as in life generally, works best when held in balance.
Ah, but I digress.
The point is, when I read MacWilliams’ piece, I finally knew how so many Christians could support The Donald, even though he probably wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he saw him walking across the thawed Hudson River on snowshoes.
In a world overrun by brigands and terrorists, authoritarian Christians prefer a ban-bar-and-bomb president, even if he’s a self-promoting heathen, over some milquetoast pseudo-Christian who embraces strangers and prefers negotiation to warfare.
Trump will wall out border-jumpers and slap down smart-aleck reporters and keep things the way they used to be back in the good old -- well, the way they used to be sometime, somewhere, in somebody’s version of the good old -- days.
To these Law folks, he stands for authority. He’s large and in charge and vindictive and brazenly unapologetic. He’s as good an approximation of their God as they’re likely to find in such a gone-to-blazes world.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. This originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader.