President Trump is once again attempting to exploit his relationship to Evangelicals who contributed in large measure to his election in 2016. Over this past weekend he attended church in Nevada where he was praised by the Pastor and blessed by parishioners. A picture captured by the New York Times photojournalist Doug Mills captures the moment at The International Church of Las Vegas when those mostly non-masks wearing attendees stretched their hands out towards the 45th President.
I’m sure that most of these people were sincerely engaging in the biblical mandates to pray for our leaders, but these and other occasions involving President Trump’s cult like status among many Evangelicals reminded me of a subject I’ve been exploring with my students this semester in my Media and Culture class. The concept of Celebrity Worship is clearly identifiable when we consider the devotion with which Trump’s most ardent supporters venerate him. The word worship derives from the Old English weorthescipe which basically means worthy. Worship carries with it the denotation of showing respect or acknowledging merit, but it also has religious connotations. Scholar Chris Rojek observes “Post-God celebrity is now one of the mainstays of organizing recognition and belonging in secular society.” And ironically, this is an attitude that has been endorsed by many in the evangelical landscape when it comes to supporting President Trump.
Consider the findings of psychological researchers Lynn McCutcheon and John Maltby who explored the way that consumers engage with celebrities. Specifically, they concluded that “many of those who follow celebrities do so with a zeal that actually does resemble religious fervor.” The “Celebrity Worship Scale” developed by their findings describes the spectrum of devotion that many of us exhibit when it comes to celebrities, “low worship describing what many of us do: watch and read about celebrities. At the other extreme, there is a level at which worshipful followers show ‘a mixture of empathy with the celebrity’s successes and failures, over-identification with the celebrity, compulsive behaviors, as well as obsession with the celebrity’s life.’ This is the kind of uncompromising and extreme disposition we might regard in a different context as religious zealotry or fanaticism.”
Celebrity worship is defined via four important characteristics:
Intensity of emotional engagement? It isn’t that difficult to see the intensity with which Trump supporters engage with their chosen candidate. In fact, the enthusiasm they show for him is one of the reasons cited as contributing to his election in 2016 and is now a metric that is commonplace in political punditry. President Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of fifth avenue and his followers would still support him, this is an indication of how Trump feels about those who support him. And given everything we now know about his incompetency in stewarding the Nation through the Covid pandemic it appears that he was right.
Impact on the life of the believer? The fact that many Trump supporters are still committed to attending his rallies, specifically in States where there have been recent increases in the reporting of Covid cases is an indication that true believers in the Trump presidency are willing to endanger their health and the health of others to show their support. This mirrors religious zeal and fervency.
Pattern of engagement with the rest of the world? A cursory examination of how Trump supporters choose to interact with others, either in person or online, specifically those who disagree with them, is an indication of their political and cultural devotion. Typically, Trump supporters do not see others as merely other Americans who disagree with the methods employed to solve the collective problems of our Nation, but rather dismiss them as enemies and often resort to name calling.
Do you socialize or withdraw based upon the actions of your idol? It is interesting to observe the extent to which Trump supporters will go to redraw relational lines with longtime friends and even family members based upon their insistence that a vote for anyone other than Trump is indicative of nefarious or evil motivations.
In the final analysis, it seems to me that many Trump supporters have adopted a posture of devotion that is nearer religious fanaticism than mere political preference. At the very least it is cultic in its similarities and borders on violations of the Great Commandment. It will be interesting to see where these devotees will redirect their worship should Trump lose the election. And should he be reelected it is alarming to think of where this misplaced devotion may ultimately lead our Nation.