The new religious Machiavellians

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The characteristic of the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian super-loyal endorsers of “Everything Trump” that continues to confound me most is how they have appeared to toss over three thousand years of classical Judeo-Christian moral/ethical thought in exchange for a decidedly-secular Renaissance ethical model, the famous one expounded by the Italian politician Niccolò Machiavelli. [1]

Machiavelli’s famous dictum of “the end justifies the means” sits on the extreme end of an important “vector” of ethical thought long supported by secular philosophers and economists, yet often criticized by theologians, called teleology, which is a focus on the morality of the “ends” (from the Greek telos) or the outcomes of the ethical choices at hand. [2]

The fundamentalist proponents of Christianity have historically based their ethical systems well down a very different classical “vector” called deontology, a focus on rules and duties (from the Greek deon, an obligation). The religious extreme of deontology is called divine command ethics, where an action or thought is deemed “right” or “wrong” because God said so, usually in a literal interpretation of an ancient Biblical passage such as the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. [3]

I must say at this point that I am no fan of divine command ethics. In my series of posts called “Good People Disagree” I walk through the thesis that our human brains have evolved at least four different concurrent approaches, with numerous variants, to addressing the decision conflicts that we have deemed “moral/ethical.” We have in turn “mapped” these brain “survival” functions through various religious, philosophical and scientific languages over the centuries to articulate these “vectors” that include the aforementioned teleology and deontology, but also ethical vectors based on empathy and “big picture” metacognition. [4]

Back to Trump’s high-profile Christian supporters, these are often the very same people who were casting moralistic rule-based judgment (with some merit) on Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama (this more usually just papered-over racism) during the last presidency. Faced with the rise of Donald Trump, who by just about any objective measure breaks all prior norms of probity, decency, honesty and mental stability, these leaders (such as those I call “The Juniors,” Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.) have backed themselves into this last-ditch Machiavellian defense.

The last-ditch Machiavellian defense

The “end justifies the means” defense from fundamentalist/evangelical leaders has primarily taken two forms. The first has been the fervor to grasp at any candidate that “says the right things” about abortion, and despite in Trump’s case of having no history of really caring about this issue, Donald Trump has “spoken the words” and made moves, particularly in his court appointments, to restrict the legal reproductive choices that American women have had for two generations now. This “good end,” from their point of view, “justifies the means,” embracing without criticism a president who, by all past actions, would have been banned from their churches as a “defiler.”

In a post from last May, I described how several pro-life nuns taught me about the concept of ethical nuance in the early 1990s, and why the “hammer” approach to this difficult topic by these religious believers has been, and will continue to be, actually counter-productive, resulting in more abortions and not fewer. Statistics from other countries like the Netherlands, and some state experiences like Colorado, continue to suggest that these nuns were correct, at least in their math.

Related to this single anti-abortion theme is the larger “we want our judges” defense. A large number of white American conservative Christians see themselves losing a “culture war” and demographic dominance to secular, LGBTQ and non-white Americans. To them “religious freedom” means having the freedom to discriminate in the public square and the courts against people who don’t hew to their standards of morality or religious deference (with the present occupant of the White House notably excluded). Judges endorsed by the far-right Federalist Society get preferential treatment by the President and the Senate, and now constitute a powerful bloc on the Supreme Court itself.

Ironically, it was Thomas Jefferson’s strong defense of a group of Baptists in 1802 that established the long-standing doctrine of “separation of Church and State.” The shoe is now on the other foot, with Baptists and their evangelical relatives now in political power, so that doctrine gets trashed as well.

Excusing the President

Last April I wrote a post about the first “Bible-based” justification for Trump’s flaunting of traditional Christian norms that I encountered threading its way through social media. This was the idea that Trump is “the new King David,” referring to the Old Testament stories of David committing open adultery with Bathsheba and dancing naked in the streets. [5] Despite his “sins,” King David brought the Kingdom of Israel to new heights of power. And so, Mr. Trump gets a pass as he claims to make “God’s country” great again.

More recently, perhaps because those David references were too much to swallow even for many Christian Trump “true believers” (who likely had not previously known the “danced naked” story) the meme of Trump as King Cyrus of Persia has now come into fashion. The Old Testament book of Isaiah declares Cyrus as “God’s Instrument” because, despite being a pagan, he set the Israelites free from their Babylonian captivity, allowing them to return to their ancestral home in Palestine. And so goes the meme, President Trump will also “set Christians free” from the horrible discrimination they face on a daily basis in the United States (a condition I had not previously been aware of). Sometimes the Bible is the ultimate horoscope. It can be interpreted to “explain” anything.

While other classical writings on deontology don’t take the “God commanded it” approach, almost all of the ways to define the “rules and duties” of ethical behavior, especially as an important societal leader, would find Mr. Trump in near-constant violation. Let me suggest that the ostensibly Christian devotees of the president need to dust off their Bibles, as well as read more widely on the topic of morality and ethics, in order to better engage in what I call the “moral conversation.” Right now they are digging a hole for their faith traditions that will be very hard to dig out from in the future. Neither Niccolò Machiavelli nor Donald Trump wear well as role models for your children.

Christian Dominionism as an alternate teleology

I suspect one largely-unspoken reason for the move to this new “ends justifies means” thought among Christian Trump supporters is the growing influence of the theology of Christian “Dominionism” among more conservative, white, and especially southern Christians. Dominionism is the idea that Christians, rather than working quietly behind the scenes to influence American political culture, have a “Last Days” urgency to seize control of local, state and national political bodies in order to force their narrow denomination-based priorities into secular law. Cultural, ethnic, racial, religious (even “other Christian”) and “small-d” democratic pluralism be damned.

The Dominionists have made scary progress at this task, and that observation will be explored in more depth in an upcoming post. You can subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box to the left of your screen, or click on the Facebook or Twitter icons to be notified of upcoming posts.


  1. For my own parsing of the difference between morality and ethics, see this post.
  2. Some scholars see Machiavelli’s writing as social commentary rather than a personal viewpoint. See this post for more on that view. I often use the word vector rather than category in talking about ethics, because the latter assumes non-existent clear borderlines between these “models” of ethics, while vectors, like the arrows used by meteorologists to talk about the wind, are defined by general direction and magnitude.
  3. This “divine command” tradition is often traced back to the Eden and Flood stories, but it becomes a recurring theme beginning with the story of Abraham (originally called Abram) beginning in Genesis 12. For more of my take on divine command ethics, see this post. I also wrote an expanded look at what I call “The Ten-ish Commandments.”
  4. My series entitled Good People Disagree starts here. Go to the “Dice” icon at the bottom each post to follow the thread. If the word “evolution” bothers you see this post on religious “fightin’ words” and evolution.
  5. See II Samuel 6:12-20 and II Samuel 11.

13 thoughts on “The new religious Machiavellians

  1. Gozo

    “President Trump will also ‘set Christians free’ from the horrible discrimination they face on a daily basis in the United States (a condition I had not previously been aware of).”

    The best way I’ve heard this sentiment expressed goes something like this: “To those who have lived their entire lives with White Privilege, losing any of that privilege feels like persecution.” I guess we might ought to feel some sympathy for those Americans of Christian faith, who are ignorant of the substantial privilege they enjoy, but when so many others hurt so much more because of rights actually withheld, it’s hard to muster a great deal of sympathy.

    Poor things!

    There. I did it. Might that heartfelt expression suffice?

    (($; -)}™

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