David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Is Donald Trump the new Joseph Smith?

Brandon Sun, July 24, 2017 - David McConkey

What is the difference between Americans and Canadians? I have been thinking more about this since the election of Donald Trump. Because Trump would never have been elected in Canada. And there have been other charismatic leaders before in the United States who could never have succeeded in Canada. I would like to pose a question for discussion: is Donald Trump the new Joseph Smith?

In the early 1800s, Smith updated and Americanized Christianity. He added onto the traditional religion to create a new branch: Mormonism. New scriptures were found in New York state. The story of Jesus was expanded to include his visiting America. The Garden of Eden was relocated from the Middle East to Missouri. This appealed to many Americans. But something similar could never happen in Canada. Why not?

Canadian culture – as public intellectual John Ralston Saul points out – is different because it is a blend of indigenous and European influences. Because of the indigenous contribution, Canadians put more value on qualities like complexity. As well, Saul says, Canada “never has been in the European or U.S. sense, a Christian country.”

So, compared to us, Americans are more religious and more filled with their own sense of importance. And they are more ready to follow a new prophet who promises grandiose – yet simplistic – solutions.

Like Joseph Smith did, Trump expands on established religious values and develops his own style of morality. Take the traditional religious value of patriarchy, which Trump excels at. Trump is way ahead of Smith in this regard. Smith reinstated polygamy; Trump gleefully boasts about sexual assaults, affairs, and trophy wives.
Trump also builds on the intersection of American Christianity and today’s consumer society: the “prosperity gospel.” And Trump goes beyond the basic idea that God rewards the faithful with material wealth. Trump glories in greed, glitz, and gaudiness.

At this point, I know some readers will protest that Trump is not a religious figure. But it is too late for that objection, isn’t it? Trump’s appeal has been religious in nature ever since he promoted the “birther” myth about Barack Obama. Such conspiracy theories replace verified reality with make-believe.

Trump does not deal in facts, policies and ideas. His realm is in feelings, beliefs and fantasies.

Here’s one Trump fantasy: that he is a competent businessman who would bring sound business principles to government. But in the real business world, no corporate board of directors would ever entrust the running of their company to Trump.

Trump has deeply connected with millions of Christian voters. Among white Roman Catholics, 60% voted for Trump. Among white evangelicals, more than 80% voted for him. As religious leader Jerry Falwell Jr. said of Trump, “Evangelicals have found their dream president.”

And Trump has forged a bond with his followers that is more like a religious prophet than a political leader. As Trump bragged: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”

This leads us to a big disconnect: the chasm between followers and skeptics. With any new religious movement, followers hail their leader as a legitimate prophet. But skeptics view the movement as a cult and the leader as a fraud.

Imagine a conversation between a follower and a skeptic. The conversation could have been in the 1800s about Joseph Smith. Or it could be today about Donald Trump. It would be the same conversation!

Follower: “Our leader has wonderful talents, and he has a deeper understanding of the world than we do. He is concerned about our well-being and he will work hard to help us prosper and make America great again.”

Skeptic: “Can’t you see that your leader is not concerned about you or about America; that he cares only about himself? That he doesn’t know anything; that he just makes stuff up? That he is a con man?”
Where do we go from here? We need more discussion and more understanding.

I suggest that looking at the difference between Canadians and Americans can shed some light. But when faced with a phenomenon like Trump, how can there be any discussion between those who think that he is a saviour and those who think that he is a shyster?

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See also: 

We Must Resist the Trump Culture – Here's How

Trump's Comments Pave Way for Cultural Change

Could We Have a Donald Trump in Canada?

Religion and Values in the Public Square

Ready for a Mormon President?

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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