Don’t Miss the Parallels Between Pope Pius XI and Evangelical Leaders Who Support Trump

by John Ellis

The rhetorical bullying of Godwin’s Law aside, it hasn’t been unusual since 2015 to find those who tease out parallels between Hitler and Donald Trump as well as 1930s Germany and contemporary white evangelicalism. And it’s not unusual because parallels seemingly write themselves from time to time. While successfully resisting the urge to introduce Hitler/Trump parallels into any of my over thirty #NeverTrump articles, I wasn’t blind. In 2016, while rereading Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, I responded, “Oh, crap!” The path that lay before us was illuminated by the glare of human greed, lust, and hate, as well as the platitude that history repeats itself. However, I also realized that in that instance, considering my intended audience, hyperbolic parallels, no matter how truthful at their core, would ultimately prove worse than useless. At the time, while I still naively believed that white evangelicals could be turned away from the cliff of synchronism, I realized that many would stumble over hyperbole and fall off the cliff; I didn’t want to be a stumbling block (I have since concluded that synchronism has been an innate part of white evangelicalism from the get-go). That didn’t mean that I shied away from warning that a Trump presidency would end in violence (it did), his bullying ways and words would be adopted into the ethics and lexicon of his followers (they have), or that the gospel witness of those supporting Trump would not just be tainted but undermined (it has). It’s not necessary to wade into the muddying waters of Godwin’s Law to point out the myriad reasons why followers of King Jesus should reject, in total, Donald Trump. Those reasons, though, are not what interest me today. What does interest me is pointing out a better parallel as a means to urge fellow followers of King Jesus to distance themselves from those white evangelical leaders who use their platforms to provide theological warrant for supporting Trump, even if that white evangelical leader is president of your favorite seminary.

I recently finished reading David I. Kertzer’s masterful The Pope and Mussolini. While it is engaging, informative, and worthy of the Pulitzer Prize the book snagged for its author, I found The Pope and Mussolini troubling. Towards the beginning of the book, while reading the Vatican’s justifications for Pius XI’s support of Mussolini, I thought, “this sounds eerily familiar.” Seeking an earthly sword to protect the Church, desiring the reclamation of lost earthly power, and hoping to protect a specific way of life that views outsiders as an ontological threat are justifications that don’t just find parallels with early 21st century white evangelicals – they are the very justifications that have been practically copied and pasted from Pius XI’s playbook by white evangelical leaders while they defend and urge support for Donald Trump (and his sycophants like DeSantis). History (including the End of history) will not be kind to early 21st century white evangelicals in America. Ask Pius XI, if you don’t believe me.

By God’s grace, and unlike 1930s Italy, the worst possible outcome has yet to materialize. However, and paradoxically, the continued synchronism continues to wreak terrible havoc within the souls of those who follow Trump. While I harbor zero doubts that left unchecked the worst of the parallels between Trump and Mussolini and white evangelicals and Pius XI would explode in this country, I’m also aware that the worst of the possible outcomes aren’t necessary to damn followers of Trump.

Unlike 1930s Italy, contemporary America is bifurcated in a way that serves as a brake to each sides’ worst impulses.[1] But the absence of outcomes doesn’t abrogate the presence of internal motives. Christian nationalists may never fully succeed, but that doesn’t mean that they’re off the hook for the attempt. For those of us who recognize the evil of Christian nationalism, the question is, I believe, will history and, more importantly, History remember us for our tacit support of evil as we silently enjoy the fruits of that evil or will we be remembered for our Kingdom stand against evil?

Towards the end of The Pope and Mussolini, I was embarrassed (and saddened) for Pius XI as Kertzer recounted the shamed Pope’s attempts to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak. Realizing too late that Mussolini had conned him and that the difference between il Duce and Hitler, whom Pius XI despised, was virtually non-existent, the Pope tried his best, often thwarted by his advisors who were still in the thralls of the Italian dictator, to not just distance the Vatican from Mussolini but to condemn the dictator’s racial campaign that began in earnest in 1938.[2] The Pope wasn’t long for this world, though, and the feebleness rendered by age and looming death preventing him from atoning for his complicity in the evils wrought by Mussolini and, therefore, the evils of Hitler. Not that he would have really been able to (see footnote 1), but we’ll never know how far down the road of repentance and restitution his regret would’ve led him. What we do know, and what we remember Pius XI for, is that he used his influence and power to help elevate and prop up a man who is in history’s Evil Hall of Infamy.

To be clear, nobody reading this is Pius XI. But we do have a choice: excuse our versions of Pius XI or denounce them.

The history of white evangelicalism in America cannot be separated from the lust for power and comfort. One of the greatest mistakes of the Church was allowing Constantine to marry cultural/political power to Her. One of the greatest mistakes of the Reformation was failing to initiate the divorce. The white evangelical church in America doesn’t just carry the weight of that sin; it embraces and defends it.[3] The question in front of us is, will we take up our cross, embrace the New Testament’s teaching that we are illegal immigrants in the eyes of this world, endure the possible/probable fissure that will happen between us and our friends and family, embrace Kingdom ethics and publicly take a stand against Christian nationalism, even if that means publicly denouncing those who have authored some of our favorite books or preached our favorite sermons? Will we be willing to walk away from churches with pastors who support Trump? Or, instead, will we continue to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of comfort and power while we remain silent?

Many of the Psalms express the poets’ laments over the prospering of the wicked while the righteous suffer. Our prospering – the so-called American dream/way of life – is not a sign of God’s blessings; it’s not a result of God’s grace. Our privileged, white, Western way of life is a consequence of sin. Western history is written in the blood of those who were forced to toil and suffer under the scourge of those who claim to have built this great civilization. The fruits of that oppression are the luxuries we enjoy. It’s not enough to silently take a stand against the continued evils of Christian nationalism as we enjoy the privilege, power, and comforts that Christian nationalism seeks to preserve. It’s not enough to simply abstain from voting while we spend our lives in ease afforded us by the terror and suffering of others.

What’s required, at minimum, is using our voices (and power) to challenge the supposed telos of history – American history, to be specific. Finding ways to elevate the voices of the marginalized while also doing what we can to amplify those voices is a necessary start to separating ourselves from the unrighteous pairing of the gospel with nationalism. Doing so will also challenge our own privileged perceptions; it will cause us to weep and mourn with the oppressed.

Another important step for righteousness’ sake is not just walking away from churches imbued with the synchronism of Christian nationalism, we need to publicly denounce those churches and their leaders while we call for them to repent.

Pius XI wasn’t incorrect. Mussolini was good for the Catholic Church in Italy. The problem was that the Catholic Church in Italy was focused on earthly, temporal things at the expense of heavenly, eternal things. The Pope accepted a specific version of history with a telos that justified his power and comforts at the expense of others. The religious leaders who throw their weight behind Donald Trump are no different.

Donald Trump represents the believed telos of American history (Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, etc.). And that telos is not in accordance with God’s telos of justice for the marginalized and oppressed. The coupling of white evangelicalism to Donald Trump is evidence of the worship of false gods. The three righteous friends in the book of Daniel had power and comfort in front them, but they refused to bow, even just a little. Refuse to bow, no matter the pragmatic arguments made by your favorite theologian, pastor, or pundit and no matter how much you’ll have to give up by speaking out against those arguments. Never forget the words of our King that there is no profit in gaining the whole world if you lose your soul.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] And, yes, I’m drawing parallels between the left and right. Trump is evil. But so is abortion, to name one wickedness prized by most on the left. Kingdom ethics do not allow for pragmatism in the voting booth.

[2] To be clear, just because Pius XI wasn’t as much of a racist, anti-Semite as Mussolini doesn’t mean that he wasn’t also a racist, anti-Semite, because he was. Early on in his dictatorship, Mussolini was encouraged (and flat-out instructed) by the Vatican to enact anti-Semitic laws and practices.

[3] Even in white evangelicalism’s supposed gentler or more “woke” aspects, power and comfort are still the primary gods. Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, so often trumpeted by those who oppose Trump, was little more than an attempt to provide Biblical justification for enjoying the power and privilege afforded people because other people – primarily people of color but also the oppressed poor whites throughout the Industrial Revolution – built that wealth and power on their bloody backs. Our way of life is not a sign of God’s blessings; it’s not a result of God’s grace. Our privileged, white Western way of life is a consequence of sin. We are those in the Psalms who prosper in the here and now while the righteous suffer.

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