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The Cult of the Shining City Embraces the Plague

Those who see Trump as a messianic figure believe the coronavirus will put a fallen world right again.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump answered questions Tuesday afternoon for a Fox News virtual town hall surrounded by a frame of graphics. In the lower right-hand corner, a box documented the market’s delirious approval of Trump’s bizarre recent push to ease the state of emergency around the coronavirus pandemic to aid the economy. Another on-screen graphic ticked away the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. Coincidentally, those numbers were rising as well.

“I would love to have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter,” Trump said during a virtual town hall on Fox News, adding that he’d like to see “packed churches all over the country” in just 19 days. Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer beamed and remarked, “That would be a great American resurrection.”

Nearly two hundred miles away, another resurrection was underway in Lynchburg, Virginia, as Jerry Falwell Jr. ordered Liberty University’s reopening despite the advice of experts and Governor Ralph Northam’s having ordered nonessential businesses shuttered and public schools closed for the remainder of the year. Falwell Jr., scion of his father Jerry Falwell’s evangelical empire and a loyal Trump ally—who recently suggested the coronavirus might be a biological weapon produced by North Korea or China—echoed the president’s baffling call to a return to normalcy, saying, “Let’s get them back as soon as we can.”

It is easy to be confused by both of these developments and their seeming contradictions: Two very public figures treating the pandemic like it was under control as both the numbers and personal experiences show otherwise. The president of the United States and his favorite news channel actively working to turn the holiest of holidays into a secular, nationalist triumph. The president of a religious university, named after one of the most famously espoused principles of America’s founding, continually playing politics. But the truth is that these events, like so many others that seem irreconcilable based on our current understanding of politics, history, and American religion, fit into the same puzzle that was fused together from nationalism and capitalism decades earlier.

Those who have benefited from this fusion are now, in the face of a plague, rising in its defense. They won’t be afraid to sacrifice lives or push society off the ledge. They will support Trump’s policy of reopening the economy without fearing the warnings of doctors or scientists. They’ll watch while millions die from the pandemic, and they’ll chalk it up to God’s will. And they’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time.

I grew up in a rural Indiana town surrounded by symbols of American exceptionalism. Despite our size, we maintained one of the biggest Fourth of July parades in the state. Bright red, white, and blue flags and bunting decorated our houses and businesses year-round, including our plethora of churches. At the time, I had no idea that I was being raised in a nationalist, white-identity, Neo-Confederate cult that worshipped power, white supremacy, and hypercapitalism. I’ve come to call this massive and dangerous sect the Cult of the Shining City.

The America I knew—the America that so many of us grew up believing in—was not simply true, it was the only truth. The history we were taught in school focused on the United States of America as the one certain hope in a world of danger and evil. That message was echoed in our preachers’ sermons every Sunday morning as figures like Jesus Christ and George Washington were treated with similar reverence. What those history lessons and sermons didn’t teach us was the means by which evangelical Christianity had come to merge with the secular worship of wealth and power, creating a nationalist, racist faith.

Like others raised in that environment, I too was stunned by the evangelical support of Donald Trump, a thrice-married vulgarian who has admitted to multiple affairs and only venerates himself and his vast fortune. But once I started researching for my book American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, what I found was a hidden history that explained so much about my upbringing as well as the state in which America finds itself.

Coming of age in the 1980s, I was like many other children raised in this environment who spent each Sunday either in the pews of the church or else sitting on my grandma’s couch watching hours of televangelists warning of evil armies coalescing for the Apocalypse and begging for donations. The satanic forces were legion. They were in the culture. In the movies and television shows and music. There were enemies. Overseas. Among us. Literally everywhere. It sounds absurd now, but that was reality. You could turn any corner and find Satan waiting to take your soul. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could ride at any moment, and the Antichrist was more than likely alive and well and gathering converts in a foreign, wicked land.

While this paranoid, jumbled reality began well before the 1960s, it was in that decade that the modern era of white-identity evangelicalism took shape. Jerry Falwell Sr., a charismatic preacher in Lynchburg, led the charge as the civil rights movement gained momentum and speed. Falwell’s main antagonist was Martin Luther King Jr., whom Falwell disparaged at every turn. Falwell’s particular problem with King was the way he used Christianity, and Jesus Christ’s sermons of social justice, to attack the institution of racism.

Falwell was firmly a segregationist. In his sermons, he railed against the dismantling of segregated society, calling the racist system divine and bellowing, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” Raised in the segregated South, he was steeped in the tradition of Confederate preachers who sermonized to their flocks in the Confederate States of America on the holiness of white supremacy and characterized the Christian God as inherently racist. The Christian faith was so integral to the Confederate cause that public ceremonies ran through with invocations of this racist God, and military defeats led to days of religious atonement and humiliation.

The reaction to King’s usage of Christianity as a weapon against white supremacy was to abandon any notion of social justice and progressivism within the New Testament and reestablish the white supremacist notions of Confederate theology. Falwell opened private schools that were openly characterized as “for white students.” The faith focused on accrual of wealth and power, these markers of societal status becoming proof of God’s favor. Through this preaching, white dominance in political, judicial, and economic affairs became denotations of the will of the universe instead of means of racial control.

Falwell and his compatriots built large and gilded empires with this religion. Their rises and falls are legendary, and vestiges of that era brim with gaudy, golden churches, theme parks, massive television studios, private jets, and sweaty-faced preachers promising cash donations would curry God’s favor. Preachers suddenly made millions of dollars and were as infamous for their designer suits and cases of embezzlement and fraud as they were for their oration.

This era of conspicuous consumption came as Falwell’s movement merged with the nascent Reagan Revolution. Though they had supported Democrat Jimmy Carter’s self-expressed evangelical beliefs, Carter’s religion was based more in the social justice teachings of Christ. His presidency was marked by somber calls for self-reflection and humbling before God, while former governor of California Ronald Reagan spoke glowingly about American resurrection and the nation being chosen by God.

Remembrances of Reagan now paint him as a devout Christian because of his continued cooperation with the religious right, but the truth is that Reagan was less religious than he was spiritual, and he trafficked in New Age concepts like astrology and occultism. In the White House, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, consulted with their astrologist on virtually every matter, including meetings, the timing of announcements, and, according to Chief of Staff Donald Regan, “Every major move and decision … was cleared with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make sure the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise.” Some critics even alleged that the Reagans violated federal law by relaying state secrets and national security details to their astrologer.

But Reagan’s embrace of the religious right made up for his dalliances with the occult. He was considered a truly Christian president for his open statements of support and for his relentlessly Christian vision of the country as “the Shining City on the Hill,” the trademark piece of rhetoric that has come to define his presidency and the modern mythology of the United States of America. That vision was, in part, laid out in Reagan’s first speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974, when he addressed the faithful and said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed by an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”

This idea, and the concept of the Shining City on the Hill that has come to define America rhetorically, was inspired by a man Reagan referred to as an “avid student of history.” That man was Manley P. Hall, a noted and influential occultist who toured California for decades, giving lectures on “ancient symbols” and the “secret history” of human civilization. Hall’s book The Secret History of America was of particular influence on Reagan and told a story of the U.S. in which several centuries of secret societies and generations’ worth of philosophers had worked in concert to ready mankind for an empire of knowledge and liberty that would eventually become America. Among the many tales that Hall circulated as proof of the divine and powerful nature of America was a story that an angel had appeared at the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the founders waffled over affixing their signatures and inspired them with God’s word to birth America into the world.

This myth has absolutely no historical precedent and originated in the popular fictions of a writer named George Lippard, a contemporary and close friend of Edgar Allan Poe, but the veracity of the story meant little to Reagan, who admitted he hadn’t bothered to research whether records reflected the incident.

The religious awe with which Reagan bathed the country was a revival of sorts, and the evangelical right embraced him fully, merging his occult beliefs with their veneration of the institutions of wealth and power. Reaganomics radically altered our economy and emphasized top-down markets that prioritized obscene profits over the welfare of everyday Americans. The religious right, powered by Falwell’s preaching and the efforts of individuals like Norman Vincent Peale (the originator of the Power of Positive Thinking mindset that championed the prosperity gospel and inspired the likes of Donald Trump, whom Peale knew and whose first wedding he officiated) turned poverty into a symbol of godlessness.

Wealth and power, meanwhile, were seen as markers of God’s will. That had been the case since Adam Smith laid out our concept of capitalism being guided by “an invisible hand.” If someone was poor, if someone was destitute, it wasn’t the fault of the divine economy. It was their own personal, spiritual failing.

Reagan’s emphasis on the myth of the Shining City as a society created by spiritually guided philosophers meant America’s enemies were inherently evil. The religious right felt similarly, preaching that evil forces coursed through the culture and that Satan and his minions were constantly attacking in veiled, hidden ways. Movies and music and television shows were entry points for the poison and decried by both the preachers and Republican politicians. This gave rise to powerful and paranoid conspiracy theories, chief among them the New World Order, which holds that an evil, globalist cabal composed of foreign powers, malevolent actors, and, in some cases, the Devil himself, is constantly manipulating women, minorities, and the poor into uniting against the hopes and dreams of America itself. Think of it as the “Deep State.”

From the depths of this paranoid framing, Donald Trump has emerged as a religious figure, the embodiment of the fusion of contradictions upon which the Cult of the Shining City was founded. He is a poster child of conspicuous consumption; an aggressively wealthy man obsessed with defending the myths of America’s past that most Americans are growing more and more aware are only myths with each passing day. Exalted, sometimes jokingly, as “the Chosen One,” Trump is held by some Christians raised in these traditions as a faulty messiah, a Christ-like figure standing against the evil machinations of alleged Antichrists such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom figure prominently in the online marketplace of internet conspiracy theories and email forwards with butchered quotes from the Book of Revelation.

Even now, as the coronavirus pandemic is growing, strange memes and messages are being posted in white-identity, evangelical circles, the roots of which can be traced back to Falwell and the Confederate Christian ideology. They see Trump as standing firm against dark, evil forces. They see the pandemic as a plague from God. A sign of the End Times.

And like other apocalyptic cults, these true believers are not afraid of mass death. They’re more than ready to reopen the doors and let come what may in the following days. When they watch the stock market tick upward, they see the hand of a racist, American God. The Dow Jones gaining points is proof of His favor. They’ll watch the numbers of infected and dying growing as well, and see testament of a world put right.