June 13 2024

Beguiling Prophet, Bumbling Priest: Trump and Civil Religion in the Age of Bans, Walls, and Alternative Facts

by Morgan Shipley, Michigan State University

Shot from behind him, Trump walking out from the capitol building to being inaugurated as president on Jan 20, 2017.

Photo: President-elect Donald Trump walks to take his seat for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Friday, January 20, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Drawing from Max Weber’s distinction in The Sociology of Religion between the prophet and the priest, this short article explores how Trump’s application of American civil religion (a public faith that inculcates political values) operates to routinize a discourse and politics governed by intolerance. Addressing a dire need to resuscitate what he views as a decrepit American project resulting from decades of progressive agendas, Trump assumes a dual position as savior of a sullied America (exemplified in his emphasis on building a barrier—physical and rhetorical—to protect American interests, and repeated promises to return jobs to America) and enforcer of traditional values (demonstrated in his defense budget or “America First” maxim).

Yet the shift from Trump’s candidacy, where he functioned as the charismatic prophet, to his presidency, where he assumes the position of status quo priest, illustrates the incongruity of these dual roles, highlighting the ability for Trump to offer an outsider’s vision to save the American project while failing to account for the structural and routine constraints that temper such an agenda (the courts, Congress, media, and citizen protests have all hampered Trump’s agenda). Such incongruity not only helps explain the challenges Trump and America faces, but also more significantly, unveils how Trump, in the name of his prophetic vision, subverts traditional ideals when it comes to American civil religion and the place of pluralism. In other words, Trump’s shift from candidate to president allows us to trace the means by which prophetic promises, in order to find priestly delivery, often necessitate a return the status quo modeled through marginalization. Trump’s role as prophet thus reintroduces—in order to legitimate—a historic trend within America that predicates the inclusivity of civil religion through practices of exclusion.1 That is, in turning to the sacred symbols of the United States, Trump returns to an exceptionalist construction of civil religion: a project established through God’s will, expressed through division, and delineated by a characteristic American identity—white and Christian.

In The Sociology of Religion, Weber identifies various ideal types, purposeful exaggerations of religious figures who function as “a conceptual framework into which all cases can be brought for analysis.”2 Important for his distinction, particularly when thinking about the institutions of religion that impact social, political, and economic realities, Weber demarcates the prophet and the priest, two ideal types connected by differing degrees (and functions) of charisma. According to Weber, “the personal call is the decisive element distinguishing the prophet from the priest. The latter lays claim to authority by virtue of his service to a sacred tradition, while the prophet’s claim is based on personal revelation and charisma.”3 Demonstrated throughout the campaign and described in Weberian terms, Trump derived “his power simply by virtue of his personal gifts”4—he relied on the message that only he, Donald J. Trump, could solve the problems plaguing American society and global culture. Such self-aggrandizement became part and parcel to Trump’s rhetorical flourishes, designed, it appears, to reinforce the perspective that a savior—and outsider—is needed to right the course of America’s path.

Trump’s authority, then, in following Weber’s distinction, is anchored “in the revolutionary power of his personality and his message."5 For example, strewn throughout campaign stops and presidential speeches, Trump unequivocally, and without any hint of irony, declared the following (note: this is a short list):

  • “Nobody knows the system better than me.”
  • “No one is more conservative than me.”
  • “No one is stronger on the Second Amendment than me.”
  • “Nobody’s bigger or better at the military than I am.”
  • “I am the least racist person you’ll ever meet.”
  • “Nobody builds better walls than me.”
  • “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”
  • “There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues.”
  • “No one respects women more than me.”
  • “There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”
  • “No one reads the Bible more than me.”

Unbeholden to facts—and cueing, instead, the rise of alternative facts—the prophet operates through his or her own zeal, reflecting a radical orientation toward values that, in the case of Trump, complicate the coherency of his commitment to returning the institutions of America to their most glorious inflections; to enforce, in other words, “the continuous operation of a cultic enterprise” as Weber notes in discussing the role of the priest.6

In this light, alternative facts emerge as tools of prophecy designed to distract critics, to obscure the implications of executive orders, or to justify a principled return to an American society—and presidency—made exceptional by marginalization of others. While capable of renewing a vision, the challenge for the prophet is one of sustaining the message and achieving the results, which leads to the need for and emergence of the priestly role. As Weber highlights, the need to move from ideas to praxis results in “the ‘routinization’ of charisma—the transformation of the prophets inspirational gift into something permanent, something fixed in the bureaucracy of an institution.”7 Such transformation, however, has proved difficult for Trump, particularly as he seeks to move from a prophet for some, to a leader of all. As candidate, Trump could offer a lot, promises that did not necessarily require real-world potential—yet, as president, Trump finds himself beholden to a ceremonial position, unable to adeptly maneuver through the constraints presented by both the preexisting socio-political structures and the continuously changing dynamics of the contemporary world.

Trump’s shift from prophet to priest was further complicated by the reality that his “historic” electoral college win failed to account for a majority of voters who actively chose differently, resulting in a president unable to fully actualize his prophecies due to the structural roadblocks that speak to an “original” American civil religion (e.g., the First Amendment and independence of the courts). Such a condition forces Trump back into his role as prophet, returning often to the road (and to Twitter) to conduct campaign-style rallies designed, it appears, to rejuvenate the mandate to return America to the greatness Trump places at the heart of his prophetic message. His reliance on maintaining the core of his base thus speaks less about a desire to truly lead an entire nation, and more to his politically expedient recognition that his evangelical, white supporters offer sacred credence to Trump’s unsettling of American civil religion and its associated values (e.g., self-sovereignty, equality, citizen rights, freedom of religion). The marriage of Trump’s vision of greatness with religious conservativism highlights a turn backward, an attempt to prevent the progressive trajectory of pluralism in the name of a subverted civil religion where ethnic, religious, and national insularity meet. Although he continues to rely on his bellicose rhetoric and bombastic nature, Trump’s shift from American prophet to American priest illustrates the costs and implications of imagining a return to greatness predicated on reducing the avenues of “American” identity structures. What remains is no longer a coherent vision of what makes America exceptional outside a commitment to define greatness through flourishes of power that hold real-life consequences for religious, ethnic, and cultural minorities in America and abroad.

Reading Trump through the lens of Weber’s prophet/priest binary ultimately helps explain 1) Trump’s manipulation of religious rhetoric and theatrics to energize his campaign; 2) his use of charisma, traditional American values, and idealized constructs to inspire confidence in the evangelical community and his conservative base; and 3) the implications and costs of reifying a city-upon-the-hill narrative—one grounded, however, in replacing pluralism with tolerance as the method for discerning who is accepted in America and who is not. In the end, Weber’s binary helps us see how American civil religion facilitated the means for Trump to express personal charisma (the prophet) as a way to reinscribe a political and social project (the priest) that seeks to impose upon America a “universal ethic or value system”8 defined by grandiose narratives of inclusion through exclusionary practices.

One need only to juxtapose his presidential inaugural address with his endless tweeting to see how Trump vacillates between these two roles, calling at once for an administration that reflects how “We are one nation…We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny,”9 while simultaneously calling for a turn away from America’s religious freedom, immigrant founding, and pluralistic progress. Whether it is a border wall or travel ban designed to keep out “bad dudes,”10 Trump understands his prophetic role as the means to sell—despite claims about a “new vision [that] will govern our land”—a regressive and banal priestly reinscription of an old order: “from this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”11 This “America First” narrative included the need to redefine what such an attitude entails, resulting in Trump’s persistent return to the crime, terror, and “carnage” wrecking American society.12 Such conjured images of carnage come not merely from Trump’s ignorance and generalizations regarding urban culture or the demonization of Muslim and immigrant others, but also a concerted effort to deride and devalue the very neighbors and identities who have constructed an American society in which religious, cultural, and ethnic difference add to America’s social fabric and civil religion.

Trump’s rhetoric consistently—and often contradictorily—calls upon American exceptionalism, harkening to a tradition that positions America as expressing a biblical promise land. As Robert Bellah summarizes, “Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.”13 In his inaugural address, and littered throughout his Twitter posts promoting alternative facts and leading the charge against the “fake media,” Trump calls upon this very dynamic in order to highlight and justify a renewed perspective that places “America First.” Such exceptional insularity ultimately positions Trump as the prophet capable of pulling America back to its traditional high-ground, a position, we should note, that lacks clear definition outside prophetic claims to “trust” Trump when he promises to “make America great again.” It is this notion of “again” that points to a presidency concerned with constructing an image of divine right, one in which the civil religion of America becomes the reference point out of which to celebrate distinct identities at the expense of others. Thus, when Trump proclaimed in his inaugural address that “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow,” he not only references John Winthrop’s celebrated notion of viewing America “as a city upon a hill,” but also renews a dichotomy of us versus them by immediately following this moment with reference to old and new alliances designed to “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism.” Rather than the solidarity Trump imagines, when situated in relation to his campaign call “for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”14 or attempts to enforce a travel ban with the overt intention to keep “bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!”15, such a declaration connects American stability (the role of the priest) directly to division and exclusion.

Although leaving us in a space of indeterminancy, Trump’s challenge of moving from a prophetic salesman of the campaign trail to the priestly administrator of the Oval Office has routinized a worldview in which Trump can openly cite the Bible as the inspiration for America’s civil religiosity—“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity’”16—while simultaneously institutionalizing executive orders aimed directly at excluding certain religious identities from participating in the American project. In his efforts to maintain his brand of American exceptionalism celebrated during the campaign, which was mired in religious intolerance, bigotry, and Islamophobia (see, for example, his retweeting of neo-Nazis and known anti-Semites, his continual use of fabricated identity markers such as “radical Islamic terrorists,” and his ability to inspire supporters ranging from Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, to Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank), while also facing institutional and citizen challenges, Trump’s role as priest ultimately complicates and dulls his prophetic campaign message. As a consequence, during this week’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he spoke to leaders from Muslim-Arab countries, Trump willfully moved away from the most bombastic, Islamophobic rhetoric he had once relied on in favor of delivering a “message of friendship and hope,”—and simultaneously finalizing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that portends to a militarized worldview necessary to challenge “Islamic terror” and “barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life.”17

Reflecting on the mythic origin of American civil religion, Robert Bellah notes how historical narratives of the United States’s “founding” discount the existence of inhabitants prior to colonization. Such a mythos refused to “see the Indians on their own term,”—a failure that captures “the cultural side of a denial of humanity that was also expressed in economic and even biological terms.”18 This exclusionary myth of origin extends beyond the immediacy of colonization and Native American removal/genocide, emerging also in the institutions of American slavery and Jim Crow, and in the rejection of “sacred rights” to various minority religious communities. Such an “ambiguit[y] of chosenness”19 continues to be expressed through Trump’s dual role as prophet and priest. Consequently, when Trump, during a 2016 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, directly declared, “I think Islam hates us. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us,” he further entrenches the American way as a sacred mission to realize and actualize a sense of “chosenness” that begins and ends through projects of excluded “otherness.” Trump as prophet and priest thus reminds us of the consequences of viewing America as a religious kingdom founded, developed, and secured through visions of sameness by illustrating how divisive rhetoric necessitates draconian practices that result in principles of religious intolerance and celebrations of cultural privilege.

As we move now into a moment of special counsels, congressional committees, and testimony from recently fired government officials, reading Trump as prophet and priest illustrates the value and limitation of America’s civil religion past and present, as well as the difficulties and image-obsession of contemporary politics. Trump’s first 100+ days trace out the implications of moving from campaign prophet where he could promise much, to national priest charged to deliver. As prophet, Trump could claim endlessly about a simple return to an ideal vision of an American society constructed through exclusion and maintained through marginalization. Rather than actualize the promise of America’s civil religion as a politics defined by equal rights, sovereignty, and empowerment, Trump’s inability to deliver immediately on his promises not only highlights the very different roles between the prophet and the priest, but also, and more distinctly, the effects of pursuing a civil religiosity defined by insularity. While never perfect, America’s long tradition of a civil religion highlights dual narratives of equality and freedom, the two balancing the worst excesses of either. However, when the promise of freedom becomes tethered to the “right” identity, dispossession and not equality, exclusion and not inclusion, become the orthopraxy of America’s civil religion in the age of Trump.


1 In violation of Rousseau’s tenet that civil religion remain free from religious intolerance. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1968).

2 William Pals, Nine Theories of Religion, 3rd ed. (New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2014) 149.

3 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1920, repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 46.

4 Ibid., 47.

5 Pals, 160.

6 Weber, 30.

7 Pals, 161.

8 Ibid., 160.

9 Donald Trump, "The Inaugural Address" (speech, Washington, DC, January 20, 2017), The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

10 Donald J. Trump, Twitter Post. January 30, 2017, 8:31 AM EST. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/826060143825666051.

11 Trump, Inaugural Address.

12 “And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Trump, “Inaugural Address.”

13 Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 175.

14 Donald Trump, December 7, 2015 presidential campaign rally, Charleston, South Carolina. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/12/07/donald-trump-calls-for-total-and-complete-shutdown-of-muslims-entering-the-united-states/.

15 Donald J. Trump, Twitter Post. February 1, 2017, 7:50 AM EST. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/826774668245946368

16 Trump, “The Inaugural Address.”

17 Donald Trump, “Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit,” as prepared for delivery, (speech, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2017), The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/21/president-trumps-speech-arab-islamic-american-summit.

18 Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 36–37.

19 Ibid., 37.

Morgan Shipley, PhD, is visiting assistant professor and academic advisor in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University.