How To Find a Paradise Within, Happier Far

Gabriel visits Adam and Eve in “Paradise Lost”

Spiritual Sunday

Like many, I have been flummoxed by the religious contortions of rightwing evangelicals in their support for Donald Trump. John Milton would have choice words for them.

In case you haven’t heard about evangelical Trump worship, here’s Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton:

The leader of the conservative evangelical organization Family Research Council said that evangelicals were happy to give President Donald Trump a “do-over” after a previously unpublished 2011 interview with adult film actress Stormy Daniels revealed that she may have been paid to remain silent about an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006.

Speaking to Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere about the Daniels incident, Tony Perkins said evangelicals “kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” using a golfing term that refers to a free stroke given to a player after a poor shot.

Perkins argued that the good Trump could do for evangelicals made up for his un-biblical behavior and warranted a free pass. He told Dovere that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

Perkins’s remarks reflect a wider trend among white evangelicals (81 percent of whom voted for Trump in the 2016 election): Many choose to disregard Trump’s decidedly debauched, decades-old public persona to focus on his anti-LBGTQ and anti-abortion stances. Many, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, have chosen to mark a clear division between Trump’s past and his present, describing him as a “baby Christian.” 

Religion scholar Reza Azlan explains their devotion by observing that

we essentially conceive of God as a divine version of ourselves, and we implant in God our own values, emotions, personalities and even our own bodies, but we also implant in him our own politics.

In other words, evangelical Trump admiration is self-admiration.

To be sure, human beings invariably project. After all, the images that we use to articulate our sense of the divine must come from ourselves. Poetry (and art and music) do a better job of it than politics, but even poets must use figures that we recognize from our own lives.

But to approach the divine, we must reach beyond ourselves. Great poetry assists in this. By contrast, Perkins, Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham tangle up God with their worldly self-interest. Milton calls such people false prophets.

His attack occurs in Book XII of Paradise Lost when the archangel Michael is laying out the future to Adam. Adam initially gets excited upon hearing about Jesus and his sacrifice.

  O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!

However, Adam then worries about what will happen after Jesus leaves:

But say, if our Deliverer up to Heaven
Must re-ascend, what will betide the few
His faithful, left among the unfaithful herd,
The enemies of truth?  Who then shall guide
His people, who defend?  Will they not deal
Worse with his followers than with him they dealt?

Michael acknowledges that he is right to be concerned and proceeds to explain about the Holy Spirit or “Comforter”:

  Be sure they will, said the Angel; but from Heaven
He to his own a Comforter will send,
The promise of the Father, who shall dwell
His Spirit within them; and the law of faith,
Working through love, upon their hearts shall write,
To guide them in all truth; and also arm
With spiritual armor, able to resist
Satan’s assaults, and quench his fiery darts…

For a while, the apostles will spread the word, winning “great numbers of each nation to receive with joy the tidings brought from Heaven.” Unfortunately, they will be followed by “grievous wolves,” an allusion to Matthew’s warning about “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (7:15).

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition… 

Along with the figures I have mentioned, I would add prosperity theology preachers as people focused on secular power as they claim God for themselves:

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

As a result of their efforts,

                                                             Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found:  So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign;
Under her own weight groaning…

Interestingly, both Milton’s and Trump’s evangelical followers see the world caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. As Reza Aslan sees it, Trump Christians make up an apocalyptic cult:

Cult members tend to believe that they are taking part in a cosmic performance, that they are fighting in a battle between the forces of good and evil. And if “good” doesn’t win — if cold, hard reality overtakes the cult leader’s lies and fantasies — the whole enterprise may collapse, sometimes violently.

That some of Trump’s supporters view the president in cosmic terms is clear. A month after the inauguration, Pat Robertson said those who oppose Trump are “revolting against what God’s plan for America is.” Paula White, the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida and a Trump spiritual advisor, recently told her congregation that resisting Trump is tantamount to “fighting against the hand of God.”…

Trump’s truest believers have sounded downright apocalyptic: “This is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats,” [Dallas First Baptist Church pastor Robert] Jeffress said in 2016. “It’s a battle between … righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness.” [Ohio pastor Frank] Amedia declared that God personally told him that Trump’s presidency was paving the way for the Second Coming.

Milton too believes that the Second Coming will clean up the world, with Jesus descending from the clouds

                                                           to dissolve
Satan with his perverted world; then raise
From the conflagrant mass, purged and refined,
New Heavens, new Earth, ages of endless date,
Founded in righteousness, and peace, and love;
To bring forth fruits, joy and eternal bliss.

I don’t think that Milton would include Democrats as those who need to be purged and refined.

That being said, I don’t buy his version of the apocalypse any more than I do that of white evangelicals. I think that Jesus meant for us to work with the world we have rather than engage in magical thinking about some future where God sticks it to people we don’t like. Milton gets it right, however, when he has Michael tell Adam that Paradise can be achieved through good deeds, faith, virtue, patience, temperance and, above all, love:

                                                                [O]nly add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable; add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance; add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

Punching Barack Obama and leftists does not lead to a Paradise within, happier far. America would be a happier place if we all did what Jesus actually wanted.

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