I’m always amazed at how incredibly insightful and poignant Andrew Sullivan can be, while simultaneously espousing demonstrably silly nonsense derived from his own rather self-contradictory cosmology. In his most recent essay at NY Mag titled “The Pope and the Pagan”, Sullivan, who is a practicing Catholic, pens a historically ridiculous paean to Christianity while labeling Trump a “pagan” akin to a “character in the Game of Thrones”.
While the sentiment of the article is certainly correct (Trump is the antithesis of Jesus Christ and his teachings of love and compassion) his perversion of the history of Christianity and the history of paganism does his argument a great, great disservice. He writes:
I don’t believe that there is a Christian politics as such — there is plenty of scope for disagreement about how to translate a Christian worldview into secular politics, or whether to translate it at all. But I do believe there is a Christian set of core human virtues and values, rooted in what we Catholics still think of as the truth, and that those virtues are rooted in the Gospels. We all fail the virtue test, of course, including yours truly, perhaps more than most. But Trump is a special case — because when you think about those virtues, it is very hard to see Donald Trump as anything but a living, breathing, shameless refutation of every single one.
Trump is not an atheist, confident yet humble in the search for a God-free morality. He is not an agnostic, genuinely doubtful as to the meaning of existence but always open to revelation should it arrive. He is not even a wayward Christian, as he sometimes claims to be, beset by doubt and failing to live up to ideals he nonetheless holds. The ideals he holds are, in fact, the antithesis of Christianity — and his life proves it. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is pre-religious. He is a pagan. He makes much more sense as a character in Game of Thrones, a medieval world bereft of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, than as a president of a modern, Western country.
Does Sullivan really believe that before Christ, the world was a bloodthirsty, barbaric place filled with savage tribes with no sense of morality or love for their fellow man? Does he seriously believe that after Christ and the formation of the Church, humanity was suddenly propelled Into The Light? This fundamentalist interpretation of human history is something one might expect from Jerry Falwell Jr., not an esteemed writer who made internet blogging a respected art form and has provided a powerful voice for moderation in an age of political extremes.
Surely Sullivan is aware of the despicable legacy of his own church — an institution that persecuted pagans, butchered Muslims in the Crusades, blamed Jews for the death of Christ, supported Nazis and is responsible for the mass rape of children? The “core human virtues and values, rooted in what we Catholics still think of as the truth,” may seem like lightness and love to Sullivan, but those on the receiving end of Christianity’s “truth” don’t think quite so highly of it. This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church has done no good in the world (it has done much), but to infer that it is morally superior to paganism in all its guises is factually ridiculous.
Paganism most commonly refers to the traditional religions (or spiritual beliefs) of indigenous peoples, all of which are centered around a reverence for nature and ecology. As many anthropologists have show, pagans throughout history haven’t all been tree loving peaceable types, but they have existed in almost perfect harmony with their natural environments since the dawn of humanity. One could in fact argue that the bible’s assertion that God gave man “Dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” is singlehandedly responsible for the ecological crisis we now face as a species. Christianity’s core belief that God made man in his image and gave him ultimate power over nature isn’t just morally wrong, it is suicidal.
Paganism has always understood this, and the belief systems of indigenous peoples reflect their understanding that without a deep reverence for nature, humanity ceases to exist. To call Donald Trump a “pagan” then, would be like calling Kim Jong Un a Human Rights activist. Trump does not revere nature, does not believe he is beholden to the laws of ecology, and has essentially declared war on the environment in every possible way. Andrew Sullivan’s analogy isn’t just wrong, it is ridiculous.
In fairness to Sullivan, his idea of what constitutes Christianity is very noble — loving the “other”, helping the poor, treating women as equal and eschewing material wealth — but he is let down by his astonishing lack of historical awareness. The figure we have come to know as Jesus Christ is in fact a mishmash of pagan deities (Dionysus, Mithras and Horus to name a few), and the Catholic Church notoriously coopted pagan festivals and passed them off as their own — facts modern Christians are mostly unaware of.
Regardless, Sullivan’s depiction of Trump as a monstrous egomaniac is still accurate — but what he is really describing is the modern American Evangelical Christian, not an nature revering pagan trying to live in harmony with the world around him.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.