(RNS) — A great action movie demands a final battle scene, a cosmic clash between the forces of good and evil. Donald Trump — ever the showman — knows this.
All politicians are skilled at casting themselves as heroes in the political dramas they write. But what sets Donald Trump apart is his unique ability to create and cast a villain.
On Wednesday morning Donald Trump returned to an old favorite for that role: Muslims.
The president shared three disturbing videos on Twitter that portray Muslims as violent, cruel, and intolerant, though there are questions about what was really happening in the scenes. But they were purported to depict a Dutch boy on crutches being cruelly beaten by (we are told) a “Muslim migrant”; a scene artfully titled “Muslim Destroys a Statue of the Virgin Mary!”; and a horrific episode in which “Islamists” throw a young man off of a roof.
And that is it. That is all Trump needs.
Using three brief videos he has pulled back “the veil” on the villainous Muslim — as it were — and exposed his truly evil nature. Sufficiently outraged, the audience (read: electorate) will demand the rise of a courageous hero.
As a Christian, I know full well that the second video was directed at me and my people. The presidential provocateur knows the power of religious symbols and he knows that the evocative image of Mary being smashed to the ground by a Muslim man (in the lead-up to Christmas, no less) would provoke me.
Will Christians in the audience take Donald Trump’s bait? Will we join his heroic story of a clash between good and evil? I’ll get to that in a moment.
It is clear that Donald Trump’s retweets play a critical role in furthering a dramatic epic that he has been composing about a “clash of civilizations” in which “Islam” and “the West” are bitter rivals locked in a winner-take-all struggle.
In this drama, Islam and the West are polar forces. And for Trump’s story to work he must depict Islam in absolute terms as foreign, evil and antagonistic to the West.
Trump’s strategy is not even original.
Far-right leaders in Europe have been using this very same “clash of civilizations” story for 20 years now. Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Frauke Petry in Germany, and — the originator of the three video tweets — Jayda Fransen, leader of the far-right Britain First, have all depicted themselves as the patriotic guardians of both the West and Christianity.
Unfortunately, the story works.
There is an intense and animating power found in the clash story. Rooting for the total victory of pure good (the West) over against pure evil (Islam) is inspiring and invigorating. The imagined clash between Islam and the West provides the Western audience (read again: electorate) with energy, meaning, and purpose — in a sick kind of way.
As an evangelical Christian I am ashamed to say that Trump’s story is extremely effective with my own religious tribe. We are suckers for it and many of us will not only listen to Trump’s story, we will want to participate in it.
Why does it work?
It’s complicated. But I see three reasons.
First, many evangelicals imbibe large amounts of toxic political media on a daily basis. An hour on Sunday morning talking about humility, forgiveness and hospitality cannot compete with a daily ride on the outrage merry-go-round of talk radio, cable news and social media. The devastating impact these daily practices have on Christian political wisdom cannot be overstated.
Second, Muslim immigrants function as an extremely convenient scapegoat for evangelicals who lament their loss of cultural power in the West. Rather than engaging in a humble act of self-examination, evangelicals can blame socialists, gays, liberals, and now Muslim immigrants, for their loss of cultural power.
Third, we evangelicals tend to be curiously motivated by and hypersensitive to any form of perceived or potential persecution. No matter how wealthy, comfortable, or privileged we might be, we seem quite capable of imagining ourselves as martyrs. Donald Trump’s none-too-subtle suggestion that Muslim immigrants are a potential threat to Christianity is not difficult for evangelicals to imagine. But more than that, for an American religion that has grown comfortable and bored, talk of potential religious oppression and martyrdom is — in a sick sort of way — exciting.
Stories of Christian martyrdom abroad and the potential of martyrdom at home will always grab the evangelical imagination. Trump’s video of a Muslim smashing a statue of Mary is a rather unnuanced way of suggesting to American Christians, “The Muslims are coming — they’re at the gates, and you might be next.”
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Christians are, in fact, capable of resisting Trump’s story. They can resist because they actually have a story of their own.
This Sunday millions of Christians will file into churches across the country to tell an alternative story about the world and their place in it. It will hopefully be a story of humility, grace and hospitality.
American Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Jews and others all have a public stake in the dramatic story Christians decide to see themselves in: The story of last Wednesday morning or the story of Sunday morning.
(Matthew Kaemingk is an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of the forthcoming “Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)