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Holy Machiavels

Christians, Trump, and the long history of “pious cruelties”

While stewing, this Spring, about Christian political support for Trump, the most un-Christian American political leader since—who? Richard Nixon? George Wallace? Andrew Jackson?—I returned to an essay I first read during the George W. Bush years: Isaiah Berlin’s “The Originality of Machiavelli.” Berlin asks whether there is a fundamental incompatibility between Christian ethics on the one hand and, on the other, the pursuit of power—and nationalistic glory—that was so important to Machiavelli. The author of The Prince clearly thought so five hundred years ago, and so did Berlin, whose essay was first published in 1972.

But those Christians who got behind Trump—including prominent pastors such as Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress—seemed oblivious to the dangers of an alliance with a dishonest and bellicose money-grubber who rode to power on nationalist and racist appeals. The surpassing strangeness of it led me to drag Trump, Jeffress, Berlin, Machiavelli, and Jesus Christ into a Baffler salvo in our recent effort “The Bad Society.” (See “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”)

In research, I found my way to a recent entry in the vast Machiavelli scholarship: Machiavelli’s Gospel: The Critique of Christianity in The Prince, by William B. Parsons (University of Rochester Press, 2016). Though scholars have offered many interpretations of what Machiavelli thought about Christianity, Parsons decided to embark on a simple text-to-text comparison. He read all of the New Testament and shows how Machiavelli, though he almost never specifically mentions Christ, contradicts the Prince of Peace at every turn. Though many scholars in recent times have emphasized a civic republicanism in Machiavelli’s work (especially in his Discourses on Levy), Parsons concluded il Machia was up to something subversive. “His attack on Christianity, Christian politics, and Jesus Christ himself, I argue, is the most important part of his plan,” he writes.

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, I had a telephone conversation with Parsons, who teaches courses in ancient and modern political thought in the political science department of Carroll College, in Helena, Montana. My purpose was to ask him where the famous Berlin essay fits in with other Machiavelli scholarship. We did discuss Berlin, and Parsons’s own work, but then we ranged further afield and, of course, gazed upon the wide canyon between Christian teachings and Trumpian politics. This is an edited transcript of our talk.

DD: Your book is an outright argument that The Prince is a rebuke of Christianity and the way of Jesus Christ.

WP: Correct, and the very title of The Prince, and the prince about which he speaks in the book, is the Prince of War—that prince who rejects Christ’s teachings and rejects Christ’s way of life and plans and thinks of nothing but war. And has all the spiritual qualities that would go along with such a man.

DD: Which of course down through history is the reason he was denounced as a partisan for Satan.

WP: In the first hundred years or so Machiavelli was pretty regularly regarded as not just morally dubious but as some version of the devil. On the Elizabethan stage there’s a character called “Old Nick”—named for Machiavelli, but in fact the devil or Satan. And early reactions clearly regard him as anti-Christian in the extreme.

DD: And Berlin mentions a famous essay by Jacques Maritain [against Machiavelli], and of course the Jesuits would have frowned on his teachings.

Trump is not a Machiavellian or a Nietzschean. He is a demagogue. He’s like the character in Thucydides named Cleon.

WP: Absolutely. He is rehabilitated, especially in the eighteenth century, as people begin to read The Discourses more widely, especially in England but also in France. It leads someone like Rousseau to say, “You’ve misunderstood Machiavelli. He’s actually a secret republican thinker.” Even [that] The Prince is a secretly republican book. And then you have various people in England reading Machiavelli as a defender of liberty, as aiming ultimately at bringing back to life Roman republican virtue. This fits, of course, the republican movement in England at the time. I would argue that that whole line of interpretation originates out of the peculiar intersection of the availability of Machiavelli in England in English, and the republican movement going forward in seventeenth-century England. Those two things happened at the same time. That really is largely responsible for this relatively new reading of Machiavelli as, yes, a critic of Christianity but one whose critique is excused by his devotion to the higher cause of either Italian patriotism or the revivication of republicanism, or just the cause of human liberty more generally.

DD: I know you are not out there making your own statements about current politics . . .

WP: No, I’m not. But I’ve thought about it.

DD: You can’t help but think about it! And there’s something I want to run by you. [At this point, I recounted a 2016 radio interview in which Trump supporter and Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress said that because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a “governing principle,” he’d prefer a “strongman” as president.] Does that not sound like it’s right out of Machiavelli to you?

WP: Christ is quite clear about political life in the New Testament. He has a strange approach. On the one hand he warns his followers away from involving themselves in it. On the other hand he offers often apocalyptic judgments of the evils of the Roman empire. That suggests that it doesn’t matter because, with an avenging God, the time is nigh. God will order everything appropriately. Working on this book required me to read all of the New Testament. There is nothing in the New Testament that justifies a Christian arguing for decisive political action aimed at battling worldly evildoers.

DD: And yet that part of the [evangelical] world is so caught up in what almost sounds like the Crusades mentality against radical Islam.

WP: I think that’s right. And I’ve given some thought to this. First of all, Trump is not a Machiavellian or a Nietzschean. He is a demagogue. There’s a character in Thucydides named Cleon. He is the classic demagogue. He takes over in Athens following the death of Pericles. He’s a man who preaches violence and fear and on a pretty regular basis intones that the Athenian empire is nothing more than a tyranny and therefore they ought to treat their subjects as slaves rather than equals. I think you can understand Trump’s appeal among Christians if you understand—and I think Machiavelli understands this—that Christianity arises essentially out of the weakness into which the Roman empire leads the world. They basically by the time of the Caesars enslave the known world. Level it. And Christianity succeeds because it appealed to those who are weak in the world of the Roman empire—by promising them, quite explicitly, next worldly or otherwordly triumph.

Now that triumph, and this is the key, is delivered by a new kind of God. This is Machiavelli’s insight when he speaks of the gods of pagans versus the God of Christianity. Or the Abrahamic God. This God is just, and severe, and omnipotent. And he will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. But it’s not just that. This God, unlike all the previous gods, is universal. The Christian God sees into every human being’s soul. If you think back to the Romans, the Romans had gods but there was no claim that Jupiter ruled the whole universe. The Christian God unlike these pagan gods, had literally the whole world in his hands. And as a result, none will be spared judgment. It’s a kind of partial revenge that promises a thorough housecleaning.

There is nothing in the New Testament that justifies a Christian arguing for decisive political action aimed at battling worldly evildoers.

This kind of reasoning leads Machiavelli to basically be a forerunner to what Nietzsche does say about Christianity: He says Christianity is the religion of revenge. Which sounds like an odd claim. You see a Christian, and you read the Sermon on the Mount, and you see nothing but humility and meekness, turning the other cheek, giving up your wealth, indifference to worldly things. But because all of the ways in which Christians forebear acquisition or violence or anything else, are done so as to get this unspeakable delight of the afterworld, really that attitude of a good Christian is a cloak for overweening pride. When a Christian acts thusly, they are actually conceiving of a universe that supports their action and will vindicate them ultimately. This means that in addition to being a religion of revenge, and I think Machiavelli brings this second part out more clearly, it is a religion of the secretly proud. A religion that is capable of conceiving of itself as supported by, not just a god, but by the God. The only God. The God that serves them. And this leads Machiavelli to conclude in The Prince, this phrase he uses in reference to [King] Ferdinand [of Spain], he calls them “pious cruelties.”

The Christians will do all kinds of terrible things on earth to fellow human beings, much more terrible than anything the pagans did. He alludes to the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain, but he probably also has in mind the Inquisition, which is underway by the time he starts writing. Christians do horrible unspeakable things to fellow human beings—just for thinking the wrong thing. And that they are able to do so because they are empowered or vindicated by this judging punishing God. Now to get back to how a Christian ends up becoming Trumpian, Christ offers a specific example: you’re supposed to be meek and humble and all that, but I think Christians recognize, and evangelicals certainly do, that that example is in considerable tension with what is required to succeed in the world.

DD: Yes.

WP: And when push comes to shove, Christians will choose to align their belief in their just and vindicating God with terrible things on Earth. They’ll justly be accused of hypocrisy when they do that, but they’ve done that since the inception of Christianity.

DD: Except that there’s also the other tendency among certain radical Christians to go the other way and withdraw from the corruptions of politics—whether they are the so-called Quietists or even today you find that argument being made by some Christian pastors . . .

WP: I think that’s right. That speaks to the tendency to withdraw from the world. Machiavelli actually talks about this explicitly. He says that the Church is headed toward this greater and greater involvement in the world, and he says, at one point around the eleventh century it’s so corrupt, it’s so worldly, that people were just going to stop believing in it completely. He says it would have probably been lost forever if it weren’t for St. Francis and St. Dominic, who brought the religion back to the beginning and made the people believe. They are mendicant priests.

DD: And another example is Benedict, and the Benedictines. There’s a new book out now called The Benedict Option that is recommending that type of withdrawal.

WP: I think that’s much more consistent with the Gospels, because it required that kind of withdrawal from the world. I mean, Christ offers a kind of an open indifference to the world that’s tinged with hostility. He says, don’t wear yourselves out trying to get rich. But he also speaks of the evils that attend the acquisition of wealth. He says don’t involve yourself with politics because God is going to take care of it, but he also in no uncertain terms is pretty critical, or hostile, toward Roman power. But he’s much more hostile to the Pharisees. He’s much more concerned with religious hypocrisy than he is with political action.

DD: You note in your introduction the Apostle Paul saying to Timothy the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. What a fertile phrase that is now, with a billionaire in the White House.

WP: Oh, absolutely. This has plagued evangelicals for at least three decades in the United States, maybe four or five, maybe since the first Great Awakening, even. There’s nothing that Christ criticizes more explicitly than the love of money. Nothing. For him it is the chief impediment to virtue. It is that which is most likely to seduce you. It is the most attractive worldly thing that threatens to lead you away from the straight and narrow gate.

DD: I’ve seen many references to the famous Republican operative Lee Atwater, who said he’d read The Prince twenty-three times. Other people who were in those circles said, well, Lee didn’t actually read books. But it was also said about Karl Rove.

WP: This is a trope, though. Maybe it’s true. It’s also said that Stalin had it when he was in exile in Siberia.

DD: And Mussolini, right?

WP: I think we have better evidence that [Mussolini] had in fact read The Prince. At the turn of the nineteenth century, basically from 1860 on, Machiavelli was read as a republican patriot and a foreshadower of the unification of Italy.

DD: I spoke this morning with Peter Wehner, who had written speeches for former president George W. Bush. What Berlin is saying, that there is an insuperable problem here, that you can’t reconcile Christian ethics with the practice of power, Christians like Peter deny that is true. They say you can be a Christian in politics, you just have to do it the right way.

WP: I’m not sure that’s vindicated on the basis of the New Testament. But in Calvin, and in Luther, you do find a reinterpretation of the duties of a Christian citizen, and a much more worldly movement.

There’s nothing that Christ criticizes more explicitly than the love of money.

One of the interesting things about Machiavelli is you have this insight into what Christianity is and a criticism of it that he advances in favor of something more worldly—at the exact same time you have both within the church, and then eventually outside the church, a movement of believing Christians who follow a similar line of reasoning basically looking around the world and saying, as Luther puts it, “We are the Church of Christ, governed by the Roman curia, a false, proud whore.” And in order to be Christians at the very least we need to reform our worldly institutions. That impulse to reform our worldly institutions I would suggest is in tension with Christ’s general teaching. One could also say that the Church itself is in tension with Christ’s teaching, the worldliness of the Church would be a problem for Christ. There’s an attempt to reform Christianity by lending the effort of good Christians toward the reformation of Christianity that occurs simultaneously to the efforts of thinkers to re-imagine the world in worldly terms rather than supernatural terms. And that goes into politics and science and the economy.

DD: The obvious thing that comes up when you’re thinking about this—and you’re thinking about Trump and conservative Christians—is that if you say Machiavelli was right that there’s a conflict between Christian ethics and power politics, immediately it comes to the question of, “What about our left-wing Christians?” Or the Martin Luther Kings of the world?

WP: Social justice Christians.

DD: Yes.

WP: Well, I would tell you this, that there is a much clearer precedent in the New Testament, and again I return to the actual text, for feeding the poor than there is for seizing the reins of power. If you are engaged in trying to legislate or influence legislation as a left-wing Christian then I think you are already at risk of endangering your soul, because I think the involvement with worldly political institutions risks your soul as far as Christ is concerned. But if you’re involved in direct action, aiding the poor, helping the homeless, providing aid and comfort to those who are downtrodden, then you are actually doing what Christ commanded you to do.

DD: Welcoming the strangers, refugees and immigrants . . .

WP: That would be another example, exactly. I would just point out that these conservative Christians aren’t really conservative at all. They understand themselves as correct. They understand themselves as supported by a God who rewards the correct and punishes those who are not correct. When you have such pride, and you are so thoroughly convinced that the universe vindicates you, you are open to the notion that God works in mysterious ways and that so long as he is vindicating your cause, he must be at work. So, if you come to conceive of Trump as vindicating your cause, you don’t care much about what Trump actually is. This is Machiavelli’s insight: Christians are capable of tolerating and indeed seeing as God’s will profound cruelty.