Re-reading Thomas Moore’s The Soul’s Religion (Harper-Perennial 2002) can prove to be an enlightening experience when revisited in the President Donald Trump era. Particularly striking after seventeen years is Moore’s twenty-fifth chapter, “Venerating Images.” Certain passages seem relevant to the ascension of Mr. Trump specifically, and more generally to the rise of global nationalism.
With the Covington Catholic boys and their MAGA hats at the Lincoln Memorial, the difference between venerating images and condemning them was made crystal clear. For the Covington boys, the hats are a symbol of positive nationalism and renewed American vitality. For the Native American drummer and those hurling invective, the hat and its message are a racist totem comparable to a Klansman’s hood.
2016 marked the 25th anniversary of Moore’s philosophical, psychological and theological exploration of spirituality, Care of the Soul. The book became a New York Times bestseller, and subsequent books like Soul Mates secured for the author a growing success that continued into the new millennium. With a narrative blend of myth, Jungian psychology, and references to Christianity, his own Catholicism, and other major religious faiths, Moore, a spiritual seeker who entered a Servite monastery but ultimately declined to take his vows, sold millions of books and became a popular draw making personal appearances and sharing his soulful wisdom.
“Care of Soul has struck a national nerve,” wrote Colleen O’Connor of the Dallas Morning News, summing up the general tenor of Moore’s critical reception. The Soul’s Religion was marketed as the companion volume to Moore’s breakout book.
As to be expected with any creative endeavor, Moore’s ideas about faith and the true nature of the soul had its detractors. Some found the works to be cavalierly unorthodox, by turns too shallow and too deep, and to veer uncomfortably close to paganism at times. “New Age psychobabble” was one recurring critique.
What is not in doubt is that Moore’s take on the human soul answered a need. Millions of readers sought guidance from the author’s evocative reverie about the true meaning of soulfulness and its applications for both faith-based and secular existence. His books’ archetypal imagery can be interpreted in as many ways as there are individuals to interpret them. Chapter 25 contains several ideas that resonate strongly in the context of the current political and cultural landscape.
Following are some brief passages from Chapter 25 in The Soul’s Religion, “Venerating Images.”
Moore: “The celebrity today is the saint of yesterday without the complication of holiness.”
For the president’s most engaged supporters, his rallies transcend political excitement and suggest to an observer a kind of savior-like adoration. Don’t take that sentence as a sacrilege; I am far from the first to say or write it. Trump rallies have a spiritual aspect that conjures a sense among the assemblages of salvation. On a personal note, I’ve been to campaign rallies for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Mr. Trump. Only the Barack Obama rally was comparable to what I witnessed at the Trump rally.
Moore: “Being a romantic in the age of rationalism and technology requires that you be eccentric, outside the circle, a holy fool.”
Trumpservatives, stand down, I am one of you. I am not calling President Trump a fool. Far from it. But his America-first brand of rationalism flies in the face of standard political practice and conventional wisdom, and for that reason seems eccentric. He makes traditional sense to millions of citizens on issues like immigration, trade fairness, and political response mechanisms, while to the left-wing, globalist, social justice elites he seems callow, unethical, devoid of meaningful introspection.
Ironically, Trump appeals to multitudes with his effortless penchant for an attribute not normally assigned to bottom-line, deal-making businessmen: nationalist romanticism. Trump is a “holy fool” for America.
Moore: “Today people are devoted to many things: television, work, money, sex, sports.* Who is more a devotee than the follower of a local sports team? Modern forms of devotion are strong, but they are largely unconscious. The devotees don’t realize they’re caught up in a religion.”
*A contemporary list would surely include electronic devices, cyber-community, and social media.
To be clear, in citing this passage I’m not equating fervent Trump allegiance to faith in a religious deity. Quite the contrary. Trump’s base is comprised in its majority of people with full clarity about the difference between God and a mortal soul. But many of them—including a majority of evangelicals—are convinced that Trump, while not an explicitly religious man, advocates for policies and governing philosophies that strengthen faith-based communities.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to posit that it is the very religiosity of many of his supporters, their belief in a higher power, that helps secure for the president a kind of supra-political devotion.
It would be incorrect to characterize the faith community’s engagement with the president as “worshipful.” But Trump’s traditional messaging, his unflinching delineation of threats both foreign and domestic, and his compelling mantra about making America strong, safe, wealthy, and great again resonate strongly as an America-first prosperity gospel.
America first. So simple, and yet Donald Trump was the only aspiring leader to articulate it, formulate the words and imagery, and put a plan of action on the table.
The Covington Catholics found out what venerating an image—the MAGA hat—means in violently polarized times.
Mr. Trump has proven a master at creating other venerable imagery that is now seared into public consciousness: the nationalist commander-in-chief entering a public space, the wall prototypes, the conceptualized image of Trump hitting back harder against his fake news critics, to name but a few.
Like Thomas Moore with his soul series, President Trump latched onto something millions of souls needed, indeed were starved for. A concept lying dormant, waiting to be reawakened as a national prayer.
The in-Trump-we-trust movement and similar nationalist uprisings around the globe show too what imagery moribund regimes have attempted to degrade and destroy.
The symbolic imagery of a sovereign America would be at the top of that list