Opinion | Donald Trump and the ‘Dune’ Messiah Have Some Things in Common

It is fitting that the biggest movie in the world this year is the story of a messiah gone wrong.

I’m speaking, of course, about Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” sequel, the story of a savior who broke bad in a specific way: He manipulated prophecy to unleash the religious fervor of an entire people against a hated foe.

The “Dune” movies present a beautifully shot, marvelously acted, fantastical tale set in a distant future, but they’re very much grounded in the dark reality of human nature here and now. When people are angry and afraid, they will look for a savior. When that anger and fear is latched to faith and prophecy, they will yearn for a religious crusade.

There’s a version of this same story playing out in the United States, but because the anger and fear are so overwrought, the prophecies so silly, and the savior so patently absurd, we may be missing the religious and cultural significance of the moment. A significant part of American Christianity is spiraling out of control.

The signs are everywhere. First, there’s the behavior of the savior himself, Donald Trump. On Monday of Holy Week, he compared himself to Jesus Christ, posting on Truth Social that he received a “beautiful” note from a supporter saying that it was “ironic” that “Christ walked through his greatest persecution the very week they are trying to steal your property from you.”

On Tuesday, he took to Truth Social to sell a $60 “God Bless the USA Bible” (the “only Bible endorsed by President Trump”), an edition of the King James Bible that also includes America’s founding documents. “Christians are under siege,” he said. The Judeo-Christian foundation of America is “under attack,” Trump claimed, before declaring a new variant on an old theme: “We must make America pray again.”

Two weeks ago, Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, told a Christian gathering that Democrats “want full and complete destruction of the United States of America.” Kirk is a powerful Trump ally. He has millions of followers on social media and is hoping to raise more than $100 million in 2024 to help mobilize voters for Trump.

“I do not think you can be a Christian and vote Democrat,” Kirk said, and “if you vote Democrat as a Christian, you can no longer call yourself a Christian.”

All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of so-called prophetic utterances that place Trump at the center of God’s plan to save America. According to these prophecies, Trump is God’s choice to lead America out of spiritual darkness, to save it from decline and despair. In this formulation, to oppose Trump is to stand against the will of God.

There are Trump prophecy books and a Trump prophecy movie. The prophecies can be very strange. The prophet will speak as though God talked to him or her directly. In this widely watched video, for example, the prophet says, “Donald Trump will be in power once more” and “he will reign again; it’s only a matter of time.” In this prophecy, the prophet says there is “actually a scripture appointed for the day” that Trump was born. As he explains the prophecy, the crowd applauds; its belief is palpable.

At the same time, ancient hatreds are re-emerging in the Christian far right. On March 22, the Daily Wire, a right-wing website founded by Ben Shapiro, fired Candace Owens, one of its most popular personalities. Like Kirk, she has millions of followers on social media. She is not a fringe figure. Owens engaged in a series of antisemitic statements, which included the claim that a “small ring of specific people … are using the fact that they are Jewish to shield themselves from any criticism” and “they will kill people before they allow that ring to be exposed.”

In response to the end of her relationship with the Daily Wire, both Owens and many of her followers began to post “Christ is king,” a sentiment aimed directly at Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew. It’s one thing to declare “Christ is king” in church as a sign of personal devotion and belief. It’s quite another to aim that comment at a Jewish man as a declaration of religious supremacy.

It is true, thankfully, that a vast majority of American evangelicals do not and would not ever wield Christ’s name as a weapon against their Jewish neighbors. In fact, a number of conservative and right-wing Christians called out the “Christ is king” smear. But the argument that “most Christians aren’t MAGA” or “the majority of evangelicals abhor antisemitism” is cold comfort when MAGA and its antisemitic fringe are as prominent as they are in Christian public discourse. It’s also cold comfort when it’s evangelicals who helped push Trump over the finish line in the Republican primary race.

The MAGA method is clear. First, it whips up its people into a religious frenzy. It lies to convince them that the Democrats are an existential threat to the country and the church. It tells worried Christians that the fate of the nation is at stake. Then, just as it builds up the danger from the Democrats, it constructs an idol of Trump, declaring his divine purpose and spreading the prophecies of his coming return. He is to be the instrument of divine vengeance against his foes, and his frenzied foot soldiers are eager to carry out his will. They march eagerly to culture war, flying the flag of the House of Trump.

Sadly, all of this spilled into the open on Holy Week, the very week when the actual example of Jesus Christ should thoroughly rebuke MAGA’s fear and MAGA’s will to power. Christ came to a nation that was groaning under the weight of a real oppressor, the Roman Empire. At every turn, he rejected the effort to transform him into a political leader or, worse, a warlord.

When crowds gathered, he would often remove himself to pray. Rather than stoking their fear and anger, he’d heal the sick. Sometimes his words even alienated the crowd, causing it to drift away. Even though the people of Israel faced oppression that the American church can scarcely comprehend, he did not pick up the sword. Nor did he bend the knee to the Roman regime. In the end, he died on a cross, rejected by Romans and Israelites alike.

When he conquered death and hell and rose from the grave, he didn’t come back for vengeance. He spoke to his small band of followers, then ascended again, leaving them to revolutionize the hearts of men, not conquer the kingdoms of the earth.

He left behind an upside-down faith. In Christ’s kingdom, the last are first. You love your enemies. You pray for those who persecute you. His teachings consistently contradict our will to power. They frustrate our very human desire for vengeance. They channel religious devotion into compassion, not ferocity, and compassion should define our lives.

Jesus was emphatic. In Matthew 25, Jesus said he would know his followers as people who served: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.” And how do we serve Jesus in that way? Christ’s answer was clear: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

One does not hate one’s way into the kingdom of God. If our hearts are so cold that we fail to exhibit those virtues, it does one no good to respond, “But Lord, I posted ‘Christ the King’ to troll my enemies.”

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