On more than one occasion I have been asked to whom we can compare J. Frank Norris to today. Some preachers have imagined themselves as a spiritual heir of Norris and there are some with similarities, especially among those who were influenced by him and his ministry. Some preachers are polarizing like Norris, some are controversial like Norris, some are trailblazers like Norris, but I have yet to find another man whose life and ministry parallels that of Norris.
A couple of years ago, I had an epiphany on the matter. I saw that the presidency and actions of Donald Trump show many similarities to the ministry and methods of J. Frank Norris. I have mulled over this comparison since then and feel that I can finally articulate it enough to foster a discussion on its merits.
Now, let me say up front that there are many areas in which the two could not be more different. For instance, I do believe Norris was sincere in his faith while Trump is not (and I probably just lost a lot of readers with those two statements). The greatest attack on Norris is that he did shoot and kill a man, which was ruled to be self-defense in a court of law, and I do not see a parallel in Trump’s life. The many instances of immorality in Trump’s life and business career are different than the questionable and debatable actions of Norris. It has only been in recent years, almost seventy years after his death, that accusations made against Norris concerning improprieties with women have been put into print and gained acceptance among his detractors. Quite a different situation than the cases brought against Trump by multiple women. Also let me say that I am looking largely at the five or so years of Trump’s candidacy, election, and term in office while looking at many decades of Norris’ ministry.
What I want to emphasize here is the similar mindset and methods of these two men. How one reacted to opposition is similar to the way the other did. How one promoted his agenda is similar to the way the other did.
With no particular order, let me begin with:
I. Norris and Trump both utilized cutting-edge media to reach their audiences and were both had their message censored or ignored by traditional media outlets.
Trump was legendary for the use of his Twitter account to attack his enemies and push his message. When Trump’s message was ignored or attacked in major media outlets, he promoted upstart networks or promoted it himself online.
Norris did not have modern social media, but he was as effective as anyone at using the media of his day. He was a pioneering radio broadcaster, which is a fact that is largely unmentioned today. He used his personal paper, known by various names like The Searchlight and The Fundamentalist, to disseminate his sermons and launch attacks on his foes and even on his allies. Local newspapers and denominational publications would reject Norris’ material in their pages but his message still went out. If Norris had been able to have a Twitter account, I think he would have used it almost exactly like Trump did.
II. Norris and Trump both demeaned and demonized their opponents through name-calling and personal attacks
Trump famously gave nicknames to his opponents. “Sleepy Joe” for Joe Biden and “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren are some well-known examples. His enemies, not mattering if they were in his own party, would expect to be treated to constant accusations and attacks that Trump used to transform their message or person into a caricature.
Norris had his nicknames also. For example, he said he was attacking “Dawsonism” (named after J.M. Dawson) instead of just Modernism in the Baptist denomination. He used Dawson to personify these attacks. The attacks on Dawson are legendary, but I’d like to point out that Dawson did openly and unapologetically hold modernist positions in areas such as Creation and Inspiration of the Scriptures. But Norris could not keep the battle in the theological realm and instead made it personal.
III. Norris and Trump both developed extremely loyal followings that dwindled over time and after controversy.
As I write this we are less than a month from Trump’s successor Joe Biden being sworn in as President. Yet I still see Trump flags and signs displayed proudly. Not as many as a few months ago though. After the riot at the Capitol, even some of his strongest supporters where ready for his departure. Now his own party is largely ready to move on from Trump’s time in office.
Norris had an entourage of extremely loyal followers and supporters. I have heard more than one preacher who claimed to be Norris’ “right hand man” before embarking on their own pastorates. I have seen reports that Norris would hold meetings at the same time and place as denominational conventions and outdraw those meetings. Even today, a few preachers are fiercely loyal to and quick to claim the name of Norris, but they are not many. His contemporary and somewhat rival George W. Truett is not afforded the same popularity and loyalty.
IV. Norris and Trump both used the “cult of personality” to their gain.
Trump promoted Trump. When press conferences were held in the early days of the COVID pandemic he was front and center. His campaign was largely on the name TRUMP and not the ticket of Trump/Pence.
Norris promoted Norris. Other men came and went, like John. R. Rice or G.B. Vick, but Norris was the center of attention. Roy Kemp tells of him preaching about selling J. Frank Norris to the crowds so people would come hear the Gospel. From page 17 from Kemp’s Extravaganza!:
“Then Norris – his soul on the wing – soared up, and up, and up! And for what purpose? Answer: To get his people to sell J. Frank Norris to the masses – by house to house visitation – in order that they might get the sinners out to hear him. And then, he pressed upon them, the claims of Christ, unto eternal salvation, and service in the Lord’s church; yes, and Heaven!”
V. Norris and Trump both attacked their own institutions and made enemies of those of similar beliefs.
Trump was largely and outsider to the political realm. He did not spend time strengthening his party’s influence or strength. He made enemies of some of the most influential party leaders like Romney and McCain. Many in his own party were prepared to lose a presidential election just to rid themselves of Trump.
Norris held few loyalties in his life. I think the only major denominational leader of his time that he did not attack was B.H. Carroll. He attacked leaders and programs of the local, state, and national Baptist conventions of which he began his ministry strongly advocating. He attacked his alma mater Baylor University when evidence of modernistic teachings came to light. His own followers split over Norris’ leadership when many broke away and formed the Baptist Bible Fellowship in 1950. Over the course of his life many of his enemies had earlier been in the ranks of his allies.
VI. Norris and Trump both used populism to push their agenda.
Trump appealed to the “every man” in his message. I have spoken to many people that were convinced Trump had the back of the common man. Much of his message could be interpreted as common man vs. the elite.
Norris appealed often to the common Christian layperson. He accused the denominational institutions of moving in directions that rank-and-file Baptists would not approve of. He appealed not to intellectualism, but to the ordinary faith of the ordinary Christian.
VII. Norris and Trump both thrived on controversy and upheaval and eschewed bipartisanship and compromise.
Many of Trump’s more memorable acts were in the heat of battles. I’ve already mentioned the demeaning names which he would lambast his enemies with. Those usually flew around when he was forced to work with those individuals in effort to throw pressure on them to accept his proposals. We can see much of Trump’s demeanor in the first presidential debate of 2020 in the way he went on the offensive against both Biden and the moderator Chris Wallace.
Norris fostered controversy and many of his attacks had little impact on the issues. He had an ability like P.T. Barnum to market any situation to his advantage. He used sensationalist and controversialist methods that alienated him from potential allies and often hindered any progress to address the issues at hand.
I’m sure these observations are not exhaustive but I hope that the reader can see the same conclusion that I have come to; that is, we finally have someone in Donald Trump in which we can use in comparison to foster a greater understanding of the ministry and methods of J. Frank Norris.