Now is not the Time to be a Moderate
Assistant Professor of American Religious and Cultural History
Columbia Theological Seminary
On the day after the election, President Obama addressed the nation from the White House Rose Garden. He congratulated President-elect Trump and ensured there would be a smooth transition of power from one administration to the next. He also observed the “nature of democracy” is sometimes “contentious and noisy” and “not always inspiring.” Echoing the insight of his favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, President Obama acknowledged progress in the United States has never occurred in a “straight line” fashion but that “we zig and zag.” In 1952, Niebuhr argued in The Irony of American History that a proper reading of history suggests positive social change is not the product of steady progress but rather comes to us as a drama of conflict with opposing forces that confront and challenge one another at every step of the way. Niebuhr advocated a Christian realism that cautioned against notions of American exceptionalism positioning the United States as a virtuous redeemer nation with a divine commission to save the world. At the same time, Niebuhr contended that American Christians had a moral duty to vigorously combat unjust systems of economic and racial oppression at home and abroad.
Perhaps the presidential election confirms both Niebuhr’s sober criticism of American exceptionalism and his clarion call for Christians to speak and act with a combination of courage and humility as creatures caught between the dimensions of divine grace and human nature on this side of heaven. As we prepare for a new president who maligned immigrants, racial-ethnic minorities, disabled persons, women, and Muslims – with staffers and supporters trumpeting white supremacist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic ideologies – on his way to the Oval Office, we must be vigilant in defending our neighbors, especially those on the margins of our society.
Those of us in the Reformed tradition continue to repent of our human sinfulness and the specific ways we have fallen short as disciples, but we do so with hope and faith in the God who bestows grace upon us through Jesus Christ. John Calvin informs our understanding of the twofold nature of grace in which we are justified before God through the righteousness of Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit to aspire to holiness and purity in our daily living. During the Great Awakening movement in colonial North America, Presbyterian revivalist Gilbert Tennent emphasized the necessity of “sanctifying grace” in converted Christians to underscore orthopraxy (right practice) alongside orthodoxy (right belief). More recently, Presbyterian and womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon has articulated how divine grace transforms African American Christians in offering liberation from systems of discrimination and empowerment to seek new possibilities for creative change.
As a thirty-something Korean American minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who teaches at one of its seminaries, the overwhelming majority of people I rub shoulders and break bread with on a daily basis did not vote for the President-elect. But I am well aware of the various narratives of plight that define white mainline Protestantism today. A myriad of scholars of American religion have commented upon the decreasing numbers and increasing irrelevance of denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and proposed different pathways moving forward. Diana Butler Bass summarizes this wide-ranging analysis in three competing streams. One proposal for white mainline Protestant churches entails retreat from political engagement to focus instead upon the spiritual formation of faithful individuals. Another proposal maintains a pantheistic understanding of God that encourages churches to abdicate their unique role as God’s sole agents of good and partner with all kinds of agencies, including interfaith and secular organizations, to promote social change. The third proposal seeks to align the everyday experience in churches with explicitly social justice commitments in order to reclaim the progressive vision of twentieth-century pioneers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I believe our churches need not choose one of these three options. We can invest in robust educational ministries for persons at every life stage from infancy to elderly, support effective interfaith and secular organizations, and actively engage in efforts that seek to identify and dismantle oppressive cultural, economic, political, racial, and religious forces. In response to the election of Donald Trump and the imminent threat of a dangerous agenda of white supremacy arising from not only some of his supporters but also appointed White House officials who will reside in the halls of power, the important thing for Christians is to be decisive in our speech and our action. As 2 Timothy teaches us, God gives us the ability and responsibility to speak and act with a spirit of power, love, and sound mind.
In my American church history classes, my students and I are often most frustrated with white Protestant moderates who believed that slavery in the nineteenth century was wrong or that the civil rights movement in the twentieth century was right but nonetheless did not speak out for the sake of preserving the peace and unity of their ecclesiastical bodies. We shake our heads at the fact that prominent northern Presbyterians who held abolitionist positions wrote assuring letters to their Southern colleagues throughout the 1830s and as late as 1861, promising them that slavery would not be discussed at the General Assembly. When we read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, we feel his deep pain and anguish over the white moderates who agreed with his cause but instructed him to be more patient and less controversial. We are angry when we discover that the Presbyterian Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina refused racial integration until 1960, despite their General Assembly’s recommendation for integration in 1954 and the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregated public schools in the same year.
The historical enterprise offers the benefit of the distance of time. We can look back into the past and learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors in the faith. The present is always more complex to assess because making history is more difficult than studying it. Yet now is not the time to be a moderate. We seek to be decisive without being divisive in our Christian witness, but we also recognize there are times when grave injustice must be met with a bold and unequivocal response that may confront, disrupt, and even upset some of our neighbors. As we rise from our knees in humble prayer, we must courageously speak the truth in love and stand up for whatever is just
Transactional Politics in the Age of the Deal-Maker-in-Chief
Director of the Art of Ministry and Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society
Wake Forest Divinity School
Recent news of President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s recent deal with United Technologies, owner of the Carrier Corporation, to save fewer than 1,000 manufacturing jobs from transfer to Mexico, appears to be the first of many promised “deals” to “make America great again.” We’ve certainly had presidents who have endeavored to make deals: the “Square Deal,” the “New Deal,” the “Fair Deal” – and don’t forget the contracts our politicians have made with us, the “Contract with America,” prominent among them. Trump’s deal with United Technologies suggests a new role for the president: Deal-Maker-in-Chief.
Trump will say that he’s doing exactly what he promised to do. Some will cheer him for it. But Vermont Senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders isn’t impressed. Sanders argues that Trump’s “deal” amounts to nothing more than “corporate welfare” for a company that doesn’t need it. Instead of tax incentives that pad corporate profits, Sanders argues, companies that outsource jobs should pay a “outsourcing tax” equal to the savings they garner in shipping American jobs abroad. With Sanders, I am inclined to think that “deals” like the one with Carrier are mostly smoke-in-mirror strategies that reinforce corporate earnings for owners and shareholders, while undermining the wellbeing of workers and local communities.
We shouldn’t be surprised that we elected a Deal-Maker in Chief. That identity is the inevitable result of the transactional form into which our politics has devolved. For ordinary citizens, and even for professional politicians, politics in the U.S. context reduces to the campaign, the end of which is Election Day. Candidates make promises on a logic of exchange: you vote for me, and I will do X, Y, and Z in return. The voting booth is the site of political transaction; it’s where the deal is closed. Voting is a consumer experience: political consumers try to get the best deal they can. Except for occasional stints on jury duty, the voting booth is where most citizens’ active engagement with political life begins and ends. The rest of the political process is consumption, too – of infotainment, punditry, demagoguery – all calculated either to garner our vote or to help us to measure how well our investment is doing.
There is a kind of idolatry about transactional politics. In a transactional mode, citizens expect that their elected officials will do the work of politics for them; it’s the politician’s job to “make America great again.” The citizen’s logic? We’ll see you next Election Day – and by then, you better have delivered. Trump has succeeded in surfacing a trajectory in American politics long in the making, that politics is another kind of market transaction, and to succeed in politics, one simply needs to master “the art of the deal.” It’s no wonder that our president-elect sees himself as Deal-Maker-in-Chief, the One who will single-handedly defend American laborers through “great deals.”
The most consumable political materials are also the least nuanced and the most injurious: nationalist, xenophobic, racist, misogynistic demagoguery trades well in political markets. Complex descriptions of political problems and nuanced responses to them confound the simple yes/no decision one makes in the voting booth. The transactional-consumerist model of political life makes decisions simple, to be sure. But that’s also the problem with it. Transactional systems view votes simply as zero-sum inputs that affirm one ideological position and reject others. In the meantime, the transactional conditions that invite demagoguery have left many of our fellow citizens traumatized in the wake of the 2016 election: women, immigrant communities, communities of color, religious “others.”
In the age of the Deal-Maker-in-Chief, we need a much thicker politics, one capable of crafting complex narratives about the pain and isolation many of our citizens feel, while also opening an expansive imagination of the world as it could and should be. For example, some Trump supporters have legitimate grievances about a globalized market system that values corporate elites, shareholders, and consumers over workers. But the hard truth is that we probably can’t have Best Buy and Walmart (which we all love, if we’re being honest) and Motor City at the same time. As long we love cheap consumer goods from big box stores, in other words, industrial jobs are not coming back to America. Now, we could have (and over the last eighteen months, could have had) a generative conversation about whether we want this kind of economy. A transactional politics, however, reduces this difficult conversation to thin narratives proffering readily consumable political memes. Complex problems related to a globalized economy become caricatures: murderous immigrants from Mexico and ISIS sleeper agents.
In order to dismantle transactional politics, politics must become liturgy, literally, the “work of the people.” It’s awfully easy to go home on Election Day and wait around two or four years to see if our elected officials did all of the heavy lifting for us. Of course, they inevitably disappoint. Politics as the hard work of the people means that we need to make time to create community. Faith traditions have much to offer in framing that work: priestly practices that encourage careful and hospitable listening and presence as citizens heal from wounds inflicted by demagogues; community-building practices that affirm the assets of local communities; and prophetic practices that hold power accountable to truth.
What does it look like to dismantle transactional politics? I think of the example of City with Dwellings (https://citywithdwellings.org/), a network of winter overflow shelters that serve homeless folks in my city, Winston-Salem, NC. Working with a range of community leaders and faith communities (and mostly at their own initiative), Wake Forest School of Divinity students involved themselves in the development, organization, and day-to-day leadership of the shelters from the very beginnings of the organization. Part of what attracted our students to City with Dwellings is that the organization seeks not only to offer shelter to guests who need it; it is also attempting to transform the way that citizens relate to and experience one another. Participants learn how to build intentional relationships with guests, so that the practice of hospitality is not transactional (in the sense of providing a service); it’s political (in the sense of creating community). City with Dwellings is first and foremost attempting to build a “city” that also has “dwellings,” where both terms signal a place where all live and flourish rather than simply shelter in the same vicinity. City with Dwellings is both a good example of and a vital metaphor for liturgical politics, politics in which the people do the hard and continuous work of building political community. I’d say it’s time for liturgical leadership in politics.