Trump and the Transformations of Civil Religion
Assistant Professor of Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary
Donald Trump’s electoral college victory is particularly shocking to those left-of-center on the political spectrum. It seems to fly in the face of the widely-held assumption that the United States of America was becoming more diverse, more inclusive, less racist, less patriarchal and less oppressive to those who do not conform to older societal norms. President Obama’s election 2008, often understood as a watershed moment in the inevitable demographic and political transformation of America, now appears as a high-water mark of social transformation.
Some commentators — particularly voices of color, whose perspectives white Americans often overlook — suggested that the election results should have been expected. The United States has never been inevitably moving towards perfection. It has always possessed (at least some) inspiring ideals while committing horrific acts of cruelty. The same document that begins “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice” also protects the institution of slavery.
Among other things, Trump represents the fundamental transformation of civil religion for the Republican party. In particular, there is no longer a moral imperative for a president to represent decency. 81% of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump and his crude ethno-nationalist, misogynist platform. This would have been unthinkable — at least in terms of aligning with someone caught bragging obscenely on tape that he molests women, and who brushed it off as a normal way that men should be expected to speak — had not many influential white Evangelical church leaders decided long ago to become a dependable unit in a specific political coalition in return for rhetorical consistency on certain issues, such as abortion. White Evangelicalism is now, for the most part, unquestionably tied to the Republican party. Compare, for example, the teachings of Charles Grandson Finney, an early evangelical theologian who promoted radical racial equality and universal state-funded education, with the teachings of Jerry Falwell, who opposed Civil Rights legislation and denounced public schools. Aligning oneself with a political party is not a one-way street.
Progressive mainline Christians are, for the most part, well aware of the Evangelical church’s political capture. But perhaps many of us aren’t aware of our own alignment with the Democratic party and its own brand of civil religion. Many of us believed that demographics would simply solve the problems of conservative civil religion, as if it were providential. This idea of progressive providence subtly relieved us of our need to stay involved in political conversations, to imagine that things would be fixed for us. Many of us forgot that the moral arc of the universe is paved with the conviction, effort and even blood of those who refuse to stand down in the face of injustice. The Civil Rights Act was not inevitable, and neither was the fourteenth amendment (or that fifteenth, or the nineteenth, either).
Moreover, many of us progressive Christians had begun conflating the goals of the Democratic party with our own. But perhaps instead of accepting an escalation of drone warfare that primarily killed innocent people of color beyond our borders, we should have demanded that our country’s leadership respect all life as sacred. Perhaps instead of accepting weak regulations for the financial sector in the wake of the catastrophic financial crisis, we should have demanded more thoroughgoing reform and relief especially for the poor who were most effected by the mortgage crisis, because what we do for the most vulnerable is the most important. Perhaps instead of accepting the murder of innocent African-American men and women by authorities and the militaristic response to protests, we progressive Christians should have joined those who were demanding justice. Some did, of course. But not many.
We should have done those things because our God is the one who brought the oppressed Israelite slaves out from the grip of powerful Egypt (Exod 2:23-25); our God is the one who demanded that the Israelites institute nation-wide systems including regular debt forgiveness to care for the poor and needy (Deut 15:1-11); our God is the one who sent prophets to criticize ruthlessly even the best Israelite leaders (2 Sam 12:1-14), and who excoriated those who put their faith in economic prosperity for the elite at the expense of the poor (Amos 2:6-8); our God is the one who cursed Judah because the rich devoured the housing stock of those impoverished by economic policies that left them with nowhere to live (Isa 5:8-17); our God is the one who came in the form of a wandering day-laborer who was executed unjustly by the Empire (Mark 15:16-25). Our God is also the one who brings life unexpectedly out of oppression, pain, sorrow and even death. These things are never part of larger inevitable cultural shifts that are occurring. They are never politically expedient. They are never already part of what the dominant political leaders plan to address. But we should have done them because we are Christians.
Like many, I believe that we are at the dawn of a new era. We will see unprecedented attacks on those who are not privileged and part of culturally normative groups. Yet precisely here, the Church can step in to help. Jesus himself was an organizer: he started his ministry by gathering a group, and promised his followers that wherever there were groups of even two or three, there he was with them (Matt 18:20). Israel, too, was God’s community formed to minister to all the nations so that they might bring blessing to the whole earth (Exod 19:5-6; Gen 12:1-3). We are a group of organizers, whether we feel like it or not. We often organize potlucks, softball teams and worship. It won’t take much to shift our focus to housing refugees, creating safe spaces for people and gathering to protest unjust legislation. I think all it takes is refocusing ourselves on the gospel — not the gospel of American civil religion, but the gospel of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.
The Personal President and the Public Church
Associate Professor of Religion
What does this election say about our nation and the church? While some have argued that this campaign was utterly novel, Trump’s victory was, in fact, years in the making. Ultimately, Trump’s election is owed to the triumph of the personal over the public.
The emerging consensus is that Trump’s victory wa due to white resentment of elites and minorities, but resentments in this case are part of preference for the personal realm. Populist demagogues identify a stereotypical persona and use it to elicit a sense of personal grievance. Examples from recent campaigns abound: the unfeeling elite, the welfare mother, Willie Horton. Rather than appealing to political action, populists call for revolution. Somewhat ironically, resentments are subjectively felt as legitimate moral complaints. This quality is important if we are to make sense of the passion of many Trump supporters. It has, of course, been noted that Trump’s campaign was far from conventional. In hindsight, one sees elements of a moralistic crusade. Clearly, his crusade resonated with a host of resentments, but what animated these resentments and caused them to coalesce?
Trump’s campaign often seemed less about his vision of where he wanted to take America than about punishing Hillary Clinton. This may strike us as bizarrely personal, but as our culture has become more cynical about public institutions, personalities have become more important.
Trump’s campaign seized on this cynicism by launching an overtly personal campaign to disrupt the inner-workings of the federal government. While the promise of the Trump campaign was to make “America Great Again,” the distinctive brand of the Trump campaign was “disruption.” People of diverse worldviews voted for Trump because they believed he would “disrupt” the operations of the federal government and “drain the swamp.”
Negative views of government are nothing new, of course. Since the nation’s founding, there has been an undercurrent of suspicion of government. In recent decades that undercurrent has become a staple of American politics. In the past, the object of resentment was “big government,” but recent decades have witnessed a growing sense that the federal government is by definition “big” and hence, tyrannical.
Contempt for government and, particularly, the federal government make for a complicated environment in which to run for President. The mood of campaigns since the emergence of mass media has become one of disgust with government. Accordingly, candidates have run as outsiders promising to reform “Washington.” Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are very different figures, but each of them positioned themselves as an entirely novel element.
Given this, it is easy to see the challenge that a figure like Hillary Clinton faced in running for President. Her many years in public service were viewed not as an advantage but a detriment, not a virtue but a vice. Indeed, a good portion of the electorate seemed to found vice everywhere they looked, whether in Clinton’s private email server, the connections her office helped make between the State Department and certain Clinton Foundation donors, or the speeches she made before investment bankers. (Ironically, in these speeches, Secretary Clinton seems to recognize the anti-elite mood of the country.)
Some on the Left and Middle never warmed toward a candidate they did not find personally authentic. Instead, they saw a compromised player. The more Clinton tried to appear the populist, the more they saw her as a fraud.
Trump and his supporters, in contrast, appear utterly convinced that “Washington” is dysfunctional in the extreme. They have doubled down on Ronald Reagan’s quip that “government is the problem,” so that today government is the enemy. Viewed from this perspective, we can see that Clinton stood as a sign of everything they resented about the modern welfare state. As the enemy of the American people, the “Nanny State” speaks to the resentment that many Americans, especially whites, feel toward a federal government they view as playing favorites. Favoring anthropomorphic (and personalist) imagery, they insist that the federal government, like a doting mother, lacks the strength to say “No” to those seeking special favors both domestically and internationally. They contend that the United States needs a strong leader, a father-figure capable of restoring power to “the people,” the white majority. The personal force of this leader must be such that not even the bureaucracy and conventions of the federal government will be able to stop him.
Campaigning is not governing. It remains to be seen how Trump will govern. However, should the vision of the campaign that dominated the Trump Administration reach into governing, such a vision could threaten our democracy. As it is, the politics of the personal threatens to undermine government services of all kinds and make government even more dysfunctional, further undermining support for democratic institutions in favor of personal charisma.
For their part, most churches have also adopted a personal focus. In the past, many churches have taught that government, like the family, is an institution ordained by God for the preservation of order and the flourishing of human society. The relationship between God and government has been articulated in any number of ways–orders of creation, divine decree, vocation–but in recent years such a belief has fallen into disuse in many quarters.
This makes intuitive sense, given that there is much about our political system that is not optimal, even immoral. The real problem, however, is that we’ve forgotten how to think of God and institutions. God, for us, is simply personal.
And yet most of us, if pressed, might acknowledge that our lives depend on public institutions like schools and government and that God is bigger than “personal.” There’s a gap between our lives as they are and how they are apprehended in our social imaginations.
In this context, the church is called to take up the old question of how God’s governance relates to democratic governance—even in our flawed and fragile democracy. Because this is a question that is at once theological and political, the conversation itself may be more important than the outcome: in discussing the relationship between the theological and political, the church can discover that politics is not a taboo subject (as is so often assumed). In the process of articulating a theology of government, the church creates space to reconsider the importance of government. Such a space might enable us to close the gap between our existence and our visions and thereby help us to live more faithfully in this personal age, as citizens of both the church and our democracy.
Trump and the Irony of Postmodern History
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Central Methodist University
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught us to expect ironic reversals of history, wherein even the best intended developments in human society would give rise to forces that contradicted the progress of justice. We are humans and not God, Niebuhr reminded us. Our efforts are finite and laced with the traces of our own sinful pretension. We always imagine ourselves to be building the solution to all of humanity’s problems. But the solution to humanity’s problems is always found beyond anything that we can build. We are reminded of this when our expected order collapses around us.
It is a supreme irony in this political season that the upshot of postmodernity is the election of a man with a tyrannical personality favored primarily by the undereducated, white, male population in the United States. Postmodernity which arose in many ways as a rejection of imperialism, colonialism, and racism ends up being entirely compatible with new modes of imperialism, colonialism, and racism. We have just lived through the first truly postmodern election in American history, and it did not produce what most postmodern thinkers might have expected.
To understand this, it is helpful to step back and look at the history that has led us to this point. Modernity, according to its own narrative, was a solution to the sectarian strife that laid waste to Europe in the “wars of religion.” With the collapse of Christendom, appeals to divine guidance in morality and politics grounded irreconcilable visions of the good. Here the irony was that appeals to the transcendent God came to justify particular and divisive denominational standards for life and politics. The Reformation ultimately ended not in the rejuvenation of Christianity, but with conflict that set Christian against Christian.
The modernist solution was to strip religion of its public power, to privatize appeals to religious authority and practice. Appeals to authority in public were now to be directed toward “reason” or “common sense,” however we wished to name that human faculty that transcended the parochialism of tribe and religion. Of course, the moderns never actually agreed on exactly what reason or common sense required. Modernity left a promissory note to fill in the details of its key doctrine later. In the meantime, Europeans decided to spread the universal gospel of rational life across the globe. The spread of “universal culture” followed the concept of universal human reason. One Reason. One Truth. One form of Human Life. From the English Empire to the spread of the secular state to the globalization of capitalist free trade, modernity assured us that we were always one step away from realizing the end of history in the establishment of our final rational form of life for everyone.
Thus did appeals to universal reason come to justify distinctly European cultures lording over the rest of the globe and destroying competing cultures in the process. No human scheme escapes the taint of sin, and none proceeds without irony. Modernity was not so much an alternative to the cultural hegemony of Christendom as its replacement under a different name. The Church had been replaced by the State, revelation had been replaced by reason. The centers of power had moved from the ecclesial to the secular, but they had become no more universal, no more impartial, no less sectarian. Universal reason was not a solution to the problem of religious diversity, it was a bludgeon used to vanquish those who challenged the imperial colonizing power of the modern state.
Postmodernity not only offered a critique of modernity, but sought to solve the problems constituted by modernity. What was needed was a new relativism, a new humility, a new attention to local languages and reasons in which we could embody and respect difference.
The vision and the reality, again, inevitably clashed. Unveiling the bias in all claims to universal Truth, postmodernity endorsed a fundamental skepticism toward “hegemonic” modern sources of information. Especially untrustworthy were those which could be considered the mouthpieces of power brokers of society. Knowledge started at home, and whatever system of justification one accepted should be one that justified the claims that locals knew to be true.
American politics in 2016 offers the latest ironic turn, where, hoisted upon its own petard, postmodernity becomes the structure that justifies exactly the kind of evil that it was set up to oppose. President-elect Trump capitalized on appeals to the particularity of race, religion, class, etc. His was a white, rural identity politics. He also rode the wave of popular rejection of universal society in the form of globalization and free trade. The followers of Donald Trump embraced localized epistemology to oppose the “hegemony” of fact-checkers. They embraced supreme skepticism toward the “mainstream media,” which they saw as pushing the narrative of the political and economic elite. Trump’s campaign was thoroughly postmodern.
It will do no good to note that this was not what the postmodern elite wanted; that they intended to construct a bulwark against exactly the kind of racism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice that Donald Trump represents. That is the way irony works.
This is a dark time in American politics. And we should not understate the depth of the darkness. In voting for Donald Trump, the American people have voted against the deepest values embodied in a democracy. And there is no guarantee that things get better from here. There are certainly historical precedents for a deeper slide, and we cannot turn our faces away from this possibility. For the immediate future, we must (ironically) trust in the restraining power of bureaucracy and dysfunctional government.
But it is also true that history provides no final ground for cynicism either. God is never inactive, even in the ironic reversals of history. For every Christendom there is a Franciscan revolution. For every rise in denominationalism there is a new reformation. For every modern state there are new statements of ideals of freedom and equality. And postmodern humility will not be ultimately defeated by pride. In the light of sin we must expect ironic reversals of history. But in the light of grace this is no reason to abandon the struggle for the good. We do not provide our own salvation, but we testify that God takes up our imperfect efforts and perfects them in the fullness of time, so that even the deepest of darknesses in history does not eliminate the light.