Is President Trump Patriotic?

161109-donald-trump-flag-ohio-119a_ccf8db303e204907ab2dd7480fab14bb.focal-760x380

There is a bizarre assumption at work in our politics today. Many people have got the idea in their heads that the President of the United States is patriotic. Ordinarily, this is such a safe assumption that we don’t really have to think about it. Yes, Ronald Reagan was patriotic. So was Barack Obama. All but the most rabid partisans will acknowledge that.

But when we extend the same presumption to Donald Trump, we’re actually reading against the evidence. Of course we’d like to believe the president of the United States is patriotic. But in this case there isn’t really any reason to think so.

In an interesting item today, Jonathan Chait calls Trump the “most unpatriotic president ever.” This isn’t true. That honor belongs to Andrew Johnson, who believed that people who had lately been killing as many United States soldiers as possible deserved more sympathy than citizens who remained loyal to the United States. Trump does appear to clear the low bar that Johnson set, so you can at least say that for him.

As Chait notes, the case that Trump is unpatriotic does not rest on asserting that one brand of patriotism is the only “real” patriotism. You can have Obama’s “more perfect union” kind of patriotism, or the “my country right or wrong” sort, or even Johnson’s execrable brand of patriotism explicitly premised on white supremacy. All of these sorts of patriotism, even if loathsome, can coherently reflect a genuine pride in one’s idea of a national community.

But profiteering at the public’s expense seems hard to square with any brand of patriotism we know of. It would be really odd for a patriotic person to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself at the risk of damaging the country. But of course, this is exactly what Trump does. Maybe the simple answer is the right one: he just doesn’t care about the country because he only cares about himself.

As Chait mentions, Trump also regularly insults the United States in terms that would make conservatives apoplectic if uttered by a Democratic President. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—he insults the country because that’s how he really feels about it. And maybe, just maybe, his lack of patriotism is part of the reason he hates Americans who demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their country.

No One Criticizes White Evangelicals Harder than White Evangelicals

metaxas-1

Some people might think losing your soul and everything that matters and getting a pen in return is a bad deal, but some people just don’t appreciate a good pen. H/T John Fea

After posting a couple examples of 1960s-era white evangelical debate yesterday, today I present a master class in criticism for the crisis of our era. David French has impeccable conservative credentials, is a devout Christian, and will frequently write things that infuriate you if you’re a liberal. Precisely because of all that, his takedowns of white evangelical Trump supporters are rather extraordinary:

Taken together, [the words of Scripture] indicate that our life on this Earth should glorify God, demonstrate profound virtue, and count even our lives forfeit in the pursuit of eternal truth. We are told — promised, even — that in living this life we should expect the world’s scorn. We are told — promised, even — that we will suffer trials of many kinds, and those trials can include brutal persecution.

We are not told, however, to compromise our moral convictions for the sake of earthly relief, no matter how dire the crisis. We are not told to rationalize and justify sinful actions to preserve political influence or a popular audience. We are not told that the ends of good policies justify silence in the face of sin. Indeed — and this message goes out specifically to the politicians and pundits who go on television and say things they do not believe (you know who you are) to protect this administration and to preserve their presence in the halls of the power — there is specific scripture that applies to you:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”

The president of the United States has paid hush money to a porn star — apparently to cover up a tryst that occurred shortly after the birth of his son. And that’s hardly his only affair. More than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault or some form of sexual harassment. He has been caught lying, repeatedly and regularly. Yet there are numerous Christians of real influence and prominence who not only won’t dare utter a negative word about the president, they’ll vigorously turn the tables on his critics, noting the specks in his critics’ eyes while ignoring the sequoia-sized beam in their own.

I’m sorry, but you cannot compartmentalize this behavior, declare that it’s “just politics,” and take solace that you’re a good spouse or parent, that you serve in your church and volunteer for mission trips, or that you’re relatively charitable and kind in other contexts. It’s sin, and it’s sin that is collapsing the Evangelical moral witness.

Read it all. I’m reminded of my own little contribution to this genre, “Things Trump Supporters Can’t Teach Their Children.” Somehow Trump’s evangelical defenders don’t realize they’ve forfeited their ability to make any moral claims. The oddest thing about it is that they seem genuinely unaware that they have thrown away their Christian witness.

A New Study Suggests the Christian Right Is Souring Americans On Religion

NOM_rally_insert_1_c_Washington_Blade_by_Michael_Key

One of the most important changes in the American religious landscape in recent decades is the dramatic rise in the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation (now around a quarter of the population). Everyone agrees that this is happening, but why is it happening? A new article in Political Research Quarterly says the Christian Right has a lot to do with it. The authors argue that the rise of the “nones” is not consistent across the country, but is instead correlated with the clout and visibility of Christian Right politics in various places:

We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

If they’re correct, we may see this trend intensify in the Trump era. Whatever you think of the Christian Right, in decades past there was at least a case to be made that the movement had some sincerely held convictions. Now, it is impossible for anyone not in that bubble to take their claims about anything seriously.

We’ll have to wait and see the data that emerges on religious affiliation in the coming years. The authors note that this wouldn’t be the first time political engagement appeared to reduce religious affiliation:

American religion has faced similar trade-offs before. The turbulent 1960s witnessed a new breed of religious leaders from more liberal, mainline Protestant denominations taking positions on the pressing issues of the day, often (from the perspective of organizational maintenance, at least) to disastrous effect. Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members (Quinley 1974). Another study found that Protestant ministers who were involved in efforts at desegregation faced increasingly empty pews as their flocks bolted in favor of other congregations whose leaders espoused more pro-segregationist views or stayed out of the matter altogether (Campbell and Pettigrew 1959). These “storms in the churches” (Hadden 1969) are often credited with leading to membership declines among more liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Wuthnow 1999).

In light of this history, there is a certain irony to the present situation in which elements of the Christian Right find themselves, as the early movement modeled many of its tactics after those employed by mainline churches during the civil rights movement (Findlay 1990). And just as involvement in the controversies of the day ushered in a period of organizational decline in which parishioners deserted mainline Protestantism in droves, it appears as though the Christian Right is following a strikingly similar path.

It may be that large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to believe that there are somehow discrete domains separate from one another—one that we call “religion” and another that we call “politics”—and that these Americans are inclined to withdraw from affiliation with those who dare to transgress those imagined borders.

As we imagine religion as something private and symbolic and of the mind, we look askance at those who take their religion as the basis of their public and political acts. I think that’s a mistake. We need the public activism that comes from the wellsprings of faith. You can’t applaud the civil rights movement and then lament the influence of religion in public life.

The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s political religion but that it’s political religion based in fear and hatred. In response to this destructive movement, there is an understandable desire to cut religion out of politics, or vice versa, but these are pipe dreams. You can choose the politics of your religion, but apolitical religion is not one of your choices. A so-called apolitical religion is merely one whose politics its adherents have made to seem natural or sacred.

Hopefully evangelicals beyond the Christian Right can see the rise of the “nones” as a good thing. Insofar as people are discarding religion in response to the Christian Right, they are demonstrating more openness to the claims of Jesus, not less. The challenge for Christians moving forward is to practice politics rooted in love for the other and the good of the community. Whether we like it or not, that’s not Christian common sense; it’s a political agenda.

History Matters: Remember Well

merlin_136057044_b9a28bdb-b38f-4c26-833e-ebdf7f12c572-blog427

A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

White Evangelicals Respond To Gerson’s Article

Michael-Gerson-800x430

Michael Gerson reacting, I imagine, to white evangelical criticism.

In the wake of his Atlantic cover story, Michael Gerson has been on the interview circuit, appearing on NPR and Face the Nation and lots of other places. You might think that white evangelicals would be happy about this. Look, here’s a white evangelical who has attained elite status and is able to speak to the most pressing issues of the day from his prestigious position as a Washington Post columnist, and now he has a big cover story in one of the nation’s most storied magazines.

The problem, of course, is that Gerson is using his position not only to explain evangelicalism to the wider culture, but to critique it. Most white evangelical media seems to be doing its best to ignore Gerson’s article, but I did manage to find a few responses. It goes without saying that I disagree with these, but I present them here in the interests of understanding where they’re coming from.

Tony Perkins says Gerson gets a platform because the mainstream media is eager to “shame” evangelicals:

“You are going to hear this repeatedly … for the rest of his term [and] you are certainly going to hear it going into this midterm election,” Perkins said. “This is designed to shame evangelicals. Of course, ‘Face the Nation’ is giving a platform to Gerson and any other Republican who will … bash an element of the voting population that has been very instrumental in the president being successful in getting into office and maintaining and continuing his policy, his agenda.”

Perkins said media outlets like CBS are giving these platforms because they want to “shame these evangelicals into the corners of society where they will be quiet and they won’t be involved.”

Michael Brown sees the hypocrisy charge and lobs it back at Gerson:

Haven’t black evangelicals consistently voted for pro-abortion, pro-LGBT candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Haven’t some African-American mega-churches even prayed by name for the election of candidates like Obama and Al Gore? Why then weren’t they called on the carpet for hypocrisy? Why aren’t they guilty of tarnishing the evangelical tradition?

Personally, I believe we all have blind spots and there’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. And I think leaders like Van Moody and Franklin Graham would profit greatly by spending time with each other, if they haven’t already. Let us hear one another out, let us share our respective perspectives, and let us commit to being holistic in our ethics and concerns, with the help of God.

But I’m a little suspicious whenever left-leaning Christians (and/or the leftist secular media) raise charges against white evangelicals, people who just happen to be strong social conservatives.

Perhaps the bigger issue is not our alleged hypocrisy but rather our counter-cultural convictions? Could this be where the conflict really lies?

Perkins and Brown both seem to unwittingly offer more evidence for Gerson’s claims. But, in a considerably more thoughtful piece, David French says Gerson has underestimated the real changes in recent years that caused reasonable concerns for social conservatives:

While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions…

This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture…

Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.

French has some credibility as a “never Trump” white evangelical who has paid genuine personal costs for his opposition to Trump. (He and his family have been brutally attacked by the white supremacist right). I hope that French and Gerson will talk to each other, because they may find themselves in more substantial agreement than it first appears. If I read Gerson right, he is not concerned with relitigating the political calculation of the 2016 election as much as exploring the dynamic French himself deplores: evangelicals who submit abjectly to Trumpism. Gerson thinks the decay is further advanced than French believes, but they’re not terribly far apart.

And if you meditate on French’s last line, you can quickly arrive at Gerson’s gloom. Because another way of saying that white evangelicals are “not exceptional at all” is to say that they make it appear as though the gospel isn’t true.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

pic_nrd_20180305_brookhiser

William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?


My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.


The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern. 

The Collapse of White Evangelicalism: Was It Poisoned at the Root?

Picture1

The King’s Business lampoons Bolsheviks and Darwinists, 1925.

If you haven’t yet read Michael Gerson’s cover story on the decline and fall of evangelicalism in the latest edition of the Atlantic you should go read it. It is historically and theologically informed, and Gerson’s own evangelical background gives it a useful personal weight.

Gerson tells an evangelical declension story that is in broad strokes like the one I told my Temple students last year. Understanding the contemporary moral collapse of white evangelicalism, Gerson tells us, “requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.” This is exactly right. I told my class that American evangelicalism is a movement haunted by the lost glories of its past. It is driven by the fears, resentments, and nostalgia that this extraordinary sense of loss creates.

Gerson describes a nineteenth century evangelicalism that is confident, post-millennial (we’re going to usher in the Kingdom and then Jesus will come back), pulsing with abolitionist fervor and dreams of social renewal. I described this for my class as well, but I paired it with the realities of a white supremacist and pro-slavery evangelicalism that Gerson conveniently ignores. His declension story is real, but it looks more simple and obvious if you exclude the South.

Most white evangelicals couldn’t tell you the history of their loss with any accuracy. But the story is in their theological and cultural bones. It’s in the memory of their community. They know the country was theirs, and it’s not anymore. In Gerson’s words:

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

And so here we are. Today’s white evangelical mainstream has inherited the reactionary spirit of fundamentalism, while little of the earlier positive evangelical social ethic has survived.

Gerson is  insightful in his discussion of the battle lines fundamentalists chose to draw. He asks, what if fundamentalists had opposed social Darwinism instead of Darwinism? Another way of putting this is to ask, what if fundamentalists had actually held to the orthodoxy they claimed? What if they had opposed hatred and dehumanization? It’s a great thought experiment but it’s also a little bit like asking what would have happened if fundamentalists had been completely different sort of people from who they actually were. We quickly find ourselves moving back into the tangled maze of decades and centuries of causation and contingency.

But Gerson is surely right to see the battle over evolution as one of enduring importance. In generation after generation, it has contributed to an evangelical epistemology that is based not on expertise or evidence as much as identity. When people are taught that science cannot be trusted, it contributes to a broader disposition in which the key question to ask when you want to evaluate a claim is not what the claimant knows but what she believes. “Are you a Christian?” becomes at least as important as “What is your evidence?” However you feel about identity politics, an identity epistemology is considerably more radical and all-encompassing.

A question that has been lingering in my mind is whether the poisoned root of all this can be discerned in the 19th century moment of evangelical triumph. Gerson alludes to this briefly, but doesn’t draw out the implication I’m getting at. He writes,

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes.

Fundamentalists may have cut themselves off from much of their 19th century inheritance, but they kept a version of this conflation of the United States and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the seed of the decline was present at the height of evangelical dominance. A movement that had not bound its identity to the nation’s would have nothing to fear when it lost the nation.

Without that basic error, it’s hard to believe Gerson would have an article to write. For one thing, Trump wouldn’t be president.

In the coming months I want to explore the deeper tensions American evangelicals have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. I’m almost entirely ignorant about this, but one of the core questions coming out of the reformation was whether the ideal society was coextensive with the church, or whether the church was a separate organism called to be apart from society. I want to know more about how 18th century struggles over religious disestablishment relate to popular 19th century conflations of kingdom and country. Though legal religious establishment had been abolished, was not evangelicalism a kind of establishment in practice?

Losing that authority was a trauma whose aftershocks we are feeling today. And yet, I wonder if this story is too simple and present-minded. A few years ago, Gerson would not have written this article. A few years ago, we might have looked to different parts of the evangelical past as the key to understanding its present. What stories will we be telling ourselves a few years from now?

A Window into What Many White Evangelicals Really Believe

ha

I had an instructive conversation today. I’m sharing it now with people’s identities removed because I believe it is revealing of the state of some aspects of popular white evangelicalism, but I have no desire to publicly call out the people involved in the conversation.

The conversation below might seem extremely bizarre to you. You’ll notice that I’m writing in a more evangelical bent than I often do here, as I was trying to communicate to people who might possibly resonate with such language. You’ll also note that my interlocutors were not always as coherent as you would wish. But this is part of the point. I believe exchanges like this are representative of larger numbers of ordinary white evangelical people than we would like to believe.

We often hear from evangelical leaders who might sound reasonable and express cautious disagreement with parts of Trump’s agenda, but their constituencies often aren’t very large. For most ordinary white evangelicals, President Trump is a great leader who has rescued the country from the evil rule of President Obama and the nightmare possibility of a President Clinton.

The exchange began when a friend posted this:

I offer no apology for what I am posting, for this is truly how I feel. Please know that this is my opinion and not open for debate.

If you don’t agree with me, that is your perogative, and I respect that. So, I ask that you afford me the same courtesy in return. I will not be responding to any and/or all comments.

I have lived through many United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, demeaned by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, threatened with death, threatened by some to rape our First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country. I am ashamed of the ruthless, insufferable, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the irresponsibility of the reporters who feel they have the right to deliver personal opinions just to sway their audiences in a negative direction even if there is no truth in their message.

After every other President was elected and took the oath of office they were allowed to try to serve this country without constant negative scrutiny from our news sources. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED while news sources search only for negative results from our President will not serve the people of our country. Nor will it create informed Americans. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH.

If only one of my FB friends would repost this, maybe everyone across the globe will understand that there are some of us who feel that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH of this disgrace to Our President and to our United States of America. Shame on the news media for allowing this ongoing hatred and constant state of turmoil to

I assume this is a viral post; it has that feel, right down to an unfinished final sentence indicating an incomplete copy/paste job. Lots of friends chimed in with supportive comments about Trump’s greatness, a few offered criticism, and the original poster quickly decided to engage with commenters after all. So I jumped in:

I think we should pray for our President, definitely. I think those prayers should focus on him coming to repentance and making restitution for his actions. There are several things that are unusual about President Trump compared to past Presidents, but I think what has made many people react so strongly against him is the way he has dehumanized groups of people with his words. As Christians, we know that every life is infinitely valuable and created by God. So it is particularly evil to speak of others in ways that demean, dehumanize, or incite animosity against groups of people. President Trump has expressed hatred for women; he has equivocated about the evils of white supremacy; he has spoken with extraordinary harshness toward whole nations. When coming from the President of the United States, these words have power. These words are action. If we as Christians do not stand against such evil acts, we are not aligning ourselves with the Gospel.

At that point a particularly effusive commenter engaged with me:

He has not Had spoken WORDS of Hate against Women ??
You must watch CNN ,or the other Lying Media ,,paid off by The Clintons an As Far as Praying For Him Im sure All True Christians Do ,,
How Do you know hes Not ,,a True Christian ,,,,You know Not his HEART,,!!
One thing about God says If their NOT Against us ,their With us !!
Trump is Sure Not against The Lord Nor Our Nation!!,,
PS An I guess you have Never said a Vile Word against Any one ,,Give Us a Break ,,
Repent your self!!!
STOP your Trying to Judge a Man God Put in Our Office Of this Nation !!
This is a Fact ,,

To which I replied:

Let’s roll the tape. Imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on. In fact, Trump did say all these things about other groups. Would you support his words if they were directed at your community rather than other communities? And in fact, he has expressed dehumanizing attitudes toward people like you. He boasted that he likes to commit sexual assault.

She replied:

Hes right ,,every illegal should be stopped as every ,,Muslim,,,they are the Antichrist,,,
Ready when they Know its time to Rise up an kill all they can ,,
Its already happen in Our Nation Beheading a women at her work place ,,
Even God says to take care Of your Own first ,,
Obama as Hillary help try an Devide The People ,,!
Its a Fact ,,Hillary ,,Has had People Murdered ,,shes for Murdering our Inncent babies ,,
Shes a traitor as a Lier ,,
She endangered US as Nation!!
Keep Thousands From Hatti,,,Dirty Enemie Filthy ,,Moneyv,,she recieved from our Enemies that Chant Death to us ,,
Gave as Recieved Millions from ,,the Enemies ,,
If shes Fine With The Slaughtering of Our Inncent babies ,,That alone Is Enough For ,,True People Of God tovNot Vote for her ,,
She Left A church because They Did not BELIEVE in ,,so called Aboration !!Thank God shes NOT in leadership .,God put TRUMP in ,,This is A Fact !!
Stop Throwing !! YOUR Stone ,,,Several ,,May Belong Toward you !!
You just havient felt the Impact Yet ,,

I responded:

Because Trump is President, I am focused on holding him accountable. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen with no public office at this time. I have my differences with her. In contrast to your views, the scriptures speak of welcoming the immigrant and being kind toward strangers. They speak of putting the interests of others ahead of our own. As Jesus taught so clearly, every human being is our neighbor. No one, no matter their religion or anything else, should be labeled the enemy or treated with indifference. Your own words– “dirty” “enemy” “filthy”–testify against you. This is not how Christians think about precious people for whom Christ died.

She replied:

This Black an white craps ,,from the pits of hell ,,,
The Demacrate s cound care less about the whites blacks ect ,,they are just out For ,them selves ,,
They were who ,,are full of the KKK ,,Factv,,had my daddy jumped on years ago because he would NOT join ,,them
I was a little girl an had to See this ,,He pulled his gun on them ,,
This white an black ,,issuecis from hell not from God ,,
satans Come down with great wrath ,,because He Knows his Times Short,,
Trumps In Office an ,,no one acted like Idiots when Obama was in ,,as He Litterly ,,tryed to ,,Distroy our Nation ,hes a Muslim traitor ,,,
Hes Not American ,hes A Unbeliever in Christ ,,Hes A True Infidel ,,
I for one Thamk God its out Of Our Office ,,He didnt care who come here ,,because he wanted America Weakened ,,
Hes for the Muslim ,,Enemie ,,Not us ,,
Gave even millions to thoses that chant death to us ,,as He sent weapins to them ,,
Made Great Mockery Of Jesus Spoken Words ,,
And Jesus said if their Not For. US THEY are Against Us!!
And Obama Was an Is NOT For Us !!
Trumps ,,A Strong ,,Bold ,,Smart ,,Man Like Reagon ,
Hes for helping any one ,,
But putting Americans First ,,
And its about Time ,,Jesus said take care of your own ,first or you Worse Then an Infidel ,,
We have Many in our Own Nation Who need help
We can not takecon a thousand a day that pour in here ,,A Thousandc,,smh ,
While we true Americans ,,many hungry ,an homeless as ,,sick ,and Putting them ,First Wrong ,,,
We Need To Take Care Of Our Own ,,,,Time For America ,,To het back On her Feet ,,stand Firm,,strong ,,an Be the Light on That Hill !!
Im Done With Hearing ,,such ,Foolisness!!!

I assume she began talking about “black” and “white” because of my “black lives matter” facebook profile image. Then she kept commenting:

Just ,,admit it ,,your just against him cause his a better ,,,man ,,,an yes Hes White ,,rich ,,bold ,,strong,,
And For God,as As Our Nation an her people,,
Give it a rest ,,Its unreal How some act foolish ,,just because their mad cause Hillary the lier lost ,,
They want the blacks as whites ect ,,at their beaken call ,,free this an free that ,,so they can rule all ,,,
Black or white ,,
They care not for blacks nor the Foreigners nor Illegals Dem just want their votes to keep em in office ,,Continuing their Corruption!!
Playing like they care about ya ,,smh ,,NO they Dont ,,

And again:

Lolololo,,hold Trump accountable ????
,Hillary Should Be in Prison as Obama ,,Soro ,,several others Bill Clinton ,,used sex slaves he as Hillary ,,
Ask Cathy Obrian , Basterds they are ,,Evil True Basterds!!

And finally:

Hebrews 12:8
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, THEN are ye bastards, and NOT sons!!!!!!!.”

Go to her profile page and prominently displayed at the top is this message: “LIVE For JESUS!!”

Now, I wasn’t in this to change her mind and I didn’t get angry about this exchange. That would be a waste of time. Frankly, I was just curious. And I wouldn’t think much of it if this conversation didn’t echo—even if in a more inchoate and unvarnished form—arguments and attitudes I’ve heard from other white evangelicals.

Thinking of these white evangelicals as unreasoning fools is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Notice how this commenter did in fact deploy theological argument to try to bolster her case. She invoked the sovereignty of God to try to foreclose any criticism of the President. In pointing out that I do not know Trump’s heart, her language recalled 1 Samuel 16:7. She referenced 1 Timothy 5:8 to make an argument for Christian nationalism.

She paraphrased Jesus’ cryptic words in Luke 9:50 to try to position Trump as a supporter of Christians even if he himself isn’t a very good one. She alluded to the story of Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery to argue that I should not judge Trump. She attributed division between black and white Americans (or perhaps even racial consciousness itself?) to the spiritual power of Satan. Finally, she directly quoted Hebrews 12:8, to what purpose I still can’t figure out.

The point is that her comments are overflowing with biblical allusion and theological argument. This is not merely a question of ignorance. It’s a question of what has been formed in her, and who has done the forming. Does she attend church? What is taught there? Is “love thy neighbor” so spiritualized that in practice you’re allowed to think and do whatever you want?

Notice how she positions her hatred not just as defensible, but as the proactively Christian attitude! She uses scripture to try to make a virtue of selfishness. So it’s a little hard to credit her professed concern for “innocent little babies.” It is characteristically human to love some people while hating others, but it’s a posture unlikely to win converts to your cause. This is especially so when the cause is invested in a vision of human dignity that you cheerfully deny to others.

It’s too easy to react to the views seen in this conversation with condescension. “Oh, she doesn’t know any better. Oh, she’s sincere. Oh, it’s a matter of ignorance.” As much as these factors may play a role, they don’t excuse the active theological reasoning taking place here. This is Christianity weaponized to oppress; it is salvation for me and hell for thee; it is “Jesus Saves!” as a gleeful taunt rather than a humble cry for help. This is what we’re up against in many white evangelical churches.

Trump’s Spiritual Biography

y648

I admit I want to read this.

Two leading mouthpieces of the Christian Right are out with a new book next week, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual biography. One of the authors, Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent David Brody, has been conducting groveling interviews with Trump for a long time. The insights gathered from those discussions no doubt inform the book.

Presumably Brody is working with great material like this:

God is the ultimate. I mean, look at my golf course. The funniest thing about Brody’s interview style is the way he asks leading questions and then desperately wills Trump toward the right answer, but Trump can’t help but talk about himself or go off on irrelevant tangents.

With all these spiritual depths to explore, I’m sure the authors have had difficulty fitting everything into 300 or 400 pages. You can browse a sample of the upcoming book, courtesy of the publisher.

Popular evangelical mythmaker Eric Metaxas has written the foreward to the book, and he begins this way:

When my friend David Brody told me he was writing a book titled The Faith of Donald J. Trump, I was tempted to laugh.

My dear evangelical friend, this is one temptation to which you can safely yield. It is important to Metaxas that you know precisely how close he came to yielding. So, a page later:

But I must say it once more, that at first, I really was tempted to giggle.

Oh, my friend. Live a little. Let that giggle out.

Somewhere in Metaxas’ subconscious is the knowledge that he has become absurd. That knowledge is leaking out onto the page. He really wants you to know that his instinct, like that of any conscious person, was to laugh at Brody’s project.

Alas, Metaxas suppressed that instinct and came around to a more considered opinion:

But the terrifically stubborn fact is that Donald Trump has been embraced by many serious Christians, and this has caused many Christians and non-Christians alike to seethe with fury at the seeming hypocrisy of the whole arrangement. One vital clue to solving this thorny riddle has to do with what may well be the most fundamental dissonance and misunderstanding in the history of the world. I’m talking about the difference between moral behavior on the one hand and grace and faith in the God of the Bible on the other.

….the God of the Bible does not ask us to be morally perfect so that He will accept us. He asks us to admit that we cannot be morally perfect, to see that only He can be morally perfect…

People who understand this therefore understand the concept of grace to those who—as they are—are morally imperfect…

My first instinct was to laugh at the idea of taking Trump’s spirituality seriously, Metaxas says, but then I realized that the Christian concept of grace could be used to excuse and justify any kind of behavior. When you apply the concept of grace to unrepentant people who are really powerful, it shows you how big grace really is! Brilliant!

In the introduction, the authors get right to the point many evangelicals want to know: is Donald Trump really a Christian? We’re not going to tell you, they say. But they do have a quote from Mike Pence:

President Donald Trump is a believer. I say that with great conviction.

Pence always lies with great conviction. When the authors went looking for a quote from Trump himself testifying of his faith, the results were a bit underwhelming:

I would say that the faith is that I am a believer. I believe. And when you believe, many good things can happen. And hopefully, those good things will happen for the nation.

Ok, so the power of positive thinking. But many evangelical readers will find this highly significant:

One major theme of Part II of this book will be that Donald Trump seems to be on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated greatly in the past few years as he has regularly interacted with evangelicals.

As a baby Christian, Trump is still learning who to hate, and how best to hate them. Don’t worry, he will get better at it.

Boycott the GOP?

lol gop

“Ha Ha, party before country, amiright?”

I’ve often said that the normal rules for how we should approach politics don’t apply to this moment. That’s why, even though I’m much less partisan in my outlook than I was five years ago, I am more insistently opposed to the Republican Party in its current form. If you’re conservative in ideology, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party. If having a republican form of government is important to you, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party.

For a whole lot of reasons—partisan habit, lack of historical perspective, media echo chambers, policy concerns—a lot of people don’t realize that the rules have changed. They go on voting for the party of radicalism even though they think of themselves as conservatives. They go on supporting attacks on the bill of rights even though they think of themselves as lovers of the Constitution.

In short, this is a moment when normal partisan behavior crosses over into actively undermining what is best in the American tradition. Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes get it. They’re two independent-minded observers who have little love for the Democratic Party. But the normal political calculations no longer hold, as they write in the latest issue of the Atlantic. Trump has remade the GOP in his image, and his instincts are fundamentally anti-democratic and lawless. In this context, our normal policy debates are like arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rauch and Wittes write:

So we arrive at a syllogism:

(1) The GOP has become the party of Trumpism.
(2) Trumpism is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.
(3) The Republican Party is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.

If the syllogism holds, then the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.

The off-year elections in November showed that this is possible. Democrats flooded polling places, desperate to “resist.” Independents added their voice. Even some Republicans abandoned their party. One Virginia Republican, explaining why he had just voted for Democrats in every race, told The Washington Post, “I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling.” Trump’s base stayed loyal but was overwhelmed by other voters. A few more spankings like that will give anti-Trump Republicans a fighting chance to regain influence within their party.

We understand why Republicans, even moderate ones, are reluctant to cross party lines. Party, today, is identity. But in the through-the-looking-glass era of Donald Trump, the best thing Republicans can do for their party is vote against it.

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.

Read the whole thing. May their ranks increase.