How might we read the theological significance of the political 2016 events?
“The 2016 presidential exit polling reveals little change in the political alignments of U.S. religious groups.” Such was the initial conclusion offered by the Pew Research Center after the election of Donald Trump to the office of President. The Pew Research Center recorded that an overwhelming 81% of white Evangelicals supported the Republican candidate, but so did 60% of white Catholics and 58% of white Protestants. From a political perspective, these are all significant majorities. By contrast, those of Jewish, ‘other faith’ and ‘religiously unaffiliated’ polled at 24%, 29% and 26% respectively.
Thus far the numbers might be interpreted as a story of continuity and support for a unremarkable conservative Republican agenda: including control of the Supreme Court, fear concerning Second Amendment rights, the rejection of abortion and especially Hillary Clinton’s defence of late term abortions. A further measure of continuity might lie in “the economy, stupid,” in, to quote Cornel West, “the economic neglect of neoliberal policies and the self-righteous arrogance of elites” (see also Emmett Rensin on “The Smug Style in American Liberalism“). This can be understood as the electorate rejecting the Democrats’ and liberalism’s forgetting of the poor and a type of elitism in which an establishment promoted its own internal candidate.
But there were also new things: the lack of support from newspapers, intellectuals, and even the intelligence community, the quite astounding interference by the Director of the FBI, the continued reference to repugnant sexual behaviours, and potential interference in the US election by a foreign government. While Obama was touted as using the internet, this election cycle included Trump’s notorious Twitter commentary, Wikileaks, social media and the phenomenon of fake news (with an interesting link to the global economy).
This ‘newness’ applies to Trump himself. Whereas in 2004 an impassioned yell from Howard Dean provided sufficient to end his primary challenge, Trump’s affirmation of his own sexual violence, and his lewd comments regarding his own daughter proved to be only a slight bump in the road. His campaign was marked by in-fighting, unconventional with regards to funding and “ground game,” silent on such things as his own tax payment, and hostile to the press. Whether it be evidenced by his attitude toward women, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his riding the momentum of a “whitelash” and the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” his egocentric authoritarianism, his “build the wall” attitude to immigration, his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the accompanying social fall-out from this rhetoric, the single consistent narrative of Trump’s campaign concentrated on hate, fear, and control.
One line of interpretation views the rise of Trump as a further example of the “populism” behind the Brexit campaign in the UK. Insofar as this is potentially the case, it reflects wider set of geo-political questions.
However, the US election differed in the role played by religion. While, in typically English fashion, the official Brexit religious voice had all the flavour of a day-old boiled potato, Evangelical leaders (though not all), found in Trump someone to advance cherished policy positions (Wayne Grudem) and this against the threat of “Hitlerly” (Eric Metaxas). Trump might also be supported at a personal level as one sinner to another (Jerry Falwell Jr), or as embodying key theological values, such as, in the estimation of Bill Johnson, the relationship between “compassion” and taxation.
It also appears the case that Clinton failed to engage evangelical Christians and to address questions of religious freedom and abortion.
Yet, insofar as support for Trump reflected the white evangelical voice, his election success stimulated an immediate backlash against evangelicalism and a coordinated defence of the “brand,” including the remarkable statement by the immediate past and current Presidents of Fuller Theological Seminary. Whether this is only a reflexive shift or one of long-term significance, for both the religious and political landscape of the US, only time will tell.
Christianity is no monolithic body, and the evidence remains anecdotal, but the reaction of the world church to Trump differs in significant vein to the US evangelical voice. Distress and outrage better capture the sentiment–and it is non-partisan, finding expression in both liberal and conservative directions.
Trump, as the figurehead of a confluence of forces, demands a theological response, one that grapples with the real causes and offers constructive positions. Such is the purpose of this course.
As to the identification of theological resources, all the above factors taken together, this election suggests troubling parallels with history, most notably the NAZI era. As the above Metaxas quote illustrates, this is a warn parallel easily overused, and some degree of perspective is no doubt needed. Yet, with the populism and disaffection with the political establishment, the economic pressures, the cultural accomodationism evident in the evangelical religious voice, the fascism of the “alt-right,” the notion of America purity which mirrors the anti-immigration and anti-muslim rhetoric, reference to this historical period does provide an important theological lens.
This historical reference alone, however, is not fully true. One needs to recognise the underlying measure of dissatisfaction both with prevailing political ideologies and theologies which have not adequately addressed the remarkable social changes of the past two decades. The above factors, which might be more commonly true in different cultures and historical periods, have access to technologies that make the effect more immediate, more widespread and less controllable. Remember that the iPhone only appeared in 2008! The context is also one post-911 environment with terrorism framing many of the basic issues from security, to identity, to migration, to inter-religious relationships. There is need for constructive theological work.
The first reading (apart from the items in the links above) comes from Linda Kintz. Without doubt, it is firmly on the left side of the discourse and engages in an energetic overgeneralising, but offers an interesting commentary on some of the key issues to have arisen from the 2016 election and the religious framing of these: the divinising of the economy (including suggesting a similar contest of the bible and taxation as proposed by Bill Johnson), masculinity and Christ as warrior, the fragility of “whiteness,” and the “spiritualising of the market economy.”
- Kintz, Linda. “God Goes Corporate.” New Labor Forum 14, no. 1 (2005): 48–57.
The second reading from Michelle Gonzalez considers the relationship of politics, the media and religious identity in presidential elections.
- Gonzalez, Michelle A. “Religion and the US Presidency: Politics, the Media, and Religious Identity.” Political Theology 13, no. 5 (2012): 568–85.
- Brown, Wendy. “American Nightmare Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization.” Political Theory 34, no. 6 (2006): 690–714.
- Connolly, William E. Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. Duke University Press Books, 2008.
- Sharlet, Jeff. “Donald Trump, American Preacher.” New York Times, April 12, 2016.