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More on the Antecedents to Trumpism

My last musings on the background and significance of how we have arrived at a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump ended with the arrival of evangelical Christians in the public square. I was remiss in not emphasizing that I am restricting my concern with evangelical Christians to white evangelical Christians. That said, this phenomenon, colloquially recognizable as the advent of the Moral Majority, is worth spending some time on because it will tell us a great deal about the situation we are in. To make sense of the entanglement of this strain of Christian belief with the politics of the far right, we must imagine how our shared social world might appear to an evangelical Christian.

But first I want to make sure that my basic point is clear about the pernicious character of the alliance among conservative insurgents, (white) evangelical Christians and white nationalists. There are close ties in many countries, including the United States, among the business class, social traditionalists and nationalists. This affinity of interests is generally somewhere between benign and baleful. But the alliance I am concerned about represents a radicalization of each of its constituent elements. The Freedom Caucus of the Republican Party is to Rockefeller Republicans as evangelical Christians are to mainline Protestants and as white nationalists are to American exceptionalists. The union of these extremists under Ronald Reagan set our country on a course that would strand the working class, distract the middle class and enrich the upper class before culminating in the Iraq War, the collapse of financial markets and an open resurgence of racism.

A Cautionary Word about Religion in a Secular Age

There is a lovely bit of mythology pervasive within secular society that relegates religious belief to the prescientific age. In this view, animism and polytheism are humanity’s first attempts at making sense of the world and our place in it. This phase was succeeded by the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths, which was then superseded by the rise of scientific understanding and secularism. Setting aside the ethnocentrism of this perspective, I find John Gray’s admonition remains pertinent – (paraphrasing) human beings will no more give up on religion than they will give up on play or sex.

The somewhat fractious coexistence of religiosity and secularism is part of the “furniture” of our social world, but evangelical beliefs that embrace the inerrancy of the bible, deny evolution and bolster patriarchy are a hindrance to the collective project of figuring out how we can all make the best of our lot in the here and now. At another time I may address the slow-moving, centuries-long shift in Western culture wherein Christianity as a reigning belief system is sliding beneath the ascending tectonic plate of a wobbly secularism. But my concern here is to understand the role of evangelical Christians in furthering the rightwing political project of undermining effective political governance.

Assessing the Ethos of Evangelical Christianity in a Political Context

If the National Association of Evangelicals is sufficient authority, historian David Bebbington’s characterization of evangelical Christian beliefs is a useful summary. From the website, these beliefs are:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

Beyond these bedrock tenets, there is evidently a range of disagreement within the evangelical community among new evangelicals, conservative evangelicals and even post evangelicals. (For an interesting discussion that addresses some of these differences, see Olson). But for my purposes, the theological distinctions are less important than the usefulness of the evangelical mindset to the far-right insurgency in its successful struggle to reorder the political landscape. Some evangelicals might object to how I am using the term evangelical Christian and instead suggest that either Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical is more appropriate. Following Olson above, there is merit to this objection. But the term fundamentalist has gone out of favor because of its negative connotations, and I am more concerned with the political ramifications of a generalized ethos of evangelical Christianity than in sorting out how different evangelical groups differ from one another in different ways.

In the Beginning Was Racial Animus

Not untouched by the country’s original sin of racism, the first foray into politics of what would become the Christian right was in response to the IRS moving to revoke the tax-exempt status of Christian schools that discriminated against the admission of African Americans (Ballmer). Concern with the personhood of fetuses would eventually become the rallying point that would cross the denominational divide between evangelicals and Catholics, but the initial grievance with secular society was racist in origin.

This incipient orientation gives us a starting point for a conjectural assessment of what evangelical Christians brought to the alliance with radical conservative insurgents and white nationalists. I believe that the evangelical Christian worldview and theological commitments incline the faithful to be opposed to secularism, skeptical of science, against government activism and intolerant of sexual liberty. These positions would prove to be exceptionally helpful in normalizing the antisocietal and racist predilections of their partners in an unholy triune alliance.

Take Beliefs Seriously Even if You Don’t Believe Them

It is very easy for secular nonbelievers to look at the miracle cures in megachurches and the money amassed by preachers and conclude that what they are seeing is a racket and not a religion. Similarly, faith-based denials of evolution or biblical claims about the age of the earth are easily seen as evidence of a fundamental irrationality that is to be pitied rather than scorned. Yet aside from these extreme examples, it would be a mistake to simply disregard the fundamental deep-rooted religious beliefs that ground and guide so many people. But in the space between disregarding and accepting, there is much to think about.

Think of Christianity as a temporal event stretching back before Christ to the beliefs and covenants of the Jews and reaching through time to the present and then remember Faulkner’s saying about the past: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We live near the outer edge of the Christian temporal event more than two millennia belief years from its origin. Our time is a transition period in which the imaginative hold of the Christian faith upon society is changing state like a liquid turning into a gas. What was once believed to be literally true is now understood as a modality of belief that operates differently from science as a way of making sense of our world and our place in it.

There is no need to discuss this in any detail other than to set up what I think is an important point. Christianity began as a persecuted sect, developed into the official religion of the Roman Empire, contended with kings over temporal authority, splintered into Protestantism and was set aside, though not persecuted, by the (noncommunist) secular state. All the while it managed to exert an unrivalled hold on the moral beliefs and mental coordinates of what was known as Christendom. But gradually, over the last few hundred years, a rival with an unprecedented configuration came to prominence.

It is a mistake to see science as replacing Christianity as if the two ways of being in the world were bent on doing the same things. Christianity and Islam contend over a broadly similar way of making sense of ultimate reality. But the continued refinement of scientific theorizing and experimentation has simply been directed toward other kinds of concerns and has demonstrated impressive results in doing so. These results have been so impressive in fact that they have captured the interest and attention of multitudes and given rise to the secular world. As a result, Christianity began to go out of fashion. For many, a secular ethos came to seem more attractive and more in keeping with how the world was changing. Most of these people didn’t reject Christianity outright – they still keep the old fashion as their Sunday best – but it was no longer their style.

At another point it would be good to devote some attention to what this secular ethos is that has emerged alongside the Christian ethos, but that’s not going to happen here. The important point concerns what it is like to be an evangelical Christian, what it is like to double down on fashion choices that to your contemporaries seem outdated and willfully limited.

I find the analogy between ethos and style to be helpful in this discussion because in most cases I think most people take what is on offer. Just as most people don’t design their own clothes, they don’t come up with their own fundamental beliefs. Some options seem more expressive of who people think themselves to be, and most of us are willing to just kind of go with that. We acquire our initial beliefs from our upbringing, and then over time, we develop a mélange of views a bit like a wardrobe of different styles that just seems to work for us. It is perhaps jarring to liken the choice of fundamental beliefs to the choice of clothing – and the fact that one can do so tells us something distinctive about what it is to live in a secular age. And I don’t mean for this analogy to be flippant – moral choices are of a different order of seriousness than fashion choices. But just as most people do not become obsessed with being style makers or mavens, few people find it necessary to get to the bottom of things and determine what it is that makes the most sense to believe. But there are some people who do experience an existential crisis over their personal beliefs, and some of them undergo a process that they describe as being born again.

Trying on Evangelical Christian Beliefs

Recall these two beliefs from above:

• Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
• Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

According to this perspective, what it is to be human is to be in need of redemption and part of how redemption occurs is through being born again into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is a radical doctrine, radically at odds with the image of Homo sapiens that emerges from anthropological, socioevolutionary and neuroscientific views. It is a strong view for there is nothing compromising about it. The evangelical Christian ethos insists on its universal application to all human beings for all time. It is not one view among many; it is not a tentative view that may be in error. Belief in the rectitude of this ethos does not come from science and experimentation; rather it is vouchsafed by revelation and held close by faith.

But it is not an easy view either. Far from surrendering one’s life to God and finding peace, evangelical Christians find the ways of the Lord to be mysterious, which is why the bible is so central for it is the best guide available for finding one’s way (biblicism). To venture forth without the bible is to become lost in the wilderness. Giving up on biblical literalism poses some problems in interpreting its verses, but correctly understood, biblical meaning is inerrant for what is true and good is eternal.

Once this ethos is acquired, the full gravity of man’s fall from grace impresses with an urgent fervor. The Word of God must be brought to all the peoples of the earth as without it they are living in fatal error and do not recognize what is truly at stake (activism). Evangelicals live a life lit by a passionate fire. They do not say, “here is how I believe the world to be and here are my proofs to convince you.” They do not seek to persuade by reason but say, “God has revealed to us how things are and only by being reborn will you become the kind of person who can understand this. Without such acceptance of the Lord, you shall surely perish.”

Setting the Stage

I think it should be clear how the beliefs and aspirations of evangelical Christians line up as being opposed to secularism and intolerant of sexual liberty. Secularism, understood as a view of the human condition without the existence of any god or gods, is, from the evangelical Christian view, purely and simply a matter of getting things wrong. Intolerance of sexual liberty is also a simple matter of recognizing that God intends things to be a certain way and has shared that knowledge with us. Humans easily fall into error, and sin abounds everywhere, but there is a path of righteousness that is incumbent upon us all.

Skepticism about science is a little trickier, and it is tempting to see it as a response to the perceived arrogance and atheism of scientists. But religious beliefs and scientific practice coexist around the world, as scientists are by no means all atheists. Instead, I think the skepticism on the part of evangelical Christians (data here would be good) proceeds from a sense that, while interesting and important, science and scientists are overvalorized in our society. The accomplishments of scientists can be seen as part of the glory of God even if they are not intended as such. But the things that scientists can understand are not the matters of ultimate importance, and their truths are contingent and not absolute. There is a pridefulness at work that may unduly raise up a view of humanity that does not recognize the eternal wisdom and glory of God.

And finally, we have the supposition that evangelical Christians are temperamentally, if not doctrinally, against government activism. What is there about the evangelical Christian ethos that might lead such believers to take such a position? There are likely to be a number of contingent reasons why government activism is not favorably regarded within the evangelical Christian community (racism, Cold War fear of government activism as the road to godless communism). But the one that is most closely allied to their faith is probably a sense of misplaced priority – saving souls is more important than easing the lot of the poor. Evangelical Christians believe that salvation comes through faith alone and not by good works. Government activism to improve people’s quality of life has the potential to lead them astray from what is truly important. By providing the poor and downtrodden with access to food, housing and health care, the government threatens to create dependency and supplant the church as the most important institution in people’s lives. I do not doubt that evangelical Christians believe in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick, but these actions are seen as more properly performed as acts of Christian charity than as examples of taxpayer-financed political patronage.

Drawing Conclusions

Any or all of the views discussed above – opposition to secularism, skepticism of science, rejection of government activism and intolerance of sexual liberty – conduce to the kind of social traditionalism that would naturally find a place in a conservative political party. But beginning with the Moral Majority, the historical record shows that evangelical Christians with these beliefs found a political home in the precincts toward the extreme right end of conservatism. In part, this may be seen charitably as naiveté, but I think the larger reason was the “human, all too human” desire for respect.

The two decades that culminated in Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon was also the period in which the popular acclaim of science achieved its zenith in this country. Among other achievements, the 1950s had seen the unlocking of the structure of DNA and, more immediately transformative, the development of the first successful polio vaccine. The rapid drop in polio cases was a modern miracle of science the stunning and gratifying importance of which is hard to imagine at this remove. During that halcyon period, the popular culture view of evangelicalism was informed by film versions of real or imagined events from the 1920s, such as Inherit the Wind and Elmer Gantry, in which the evangelicalism of those times came off as backward, cramped or hypocritical. Certainly, the views depicted were out of step with changing times – particularly as the youth and sexual revolutions came into their own.

Prayer was taken out of school, birth control was legalized and interracial marriage was recognized. As the turmoil of the 1960s cascaded into the criminal behavior of a maddened president, the leading edge of the country seemed to be leaving evangelicals behind. But then came busing, and racism was back on the table front and center and political positions were scrambled. As mentioned above, evangelicals mobilized to oppose forced integration of their schools and so found themselves at the right place and the right time to join forces with antigovernment conservative insurgents and white nationalists. But racism was probably more of a proximate cause for the evangelical Christian entrance into politics. The desire for respect, after decades of marginalization and ridicule, amplified by the ardor of self-righteousness was the ultimate temptation that would lead the holy into the fallen land.

Next time: Consolidation

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A Clearing in the Distance

There is much to take in about this topsy-turvy election between the two least popular major party presidential candidates of all time. While the historic nature of this contest is clear – we will either elect our first woman president or turn the White House over to a deranged charlatan – its significance is perhaps less apparent. To help with that, I want to tell a story. It is a story that involves an arc, an alliance and an ethos. The arc has come to an end, the alliance is broken and the ethos has faded. Out of this wreckage, elements for a new story are visible in a clearing in the distance.

Just to be clear at the outset, the story I am about to tell is just that – a story. There are many ways to tell different kinds of stories and many reasons for doing so. In this case, it is helpful to think of this story as the draft of an argument. It is a narrative of imagination that frames certain real-world developments to suggest a way of interpreting their significance. This will all become clear (I hope), but the point is this is not a story that declares, “here is how it happened.” Instead, it is a story of one way to make sense of what has happened and what it means for where we are now.

The arc in the story is the trajectory of the conservative insurgency that first attained prominence with Barry Goldwater, achieved escape velocity through Ronald Reagan, crested during the Contract with America, went into free fall along with George W. Bush and imploded upon contact with Donald Trump. The alliance was among political and economic conservatives, evangelical Christians (and other social traditionalists) and white nationalists. From the days of the Moral Majority, we are familiar with the union between economic and social conservatives; Trump’s ascendancy through the Republican Party has revealed for all to see that the white nationalists have been part of this tripartite alliance from the beginning. The ethos is the normative sensibility, rooted in social traditionalism, that arose and emanated from the three constitutive elements of the alliance. It is with this ethos and its passing that I am most concerned about.

A Note on Power and Governance in the United States

We can take it for granted that the social order of all societies reflects the interests of the powerful. Indeed it would seem contradictory if this were not the case. For how could the powerful (vague to be sure) be unable to distort the social order for their benefit and yet still merit designation as powerful? This is a long way from saying societies are controlled by shadowy elites whose reach is comprehensive and certain. But in the case of capitalist democracies such as the United States, it is helpful to begin with a basic narrative framework for understanding the players over time.

There is an acknowledged tension between economic elites, who tend to pursue their self-interest, and elected representatives, who are at least nominally charged with upholding some notion of the common good. Indeed, much of our country’s history can simplistically be represented as an ongoing struggle between a part of the political class trying to restrain the actions of economic elites even as the latter are aided by another part of the political class in trying to elude such restraint. From the post-Civil War period in which the national government was engaged in building the infrastructure for the national economy – tariffs, railroads, Indian Wars, labor suppression, etc. – we entered a Gilded Age (for the few) of great inequalities in wealth and little regulation of economic activity including working conditions. These excesses helped fuel the rise of the Progressive Era, which ushered in antitrust legislation, the federal income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve. On the other hand, we also got Prohibition, so a bit of a mixed bag. World War I cooled enthusiasm for further reforms, and the country entered the Roaring Twenties, a time of great fun for flappers and slumming urbanites but not so much for the poor, immigrants, and the nascent union movement among the nation’s factory and mine workers to say nothing of women, minorities and gays and lesbians.

All this merriment ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. But through the wreckage and misery emerged the New Deal, recognition of unions and the end of Prohibition. At great sacrifice of life and limb, wartime Keynesianism brought prosperity and eventually peace to the nation, and though we remained haunted by Cold War paranoia, the economy was remarkably productive under a de facto arrangement among government, business interests and labor unions. Teenagers were let loose on the land, science was in its heyday and some part of the country became interested and supportive of African Americans’ efforts to secure their civil rights. And that is where this little story begins.

The Arc of the Conservative Insurgency

The arc began as an insurgency in need of an electorate. The insurgents wanted to undo the New Deal and curb the power of the federal government. But there was no electorate for its ambitions in the 1964 landslide election of Lyndon Johnson. However, that year also saw the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act, which put the nation’s racists on the move.

White flight throughout the 1960s and 1970s was both geographic (out of cities into the suburbs) and political – from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Welcomed by Richard Nixon as part of his Southern Strategy, the infusion of Dixie racism into the party of Lincoln would eventually prove toxic to its host in New England (much as anti-immigrant overreach by Republicans in California would, years later, doom the party there). While in some sense George Wallace midwifed the process that a decade later would give birth to Reagan Democrats, throughout the 1970s labor solidarity and lingering working-class affinity with the Democratic Party still presented electoral obstacles to the fortunes of the Republicans. The insurgency needed more voters, and more, indeed many more, were to come.

The Alliance Grows

Well before it was enshrined in our constitution, racism was a constitutive force in shaping and defining us as who we are. But it has not been the only such influence. The most dynamic force in all societies across the world at the present time is capitalism (which we will find we need a new name for because its connotations are so familiar that we no longer see it for what it is). What we still think of as primarily an economic system has overmatched political governance and assumed a planetary importance unrivaled by any empire. The story of deindustrialization and the havoc wreaked across what became known as the Rust Belt is a familiar chapter in our national epic. The effects such dislocations had on the political leanings of the working class would swell the ranks of Republican voters for decades to come.

In a move that tells us much about the insurgency that came to control the Republican Party, when faced with what was then the nation’s most extensive economic challenge since the Great Depression, the insurgents won the national political argument with the idea that the country should disarm in the face of adversity, do away with collective action predicated upon class solidarity or representative government and let the market sort things out in the most efficient way possible. Although Morning in America did cast a new light on the shining city, and Reagan’s reelection landslide in 1984 eclipsed Johnson’s margin of victory two decades earlier, full electoral ratification would require an additional presence on the political scene.

Rapidly globalizing capitalism had dazed and confused the Democratic Party and set the working class adrift. But even in a racially divided country such as ours, the alchemy needed to transmute acknowledgment of the common good into celebration of self-interest was arcane. The economic doldrums of the mid-1970s prepared some of the groundwork, and new developments in economic theory convinced conservative economists they could rightfully ignore Keynes after all and let markets be free the way the good lord intended. The masterstroke was supply-side economics, which was sold to Americans like snake oil with the promise that cutting tax rates would grow the economy so much that overall tax revenues would increase. No pain; all gain!

But there was still a little problem. In the prevailing easy-going mix of secular views and Judeo-Christian values, unrestrained self-interest could be seen as a moral defect. It was one thing to argue that it just happened to be the case (look, equations!) that the economy worked best for everyone if everyone was looking out for herself. Arguments trumpeting the noble principles of limited government (and tax cuts) found a welcome audience as well. But problems such as poverty and racism and inequality and injustice weren’t going to simply solve themselves. This new capitalism of rugged individuals needed a human face.

And it came to pass that evangelical Christians entered the public square.

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Born in Baltimore and raised in Cincinnati, I have lived on both coasts and driven back and forth across the country a number of times. I now have the "midlife opportunity" to do so on two wheels.