Trumping establishment, flouting Gospel values

Donald Trump regularly controls the news cycle by saying outrageous things and then backtracking.

By Dale Kuehne and Gordon Preece

May 5 2016Why are Americans, including many Christians, voting for Donald Trump in droves, particularly when a recent statement by a group of leading Christians criticised him for “bringing our nation’s worst instincts to the political surface”?

The fundamental themes of this US election are a deep-seated anxiety about America’s and American religion’s place in the world and profound anger against the Washington and Wall St establishments.

Both Sanders (to a lesser extent) and Trump are tapping into the anger and alienation voters are expressing, albeit in different ways, to different ends of the political spectrum. Their styles are very different, but they are connecting with the dissatisfaction. Sometimes left and right are linear terms, sometimes they are circular (meaning that the left and the right meet at the “ends” of the circle in the same way Fascism and Communism have done at certain historical moments).

Much has been made of Evangelicals voting for Trump, as if Evangelicals had lost their marbles. But the loose terminology of exit polls, asking if people are “born again” or “Evangelical”, masks the political differences of Evangelicals on class, race, gender, and generational grounds. Many younger, more liberal (both theologically and politically) Evangelicals voted for Obama, the first black President. Many may well vote for Clinton to become the first female president, though many of the young find Sanders appeal to the poor appealing.

People are voting for Trump, and less so Sanders, in droves, but not with their Evangelical or Catholic hats on, but rather wearing the mantle of their economic class. Given that wages have flat-lined for the last 18 years, there has been a mass exodus of blue-collar jobs, and immigration is expanding the work force and depressing wages, this anger and protest movement is not just comprehensible but entirely predictable. Trump and Sanders have tapped into this in a big way and they will continue to do so.

But the Presidential race will likely be between Clinton and Trump; and Trump has a serious chance of winning. Trump offers hope in the magical thinking style of his decade long top-rating “reality” TV show The Apprentice. People desperate for decent jobs believe he’ll provide them when he promises to be “the Greatest Jobs President ever”. This despite his record of bankruptcies leaving joblessness in his wake.

Trump regularly controls the news cycle by saying outrageous things and then backtracking: flip-flopping for instance on whether women should be punished for having abortions; racism against Mexicans and religious bigotry against Muslims. Trump keeps trumping himself and people watch to see what he’ll say next. Acting as if he’s an apolitical outsider like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer, he even took on the Pope after the Pope condemned his proposed wall-building to keep Mexicans out as un-Christian. Unlike the Pope he speaks “ex-cathedra” all the time.

Trump is reminiscent of Reagan the “dumb” actor whom the pundits assumed Americans would see through. In fact Trump is not a right-winger, but more left in many ways. Moderate on social issues, more protectionist on international trade, and pragmatic on foreign policy. Outrageous rhetorically, he is popular because he is speaking to the anger and anxiety of many Americans about their felt loss of place in the world. They want to be winners again. They resent uncontrolled immigration, haemorrhaging middle class jobs and incomes, national and domestic insecurity, rampant political correctness, and emasculation of masculinity. “Poor white trash” males have had enough.

Whichever way the Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln, finally goes, the issues and anger and anxiety will not disappear. “We’ve all gone to look for America” as Paul Simon wrote, but we’re not finding it in Washington or Wall St.

Besides people voting along class, not credal lines, what explains “Evangelical” – or more accurately Fundamentalist – support for Trump? As Sarah Posner notes: “he seems to be the unlikeliest Republican candidate for Evangelical voters, with his three marriages, his ownership of casinos and beauty pageants, and his belated opposition to their core issues of abortion and gay marriage”.

There are hints in Trump’s clash with Pope Francis. Trump has no sense of sin and flatly denies any need of forgiveness – an Evangelical or Orthodox bottom-line. Theologian Michael Horton traces Trumps roots to youthful and now occasional holiday appearances in Marble Collegiate Church New York. There Norman Vincent Peale served his people a plate of positive thinking platitudes and prosperity theology for 52 years. My father once gave me Peale’s bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking to boost my fragile adolescent confidence. Instead I found myself agreeing with former New York governor and diplomat Averell Harriman’s statement that: “I find Paul appealing but Peale appalling”.

Not so Trump, nor tele-evangelist-style therapist Joel Osteen, who describes Trump as a friend, supporter and good man. Nor Jerry Falwell Jr, son of the former Moral Majority leader. Nor the more substantial conservative media commentator, and recent visitor to Melbourne, Eric Metaxas.

Metaxas’ bestselling biography of Bonhoeffer depicts him as a right-winger, and his allegedly violent protest against Hitler (contradicted by Mark Nation et al’s Bonhoeffer The Assassin) as justification for Christian violent civil disobedience.

A cross-party and multi-racial group of Christian leaders has also recently issued a statement which also quotes Bonhoeffer, to justify their speaking up against alarmingly violent electoral rhetoric and actions, particularly from Trump: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.

In their statement, entitled Called to Resist Bigotry – A Statement of Faithful Obedience, they see Trump’s vicious, untruthful tongue, racial and religious bigotry, and disrespect of women and the disabled, as denying Gospel values. “…He is bringing our nation’s worst instincts to the political surface, making overt what is often covert, explicit what is often implicit”.

Martin Luther King never saw the church as a cipher for party politics nor easy endorsements for those bending biblical phrases, revivalist-style and moral platitudes or panic to bribe their voters. King said that the church is to be “the conscience of the State”, not its concubine. May American Christians beware Trump’s means even while seeking to address the anger and anxiety of America’s abandoned “poor white trash”. And may Australian Christians also, in our less extreme, but equally open to manipulation election, seek not only the ends, but also the means of the Gospel, recognising all parties as penultimate.

Dr Dale Kuehne is the professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College which hosts the New Hampshire presidential primary.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece is Chair and Executive of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee, and Director of Ethos. Ethos is co-sponsoring, with the Ridley Marketplace Institute, a dinner on 13 May at which the retiring Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, will speak and be presented with an award for integrating his faith and work. See www.ridley.edu.au/events/event/faith-and-work-award-dinner-2016/