18 October 2018

Good news or bad news, part two: Believe Me

 Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images; source.  
"Believe me, folks, we're building the wall, believe me, believe me, we're building the wall."
"I love women. Believe me, I love women. I love women. And you know what else, I have great respect for women, believe me."
"I am the least, the least racist person that you've ever met, believe me."
"The world is in trouble, but we're going to straighten it out, okay? That's what I do. I fix things. We're going to straighten it out, believe me."
"So let me state this right up front: [in] a Trump administration our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended -- like you've never seen before. Believe me."
Donald Trump's repetition of this phrase, "believe me," led historian John Fea to adopt it as the title of his recent book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The puzzle that faced the self-identified evangelical author: why did so many white evangelical Americans believe Trump, to the point of voting for him as president? ... And all this in a field of candidates that had at least three other choices that adhered far more closely to the culture of politicized white evangelicalism -- Carson, Rubio, and Cruz.

Theoretically, evangelical faith rests on the proposition that the gospel of Jesus Christ is very literally good news. Its promises may not involve a change of political leadership, but they are concrete: healing, liberation, reconciliation and eternal fellowship with God. Of course, for "news" to be "good," there must be something "bad" in the prevailing context, and Jesus indeed arrived in a time and place of bad news: imperial occupation, marginalization of women and of all non-Romans, economic distress, capricious justice, not to mention individual cases of illness, conflict, and so on. Jesus and his rapidly-expanding community of disciples found room for everyone who received him. In succeeding generations, Christian reform movements (including Quakers) who sought to MCGA -- Make Christianity Great Again -- referred back to that founding generation chronicled in the biblical book of Acts.

The "Playbook of the Christian Right" as described and documented by John Fea is different. Its motivations are three factors that are arguably all non-biblical:
  • fear as an attention-getter and mobilizer
  • nostalgia as definition and reassurance for the chosen tribe
  • power as the best way to relieve fear and secure the tribe.
(These elaborations on the three factors are mine, but I believe they're faithful to Fea's analysis.)

Fea follows the thread of fear throughout white evangelical Christian history in the USA from the colonial era onward. Fear of the enslaved race, fear of the immigrant, of Rome, of the communist, the homosexual, all perform the necessary role of alarming the audience, of scaring the money and the votes out of that audience. As Fea shows, there's nothing new about this playbook.

Fear is a fraudulent motivator; it requires narrowing the audience's concern to itself, excluding anyone who can possibly be described in unsympathetic terms -- the indispensable THREAT. That narrowing function is enhanced by another historical con game -- nostalgia for a golden age when nobody messed with the USA and its middle-class paradise. Making America great again assumes that there was that earlier condition of American greatness that must be restored.

This assertion is at the center of Trump's emotional appeal; everything else is just details to be asserted or ignored almost according to whim -- the Wall, Dow Jones, tariffs, crime, Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and so on.
Nostalgia is ... a powerful political tool. A politician who claims to have the power to take people back to a time when America was great stands a good chance of winning the votes of fearful men and women. In the end, the practice of nostalgia is inherently selfish because it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not the experience of others.
This nostalgic con game is based at least in part on a mythology that John Fea has dealt with in his previous work: that the USA is a Christian nation whose downhill path coincides with Supreme Court decisions on separation of church and state, and on abortion. Fea examines one stream of this Christian nationalism: Baptist preacher and prime Trump fan Robert Jeffress and his "America is a Christian nation" sermon, and the role played by David Barton in supplying the talking points for Jeffress and other proponents of politicized nostalgia. The audience for this appeal ignores the structural sin that marginalized (arguably) the majority of people while guarding the privileges of those on top, during any "golden age" you might propose.

The Christian nationalist message also automatically excludes the millions whose lives were improved by other developments at the same time as the Supreme Court decisions -- notably those affected by the Civil Rights movement. It takes no account of the environmental movement, the increasing awareness of domestic violence, advances in police accountability, reductions in crime rates, and other positive trends.

According to the Christian Right's playbook, the solution to these dangers and the path to national restoration is having the right people in power. John Fea provides a fascinating gallery of Court Evangelicals who personify the overlap between Christian celebrityhood and membership in Donald Trump's circle of influence. He describes the three groups from whom those celebrities come: the Christian Right as we've come to know it over the years (Jerry Falwell, Jr., Richard Land, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, for example); the "prosperity gospel" movement (Paula White, Mark Burns); and the Independent Network Charismatic community (Lance Wallnau, Cindy Jacobs).

What can a Christian historian offer us as we work out a vision of discipleship in the Trump era of slashing indifference to stewardship and social justice? With unsurprising cautions about the limitations of the past as a source of lessons for the future, Fea suggests the following themes:

Hope, not fear. Here Fea starts out with a quotation from Christopher Lasch:
Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.
For Fea, the Civil Rights movement is a signal demonstration of the power of hope among those who had every right to feel hopeless, who were operating from the margins, but who persisted. Hope is the element that keeps us engaged with the future.

Humility, not power. In part, this involves a practice of presence rather than domination, of community rather than individualism. Fea links this perspective with the Civil Rights movement's nonviolent orientation:
The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God's redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as "the spiritual discipline against resentment."
History, not nostalgia. Rather than inventing an ideal history to motivate a narrow audience, Fea asks us to look at actual history. Again, the Civil Rights movement provides a crucial example: those seeking justice had to look at the historical record with utter realism. However, embedded in that history and enshrined in its documentation were the ideals to which the civil rights leaders were demanding accountability. History records the undeniable aspirations and promises that we work to make real: we're all created equal, with certain inalienable rights; we're entitled to due process and to the equal protection of the law.

Fea's book is very helpful on diagnosis, but his prescriptions are general, modest, and few. It's up to us to use and expand the tools he provides. For example ...

For our conversations with other Christians, especially those who are captives of Christian nationalism, Fea provides a standing imperative: stick with truth. It's perfectly consistent with an ethical and loving approach to conflict to be persistently grounded in truth: the Gospel doesn't indulge in fear, it challenges fear. Nostalgic myths need to be countered with the actual record of history, good and bad. Those facts include the many ways power corrupts even the faithful.

For our own behavior in the intense conflict of these days, truth is also our only reliable guide. This may mean that we can't provide our secular allies with the kind of rhetorical overkill that "solidarity" seems to demand. As a brief case study, take this article by Jen Butler, "Is Democracy Done? The Road After Kavanaugh." I generally agree with both the direction and the urgency of Butler's call for a "loud, public, theological voice" to counter the anti-democratic forces she identifies. But this kind of rhetoric is not truthful:

... [C]onservatives who have been chomping at the bit to undermine minority rights and let corporate greed run amok. "Chomping at the bit" and "corporate greed run amok" is political trash-talking. Nobody wants anything to "run amok."

Today our elected leaders have made gods of greed. Every decision they are making benefits the top .1% of the wealthy rather than the majority. Every decision? Even the recent bipartisan agreement to aid opioid-addicted sufferers? It is possible to make a devastating analysis without resorting to exaggeration or attribution of motive.

Note that I don't criticize strong rhetoric as such. When Butler goes on to say,
Today, our elected leaders worship false gods to amass their personal and party power. They look the other way for their own political gain while our president praises tyrants, and white supremacists, locks children in cages, mocks sexual abuse survivors, and exploits his office to enrich his own family at great cost to global peace and security.
... I question "worship false gods" (maybe it would be better to say, "appear to worship false gods"), but everything else seems true. All I'm saying is, I resent it when politicians of all kinds attribute evil motives to their opponents rather than sticking to actual facts. When our faithfulness to truth weakens in favor of incendiary rhetoric, however decent our motives, we begin using the same playbook that got us into this mess in the first place.

Another contribution from John Fea: How the American Bible Society became evangelical. When I was at Friends United Meeting, I enjoyed participating in American Bible Society's meetings and their online programs. It had the most inclusive range of denominations and confessions of any ecumenical organization I knew. I saw it as an example of "functional ecumenism" (along with Christian Peacemaker Teams, World Peace Tax Fund, etc.) in favorable contrast to "conciliar ecumenism." I guess the litmus test mentality crept in here, too.

Related: Good news or bad news?
Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem.
Sowing in tears, part two: Red Hens, resistance, and love.

Mike Farley on God’s love for us, which, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross....

Jonathan Petersen interviews Bryan Loritts on white evangelicalism and racial bias.

Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta asks authorities to investigate threats against a reporter. (More of Novaya's reporters have been killed than reporters of any other single Russian media outlet.)

Navalny vs Zolotov? Probably not.

From Joan Baez to Taylor Swift: How musicians found a political voice.

Won't you hurry 'round the bend?

Indian Blue Live at the Dew Drop from Louisiana Northshore on Vimeo.

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