Thursday, December 14, 2017

Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?

Thoughts on this book:

The main learning I took away from Stephen Mansfield's Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him (Baker Books, 2017) was the personal influence of Norman Vincent Peale over Donald Trump as a young man. Apart from this biographical detail, I struggled with complex reactions to this book. It didn't hit the nail on the head but neither did it have fatal flaws.

Mansfield appears to tread a fine line between heavily criticizing President Trump for transparently ridiculous behavior that cannot but be criticized and yet grasping for biographical details — if only, perhaps, in the interest of fairness or charity — that make Trump seem like a heavyweight who can coherently assume, if not deserve, the mantle of the President of the United States. Most readers will probably feel that the author goes too far in one direction or the other in its opposition or support for the President. Mansfield acknowledges says the book he's written is "dangerous" (at least for its publisher) because it "critiques a sitting president" yet also "takes [the president] seriously" when he is deeply unpopular. This nebulous idea of taking the president seriously makes the book a little maddening or bewildering. What exactly does it mean to take Trump seriously? He is a wealthy celebrity who has made high-stakes business transactions throughout his life and got elected president. He has a biography similar to others who grew up in a wealthy family. He has psychology and motivations that, like any other human's, can be examined, analyzed, and interpreted. In that regard, the book takes him seriously. But I am not certain that the book — which doesn't mention global climate change or the North Korean nuclear tensions — fully and directly engages the extent of the influence the president has on others and the lasting damage he can do to the nation and the world.

On a related point, the author does not directly reveal his own religious and political beliefs. (At his most explicitly theological, he writes of "the good that courageous voices of faith can do. If they will set themselves to tell the truth, if they will remember that they are emissaries from another land, they can remind leaders — who are too often mired in the temporal — of higher purposes and surer boundaries. They have the power to fix vision upon the eternal.") What peeks through occasionally is a form of political moderateness that rings either a bit insincere or underinformed. For example, on “the all-important issue of race,” he says that the president has delivered “at least racially inappropriate if not outright racist statements on many an occasion.” If one really believes the issue is all-important, the president's well-documented outright racism should be easy to call out. "Inappropriate" is far too mild a word, unless one believes that racial justice and race relations are mostly about being well-mannered (and thus not genuinely all-important). For another example, the author describes the record of Barack Obama on LGBT rights and the position of Hillary Clinton on abortion rights as “extreme.” It is hard to tell if that is his personal view or if he is reflecting how he thinks many religious people perceive them. But, again, if you really believe in LGBT rights and abortion rights, defending them is not "extreme." Trying to toe some kind of moderate line in these contexts doesn't work very well, especially if you don't attempt to explain what your view is and exactly why you believe it to be fair and good despite its avoidance of the "extremes" of nondiscrimination and liberation movements. Mushing around the topic results in a kind of diplomacy that, while trying to be polite and reassuring, achieves the opposite. This undefined moderate stance, perhaps attempting to represent neutrality, does not help the reader understand the author's view and therefore it muddies his moral portrait of the president because it is hard to understand exactly where his points of disagreement are.

The analysis ends at events that happened shortly after the January 2017 inauguration, but the book was not released until Oct. 3. The details of Trump's tumultuous first year in office could not have been anticipated, so Mansfield does not address how bad the presidency really is, and therefore the book will strike many readers as a little tone-deaf. For example, the problem of the president's persistent falsehoods is ever more serious and means something different as he approaches a year in office. The Washington Post counted "1,628 false or misleading claims" through mid-November. We are no longer mainly interested in evaluating his character to know whether to vote for him or to predict how he will govern; we are (or should be) interested in how the government is now being run and how foreign relations are being conducted. We have passed the point where his character flaws are impacting people's lives and causing lasting damage.

True, the purpose of the book is only incidentally, and not primarily, to do the three things discussed in the previous paragraphs — respectfully and seriously assess the president as a full human being who has lived over 70 years on Earth, project one's own moral beliefs to judge how he handles his current role, or concretely assess from a historian's viewpoint what he has accomplished since his inauguration — but rather to explain, as its subtitle announces, "why Christian conservatives supported him" in the election. This it does in a general sense. The answer provided is: Because they were angry and Trump's personality appealed to them. The book is far more about Trump than it is about the Christians who supported him. For a sociological study of those Christians, I recommend The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones, released four months before the 2016 election, a book that Mansfield unfortunately doesn't reference.

Trump's Character

First, this is a man who "has lived the life of a celebrated hedonist."

He developed a "juvenile" obsession with the size of the crowds who came to see him. "When he spoke at Liberty University in 2016, his first words had to do with breaking an attendance record. He was in a church service at the time."

He avoids taking expert advice. As a result, his wife Melania's inaugural speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama's eight years earlier. Melania's interesting life story was "worthy of a great speech" and there was no reason for her to "borrow from the one person on the planet from whom she most needed to distinguish herself". Mansfield believes this was an accident due to incompetence, and he attributes it to Donald Trump's reliance on advice and assistance from a disordered family team where "[n]o one was put in charge." A professional speechwriter would never have made such a sophomoric error.

He also likes to fight. At school, he threw things and needed constant attention. He has asserted that his own "temperament" hasn't changed much since first grade. In second grade, he disagreed with a lesson and gave his teacher a black eye. In business, he said that "most people aren’t worthy of respect” and in Think Big he wrote, "You need to screw them back fifteen times harder...go for the jugular, attack them in spades!" At his campaign rallies, he incited violence.

Americans note his "almost complete lack of the character that is usually the fruit of sincere religion." Americans expect that a president's character is fixed by the time he or she is elected, unlike the Pope whose ordination transforms him, and, when considering Trump, a "deeply imperfect man" with apparent "deformities" and "oddities," the thought of him remaining the same "can be a disturbing experience."

Influence of Norman Vincent Peale

The famous religious leader Norman Vincent Peale was Trump's greatest personal mentor during formative years, and in return Peale called Trump his "greatest student of all time." Even though this faith "largely failed him [Trump] as both a public and a private man," he returned to these roots in the 2016 campaign, revealing "a softening in religious matters". The nature of this softening is not clearly identified.

Peale was one of the earliest promoters of "the power of positive thinking" as demonstrated in his book of the same title. "Peale believed, for example, that 'attitudes are more important than facts,'” Mansfield writes. If "true religion" is defined as the "ultimate concern" that passionately animates a person's thoughts, words, and actions (as Paul Tillich proposed), then Trump's true religion is “self,” “winning,” “being rich,” and “being the best.” This is inspired by Peale, who showed him "a religion of empowerment, not of transformation." Mansfield sees limitation in this approach. As he explains it, adding what seems to be his own theological commentary: "Trump took from this that it is God’s will to carry him further in the direction he was already going. He did not understand from his time under Peale’s ministry that God empowers a man only after he remakes him."

(For a similar take on Peale's influence, see this short video featuring Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps.)

Ignorance of religion

Speaking to pollster Frank Luntz, Trump was unable to name anyone in the Bible he admired, and, when asked for his personal beliefs about God, "he spoke at length about buying a golf course." Asked by a radio host to name a favorite Bible verse or story, he babbled and the only thing he could come up with was "an eye for an eye." He said he'd never asked God for forgiveness and was unable to say whether he preferred the Old or New Testament. To Fox News, he identified himself as "Presbyterian" but "also busy." In church, where he said he went mainly for Christmas and Easter, he seemed not to recognize a communion plate. Addressing Liberty University, he showed off his baptism photo and certificate but had no personal conversion story. Moreover, Mansfield believes, the students saw that Trump's vengeful attitude in business and past marital difficulties did not align with their idea of Christianity and they had hoped to see "'fruit,' evidence of a life changed by conversion and modeled on the message of Jesus Christ." "It was, in short, the worst presentation of religion by a presidential candidate in recent memory," Mansfield opined.

Yet Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, in 2012 called Trump “the greatest visionary of our time.” This seems key to understand. Why was he elevating Trump, if Trump was so ignorant of religion? What did he hope to get? Mansfield addresses this.

Why religious conservatives wanted Trump

First, they

"were traumatized by the Obama years and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same. They would back anyone who could win. They would take a nonbeliever. They would accept a candidate of doubtful morality. They were even willing to risk racial and gender offense on the part of their candidate. They could not endure more years of bombardment from a religious left intent upon remaking the nation."

Exactly how they thought liberals in power would "remake the nation," and why that was more exhausting or existentially more threatening to them than ordinary policy disagreements, is not made clear in this book.

They were angry — that much is made clear. They had a sense of being

"sidelined by history and feared their country as they knew it was slipping away. They wanted change, at nearly any cost, and they looked beyond more experienced candidates to set their hopes upon the sharp-tongued, hard-hitting, angry-as-they-were billionaire from New York. He won them by promising to give their country back to them and to win a future for their children. They believed him, largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms."

In 2016, voters wanted the angry candidate. They asked themselves: "Who best gave voice to our political rage? Who best channeled the anger that kept us up at night? Who was the standard-bearer of our wrath?" When they saw Trump, they felt "they would take him, flaws and all, if he would help them take their nation back."

Donald Trump publicly announced early on in the campaign that he felt he could do better with religious people than Hillary Clinton could. Mansfield wonders why Clinton did not pay closer attention to this and act on it. After all, she "possessed a deeper religious history and wider religious knowledge, and was more articulate in expressing her faith than her opponent" yet she managed to "neglect" those voters. Her choice to give her first speech after receiving the Democratic nomination at a Planned Parenthood event may have been principled, but it wasn't savvy.

Religious people were attracted to how Trump "speaks publicly in the same way that millions of Americans do around kitchen tables, at bars, and among their closest friends. Crass, insulting, bullying, sometimes ill-informed, always opinionated, usually prejudiced, Donald Trump is very much the private voice of millions of Americans." Mansfield continued: "When Trump declared at the 2016 GOP convention, 'I am your voice,' he meant it mainly in an economic sense. Yet he may have inadvertently stated a broader truth. He is a supercharged version of what America has become." This is well put, but it's not obvious what it has to do with religion. Plenty of people are ill-informed and have reason to be angry. Religion, in its most noble self-declared intentions, is supposed to do battle with the ego and replace it with humility and patience. Are white Christians angrier than everyone else? Why? And why do they think, more than anyone else, that Trump is the answer?

(One possible answer I found: Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017 that today's American Protestant evangelical "religious not born of traditional, innocent faith" but is rather "intellectualized" and "highly politicized". They are suffering from "an alienating hyper-commercial culture" that breeds "emotional insecurity." Evangelical support for Trump is transactional; what they seek is "community and identity".)

Moreover, Mansfield omits the early sexual harassment accusations against Trump and other politicians. The most he says is that Trump's "treatment of women was sometimes obscene" including occasional "disparaging" or "raunchy terms" for them. It seems he is mincing words out of a sense of propriety. The president has said worse things about women than Mansfield is willing to print. This is a book about voters, so everyone is over 18, and we need to address our adult issues head-on. If we can't call out big issues like this, then it is hard to figure out why people voted the way they did in the past; if we can't say what should be done differently in the future, then it is hard to know why we care why anyone voted the way they did in the past. Sexual morality used to be a matter of concern for religious voters. Now something has changed. Sexual harassment and the changing response to it has become part of the zeitgeist, such that the many women who reported harassment were named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2017. We need to understand the religious conservative response — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — to abusive behavior by men in the Republican Party. Why is it tolerated? Why don't such accusations hurt candidates at all today? (Marie Griffith recently called it an "extreme politicization of Christianity" and said that evangelicalism "has become so focused on power.")

Trump does like being gently challenged by people he trusts, and so the "reticence to urge him toward a broader faith and deeper character was unfortunate...The religious leaders who surrounded him in the 2016 campaign might have been just such teammates, had they been willing to take the risk of calling him to a more vibrant Christian faith."

Ed Simon wrote on Dec. 31, 2017 of the large majority of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore that it is human nature to resist or abandon the demanding ”countercultural” commitment of Christianity and to betray the faith "for thirty pieces of silver." The irony he sees is that, since the evangelicalism of Reagan’s time, "many apocalyptic minded conservative Christians made a sort of prophetic parlor game out of conjecturing who the potential anti-Christ could be. Figures from Hal Lindsey, to Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell often fingered world leaders or liberal politicians as being in league with Satan. An irony since if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?" Simon does not wish to identify a "literal ant-Christ" but worries that so many Christians "seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care."

Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic July/August 2020:
The three most important members of Trump’s Cabinet—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr—are all profoundly shaped by Vichyite apocalyptic thinking. All three are clever enough to understand what Trumpism really means, that it has nothing to do with God or faith, that it is self-serving, greedy, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, a former member of the administration (one of the few who did decide to resign) told me that both Pence and Pompeo “have convinced themselves that they are in a biblical moment.” All of the things they care about—outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, and (though this is never said out loud) maintaining a white majority in America—are under threat. Time is growing short. They believe that “we are approaching the Rapture, and this is a moment of deep religious significance.” Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, has also described his belief that “militant secularists” are destroying America, that “irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.” Whatever evil Trump does, whatever he damages or destroys, at least he enables Barr, Pence, and Pompeo to save America from a far worse fate. If you are convinced we are living in the End Times, then anything the president does can be forgiven.

How much of our differences are due to religion and how much to race?

Words like “white,” “black,” “African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “race/racial” — used in their racial sense and not in other senses like “race for the White House” — occur, in total, about 75 times throughout the book. That is to say that the subject of race is addressed substantially but isn’t the main focus. The term "white supremacy" doesn't appear at all. Many people have come up with the answer that white people voted for Trump because they are white but this is not quite the same answer Mansfield finds. He recognizes that Trump supporters are mostly white, but he wants to focus on religion. It's fine if he has a different conclusion or passionate interest. The question for me is how well he makes his case. For an entire book focusing on how Christians vote, the words “Protestant” (6), “Catholic” (7), and “evangelical” (20), alongside “Jew” (8) and “Muslim” (8), seem relatively underused. And I am including the bibliography. (These demographics are critical to understand because, as Pew Research found, three-fifths of white Catholics and four-fifths of white evangelicals voted Trump over Clinton, but for Hispanic Catholics it was the other way around, and black Protestants preferred Clinton almost nine-to-one. The vote looks more predictable along color lines than along theological lines.) When I find myself searching an ebook I’ve just finished for keywords so I can retroactively piece together the themes, it underscores for me that something was a little off from my experience as a reader.

Johnson Amendment

As someone who likes to fight, Trump could not understand why clergy did not pick political fights from the pulpit even when they felt themselves "under attack in nearly every arena of American culture." Some clergymembers explained to Trump that they could not make political statements or endorse candidates due to an IRS restriction called the Johnson Amendment. Trump "saw an opportunity both to right what he considered a moral wrong and to unchain a vast army of influential supporters. The Johnson Amendment had to go." He announced this on stage in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2016. The crowd was elated to see an atypically secular candidate nevertheless recognizing their needs and rising to meet them. In so doing, "Trump could win support from some of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders." After his election, he told his evangelical advisory council: "The only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson Amendment." (One of the members corrected him on that theological point.)

Joy-Ann Reid didn't mention the Johnson Amendment in Fracture in which she traces the current manifestation of racial/political polarization to Johnson's election to the presidency, ten years after the Johnson Amendment was passed. Johnson's rival, Barry Goldwater, was a racially polarizing figure. By the time of the election, religious leaders had been ten years' silenced about political campaigns, thanks to the previous work of Johnson, who was a Democrat, and the last Democratic presidential candidate ever to win a majority of white voters. He got 59 percent of the white vote, but his popularity declined while he was in office, and, in the next election, the Democrat got only 38 percent of the white vote. The man behind the Johnson Amendment may explain why, to this day, it is white evangelical leaders who object most vocally to this rule.

Neither did Robert P. Jones mention the Johnson Amendment in The End of White Christian America. He spoke instead about the broader issue of so-called "religious liberty," emblematized by the example of Christian bakers who are asked to provide wedding cakes for same-sex couples. This would allow the freedom to refrain from speaking or acting in the way ordinarily required by antidiscrimination law, whereas the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow the freedom to actively speak or act. These are different problems. The complete absence of the Johnson Amendment from Jones' book, plus the self-undermining assertion by Mansfield that most Americans, including the religious, "not only do not understand what the Johnson Amendment is but may not wish it abolished once they do understand it," makes me curious to confirm the importance of the Johnson Amendment in the minds of evangelicals today. If they don't know what it is, they can't be angry about it, much less be willing to negotiate its repeal in exchange for willfully discarding their fervently held beliefs about, say, sexual harassment and assault and public morality and piety for politicians. My sense is that Mansfield meant that it is mainly the religious leaders who are aware of and concerned about the restriction.

Christianity Today reported in December 2017:

"...overall, most evangelical leaders — and most people in the pews — did not want to see pastors endorsing politicians. Among the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, said they opposed pulpit endorsements in a survey conducted earlier this year.

A LifeWay Research survey conducted during the 2016 campaign found that 73 percent of Americans with evangelical beliefs said pastors should abstain from endorsing candidates, and about 65 percent said churches overall should abstain."

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not the only way religious people can feel powerful. Mansfield praises, by contrast, "the art of prophetic distance" through which a religious leader delivers a message and models right action to political candidates without endorsing any candidate over another.

Furthermore, Mansfield observes that, if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then liberal as well as conservative clergy can become politically active. Indeed, most of them, Mansfield believes, "are more left-leaning and will become champions for the other side. Trump may be dealing both himself — if and when he runs for a second term — and other conservatives a difficult hand to play."

What does it mean to take ownership?

Mansfield believes that "the religious voices Trump allows a hearing" may be able to hold sway "between the better angels of human nature and the lesser spirits that lurk in the dark". He warns that for clergy "[t]o support Donald Trump without caveat, to extol him as chosen by God without identifying what is morally objectionable in his politics and behavior, is much the same as extolling American culture without expressing any moral reservation." If religious leaders are not "courageous" and "true," then "they may pay a great price and draw the ire of later generations for being cowardly and unprincipled — all while owning Donald Trump."

But what does it mean to "own" him? The word suggests to me that they already have a particular level of influence over him as well as the future ability to take credit and blame for his deeds. It also suggests to me that Trump has somehow insinuated himself into the religion so that the ownership is mutual. Mansfield does not pinpoint the level or scope of influence nor does he anticipate exactly who might need to apologize for what in the future or, more pressingly, who might be able to fix it. If there is a catastrophe and the best we can hope for is a public apology, then "owning Donald Trump" isn't a very high stakes wager for the faithful to take. This is what we really need to know: not only why white Christians voted for Trump, but what everyone is going to do right now as 2018 rolls in about the terrible mess we are in and how we are going to avoid a similar outcome in the 2020 election.


For more on the Johnson Amendment, please see the June 2018 blog post on Disruptive Dissertation.


DJ Seifert said...

Tucker, Thanks for writing this thorough, informative review of Mansfield's book on Trump. I almost feel I do not need to read the book after reading your review. However, you have raised some intriguing points from the text that urge further reading.

Dan Seifert

Tucker Lieberman said...

Thanks for reading, Dan. Your comment might be the first of 2017 on this blog! Let me know if you have more thoughts in this area or another book recommendation. I am interested in figuring out answers on this topic.