Thursday 8 September 2016 11.00 BST
This past summer, I was guest-teaching in Europe. When the talk of the town wasn’t Brexit, it was the US election. It was discussed the way you’d discuss an alien invasion: bizarre.
A look at US history, however, suggests that this election is far from unusual, and that Donald Trump’s populist, anti-Washington cry to Make America Great Again emerges from the foundational belief of many early settlers: that they were the chosen ones who saw corruption and fought it, building a world cleansed of its sins.
This ethos embodies what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “civil religion” – that is, the features that undergird political, social and economic behavior. In America’s case, the sociologist Robert Bellah described the country’s civil religion through its symbols: the Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth.
These optimistic, populist, and nativist traditional underpinnings help explain why Americans think about politics as they do: we bring a good deal of fervor to these symbols.
Our country’s most pressing issues – from purchasing power stagnation to rust belt job loss – tend to be concrete and measurable. But solutions, as they project into the future, are a matter of belief. Americans – heir to people so devout they crossed an ocean to stay true to principle – have faith in what will save the day. It’s “the economy, stupid” when it comes to describing problems. When it comes to solutions, beliefs count.
The main issue facing voters can be summed up by the significant drop in upward mobility. America is the most unequal of all western nations: our “Gini” (inequality) index is 85.1, in line with Chile’s 81.4, India’s 81.3, Indonesia’s 82.8, and Kazakhstan’s 86.7. The top 20% of households own over 84% of the wealth; the bottom 40% own 0.3%. In both the working and middle classes, people feel sidelined or fear their children soon will be.
Such are the problems agreed upon by voters across the political spectrum, from Sanders backers to Trump supporters. In coming to solutions, Americans bring fervor particularly to what Bellah described as Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. This includes not only a future orientation, rebirth and “start anew!”, but death to the old and decayed.
The Christian narrative of crucifixion and resurrection and the national tale of leaving the old world have anchored the story of Death and Rebirth in the American civil creed. In it, we hear echoes of the preacher’s “rid ye of the devil” and traces of the political call to “throw the bastards out”.
This election year, it’s clearest in the Trump campaign but emerges in alternative form in Democratic positions. Populist demands grow loud when the “bastards” are identified as Washington insiders, constrainers of liberties, corrupt and incompetent. Nativist demands increase when the “bastards” are immigrants or other suspect groups. In both, a troubled world will be set right when evil forces are purged.
The country was born in a revolution against central government, but long before, early settlers, fleeing the centralization of Charles I, were wary of London: the king’s men were the bastards to be thrown out in order to preserve local control. “The Congregational churches and self-contained towns of Massachusetts,” the historian T.H. Breen writes, “stood as visible evidence of the founders’ decision to preserve in America what had been threatened in the mother country.”
The many early settlers who were religious dissenters were doubly suspicious of government, first for its centralizing efforts and second for the persecution it had foisted upon them. Internal migration through sparsely settled land contributed to the dismissal of central government and growing self-reliance, as there was relatively little government to rely on. Individual initiative and local community were the keys to survival.
National government took a larger role as the country grew, yet the value of individual and local effort combined with a suspicion of central authorities were rooted in America’s civil faith.
Protestantism, born also in revolution (against Rome), added to the mix. The mandate to read the Bible for oneself and find one’s own path to God encouraged the view that the responsible moral agent is the individual (with guidance from her local church). The Great Awakenings of the 1730s-1740s and 1820s-50s were festivals of individual iconoclasm, religious groups splintering off from established institutions, and populist religious ideas.
Reformed Protestantism, which came to America through Puritan and other Calvinist traditions, had an even stronger impact on political development. It held that the sovereign nation does not start with central government but with the local covenanted community – the foedus – which form networks to constitute the nation. It’s these ideas that gave the US its federal system of government and the continuing political and legal battles about states’ rights.
During the revolution, America’s churches sided with the rebels, not London. Among the more anti-authoritarian sects was Arminianism – or in America, Methodism – in which the accent shifted subtly to the individual’s role in salvation. It was a faith well-suited to a self-reliant nation wary of authorities, and America embraced it. The number of Methodist churches rose from 20 in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860. By the mid-19th century, two Kentucky preachers could in good anti-authoritarian conscience opine: “We are not personally acquainted with the writings of John Calvin … neither do we care.”
When Reagan said government was the problem, he was channeling American history and zeal
From this history came the myth, reality and creed of self-reliant localism and suspicion of central authority. Reliance on government is for the faint and faithless of heart. When Reagan said government was the problem, he was channelling American history and zeal.
Today, Trump is giving this civil religion voice in populist form, and because “throw the bastards out” is rooted in US culture and worldview, it wins votes.
In April 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute reported: “Two-thirds of Trump supporters think the nation needs a leader who breaks the rules” (a ritual redux of Boston’s “throw the bastards out” Tea Party). Other Republican candidates had populist, small-government positions but lacked Trump’s feathers-and-warpaint yelp. Ted Cruz came closest, which is one reason, along with his social conservatism, why he was second in line and why there is substantial support for his running in 2020.
Even when Trump says he’d keep governmental social security for retirees, his jeremiad is brimstone and hellfire for Washington. The more unflinchingly Trump preaches, the more it “clicks” with the national creed and the more satisfying it feels.
Trump University taught: “You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions – you sell feelings.” Trump had no hand in the development of America’s civil-religious anti-authoritarian feelings, but he taps into them. His first and continuing charge against Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine is that they are “ultimate insiders”.
In nativist form, “rid ye of the devil” is extended from the populist Satan of big government to other spoilers of the City on the Hill, especially traditionally suspect groups like immigrants and Muslims. Many factors go into antipathy against these communities, and surveys have correlated support for Trump with pre-existing intolerance for immigrants, racial minorities, and Muslims. But intolerance becomes calls for deportation and border closings where “throw the devil out” is seen as the way to save a fallen world.
One definition of “tragic” is getting behind solutions that don’t solve problems. Closing borders to keep or throw the bastards out will probably not address America’s economic or national security problems. Given the extensive vetting process, it’s not clear that barring Muslims will boost security, but it does do Isis’s PR for them, giving weight to the claim that America is in a war against all Muslims. It’s also not clear that reducing immigration would yield economic benefits, since legal and illegal immigrants to the US create companies and jobs and boost the economy by a surplus of $35bn annually, benefiting all but the lowest earners.
America’s employment crisis could be addressed through education, job (re)training, and regional redevelopment, for a start. But these options lack the satisfaction of “ride ’em out of town”.
What of Clinton and the year-long outpouring of support for Sanders? Though they occupy different positions on the Democratic spectrum, they, like Obama, preach America’s alternative gospel: government is not the devil that should be kept as small as possible; instead, it should be large enough to give the little guy a leg-up. The Clinton platform builds on the Roosevelt Institute’s policy recommendations that government “rewrite the rules” for broad-based distribution of resources.
This American gospel too believes in “cast out the old to build the new”. Obama, after all, also campaigned on “Change” in the American civil creed idiom. But this alternative “change” and creed sees government as the agent responsible for maintaining opportunities for ordinary people and for ensuring that the middle class is the largest class, which it is no longer.
In describing the difference between the candidates’ economic plans, The New York Times wrote that we have “Mr. Trump seizing on economic dislocation in mixing populist anti-trade positions with traditionally Republican tax cutting, and Mrs. Clinton seeing a strong government hand in creating jobs and driving up wages.”
The first chorus of this civil creed came in the early decades of the twentieth century when widespread labor abuses prodded the call for government to protect the citizenry from greedy elites. Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) spearheaded the reformist legislation of the Progressive Era. His cousin Franklin Roosevelt (Democrat) inaugurated the New Deal, both substantial increases in government to protect the common woman and man.
Still within this tradition, the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 wrote to his brother Edgar, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things…Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” The final hymn of America’s “leg-up” creed was Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights and Great Society legislation, substantial government programs to aid the needy and ensure minorities and women of their political rights.
The economic tsunami of 2008 has added to the problems that have been accumulating since the 1980s – not only purchasing power stagnation but the fear that it will worsen.
America is in a civil-religious war about its response. Rid-ye-of the-devil’s-government remains America’s first and oldest civil religion. It faces the newer “leg up” creed. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and those leaning Democratic see a major role for the government in lifting people out of poverty; only 36% of Republicans do. Eighty-two percent of Democrats see government as having a major role to play in healthcare; only 34% of Republicans do.
The apostles of each creed, like the circuit-rider preachers who traversed America, cross the country today with their campaign staffs, hoping to save the nation.
In 1787, the majority of Americans opposed the new constitution though the Articles of Confederation was so weak Washington couldn’t govern. The objection: the proposed constitution would give government undue control. America still isn’t quite sure what to do with its own government.
Marcia Pally teaches multilingual multicultural studies at New York University. Her latest book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality