Donald Trump: Apostle of America’s Civil Religion
Marcia PallyABC Religion and Ethics16 Nov 2016
Trump gives voice, not only to American discontent, but to its political faith that it will be solved by ‘booting the bums out’. The more he preaches, the more he taps into the national creed.
Marcia Pally is a Professor at New York University in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and a permanent Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Her most recent book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.
Before and since the election of Donald Trump, colleagues and friends overseas have been asking, “what the heck is going on over there?” As though something new or inexplicable were afoot.
My first answer thus must be: what’s going on “over here” is much the same that always goes on.
Far from being exceptional, the election that just ended was as American as apple pie. One could say it’s a matter of America’s civil religion.
Coined by Jean Jacques Rousseau, “civil religion” describes the beliefs, values and understanding of the world that make political, social and economic behaviour what they are. Sociologist Robert Bellahidentified the “biblical archetypes” – Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth” – that are worked into a civil religion that is “also genuinely American and genuinely new.”
Articles of political faith
Its first article of faith is fervour. Problems, because they are with us, 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 their principles – have faith in what will save the day. It’s “the economy, stupid!” when we’re describing problems. But when it comes to solutions, beliefs count.
The problems are that many Americans feel squeezed out of the globalized, technology-driven economy, out of the political decision-making that governs it, and out of the accompanying elite culture.
On one hand, Obama’s record is estimable: the U.S. economy has steadily improved since 2009; unemployment is down to 5%; wages have risen, especially for lower income earners; 3.5 million people rose above the poverty line over the past year with much of the gain going to blacks and Hispanics. That’s the biggest drop in poverty since 1999. By October 2016, the annual median household income had risen to $56,500, up 5.2%, the largest rise since 1967; health insurance coverage continues to increase, with only 9.1% lacking such insurance. “Americans last year reaped the largest economic gains,” the New York Times reported, “in nearly a generation.”
On the other hand, this improvement is unequally distributed, and many in the working classes feel side-lined or fear they or their children soon will be, as familiar jobs ebb away and horizons dim. Middle class voters are also caught an economic squeeze as their purchasing power has remained flat since the 1980s and costs of education, health care, and much else have risen. The U.S. today has less upward mobility than Canada and Europe. It is the most unequal of all Western nations: our “Gini” (inequality) index is 85.1, in line with Russia (93.1), Chile (81.4), India (81.3), Indonesia (82.8) and Kazakhstan 86.7. The top 20% of households own over 84% of the wealth, the bottom 40% own 0.3%. CEO-to-worker pay-ratio is in fact 354-to-1. Fifty years ago, it was 20-to-1.
In sum, both the working and middles classes are motivated by the present economic squeeze and by the fear of continuing decline and a sense of powerlessness in a society “rigged” against them – a Trump mantra. The culture whose rules they knew and played by – hard work, discipline, church-going – is being undermined, they fear. Going if not gone is the tough, self-reliant responsibility of American history, myth and pride.
But – you will notice – stagnant wages, rising costs and fear of dim futures were also the focus of other Republican candidates, and of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as well. What distinguishes voters and captures allegiance is not our economic sins but beliefs about the path to salvation. In America, salvation involves what Bellah called “Sacrificial Death” and “Rebirth” – not only starting anew but rejecting the old, without which one cannot start anew. This is the second article of our civil religious faith.
“Cast out the corrupt!” – we hear echoes in the preacher’s “rid ye of the devil” and traces in the parallel, political call to “boot the bums out.” This election year, it is clearest in the Trump campaign but emerges in alternate form in Democratic positions. Populist demands grow loud when the “bums” are identified as Washington insiders, constrainers of liberties, corrupt and incompetent. Nativist demands increase when the “bums” are immigrants or other suspect groups. In both, a troubled world will be set right when evil forces are purged from the body politic.
First, the populist form. When Obama was elected, opponents branded him a fascist and communist. It’s not easy to be both at once, but Americans fear the same thing in both: government control. Whoever persuades the nation that he will keep government small and individual opportunity large wins the country. Americans – across the continent, class, religion and race – respect hard-working, risk-taking self-responsibility. They respect local “voluntary associations” (as Tocqueville called them) that get things done without help from outsiders. And they disdain free-loaders who rely on the government.
Good things have come of this: an anti-authoritarianism critical of inherited privilege and status quo ways of thinking; a healthy, democratic critique of government; and a willingness to develop new ideas and life forms. But it has also brought unreflective hostility to government programs and to those – immigrants, African-Americans – whom white Americans fear do not share their self-reliance and responsibility.
Whatever you think of this, America comes by it honestly – or at least historically. We were born in a revolution against central government. But long before, the settlers of the 1620-40s, fleeing the centralization power play between parliament and Charles I, were wary of government elites. London’s men were the bums to be booted out. The many settlers who were religious dissenters were doubly suspicious of central government for its centralization and persecution. All told, Americans were a group self-selected for keeping central government out of the “New Jerusalem.”
The rough nature of settlement and frontier living – until the early twentieth century – further prodded the view that government was not good for much since there was relatively little government around on which to rely. The role of government grew as the country did, but individual initiative and local community were long the keys to survival and the future. Their value – along with suspicion of central government – was imprinted in the American civil creed.
Born also in revolution (against Rome), Protestantism, with its mandate to read the Bible for oneself and to find one’s own inner path to God, further encouraged self-responsibility and a distaste for authorities ecclesial and political. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s and the Second from 1820-50 were festivals of individual iconoclasm, with breakaway religious groups and populist religious ideas promoted by untrained entrepreneurial preachers.
Reformed Protestantism, coming through the Puritan and other Calvinist traditions, held that sovereignty does not begin with central government but with local covenanted communities, the foedus, which form networks to constitute the nation. These ideas gave the U.S. its federal system of government and robust civil society – and the continuing suspicion of central government, expressed for instance in political and legal battles over states’ rights.
During the American revolution, America’s anti-authoritarian churches sided with the revolutionaries. Among the more anti-authoritarian was Arminianism – in America, Methodism – which shifted the accent from God’s Grace to the individual’s role in her own salvation through prevenient grace in this world. Accept Jesus and you are saved, a theology which is both self-reliant and democratic. As John Wesley, who with his brother Charles popularized Methodism in America, wrote, “He will not save us unless we ‘save ourselves’ …” It was a faith well-suited to a do-it-yourself nation, and America embraced it.
The number of Methodist churches rose from 20 in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860. By mid-nineteenth 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.”
Distrust of government
From this history came the myth, the reality and the value of local self-determination and individual self-reliance; the other side of the coin, suspicion of government. Leaning on the authorities is for the faint and faithless of heart. Self-reliance, the Lord’s Prayer. When Ronald Reagan in 1981 said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he was channelling American history and zeal.
So was Obama. In 2008, he too campaigned on “change.” As part of America’s civil religion, the belief that the Good Times come to those who boot the bums in government out transcends political party. Obama’s message of “change” – get rid of the old, bring in the new – was ironically, absolutely traditional.
But “rid ye of the devil” and “boot the bums out” mean that America doesn’t know what to do with its own government. This was writ large in this year’s election but it is always writ somewhere in American politics. In 2011, for instance, 27 states sued Obama, arguing that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) unconstitutionally abrogated citizen freedom by mandating that people buy health insurance.
The crux of the gun-rights movement is not hunting rifles or guns for self-protection (as no legislation threatens these) but “to protect against the tyranny of our own government” (as a lawyer for the National Rifle Association noted in the Harvard Law Journal) and to preserve “our way of life” against “vague but looming tyranny” as David Zucchino wrote recently in the New York Times.
The Americans across the political spectrum who are dissatisfied and angry today are pinched economically, fear it will worsen and sense that they are powerless to stop it. Some see the complexion of the country growing browner and fear that with this demographic shift, the value of hard-working, risk-taking self-reliance is being replaced by, on one hand, government handouts to those who aren’t working and, on the other, by an economic system that is no longer responsive to their hard work.
As sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes, many feel that they have laboured long for the American dream, which eludes them while others – people of colour, immigrants – are cutting ahead in line abetted by a person-of-colour president.
The paradox is that immigrants to America have precisely the values of hard-working, disciplined self-reliance, which is why they spur economic growth. In September 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported on research from economists and demographers both favourable to and troubled by immigration. They found:
In sum, the report found immigrants to be “integral to the nation’s economic growth.”
The justifiable economic complaints of native-born Americans stem less from immigration, as nativist populism says, than from technological change, improved productivity and the way global trade is regulated. Yet even this is a complex picture: while the United States lost one million jobs to China between 2000 and 2007, the job loss then stopped. According to the Congressional Research Service in 2015, NAFTA did not yield similar job losses: the “net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest.” By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that the re-establishment of trade tariffs, as Trump proposes, “in the best case scenario” would “strip us of at least 3.5 million jobs.”
Economists Peter Petri and Michael Plummer estimate that the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the whipping boy of the Trump campaign – would raise American incomes by $131 billion; annual global income gains by 2030 would be $492 billion. Existing trade agreements, on the research of the Peterson Institute, have added between $7,100 and $12,900 additional annual income (in 2003 dollars) to the average household.
Yet in the American context, breaking large international agreements designed by Washington feels like booting the bums out.
Benefits from trade, like recent increases in growth and jobs, are distributed unevenly. To address un- and under-employment, the U.S. might for a start improve education, require corporate contribution to worker re-training, develop substantial private and public investment in regional re-development, and prevent U.S. firms from moving headquarters abroad to avoid paying taxes that would contribute to the costs of the above.
Breaking the rules
If these ideas aren’t good, others will be. Americans could demand better ones. But this would likely mean a substantial role for government and cooperation among federal government, local governments and industry. And that’s at odds with our civil religion.
This is a foundational paradox in America’s civil creed: distrust of the federal government by people and regions that need – and take – its help. In April 2009 – in the depths of the economic crisis caused by private investment high jinks – 55% of Americans thought the problem was big government, not big business; only 32% were concerned about the role of big business. In 2015, 55% of Americans said ordinary citizens would “do a better job of solving problems” than government.
So when politicians say that the problem is big government, it sounds right. It “clicks.” Boot the bums out. In April 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute reported, “two thirds of Trump supporters think the nation needs a leader who breaks the rules.”
This goes some way towards explaining the attraction of Trump’s “bad boy behaviour.” His racism and misogyny add to his appeal because they are a slap in the face of those condescending politically correct elites rigging the economy and they kick the government’s PC, anti-discrimination regulations in the pants. Boot out the bums and their prissy laws protecting the (immigrant and black) line-cutters.
Build that wall, ban those Muslims
What about refugees? They undergo the most rigorous, two-year vetting process of anyone applying to stay in the United States; Syrians have an extra level of security check. The system cannot be perfect, but given the difficulty of getting through it, terrorists are far likelier to enter the U.S. through other means, like tourism.
It’s thus not clear that barring Muslim refugees will boost security, but it does do ISIS’s PR for them, giving weight to the claim that the U.S. is in a war against all Muslims, who thus must retaliate.
Yet booting the immigrants and refugees out has wide appeal. It’s “rid ye of the devil” extended from the Satan of big government to other spoilers of the City on the Hill. There are many reasons for antipathy towards Muslims and other immigrant groups, and surveys have correlated support for Trump with pre-existing racial and ethnic intolerance. But intolerance becomes Trump’s call for deportation/border-closing only where boot-the-devil-outis seen as the way to save a fallen world.
The tragedy of U.S. government
One definition of tragedy is voting for policies that won’t address your problems. Trump promises to solve the nation’s ills by booting out: the bums in Washington, their trade agreements, immigrants and refugees. Additionally, he promises to cut taxes for the super-rich and to dismantle Obamacare, which has provided health insurance for over 20 million people who previously did not have it.
The wealthy who voted for Trump made a self-interested but coherent choice. But the millions of non-rich have made a tragic one. For Trump’s promises will not likely address their duress and disappointments. The conservative Tax foundation estimates that Trump’s tax plan will raise the debt from $2.6 trillion to $3.9 trillion in ten years even with the job growth he projects. Though he promises to bring back traditional manufacturing and mining to the U.S., he buys steel from China for his construction projects. Moody’s estimate a loss of 3.5 of 3.5 million jobs from Trump’s trade and tax policies.
Nonetheless, Trump’s jeremiad of hellfire for Washington gives voice, not only to American discontent, but to our political faith that it will be solved by booting the bums out. The more unflinchingly he preaches, the more he taps into the national creed. To these and others, Trump’s rage at government “feels right,” like a Boston Tea Party redux. When he says “I’ll fix it,” his supporters believe that he, an outsider, will fix it. They don’t hear that he, now elected, will head the detested government. Other Republican candidates had small-government proposals but they lacked Trump’s feathers and war-paint yelp. Ted Cruz came closest, which is why he was second in line and is already running for 2020.
You might want to know why the rich aren’t booted out. On the whole, the rich are not resented in America. They are considered self-responsible, admirable risk-takers. There is some concern about large corporations: 56% of Americans say they have a negative impact on the country. Yet this is because they are seen as unfair fat cats, not self-reliant hard-workers but basking in established wealth in a handshake with government to keep the self-reliant little guy out of the rewards of her labour. By contrast 82% of Americans see small businesses as having a positive effect.
Enter Trump: rich, successful, bold, and though he inherited millions and received more in loans from his father, he is seen as willing to take risks, to build and, most of all, to stick it to the insiders and boot the bums out.
What of Clinton and the year-long surge for Sanders? They were preaching America’s alternate gospel: still “change” but government has a hand in the changing, in giving the little guy a leg-up. Indeed, Obama campaigned on “change” in order to give the government a larger hand. Summing up the distinction between Clinton and Trump, 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” and in regulating the market share of large corporations so that smaller business can survive.
In this civil religion, government’s purpose is not to shrink but to be substantial enough to provide services and opportunities. Its loudest chorus came in the first decades of the twentieth century when widespread labour abuses prodded Teddy Roosevelt’s reformist program (Republican). His cousin Franklin (Democrat) inaugurated the New Deal, both substantial increases in government to protect the common woman and man. This civil creed continued through the emergencies of the Depression, World War II and early Cold War. In 1954, the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower 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 our “leg-up” civil religion was Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights and Great Society Programs, large government programs to aid the needy and ensure African-Americans their political rights. But these – seen as government “handouts” to the undeserved and lazy (and black) – prodded a fierce anti-government backlash that remains today. Then came the 1960s counterculture – seen as more druggy, irresponsible self-indulgence – and large sectors of the nation sought a return to traditional values of self-reliance and small-government-ism.
The New Right that held from the late 1960s to the Tea Parties earned the allegiance of the financial centre and right; those who value self-reliance, including Christians following their heritage of suspicion of government (both on religious freedom grounds and on grounds of anti-authoritarian self-responsibility); and the working and middle classes abandoned by the Democrats, who like the Republicans did not embark on re-training and regional re-development as U.S. firms moved to low-wage countries. This neglect has now boomeranged as the Republican base, fed up with unfulfilled promises, duress, and fear, looks to a farther right populism.
Facing present economic and geo-political challenges, America is in a civil-religious war about its response. Rid-ye-of the-devils-government remains its oldest civil religion. It faces the newer “leg up” creed. 72% of Democrats see a major role for the government in lifting people out of poverty; only 36% of Republicans do. 82% of Democrats see government as having a major role in health care; only 34% of Republicans do.
In this past presidential campaign, the apostles of each civil faith hoped to save the nation. In 1787, the majority of Americans did not want to sign on to the new Constitution because they feared it would give government undue control. America still isn’t quite sure what to do with its own government.
Marcia Pally is a Professor at New York University in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and a permanent Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. She is also a guest Professor in the Theology Department at Humboldt University in Berlin. She is the author, most recently, of Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.