Responding to the Election
The election of Donald Trump is many things: a surprise, an outrage, an occasion for sociological and theological reflection. How are we, as Christians, called to respond to the election of a misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic demagogue? How are we to live in a nation that has elected such a person as its leader? What do we tell and how do we organize our people about living and doing ministry in the America of 2017 and beyond?
I don't have very many answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts. So please indulge me while I make a preacherly numbered set of three points, and then let's all have at it over a convivial serving of the beverage of our choice.
The first set of things I want to say is best summed up in a tweet I posted right after the election, last Wednesday. I said, "We have a choice between alienation and solidarity. Let's choose solidarity." As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I had already experienced one election loss this season, so while I was disturbed by Trump's victory I wasn't quite as devastated as were my sisters and brothers (mostly sisters) who had supported Hillary from the get-go. Don't misread me here: I voted for Hillary with enthusiasm and even sent her money (which, of course, made me prey to a relentless round of dunning emails as the campaign wore on), but having watched my first choice candidate lose narrowly in June was good preparation for seeing it happen to my second-choice one in November.
I have followed my friends on Facebook and Twitter pretty closely these past days, and I certainly understand their rage, bewilderment, and hopelessness. But I have been a bit concerned over posts that say, in effect: "Trump will never be my president." Now, as an American, I may find Trump revolting, outrageous, and incredibly problematic, but yes, indeed, he will be my president. To say "Trump will never be my president," is, frankly, not much of a step up from being a Birther. The right wing crazies regularly cried that Obama was not their president. It seems to me that to be a citizen means that I inhabit a political community that will be led by whomever we lawfully elect. I may not be happy about it, but I must admit that, yes, unless I emigrate to Canada or Mexico, Donald Trump will be my president.
As the Psalms remind us, alienation is not a new experience in human affairs. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s (and our parents) knew a lot about alienation, the sense that we are at odds with the values and norms of the prevailing culture. But as Albert Camus and others reminded us, even if we take alienation as a given, we still face an "existential" decision: to act or not to act. Camus' great short story, "The Artist at Work", tells of a painter who struggles between the poles of creative solitude and social solidarity. At the end of the story, his death, he leaves a canvas painted on which is one word, ambiguously hard to read (in French) as solitaire or solidaire. Camus' point: you don't really have much of a choice between personal integrity and standing with others. You have to do both. Even if you're alienated, you nevertheless inhabit a society you share with your fellows. So today's existential question, at least to me, shapes up this way: how do I maintain my own moral and intellectual integrity and at the same time continue to see myself in community with an electorate, half of whom espouse values I cannot stand?
There are, in effect, two questions of solidarity before us. I have just named the first. The second goes this way. Yes, I need to work to see myself as part of an America that has just elected a royal jackass. But solidarity extends in a multitude of directions. So even more importantly, I need to reaffirm my solidarity with the marginalized, oppressed, and increasingly imperiled people now placed in greater jeopardy by that jackass's (and his congressional cohort's) new power. Tempted as I am to tend my own garden, relax in the relative comfort of a CPG retirement package, and enjoy my status as one of the (white, Anglo, straight, relatively affluent) people Trump's administration will favor, it seems to me that I do not have the luxury of retreating into the comfort of my own private Weltshcmertz. I am still a member of the American political community. And, because I strive to follow Jesus, I am in a special kind of solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and all those whom Trump and his minions would seek to disadvantage.
So the first point: let's take all the time we need to lament the outcome of last Tuesday's election. But let's not get stuck there. Real people will suffer because of Trump, a Republican congress, and a 5-4 right wing Supreme Court. We who follow Jesus must recommit ourselves to acting as agents of love, justice, and compassion in the years ahead. And, yes, we need to remember that the people who voted Republican aren't from Mars. They, too, are our fellow humans and citizens. Even as they appall us, we need, at least, to try to understand what drives and pains them. They didn’t just vote for Trump to be mean. They voted for Trump because they felt he could solve their problems.
My second point grows out of the first. Just as the Psalms remind us of the persistence of human alienation, so reading the New Testament recalls us to the social location of Jesus and his followers in first century Jewish Palestine. Christianity did not come into history in a vacuum: it emerged in the context of the Roman empire and its delusional claims to ultimate authority. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan and others have elaborated on the sociological reality that greeted the Jesus community both during Jesus's life and after. Palestine was occupied by Rome, which not only taxed the people mercilessly but also kept a standing army that ate all the food. So Jewish Palestinians were both starving and broke. And as the church began to spread in the Mediterranean world, it did so as a kind of alternative to the empire. The first deacons were a social service guerilla force bringing aid to the poor, sick, and oppressed. It's no accident that the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was a deacon. Rome didn't like its presumptions challenged. And it really didn't like any group that served the people Caesar then and Trump now would label "losers".
When asked how he would characterize Jesus's essential message, Crossan sums it up this way: "In your face, Caesar!" The world is not Caesar's: it is God's. The Jesus community stands as a rebuke to all Caesar’s presumptions. And while we have no choice but to render unto Caesar that which is his, we who follow Jesus do so knowing that we are a resistance force whose final allegiance is to someone else.
I was in Washington D.C. last month for the installation of Randy Hollerith, my successor as dean of the cathedral there. The preacher that day was our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, who several times referred to the church in his signature phrase, "the Jesus movement". He called on the cathedral to take up its role as the representative of that movement in the nation's capital. A great sermon which I enjoyed a lot, particularly as it recapitulated so many things I said myself from that pulpit so many times. Funny how we think preachers are brilliant when they say what we always said.
After the election, I found myself wondering: what would I do now if I were still dean of Washington National Cathedral in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president? It is no secret that I often found myself at odds with the prevailing culture of that cathedral during my time there as dean. I found the cathedral's mission statement, "the spiritual home of the nation", unintentionally hilarious (when, precisely, did the nation ask you?) and I regularly questioned the way the cathedral unthinkingly let itself be used to put a religious gloss on political power. One of my colleagues there preached a sermon on Last Pentecost/Christ the King that used the phrase “Christ is king” without any irony whatsoever. I used to say that the only place the illusion of Constantinian Christendom still flourished was at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues NW in the District.
Over the last week, I have come to realize that, were I still at the cathedral, I would have opposed allowing it to host Donald Trump's inaugural prayer breakfast on January 21. I would have opposed it NOT because "Donald Trump is not my president", but because the values that Trump espoused during the campaign are so manifestly opposed to any plain sense reading of the Gospel. If we are the Jesus Movement in anything beyond name-only, we must, like the earliest Christians, be prepared to present ourselves as a counter-force and counter-culture to imperial values and norms. There is no way in which I, as a follower of Jesus, could allow sacred space to be used to put a religious gloss on Trump's reactionary and abusive ideas. I will be interested to see what the dean and chapter do, but my guess is that they will find the enticements of proximity to power irresistible.
One of the theological terms that helped me understand the cathedral and its culture is the idea of Erastianism, "the doctrine that the state is superior to the church in ecclesiastical matters. It is named after the 16th-century Swiss physician and Zwinglian theologian Thomas Erastus. . . The state, he held, had both the right and the duty to punish all offenses, ecclesiastical as well as civil, wherever all the citizens adhered to a single religion. The power of the state in religious matters was thus limited to a specific area. Erastianism acquired its present meaning from Richard Hooker’s defense of secular supremacy in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
Erastianism is often summarized in the sentiment, "the church is the state at prayer." It is a tendency, I'm afraid, to which we Anglicans are unfortunately subject. As descendants of an established church tradition, our ecclesiastical culture continues to embody the idea, in Alexander Pope's words, that "whatever is, is right".
Indeed, having the chutzpah to erect a cathedral in Washington and offer it to the nation as "a Westminster Abbey for America" is something only entitled Episcopalians could pull off. (Can you imagine another religious group with only 3% of the population attempting that particular trick? They would have been laughed out of town.) But Washington National Cathedral is not alone in exhibiting Erastian tendencies. In many of the statements I've seen issued by clergy in the past week, I find several expressions of the Erastian idea that we're all Americans under God and we all need to support our president because he won and that's the way the Holy Spirit works. I have heard calls, to put it bluntly, for what I would call “cheap reconciliation”. I will reserve my ideas about Pneumatology for a later occasion, but I will now hazard the guess that it's a bit blasphemous to blame God for making Donald Trump our president.
So what is the public role of the church in this moment in American life? One of the unthinking ways we tacitly enable our Erastian tendencies is to buy into a quietist notion of the parish as a refuge from the push and pull world of politics, work, and social responsibility. "Come in here, rest, pray, and seek refuge from a chaotic world," we all but proclaim and thus by refusing to confront the established order we tacitly empower it. At the very least, the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress must alert us of the impossibility of living this fiction any longer. American Christianity tends to exalt the private and personal, but we all know that the Bible's moral concerns are overwhelmingly public. If the church is to act as the Jesus Movement it must do so publicly. We cannot pursue private spirituality and cohesive group feeling at the expense of advocacy for the values of Jesus in the public square.
And this leads me back to Richard Hooker, our greatest theologian. Yes, to an extent, Hooker did give in to Erastian tendencies, especially as he saw the church and the nation as coextensive with each other. But as dangerous as his proto-Erastianism was, Hooker also affirmed its obverse: the idea, expressed with such vigor and regularity throughout the "Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity" of commonwealth. For Hooker, the church is inexorably invested in the common good. Unlike the more rigorist sects which saw the church as the separatist ark of salvation for the elect in a world going to hell, Hooker saw the church enmeshed in the fabric of society, and he embraced and articulated a comprehensive vision of the church's mission as one embracing and forwarding the common good.
If we are to be the Jesus Movement in the Donald Trump years, we will need to hand over our Erastian tendencies to our higher power and re-engage Richard Hooker's notions of the common good. William Temple, a more recent theologian who knew Hooker better than I ever will, understood this. He called the church the world's only organization that does not exist for its own benefit. We are here, primarily, for others. As we figure out how to follow Jesus under President Donald Trump, we will need to reclaim our natural, Anglican public role as the comprehensive church embracing the common good. If we had done so better before now we might not be faced with this miserable political reality. But Trump's election gives us no choice but to take up the cross as a public act. We can no longer hide our prophetic candle under a bushel and say we’re being “pastoral”.
As the results began to come in on election night, Stephen Colbert said that his producer had taken away his shoestrings and his belt. You may be feeling the need to be on suicide watch yourself at this point in my musings, so before we all go over the cliff, I want to end on a genuinely affirmative note.
On Tuesday, November 8, my wife Kathy and my friend Larry Dilg and I spent sixteen hours as precinct poll workers in the largely Latino area of Mission Hills, not far from Sylmar and San Fernando. I have to tell you that beforehand I was dreading this work. Although I've put in lots of 16 hour days in my life, I was not looking forward to being stuck in one room for that long with the possibility of angry self-appointed Trump poll watchers coming by to harass voters with fistfights breaking out in the voting booth lines. I thought election day in a polling place in the Valley would be a day-long stomach ache. Boy was I wrong.
Even at this remove, it is hard to articulate the range of emotions my fellow poll workers and I experienced over the course of that day. As the first voters began to stream in, they all looked so happy and so hopeful. I turned to Larry and said, "this is the most inspiring thing I have ever seen," and that ebullient feeling lasted from 7 a.m. all the way to 8 p.m. and beyond. I would say 3/4 of the voters in that precinct were Latino, many of them fluent only in Spanish. Over the course of the whole day, I never heard a candidate mentioned by name. People were respectful of each other, and of the process, and they took each other and their obligations seriously. At the end of the day, many parents brought their children into the voting booth, and as a man with unmet grandparental needs I really enjoyed giving "I Voted" stickers to the kids. Working at precinct 9000167A was indeed a slog, but it will go down as one of the great and memorable days of my life. It felt like a religious experience. As I said later on Facebook, "Voting is a secular sacrament."
Now I mean neither to be Pollyanna nor reductive when I say this, but something about the quality of that shared, polling place experience has stayed with me even in the cataclysmic aftermath of election night. Because on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I was lucky enough to spend a day with the America that is coming to be. In 2040 there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in America. Although the electorate now continues to be predominantly white, Latinos and people of color will increasingly come to dominate it as the decades of this century advance. Trump's victory, like Caesar's hegemony, is temporary and misleading. The world that is coming to be really is a world more in line with the values of Jesus and his movement. Trump's election is one of those creational groans that Paul speaks of in Romans. Something new is being born, and you and I and the people we serve can step into it now and be a part of it even before it happens. If all this sounds eschatological, well you get the picture.
Yes, Donald Trump won, in part because the old order has not yet passed away. But listen to some of what we learned from the exit polls that day (courtesy of Rebecca Solnit on Facebook):
According to the New York Times, Clinton won people under 45. She won nonwhite people by huge margins, including 88% of Blacks. She won people who earn under $50,000 a year. She won college graduates. She won 59% of city dwellers, 71% of Jews, and 68% of the nonreligious, 59% of those who are not evangelical Christians, 55% of the unmarried. 78% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual voters. 76% of those opposed to a wall along the border.
CNN polls say that she won 54% of the women's vote, while he won 41%, so we can say men did this, but he won 58% of the white vote and we can definitely say white people did this--63% of white men and 53% of white women. But 51% of college-educated white women voted for her. 62% of unmarried women voted for her, while only 49% of married women did.
Black women remain awesome, having given him 4% of their vote. But this poll also makes clear that more young white people voted for him than for her; the good-looking results for the youth vote are due to higher percentages of people of color.
Simply put, the social and demographic trends that were moving before the election will continue to move even during Trump's term and after. No doubt we are in for an execrable four years with this demagogue and his congressional (and, soon, Supreme Court) henchmen, but remember, in King's words, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. The changing demographic nature of America and its electorate is on our side. And if we are to have any credibility in our own eyes or in those of the world, we will speak even more boldly on behalf of an inclusive and expansive vision of our country during Trump’s presidency than we ever have before. It’s easy to stand for inclusion in the Obama years. The test of our courage is what we will say and do under Trump.
As Anglican members of the Jesus Movement, you and I are necessarily invested in the common good. As alienated as we may now feel, we will find our antidote to depression in civic engagement on behalf of the gospel, confident that a new day is coming to be born. And even if we all don't live to see that coming time of a genuine multiracial America, in walking toward it and witnessing to it now we will be counted among those who greeted it from afar and always knew that America's true greatness lies not behind us but ahead.