President Trump: Many Fears and One Hope

I am afraid of a Trump presidency, and that is rational. Most presidents do actually try to follow through on their campaign promises, such as a wall with Mexico, a deportation force, or a curtailing of Muslim religious liberty. Most new leaders continue in the modes of leadership by which they rose to power. Most 70-year-olds don’t change their beliefs or habits.

I am afraid for minorities, who will likely experience a detrimental shift in both law and culture. And I am afraid that the stress and complexity demanded by the presidency will exacerbate Trump’s reactive temperament. That is to say, as concerned as I am about his plans for America, I am more anxious about his reactions to surprise events, whether at home or abroad. As President Obama said last week, “whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out.” A magnification of Trump’s core personality traits is almost impossible to imagine, since he is already a living caricature.

But I do have one hope for a Trump presidency, a hope unpredictably gained by revisiting the speeches of Pat Buchanan. Over the course of Trump's run, many have compared him to Pat Buchanan, who ran a brash, nationalist campaign against George H. W. Bush in 1992. He eventually backed the nominee, and Buchanan’s convention speech that summer is one of the most famous examples of “culture war” rhetoric in modern American history.

Here's how he saw the country in 1992: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” He itemized grievances against “radical feminism” and those liberals “cross-dressing” as moderates – specifically “the agenda that Clinton and Clinton would impose on America: abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units. That's change, all right. But that's not the kind of change America needs. It's not the kind of change America wants. And it's not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call ‘God's country.’”

A war for the soul of America, which is God’s country.

Here’s my one point of hope for the Trump presidency: so far, Donald Trump has not tried to wrap his political positions in Christianity. Thank God.

White Christians may have elected him, but he didn’t pander for that vote nearly as much as observers thought he needed to. In fact, Trump shows no interest in religion at all, even the basic civil religion of “God bless America,” citations of the Psalms, and the self-sacrificial ethos of public service. 

Trump, as a Republican candidate, offered a convention speech that did not once mention God. He thanked evangelicals, but ad libbed that he probably didn’t deserve their support. He speaks with no fluency about religion, spirituality, or the Bible. For these reasons and others, last week Mark Silk declared his election the “end of civil religion.” He writes: “As for acknowledging that America stands under a higher judgment, the president-to-be could not even acknowledge that he might himself have done a thing to repent of. If there’s ever been a president less capable of invoking God, I don’t know who it was.”

From this springs my hope. Trump seems determined to govern the way he campaigned. White evangelicals and Catholics may have elected him, but he did not claim a mandate from Christianity -- or worse, from God. And he has given us no reason to believe he will.

I hope that Russell Moore is right about this juncture for American Christianity, that it opens up an opportunity for self-scrutiny. Moore argues that, post-Trump,

conservative evangelicals are politically homeless—whether they know it or not. That is not the worst situation we could be in. Political power—or the illusion of it—has not always been good for us. Such influence has led us to conform our minds to that of the world about what matters, and who matters, in the long-run of history. We should, as missionary Jim Elliot put it a generation ago, own our “strangerhood.”  … The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics.

As in his recent book, Onward, Moore wants Christians to starkly distinguish themselves from the broader culture, a task he believes will be aided by Trump’s election. “Perhaps this electoral shakeup means that President Trump will lead America to be great again,” he writes, “but regardless, whatever happens to America, we must seek the Kingdom first again.”  I hope he's right.

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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