NOTE: This column was written and scheduled for publication before the unsealing of the Manafort-Gates indictments and before the revelation of the "Guilty" plea by Papadopoulos. Both those developments make me even more nervous about the potential of progressives' fond visions of impeachment leading them to step into a political Venus flytrap. So the following is, if anything, even more relevant.
By now, I suppose it is a commonplace, almost a cliché, to say that conservative / Reformed evangelical / fundamentalist Christians have Donald Trump and Jesus hopelessly confused. I would not break a lance arguing against that. The entire Reformed / evangelical Christian church – most of it, anyway, though with certain conspicuous exceptions – has, Esau-like, sold its moral and spiritual birthright for the meretricious bowl of stew that is influence in the West Wing and Oval Office. Like Church officials in the Roman world after Constantine conceded the legitimacy of Christianity, evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham have entered into an almost classical Faustian bargain with the zoo of para-fascists and white supremacists that is the Trump White House to gain political power, as in the days of Falwell, Sr., and the Moral Majority. All freely granted. But I am getting increasingly nervous about the tendency of progressives / leftists to make an analogous error – albeit in the opposite direction. Devotion to Trump has warped the morality of many Reformed churches. Opposition to Trump is increasingly warping the epistemology of the Resistance. I speak of this with some degree of past experience.
Back during the Middle Cambrian period, when I was a hyper-fundamentalist Christian (i.e., more conservative than Nazarenes and Southern Baptists), we all – that entire church culture – lived in a state of perpetual, tense, edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting expectancy of the imminent return of Jesus Christ to earth. (At least, we said that is how we lived – and how we should live. I make no judgment as to sincerity.) We saw ourselves as the Faithful Remnant of true Christians – the others who claimed the title being fake – confronting an implacably and militantly hostile godlessly secular world. A neutral observer could be instantly forgiven for looking at our collective state of mind and using a more concise and honest description: desperation. We were desperate. Desperate people often see what they want to see, and even when what they see is factually accurate, their interpretation of what they see is often skewed toward some kind of relief of that desperation. We wanted to believe Jesus was about to return. We knew that (e.g., Matt. ch. 24) “wars and rumors of wars” was a sign of the End Time … so we looked at the various wars in the world and concluded that … yes! … Jesus really was about to return. Ditto earthquakes. Now, wars and earthquakes have been around since about the time God made dirt. But we needed – were desperate for – these wars and these earthquakes, because these wars and these earthquakes confirmed our beliefs, thereby enabling us to believe that relief and liberation were imminent.
Same with Trump supporters: the election of Donald Trump, says Pat Robertson, is a conclusive sign that God is asserting Divine sovereignty to divert the Nation from the presumptively godless course it had taken, especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. And not just Robertson. Almost the entire right side of the conservative spectrum, with signal exceptions like Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, perhaps Bob Corker, et al. – are desperate to stand athwart the “browning” of America, tolerance for alternative sexualities, the equality under civil law of non-Christian religions, etc. They want to believe – in fact, they are desperate to believe – that these trends can be halted and reversed, and in that desperation, they interpret events so as to support this belief, just as we did in my little fundamentalist church back in “the day”. And if making common cause with para-fascists and the KKK is the price to pay for such reinforcement … well … cheap at twice the price!
What really concerns me is that, especially if I glance over Facebook and Twitter, I see a cognate of this happening on the left. In both cases, I see simple intellectual integrity at risk. In the case of the right, this risk assumes the form of playing dice with the Devil on matters of individual and social morality. Leftists and progressives, being more secular than conservatives, speak a less theocentric and more secular dialect, but the result is the same. I have lost count of the number of Facebook posts and Twitter feeds in which the writer alleges that some criticism of Trump or one of his gauleiters by Jimmy Kimmel was “devastating” to Trump, or that, having read the tea leaves of some White House document, Trump does not really want to be President and so is allegedly looking for some face-saving way to resign the Office. The collective result of all this is to promote the belief that, surface appearances being as they may, the deep currents of history are actually running against Trump and in favor of some deus ex machina salvation for the Republic. Well … maybe. I would like to think so. But I suspect that these intimations of incipient salvation result more from my progressive siblings’ desperation as endangered species in the political biosphere of Trump’s America than from a dispassionate analysis of what is really happening. In other words, and like my fundamentalist siblings of my youth, and like people on the right today … a lot of progressives are desperate: desperately seeking validation, and desperately willing to model their interpretations of events to obtain it.
Well … what’s wrong with that, you ask? If Trump does serve out his first term, we certainly need hope the way Londoners during the Blitz needed the Underground, i.e., as a refuge. The problem is that, in order to be truly sustaining and life-giving, hope must be based on a firm and uncompromising grasp of reality. Hope that is based on invidious and self-serving interpretations / understandings of events is anything but reality-based. If the walls and ceiling of the Tube had been made of plastic or papier mache, it would have anything but a refuge.
Again, my experience is instructive. At some point, probably in my middle teens, I discovered that, contrary to my expectations, Jesus was not going to return any time soon. The result of that discovery was two-fold: (1) I began the still-ongoing multiple-decade process of completely revising, from scratch and from the ground up, my whole conception of God, spirituality, and religion; even more importantly in terms of my emotional health, (2) I became allergic to hope. Consequence (1) was painful but healthy. Consequence (2) was anything but healthy. Avoiding disappointment became – in many ways, still is – my number-one priority in life. That latter bias necessitated multiple years of intense counseling and therapy. I became a teen-age version of Graham Greene's "burnt-out case", so that to this day, my reflexive / “go-to” reaction is to think and act according to Nikos Kazantzakis’s famous maxim: “Hope is a rotten-thighed whore”. I am always pulled in that direction. Avoiding crossing the event horizon into that kind of nihilism requires constant monitoring and bullshit-checking. There is a good reason why the role of Skeptic-In-Residence fits me so well: being otherwise is a helluva lot of work. Hope does not come naturally to me.
Resistance requires energy. In particular, resistance to Trump and incipient fascism requires energy. But what also requires energy is resisting the blandishments of our own – let’s face it – wishful thinking about the 25th Amendment or Trump’s ennui about the Presidency or … whatever … that feeds our desperation and our need to validate our desire for a counterfactually happy ending to the 2016 election. That may come. That may not. Trump may be impeached. He may not. He may run for a second term. He may not. The one thing we as progressives cannot afford to do – for the sake of our own mental hygiene as well as for the collective mental hygiene of the Republic – is to waste energy hammering the brake with one foot and the accelerator pedal with the other. The long-term result of serially frustrated hope is always burn-out, as it was with me personally vis a vis Christianity in particular and monotheistic religion in general. Do not emulate me and become one of Graham Greene’s burnt-out cases. Burnt-out cases cannot resist.
Hope, yes, but hope in moderation. And even then, only after exhaustive analysis. Do your homework first. Then hope. Not the other way around.
James R. Cowles
Trump in Israel ... Matty Stern / US Embassy Tel Aviv ... Public domain
Brandenburg Gate ... Photographer unknown ... CC by SA 4.0
Jewish star ... KitKatKrazy ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Falwell and Trump ... Office of the President ... Public domain
Whore of Babylon ... David Roberts ... Public domain