Rev. Dr. Earl Trent,
There is a religious revival taking place in America. Untracked and unreported it has already spread across this country popping up in the most unlikely of places. It has been unreported because it is not a Christian, Jewish, nor Islamic revival. Outside of the three Abrahamic religions the press, both mainstream and alternative, have only a thin knowledge of other religions. It is gone almost unnoticed because serious discussion of religion is no longer part of our public discourse and public knowledge of religion is abysmally low.
That is not to say that the evidence of this revival has not been noticed. A significant shift in American culture has indeed been noted, studied and labelled. In November, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” was the 2016 word of the year.
Post – Truth is defined as a condition “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press explained the choice. “We choose words that are going to highlight the interplay between our words and our culture,” Martin said. The final word of the year is meant to be one that captures the “ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”
The recognition of “post truth” as the word of the year indicates the significance of this shift in the ethos of our time. Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries takes it a step further. “Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.” And, he suggests, it may become a defining word of our time.
Post-truth labels a cultural phenomenon in completely secular terms. However, the examination of the major preoccupation of our culture in 2016, the campaign and election of Donald Trump and some of his subsequent actions, reveals that “post-truth” is inadequate in explaining the shift in the ethos of our culture.
As noted in the definition of post-truth the problem is not the existence of objective facts. It is that the effect of these objective facts has lessened considerably. Decisions, actions, public opinion are not being made in a rational way considering objective facts. Instead emotional appeals, personal beliefs are the major influencers.
The strength of these influencers is befuddling to most observers. The mainstream media certainly, the democratic party of course, but also the republican establishment and the opponents who were vanquished in the race for the republican nomination. All of them were operating from the same basic assumption that the American people considering the gravity of the office of the presidency would judge the policies, temperament, character and lack of political experience and make a rational choice of anyone but Trump. Their faulty premise was the idea that decision making is based on a rational world view. This is understandable because we are in the age of technology. This age is based on rational choices. Fortunes are made and lost on writing software, algorithms that are mathematical and dispassionate. With every new gadget, this is subtly reinforced. It is not that the emotional impulsive nature of human beings is not recognized. It is seen though as only a subset of our thinking that can be manipulated by predictive software mining the data of previous purchases, websites visited and the amount and kind of pornography one indulges in. The rational supersedes the irrational and impulsive. However, when that hierarchy is reversed, facts. are subservient to emotional appeal and personal beliefs then we enter another realm.
Once we leave the realm of the rational then we enter a realm in which the public and pundits are ill equipped to function, critique, manage or dialogue in ways that are significant. There is a struggle to find the language to communicate what is outside of the norm of our understanding of the modern world. However, there is a language and means for significant dialogue, critique and function, outside of our normative realm. The realm and the language is one of religion.
Religion is a set of beliefs and devotion to those beliefs and the customs, rituals and practices surrounding them. Religion reflects big picture thinking and trying to make sense of our relationship as human beings to the totality of life. Religion reflects our need as human beings for purpose and meaning in our lives. Our priorities and goals are derived from what we believe. What we believe determines our actions, shapes our societies and civilizations.
In our current post-modern world view, religion is personal, private, quaint. nothing to really be taken seriously. By in large whatever religion we believe, whatever faith system we practice it is set off from daily modern life. E. J. Dionne opinion columnist for the Washington Post in his August 24, 2016 column titled In today’s troubling times, where are our faith leaders? made the point that we live in an increasingly secular world where religion has become politized. Popular media usually highlights the most extreme and outlandish forms of religion while the thoughtful reflective examples are ignored. A good example is the widely-reported protests of the Westboro Baptist Church. Their threats to burn a copy of the Koran, and anti-gay demonstrations at military funerals were widely reported as if they were a legitimate representative of Baptist churches. It turns out the church had less than twenty-five members and were mostly family with a self-ordained leader.
Thoughts and ideas from a religious perspective are not brought to bear in analysis and discussion of modern life under the mistaken assumption that to do so would be to endorse one religious system over the other. The examination of philosophy and theology in even general terms is lacking in our educational system even at the college level. The result, our knowledge of religious ideas is superficial at best. Even when there are situations that clearly push for some consideration there is little. The consequences of this are not to be taken lightly.
In the post mortem analysis of the presidential election one of the more mystifying voting results was that of white evangelicals. Jim Wallis, white evangelical president of Sojourners, commented
Most white evangelicals didn’t seem to mind that they sold their souls to a man who embodies the most sinful and shameful worship of money, sex, and power, and — perhaps more than any other public figure in America — represents the very worst values of what American culture has become. We have never witnessed such religious hypocrisy as we saw in this election, with the majority of white Christians voting for a man like Donald Trump,
The numbers per the Pew Research Center exit polls are stark. 81% of self-identified White Evangelical/ born again Christians voted for Trump. This group includes self-described Protestants, as well as Catholics, Mormons and others. They represent 26% of the entire electorate. With 1 in 4 voters as self-identified white Christians this is far too large a group to be ignored in examining the Trump win, but that is exactly what has happened in post -election analysis.
The support of Donald Trump by White Evangelicals, is arguably inconsistent with the basic tenants of Christianity. The New Testament Epistle to the Galatians is considered the Magna Carta of the Christian faith because it contains the definitive argument why the followers of Christ who are now both Jewish and Gentile are no longer required to follow Jewish law and custom. They are now urged to live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This does not give them license to do any and everything. The evidence that one is guided by the Holy Spirit is that one’s life, one’s behavior exhibits love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Trump campaign and the candidate himself regularly encouraged division, winked at violence, and deep seated meanness, unfaithfulness, and false generosity. No one would call Mr. Trump a paragon of self-control. Yet he garnered the wholehearted support of white evangelical leaders Franklyn Graham and Liberty university president Jerry Falwell Jr. Upon Trump’s election, many of the evangelical churches held services of celebration.
How could Trump whose life exhibits the antithesis of Christian values garner such wide support of the Christian faithful? While Wallis and others call it the ultimate in hypocrisy, I contend otherwise. It was not hypocritical, it was devotion to the historical faith of white Americans.
Many have claimed America is a Christian nation particularly as one looks to its history. There is no doubt that Judeo- Christian themes and the influence of the Church is woven throughout American history. However, the case can be made that the Christian faith as practiced by white America was significantly different than the Christian faith practiced by African slaves and their descendants. This difference is significant enough to question whether white America’ s faith as practiced is a valid representation of Christianity.
It is well documented by slave accounts that if they were required to attend church services led by white preachers, then slaves would secretly hold their own in fields, hush- arbors or prayer meetings in their cabins. Prohibitions against teaching a slave to read and specifically to read the bible was a way of controlling any identification with the story of the Exodus and Moses as a liberator. The 1794 public writings of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen founders of the African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia illustrate the vast difference between white America faith practice and what blacks found when they could read the bible.
1.We do not wish to make you angry, but excite your attention to consider, how hateful slavery is in the sight of God, who hath destroyed kings and princes for their oppression of the poor slaves; Pharaoh and his princes with the posterity of King Saul, were destroyed by the protector and avenger of slaves…
It was quite clear then as it is quite clear now that Christian practice of much of white America- both in the South and North was truncated in such a manner that it was really another faith system all together.
In 1965 the late Dr. George Kelsey in his seminal work Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man would clearly label this faith system practiced widely and historically in America. ”
Though not well known now, Dr. Kelsey earned his Bachelor of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1948. He was professor of religion and director of the Morehouse School of Religion and wrote a key recommendation letter that Martin Luther King Jr be seriously considered for acceptance to Crozer Theological School even though his academic record to that point was “less than good”. Kelsey saw at this point King was ready to prove his ability. King would be admitted. He would cite Kelsey as one of his main influences in his study of religion and Kelsey would remain a life-long advisor.
Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man, was a radical work that quickly went out of print. Perhaps what was most disturbing was that this was neither an aimless rant, nor a manifesto, but a thorough examination, by a well credentialed scholar. The first two paragraphs of the preface are reproduced here:
Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry. It is an abortive search for meaning. It did not emerge as a faith. It rose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself. The alleged superior race became and now persists as a center of value and an object of devotion. Multitude of men gain their sense of the “power of being” from their membership in the superior race. Accordingly, the most deprived white man, culturally and economically, is able to think of himself as “better’n any n****r.”
The purpose of this book is to provide a Christian criticism of racism as a faith system in all its facets and tendencies. By and large, Christians have failed to recognize racism as an idolatrous faith, even though it poses the problem of idolatry among Christians in a way that no other tendency does. Racism is especially problematical not only because of the peculiar nature of the racist faith, but because it is a “Trojan horse” within organized Christianity and Christian civic communities…Among large numbers of Christians, racism has been the other faith…
On election day, the adherents to the “other faith”, the Trojan horse within organized Christianity maintained their devotion and voted for Donald Trump. His campaign slogan Make America Great Again -was more than a slogan. It was a prayer chant. It was an act of devotion. It reaffirmed and reenergized their sense of the “power of being” as members of the white race. The questioned was asked but never answered “when was America great?” There is no chronological answer. It is a metaphysical longing for a past era when whites were firmly in charge and supported by local, state, and federal legislation, courts and customs. In that era for whites their relationship to the totality of life was clear; the destiny of white males was to rule as superior beings enjoying the fruits of American society.
While some may think, this is overreach, the fact that Trump not only carried 67% of the white non-college educated vote, he also carried the majority 49% of the white college educated vote. This election was about more than disaffected working class angst.
Derek Thompson Senior Editor at The Atlantic in his article The Dangerous Myth That Hillary Clinton Ignored the Working Class, documents that Hillary Clinton specifically and consistently spoke to working class and middle class issues throughout the campaign. He goes on to state:
The more frightening possibility for liberals is that Clinton didn’t lose because the white working class failed to hear her message, but precisely because they did hear it.
Trump’s white voters do support the mommy state, but only so long as it’s mothering them. Most of them don’t seem eager to change Medicare or Social Security, but they’re fine with repealing Obamacare and its more diverse pool of 20 million insured people. They’re happy for the government to pick winners and losers, so long as beleaguered coal and manufacturing companies are in the winner’s circle. Massive deficit-financed spending on infrastructure? Under Obama, that was dangerous government overreach, but under Trump, it’s a jobs plan by a guy they know won’t let Muslims and Mexicans cut in line to get work renovating highways and airports.
Thompson’s observation is accurate and can easily be classified as a post-truth conclusion. However, Kelsey 50 years ago, in discussing the nature of a racist faith and devotion offers another conclusion for the same behavior.
2.For the racist race is the final point of reference for decision and action, the foundation upon which he organizes his private life, public institutions and public policy and even his religious institutions.
At this point let me clarify some definitions. Racism and racist have become such loaded terms used so loosely that their meaning is not clear. When Kelsey uses the term racist he is referring to one who practices the faith of racism.
3.The god of racism is the race, the ultimate center of value… a Christian racist may think he lives under the requirements of the God of biblical faith in most areas of his life, but whenever matters of race impinge on his life, in every area so affected, the idol of race determines his attitude, decision, and action. …many Christians have sought to understand racism wholly in terms of political, economic, and cultural factors. They have not seen the faith character of racist devotion and commitment…
Ultimate value is a religious term. Devotion and commitment have religious connotations that in politics make some uncomfortable. One of the hardest things for the Left to do is talk about religion. It is written off too cavalierly, or dismissed as a personal preference having little bearing in public and political dialogue. Candidates for public office routinely make visits to large church gatherings or send their surrogates. The address is typically a statement of their personal background in religious training and perhaps a statement on a “issue they really care about. This is far too limited and narrow a perspective. It does not account for the tremendous motivating power of faith
Kelsey’s reflections on the nature of faith are powerfully instructive.
4.Declarations of faith do not need to be proved from evidence in the objective world of facts. They do not need to be proved because the devotee of a faith is convinced that his faith assertions are reflections of the fundamental order of reality.
For at least 25% of the voting electorate self-identified as Christians it was never necessary for Donald Trump to have facts to back up his assertions.” Mexicans are rapist and murders”, “unvetted refugees are pouring into our country,” “It is not safe to let Muslims in our country,” “We don’t win anymore,” “America is a disaster we are going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Outlandish statements, after outlandish statements were made and reported by the media. Susan Glasser in an essay for the Brookings Institute titled Covering politics in Post Truth America succulently expresses the frustrations of the mainstream media.
the media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter. Stories that would have killed any other politician—truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him”—did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work
Flummoxed by this unresponsiveness and grasping for an explanation the conclusion was reached that we are now in a post -truth era.
No, we are in a religious revival. The original idolatrous faith of American racism has been revived with a fervor that is committed to the reestablishment of the white race as the center of American life and the sole beneficiary of the fruits of American society.
White supremacist groups immediately recognized this commitment when Trump won the nomination. Their numbers have increased. They celebrate because now the core of their views has gone mainstream. Trump himself tacitly acknowledged it during his campaign by refusing to immediately denounce the endorsement of former KKK leader David Dukes. After winning the election Trump confirmed these views with the early appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.
This is not the most disturbing aspect of our cultural shift and the Trump phenomena. Mr. Trump has consistently espoused his own sense of the fundamental order of reality. While it can be argued that all presidents and politicians do so to some degree. Where Trump differs is that his sense of the fundamental reality is always sans objective facts. He did not believe that the Russians were responsible for the hacking of the DNC. No facts just belief. He suggests the Intelligence community is partisan and political. No evidence just a statement. He is going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He could not release his tax returns because he was under audit. Proven not true. He saw Muslim Americans cheering the fall of the twin towers on 9-11. Proven not true.
Trump’s inaugural address contained a very different view of America than bore out by the facts. America is crime ridden, the facts are that crime has gone down in the last eight years. The economy is broken, when leading indicators are unemployment is down. Jobs are up. While on display is the assertion that millions were on the Mall to watch the inauguration, through his spokespersons asserting that the press had falsified estimates when aerial photographs metro rider numbers and other indicators that this is not even close to the truth.
It’s not just the reality Trump constructs that is disconcerting, it is also his supporters’ blind faith response in accepting Trump’s reality. The most vivid example is his advisor Kelly Ann Conway’s response to the now infamous berating of the media by press secretary Sean Spicer and the outrageous claim that Trump’s inauguration was the most watched ever. Ms. Conway asserted that the press secretary was simply reporting “alternate facts.”
Religious revivals are never simply about resurrecting older beliefs and adopting older customs wholesale. It is the blending of past highly motivating factors within the current cultural context. Religious revivals mark significant shifts in the evolving life of a faith system.
The old-time faith of racism was a brutal system based on the belief that the white race was divinely created, naturally and inherently superior to all others races. All non-whites were believed to be created inherently inferior. The hope of civilization was to keep the white race pure since all other races were deeply defective. This not only justified permeant slavery, this faith system justified the ill-treatment of Blacks which in some cases were worse than the treatment of farm animals. It led to the “one drop rule”, the send them back to Africa movement, miscegenation laws. It led to the emphasis on “place.” The Negro must always remember and remain in their subordinate position in society which was enforced by severe punishment for forgetting. The most egregious offense was to compete with whites in the arena of business and commerce. That earned the severest punishment, lynching.
The most disturbing tenet of this old-time faith system was what Kelsey defines as its inherent political plan of action. That plan was to subordinate, suppress, deprive and isolate the perceived lesser race. It was the corollary of the primary goal of the elevation and self-glorification of the white race. Others had to be subordinated for this goal to be obtained and maintained. This was the purpose of segregation both dejure and defacto. It was also why segregation was so staunchly defended. It was about power, benefits, privilege and the only viable logical solution short of elimination.
What has been revived is the core of the fundamental belief that the white race was divinely created, naturally and inherently superior to all others races. In our Postmodern cultural context, the harshest part of this fundamental belief has been modified and is not part of this faith system revival. Few except for the most extreme would claim that whites are divinely destined to rule this nation. However, the self-identified white evangelicals do see the hand of God as intervening on their behalf.
Poll after poll has shown that there is a wide difference between whites and blacks perception of progress toward equality. The latest from the Pew research center About six-in-ten whites (57%) say the country has made the changes needed to bring about equal rights for blacks, compared with just 12% of blacks. In other words, for the majority of whites the plight and problems of blacks have received enough attention. The government has done more than enough. The mainstream media has covered their issues more than enough. It is now time to bring the focus of attention back to where it should be on the white race. Of course, this is not what was said on the campaign trail. What was said was that the rust belt, the working class has been forgotten and overlooked. That working-class rust belt inhabitants, non-college educated group was a benign coded term that excluded black and brown people. This was clearly understood by the general white majority who assented to the prayer slogan Make America Great Again and the White evangelicals who abandoned any semblance of the tenets of the Christian faith. embraced the white evangelicals
This feeling/belief provided the fuel for the fire of revival. The Trump campaign with its blatant racism and more provided the wind to blow the smoldering resentment into a full-fledged wild fire revival of the core of America’s other faith: We hold this truth to be self-evident that we as white Americans are the center of this society and therefore entitled to be the primary recipients of the fruit of this society.
Excerpt forthcoming book Tainted Soil: Gentrifying Communities and the Black Church
The Reverend Doctor Earl D. Trent Jr. currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church. He was installed on Sunday March 26, 1995 and is the 4th pastor in the 101 year history of the church.
- Allen, Richard, Jones, Absalom Two Negro leaders reply to slanders and denounce slaveholding, A documentary History of the Negro People in the United States volume one. Herbert Aptheker ( Citadel Pres by Carol Publishing 1990) p36
- Kelsey, George D, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man ( Charles Scribner’s sons, New York 1965) p27
- Ibid p28
- Ibid p24