Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler and David Galston recently published essays about religious aspects of the recent political conflict that has erupted in the United States over whether or not to welcome Muslim refugees into the country. Both essays appear below in full with links to their original publications.

  • Bessler provides a much-needed summary of the history of the Republican Party’s relationship with conservative religion and how that has shaped Trump’s rhetoric.
  • Galston then broadens the conversation to ask about the roles played by conservatism and liberation in religion more generally.
Syrian Refugees

Tens of thousands of refugees, mainly Syrian Kurds, are fleeing violence in their homeland. The image above comes from the Turkish border. Credit: Reuters.

The Republican Party

Getting the Savior They Asked For

By Joseph A. Bessler

Originally published on December 28, 2015, on NonDoc.com as part of Phillips Theological Seminary’s Vital Conversations series.

The Republican establishment is now seriously wringing its hands over the ascendancy of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The core problem for the party is that the very audiences whose support Republicans need in order to win the general election are the very audiences that Trump dismisses with full-throated vigor. And he’s winning.

A recent Tom Toles’ political cartoon captures the dilemma well. Two elephants (Republicans) are talking with one another. The first says, “We’ve got a Trump problem.” To which the other responds, “He’s appealing to voters who are responding to racism bordering on fascism.” The first says, “It’s a real dilemma,” with the other asking a concluding question, “How do we get rid of Trump but keep those voters?”

As the cartoon brilliantly illustrates, what Republicans have yet to own, but cannot do so publicly, is that Donald Trump is not the real problem. The real problem is the audience they have created and catered to for over the last 50 years.

What the Republican establishment knows is that if it cannot make stronger appeals to women, to blacks, to Hispanics, they will surely lose the national election in 2016. Yet many of their rank and file, loyal foot soldiers, who will surely vote, at least in the primaries, find these very shifts anathema and a betrayal to the religious/political ideology of the last 50 years.

It was after all, in national, and not only state campaigns, that the Republican establishment lurched to the cultural right in order to forge a coalition of free-market conservatives and social/religious conservatives.

Here, I especially want to call attention to the religious dimensions of this coalition. Fundamentalist/evangelical Christians have been at the heart of this ideology of “traditional values” and “American exceptionalism.” And it is this very coalition, which is now so troubling in the case of Donald Trump.

While the establishment Republican candidates—realizing the need to change their discourse—have sought to back away from the religious/political ideology of the past fifty years, Donald Trump has essentially walked into the campaign, and said, in effect, “If you don’t want that audience, I do.”

And from bringing out his Bible, and talking about how much he respects it, to appealing to every jingoistic impulse in conservative Christian America, Trump has made the other candidates appear timid, weak and fearful.

After all, those candidates seem to be avoiding the Republican core constituency. What of those candidates’ loyalty to the bonds the party had nurtured, Trump might well ask?

In the current election cycle, the Republican establishment has left itself open to the charge that they have forgotten their commitments. And virtually on cue, at least since a Sept. 15 speech, and perhaps earlier, Trump has returned to an old, favorite line of Richard Nixon’s—the “silent majority.”

What has, in recent days, become far more troublesome is that Trump is now appealing to that same conservative Christian audience about the threat of Islamic terror. He is using the terrorist attack carried out in San Bernadino, California, that killed 14 people, to move the focus of his “us vs. them” campaign from illegal immigrants to Muslims.

Warning his South Carolina audience, “It’s going to get worse. It’s going to get a lot worse,” Trump offers himself as the only candidate who is telling the truth, even as he tells his fundamentalist, Christian audience what they want to hear.

His strong solution? A religious test for entry into America—preventing all Muslims from legally entering the country “until we find out what’s going on.” Blithely unconcerned about the potential of stoking the flames of a global religious war, Trump plays the man of principle.

While policy personnel in both parties have sounded the alarm that such rhetoric plays into the hands of ISIS propaganda, Trump’s political position seems strengthened for the moment.

Time will tell if the outrage from both parties slows his momentum.

But if party officials thought Trump was going to go away quietly, this new opportunity to be the strongest voice for “the people,” as Trump says, for America’s “silent majority” will make him a serious contender in most, if not all, Republican primaries. And in this perfect storm the Republican establishment has only itself to blame.

To be sure, the political use of Christian faith to combat “godless” Communism in the Cold War opened the door to this kind of rhetoric.

Harry Truman, in his Inaugural address of 1949, did not quote the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”) but the book of Genesis, that “all men are created in the image of God.”

He used that text to help create the religious/political ideology of a god-fearing America at war with godless Communism.

It was a powerful bond, leading not only to abuses of McCarthyism and its witch hunts, but also later to religious conservatives’ sense of abandonment, railing against “that godless court,” in response to Supreme Court decisions against school prayer and Bible reading in public schools in the mid-1960s, and the decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973.

So, the underlying cultural problems have been there for decades, but the Republican decision to tap into that religious/cultural resentment and to encourage its anti-intellectualism and its bigotries, for their own short-run political gains has been disastrous for public policy—in many cases leading to the intellectual and cultural gridlock that we find today in Congress.

Here are the highlights of the Republican appeal to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

  • Richard Nixon picks up the “Southern strategy” from the Democrats following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, appealing to structures of white supremacy, themselves rooted in a language of Christian purity.
  • Ronald Reagan makes common cause with Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell’s freshly minted political action group, the Moral Majority, in 1979, which delivered two-thirds of evangelical voters, and many urban Catholic pro-life voters, to Reagan.
  • When, with Reagan’s backing, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, Rush Limbaugh launched his national radio show in 1988, attacking “liberals” and “feminazis” on the airwaves, and forging a populist, political/religious consensus with comments like this from 2013: “If you believe in God you cannot intellectually believe in man-made global warming.”
  • Pat Robertson launches a voter-mobilization organization called the Christian Coalition in 1989, which would become the Christian Coalition of America and among the most powerful political organizations in the country.
  • Throughout the 1990s, Republicans played off of the 1991 book Culture Wars by James Davison Hunter.
    • See Pat Buchanan’s 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention: “The agenda that Clinton & 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.’”
    • See Charleton Heston’s speeches in the late 1990s as President of the National Rifle Association, like this one from 1997: “I believe that we are again engaged in a great civil war, a cultural war that’s about to hijack your birthright to think and say what resides in your heart.” And another from 1999, entitled “How to Win the Culture War.”
  • Rupert Murdoch founds Fox News as “an alternative to CNN” in the Fall of 1996 and installs Republican political operative Roger Ailes as CEO.
  • President George W. Bush authorizes Carl Rove to put amendments on the ballots of 11 states to ban “gay marriage” in the 2004 election to increase voter turnout against John Kerry.
  • President George W. Bush says in 2005 that “Intelligent Design” should be taught in public schools so that “people can understand what the debate [with evolution] is about.”
  • In 2011/12 Republicans, with the help of Koch Brothers and the Tea Party, seek to repress the vote, especially in 38 states, in the 2012 national election in order to defeat President Obama.

And such a list does not begin to scratch the surface of an intentional program to link the Republican Party with the interests of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians.

I can certainly understand why political pundits of both parties do not want to speak directly about this conservative Christian component of recent Republican ideology for fear of the way it could inflame the violent, apocalyptic mentality of many within that fundamentalist audience—fueling the very message and tactics that ISIS uses.

However, if we fail to name the problem that Republican strategists for the last two generations have created by their appeals to Christian fundamentalists then we fail to see the real problem facing the nation, with or without Donald Trump.

Conserving and Liberating Contrasts

By David Galston

Originally published on December 12, 2015, at the Quest Learning Centre for Religious Literacy

Many years ago I came to the reluctant conclusion that human beings are naturally conservative. That statement is a generalization. Like other general statements, perhaps it is generally false. In my experience, though, it is true and it makes sense. Human beings are naturally conservative because at the level of survival we seek to conserve our own lives and those closest to us. Reluctantly admitting to this truth meant two things for me. One was admitting to my own natural conservatism. Sometimes it is appropriate, but sometimes it inhibits my own openness to change, challenge, and difference. The second and harder insight was that if I wanted to overcome inborn prejudices caused by my natural conservatism, I’d have to work at it. Being liberal of heart and mind is work, sometimes painful.

This past week we can see in the political world how some of this reluctant truth surfaced in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis. The Washington Post pointed out that statistically Canadians and Americans share the same attitudes toward the crisis. By a small majority, citizens in both countries support welcoming refugees into their nation—this even after the events in Paris that raised fears about terrorists among refugees. But this week two quite different things happened. While the Republican presidential frontrunner called for “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.,” the Canadian Prime Minister was at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport welcoming refugees into Canada. This contrast did not escape observation in the United States. The Washington Post, New York Times, and Newsweek all commented on it. While the common people of both countries share similar attitudes, it became evident this week how much power a politician has to steer a national debate and form a national identity.

This might seem like a strange segue into religion, but it does have something to do with religion as a human value. Religion is one of the most “conserving” elements of human nature. It arises from rituals that repeat certain practices—like sacrifices—aimed at acquiring certain results—like a good harvest. Religion is full of rituals that seek to normalize attitudes and expectations. In short, Religion is repetition: a set of customs consistently repeated that rest on the natural, psychological conservatism of human nature. Religion in this way is attractive like politics, and like politics it has a powerful ability to persuade.

Here is another similarity between religion and politics that is most important. Both can be conserving and liberating. Both can be built on the fear of change, which is the conserving element, or on the imperative to change, which is the liberating element. And in both, the conserving element is an easier argument that appeals to the natural desire not to change. Fortunately this is not the end of the story. In the Bible there is the prophetic voice that announces the liberating news about change being both good and faithful. At this time of year in particular focus is placed on Luke where a pregnant Mary sings, in response to a pregnant Elizabeth, about how God has raised up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. These words repeat the sentiments of the prophet Isaiah; they are related to the outcast who hears hope, in place of suspicion, for the first time in a long time. But in both Luke and Isaiah, for good things to happen, the wealthy and the privileged have to take a step down from their protected and secured status. They have to hear this “good news” that liberates them from the mistakes of their conservatism in light of a dramatic change. Luke in particular is a gospel that challenges the privileged classes of Rome to overcome their conserving nature with a radically different vision asking them to give up something, to lose things, for the sake of liberation, for the sake of a gospel, a world-transforming event.

It is not hard to see where this is going. Inadvertently this week political news gave us two ways of understanding religion. It is absolutely true that religion can be based on conserving elements and can inspire nonsensical and extreme statements. It can even make these statements seem appealing, justified, and righteous. But religion is also about “gospel,” about “world-transforming news,” that requires work to realize through changed attitudes, practices of equality, and acts of compassion. Despite criticisms that can be directed at the gospel of Luke, the writer basically got the message and did so from reading Isaiah. Both Luke and Isaiah hold the promise of religion that lies in its work, which is the work of transformation. It is the kind of work that goes to an airport to welcome refugees who are fleeing violence and that challenges a nation to change its attitude about the poor, the dispossessed, and the hungry.

1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    These observations by Galston are especially pregnant with insight!

    “Religion is one of the most ‘conserving’ elements of human nature. It arises from rituals that repeat certain practices—Religion is repetition: a set of customs consistently repeated that rest on the natural, psychological conservatism of human nature.”

    Something is needed to change the momentum, direction, and power of ritualistic practice. The best tool for doing that is still the red/pink votes of the Jesus Seminar. The Gospel of Jesus should flood the world, be sent to every pastor and church in the Western world. (What prevents this!). If we need a philanthropist to do this, go find one! A pastor once commented on what to do to bring transformation to his congregation. My reply, preach the reds and pinks!

    If we do this, the church will cease to be a reflection of the political arena.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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