Trumpism is a wake-up call to the Academy

Will we heed it?

By Joe Bessler | 2.5.2018

It’s time to wake up . . . We have to fight against propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories. We have to fight isolationism, protectionism and nativism. We have to defeat those who would worsen our divisions. We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on earth by tearing down walls, not building them.

-- Republican Senator John McCain

It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for . . . all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

-- Republican Senator Jeff Flake

"I don't know why the President tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does."

-- Republican Senator Robert Corker

Writing about the phenomenon of being haunted, Avery Gordon in her work, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, says that such a phenomenon  “draws us affectively, sometimes against our will, and always a bit magically, into the structure of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as transformative recognition.” The discomfort McCain, Flake, and Corker feel is palpable as they struggle to come to grips with the social forces that a president of their own party has courted and let loose in the country. They see and feel at a visceral level what is at stake in allowing those social forces—white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA; the Alabama senatorial campaign of Roy Moore; the constant, daily attempts of a Trump White House to undermine the integrity of the press; the findings of science; the leadership of women in public life—to metastasize into a discourse of narcissistic fascism. Whether they will have the courage to walk away from Trump, however, remains—even in the wake of Trump’s “s. . . hole” comments—strangely uncertain.

Commenting on the surprise of Trump’s victories in the Republican primaries, I wrote an article, December of 2015, in which I sought to make evident the conundrum of the Republican party in dealing with the candidacy of Donald Trump:

A recent Tom Toles political cartoon captures the dilemma well. Two elephants 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 during the last 50 years.

But Donald Trump is not Other. He is not an outlier to the Republican brand, as many Republicans have tried to claim; he’s the backward-looking, making-America-great-again, white, male savior Republicans have been promising for fifty years. That Trump played to those resentments so successfully, and did so against the Republican party establishment, has made glaringly apparent the moral ugliness of the political game that Republicans have been playing for decades.

Gordon writes that “haunting is a frightening experience.” Its strangeness can bewilder, isolate, and silence those it comes to possess. She adds that haunting, “unlike trauma, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done.”

The Westar Institute was created, in part, as a “something-to-be-done.” It was organized against a backdrop of resurgent, politicized fundamentalism of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their introduction to the Institute’s seminal work, The Five Gospels, Westar founder Bob Funk and charter member Roy Hoover called on scholars to engage in a process of public visibility:

Academic folk are a retiring lot. We prefer books to lectures, and solitude to public display. Nevertheless, we have too long buried our considered views of Jesus and the gospels in technical jargon and in obscure journals. We have hesitated to contradict TV evangelists and pulp religious authors for fear of political reprisal and public controversy. And we have been intimidated by promotion and tenure committees to whom the charge of popularizing or sensationalizing biblical issues is anathema. It is time for us to quit the library and speak up.

Funk and Hoover were saying to biblical scholars that it is time to leave the security of the library, or the sacredness of the divinity school—to risk speech in the public realm. In their play of “buried” voices and “speak[ing] up,” one hears the language of resurrection in a new, more urgent, political key. Whether in their language of “speaking up” or McCain’s language of “waking up,” political and theological voices need to move beyond—in Gordon’s words—“a dull curiosity or detached know-it-all criticism into the passion of what is at stake.”

For theologians, exploring the event of Donald Trump’s candidacy and election will involve publicly and fearlessly exposing the ways that variations of Christian God language, which were operative in that event, have encouraged gross ignorance of science; dismissal of evidence-based news reporting; and disrespect for women, GLBTQ persons, and for people of color. This work is necessarily public.

For Westar, it may mean creating events that address the interrelated themes of race, gender, and Christian Nationalism. Or it may take the form of investigating our own stories—as a group of largely white, male scholars—about how the inheritance of racist and sexist traditions has been at work in us, subtly shaping our own patterns of avoidance that have kept us safe within the practice of the guild and within the comfort of our own yards.

Whether looking internally, or speaking to religious scholarship more broadly, if our work is to be transformative culturally, it will have to be so personally. And to be personally transformed, we will have to leave the yard.

1 reply
  1. Rod MacKenzie says:

    Joe, it is good to hear your voice. I appreciate your clarity and your voice as a theologian. Yours aye

Comments are closed.

Joseph A. Bessler is Robert Travis Peake Professor of Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In addition to his required theology courses, Bessler-Northcutt specializes in the interaction of religion and culture. He has recently chaired the Ethics, Society and Cultural Analysis section of the Southwest region of the American Academy of Religion and he is co-editor of a forthcoming book on Law and Religious Ethics. He offers a variety of courses on ethics and culture, theological themes in the contemporary American novel, theological autobiography, etc.

1 reply
  1. Rod MacKenzie says:

    Joe, it is good to hear your voice. I appreciate your clarity and your voice as a theologian. Yours aye

Comments are closed.