Scholars of Religion on the Trump Election

downloadI spent the five days before Thanksgiving at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. This meeting is probably the largest conference in the world devoted to the study of the Bible and the religions of the world. Roughly 10,000 professors and other teachers, students, clergy and other interested persons attend the meeting’s 1,000+ workshops and sessions. People like me can rub elbows here with the most famous scholars in the field of religion, including N.T. Wright, Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.

This year’s meeting, like no other meeting I’ve ever seen, was dominated by current events—namely, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Two separate sessions of roughly 2 hours each were devoted to this topic, and a third panel discussion moderated by Cornel West focused another hour on topics related to the election. For once, I’m not here to give you my take on this discussion. Instead, I’ll do my best to be a neutral reporter and pass on the things I heard. I’ll focus first on the analyses and concerns expressed by prominent people at the meeting. After this, I’ll report those things said by people who either did not identify themselves or else did so too quickly for me to take down their names. At the very end are a couple of suggested action steps for teachers of religion and ethics.

I’ve done my best to get these reports right, and I apologize in advance to the people named below that I wasn’t able to write down everything they said with better accuracy. The things said below represent different perspectives, and not all of it is in agreement. As should be obvious, the people quoted below are all opposed to Trump in one fashion or another. If there were pro-Trump forces at SBL/AAR (and I’m sure there were), they were not speaking out.

Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI and Author of “The End of White Christian America

PRRI, along with Pew, are probably the two leading public opinion research firms focused on America’s cultural, religious, and political landscape. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Jones speak, and to question him after his talk.

Dr. Jones stressed that, at least with respect to the religious landscape, the 2016 election largely followed the pattern from 2012, with just enough of a small change in the right places to cause the Republican candidate to win this year. How small the change? Just 110,000 votes would have flipped the results in three key states and thus produced a Hillary Clinton victory. Jones pointed out that Clinton won the popular vote by about 1% (the margin is now 1.7%), within the margin of error of national polling (which showed Clinton with an average 4% lead before the election). Clinton’s popular vote “victory” margin is higher than that won by JFK and Richard Nixon. (It is now higher than that won by Jimmy Carter as well.)

America’s religious voting pattern has been in place since at least 2000: white Christians strongly support the Republican Party, while everyone else strongly supports the Democratic Party. So long as this pattern stays in place, Republicans face a serious long-term problem, as the number of white Christian voters is declining: from 54% in 2008, to 43% in 2016. This decline is a factor creating anxiety among white Christians, and this white Christian anxiety was key to Trump’s success. While economic factors doubtless played a role in creating white Christian anxiety, Jones stressed the importance of social and religious factors—for example, America’s increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage (a move from 40% support in 2008 to 60% support in 2016). This is a “tectonic” shift, according to Jones, and led to strong white Christian support for Trump.

The split between the Clinton and Trump constituencies can clearly be seen in how various groups view the past and the future. 72% of Trump supporters, 65% of white working-class Americans and 74% of white evangelical Protestants say America has changed for the worse since the 1950s. But 70% of Clinton supporters, 62% of black Americans, 57% of Hispanic Americans and 56% of white college-educated Americans say that since the 1950s, things have gotten better. It is clear that the election split the American public by both race/ethnicity, and economic/social class.

Eddie Glaude, President-Elect of American Academy of Religion and Professor of Religion and Chair of Center for African American Studies at Princeton University

While the rule of white America is in its death throes, (paraphrasing James Baldwin) there remains the question of how long and expensive the funeral will be. The election was characterized by willful ignorance and a clinging to an image of innocence—a kind of perpetual adolescence and avoiding responsibility for our actions. While there was a class dimension to the election, we need to face that that the white and non-white working classes are both suffering from the same problems but did not vote the same way.

In response to questions about whether the dominant factor in this election was class or race (or, putting it a different way, economics or identity politics), Dr. Glaude described class and race as “interlocking systems of oppression.” In America, race is the modality through which class is experienced.

Dr. Glaude expressed exasperation with the frequently-heard statement that people like him need to get to know middle America. He knows a lot of people of color in middle America. He stressed that as President of AAR, it is not his job to make people comfortable. We don’t have the time for that.

Cornel West, Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary

We are witnessing a shift from American neo-liberalism to neo-fascism. It is important to examine not only the votes cast but the large number of people who have dropped out and do not vote. This represents a loss of hope, a group that thinks the political alternatives are not even worth looking at. The election represents a failure of our system of education: we were not able to pass on the best values of our generation to the next generation.

David Gushee, Vice President of American Academy of Religion and Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University

Gushee identifies as a Christian evangelical, a group he sees as in a state of “moral collapse” into political loyalty to the Republican Party and devotion to the values of the “culture war.” This year, evangelicals supported the Republican nominee for President at a higher rate than in any previous election. The Democrats did a poor job of religious outreach.

Miscellaneous Voices

What happens now, in this atmosphere of fear, where our imaginations have been captured and we can’t see beyond the now?

Merely the THREAT of harm from a Trump administration is a blow to the body, a kind of slow death.

Many expressed the importance of gender and misogyny in this election: a significant portion of the electorate would either not vote for a woman, or would not forgive a woman for relatively minor transgressions (while giving a man a free pass on his significant moral failures).

There was a concern over how to have a “balanced” two-sided discussion in the classroom and elsewhere under the new political landscape, or whether such balance was even desirable. Do we “normalize” side-taking, and act as if people might just as well take one side as the other? The possibilities for neutrality are narrowing.

We need to find a way to have uncomfortable conversations.

There has been a failure of critical thinking. Trump voters believed things that simply are not true. There’s great danger in a “post-fact” society. It is not a given that a college education instills the critical thinking skills needed to process information in the current environment.

There has been a failure of humanistic education as well.

Trump voters feel their voices are not being heard, and we have to listen and find a way to talk to them. We need to unpack what they say, and get past their opening statements into their personal experiences. Their feelings are true to them in that moment. If a Trump voter were to walk into our discussion about the election, he or she would not feel safe.

The African-American reaction to white liberal reaction to the election is, where the hell was this reaction before the election? This fear and anxiety has been present in the Black community all along. Trump is being discussed in these terms because white people are being affected. The Black community and other like communities are not asking “what do we do now,” because they are already active.

There is a danger that we will turn on each other. Even those opposed to Trump may turn on each other. When you are afraid, this is what you do. Our conversations can degenerate into hierarchies: who is better for the cause than who else?

We feel resentment that opposition and resistance is now our job. We had other things planned for our lives. One African-American man said, “The solution to this should not fall on our shoulders.”

Some expressed feelings of choicelessness and powerlessness. Even those in the discussion who do have power are “so embedded in the matrix” that they don’t feel they have much choice.

It is not clear what institutions of higher education will survive the Trump administration, particularly given Trump’s insistence that he will defund institutions that adopt and implement sanctuary policies.

Ideas for Teachers

Look to historic examples of hate speech (for example, Martin Luther’s polemic against the Jews), so that students can recognize it as such and understand how it works.

Look to the historic example of the Civil Rights movement.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    great job here. thanks.

  • Christine Myers

    We didn’t want this battle, but it is ours nonetheless. Being angry makes us take action in the short term, but remaining angry is not healthy for our communities or our bodies. I don’t think it is sustainable. That’s a bummer because I love the adrenaline of anger. So I have to find a calm place, a place of compassion, and harness that compassion for the long haul. Because it is going to be a long, long haul.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    I wanted to add to this great summation my own memories of Eddie S. Glaude Jr’s remarks. He said — as I remember — “we are dealing with an imaginative capture; we can’t see beyond the reality of now; we can’t see ourselves in others, but are merely aligned next to them in a spirit of competition and rivalry.” He argues that when our imaginations are captured “there is the perception that the alternatives that are available aren’t worth looking at” and that this “attitude is crucial to the formation of united front neo-fascism.” The captive imagination — well, that surely speaks to all of us who are writers — and issues an important challenge for us to think about when we sit down to write. But it also explains a bit the quality of stunned shutdown that seems very evident in otherwise smart commentators. Paul Krugman jumps to mind.

  • Jo Scott-Coe

    Thoughtful discussion here, as always. I really do think that folks of non-faith are going to need to find ways to hear and engage with people who belong to faith traditions. That Pew study from last year sure indicates a preponderance of whiteness among atheists and agnostics (how many of them are professors?!), and I think the academic Left’s smugness about religion often gets coded racially in ways that are not admitted. There is a bandwidth of social action and “love thy neighbor” connection that can and must be made–contempt for believers of all traditions (a la Bill Maher, etc.) comes off as superior and isolationist, not connective or persuasive. I love that this conference exists. We’re going to need to bring it home, like you are doing right now.