Just a note before I begin. I thought that I would just mention that this piece is pretty rough. I wrote it to work through my thoughts on the most recent election. It is by no means polished, but I wanted to post it as my blog post this week. My opinion is just one of many think pieces and responses, and it doesn’t really bring forward any opinion or insight but my own struggle to grapple with the results of the recent election. Please feel free to offer feedback or advice on this as I continue to struggle with the political and theological. Because this is more of a personal reflection I haven’t cited strongly. If desired I can look to find citations for facts and evidence that I’ve presented offhand. The purpose of this is not a rigorous investigation into the theories I’ve provided, but a personal grappling which may someday turn into such a rigorous investigation.
On the evening of November 8th I felt anxiety and shock. This wasn’t necessarily anxiety for myself (Despite being an immigrant to the United States, I was thrown into this world with a whole heap of privilege), but rather, an anxiety for all of those who don’t have the privilege of being a white, straight, cisgender, male identifying person. My anxiety goes out for the people of the future, and the horror of the world that they might be able to live with. My anxiety goes out to our non-human friends, and to the earth. Who knows what the current administration might hold for these groups?
In the wake of this anxiety, I’ve been trying to make sense of why people voted for Trump – especially the estimated 80% of white evangelical voters who voted for him. I do recognize that a good number of Christians likely voted for Trump in order to gain a conservative Supreme Court. I get that, but at the same time I still find it horrifying that so many Christians took to the voting booths and voted for a xenophobic bigot. Christianity, as I understand it, holds to the central tenants that we must love one another unconditionally, that we must help the oppressed, and serve those who persecute us. Xenophobic nationalism does the exact opposite of these things. Those evangelicals who voted for Trump did not vote in favour of the oppressed or the persecuted – they voted for the oppressor and the persecutor. This is what I’ve been struggling with.
What I’ve been trying to situate is this: why did the Christians desire Trump? What caused evangelical Christians – en mass – to go out and vote for a candidate and party that seems paradoxical to the teaching of Christianity? This post will show my rough conclusions on the topic. I begin by looking at the death of God in the 19th and 20th century to show the need to develop and create new gods. From there I explore the transformation of Christianity into the American religion, a chimera of Christianity and capitalism. Under this framework, I examine the principal claim of the Trump campaign: “Make America Great Again” by suggesting that this assertion is synonymously a call to “Make God Great Again”, “Make Capitalism Great Again” and “Make Whiteness Great Again.”
This post seems especially pertinent given recent events which include increases in violent attacks against minority groups in the United States and the release of a horrifying video showing “alt-right” Nazi propaganda with a focus on white power. This latter group has ties to Breitbart media and Stephen Bannon who is a “alt-right” proponent (read: Nazi) and was recently announced as President elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist and Senior Counselor.
The Death of God
“‘Whither is God’ He cried, ‘I will tell you. We have killed him – you an I’”
Nietzsche’s cry of the death of God is often misunderstood by people who don’t read Nietzsche. People like to throw out (or criticize) the claim that “God is dead” without actually unpacking what that means. The Death of God is the loss of ground. This loss of ground might be the loss of empirical ground, moral ground, immunological ground, etc. For instance, Peter Sloterdijk writes that, throughout Christendom, God functioned as an sphere or ground that provided immunological protection against the external or outside. Developments in modernity led to the shattering of this sphere. With the ability and desire to transverse the globe through scientific and technological advancement, humans no longer needed God to account for many of the mysteries of the world. Enlightenment thought’s emphasis on rationalism and science provided explanation for the mysterious. God was no longer necessary to provide a grounding principle for experienced phenomena. With an increase in global travel, the outside was no longer as terrifying making the protection that God provided meaningless.
In Nietzsche’s writing, God’s death is the demise of a moral grounding. Unlike the empirical and rational spheres, the moral retains an element of mystery. Questions of morality cannot be answered through empirical or rational means in the same way that questions relating subjects like biology or physics can. Nietzsche is writing during the 19th century when the church is still a central agency within the European public sphere. Yet, Nietzsche sees that the actions of those around him are not grounded in a morality based on Christian principles. Nietzsche fears that the God whom the people profess has, in essence, died, because no one is following Her. What Nietzsche fears in the Gay Science is a loss of the moral ground and a fall into nihilism – a groundlessness. The Gay Science the madman cries out in vain over the loss of God. It would be a mistake to call Nietzsche a proponent of nihilism: Nietzsche initially mourns the loss of the moral grounding, fearing that the people are governed by nothing (Nietzsche comes to affirm the groundlessness, but that is for another post).
The American Religion
“What, after all, are these churches now if they are not the tombs an sepulchres of God?”
What, then, comes after the death of God? One way of responding to the death of God is to replace God with another God or gods. This requires retaining the religious qualities of the Christian deity, while attributing those characteristics to Her replacement. In leftist and neoliberal circles, N/nature has taken on the attributes of the divine. Jeremy Butman states that “as the Christian God retreated after Descartes, the attributes traditionally ascribed to Him — goodness, perfection and permanence — were in different ways transposed onto the body of nature.” Christianity’s notion of the divine provides a foundation or ground for the contemporary liberal movement of environmental sustainability. God, as traditionally understood, is ignored or considered insignificant, while the attributes of God are retained.
Conservative circles did not, in the same way, retreat from Christianity. God, the church, and the religious fervour remained accepted truths within these groups. For many, the belief in God still remains a central precept to one’s life. This is especially the case in America, where Christianity is still upheld as a stronghold. Yet, even from the earliest conceptions of America, we see that ‘God’ is not identical to the God of Christianity. The classic quote of Benjamin Franklin that “God helps those who help themselves” shows the merging of the American mythos with that of the Christian mythos. Within America, particularly in protestant America, the role of capitalism and Christianity begin to merge. Weber’s protestant work ethic communicates a blending of capitalist and protestant forces. The difference between capitalism and Christianity become opaque. Many would attribute the prosperity of America’s free market on the centrality of Christianity within the nation. Within this mythology, American exceptionalism bled into American Christianity.
Walter Benjamin writes that capitalism adopts religious structure and tendencies to become, itself, a religion. In America it becomes difficult to toe the line between the religion of capitalism and the religion of Christianity. Together these forces would become what I’ll term “the American religion.” The Bible suggests that one cannot serve two master, one cannot serve both God and money. In order to solve this problem – so that this religion could retain both the God of capital and the God of Christianity – it was necessary for the American religion to merge the two deities. As Benjamin writes in Capitalism as Religion “God’s transcendence has fallen, but he is not dead. He is drawn into the fate of man” (p 260). God doesn’t die for the American religion. God is retained within capitalism. Benjamin writes at length on the merging of capitalism and Christianity into the American religion:
“Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma. Capitalism itself developed parasitically on Christianity in the West–not in Calvinism alone, but also, as must be shown, in the remaining orthodox Christian movements – in such a way that, in the end, its history is essentially the history of its parasites of capitalism. Compare the holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit that speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes….Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism. Methodologically [it] would be [productive] to first examine what associations money has adopted with myth in the course of history – until it could draw from Christainity enough mythical elements in order to constitute its own myth.” (p. 263-264)
The American religious myth might be the most strong example of Benjamin’s claims. A country where Christianity and capitalism merge into the central mythology and religion in order to become the true American religion.
Making America Great Again
What does it mean to “Make America great again”? At the time of Trump’s campaign the economy was doing decently, unemployment was quite low, and America, by generally used metrics, was doing pretty well. What is failing – in the eyes of some, at least – is the great American religion. Despite unemployment being low, wages for many white workers have stagnated since the 1970s while the cost of living has continued to rise. This is a major issue, and one that both the left and right should be critical of. Elsewhere, many see the atheism of academics and elites as a certain godlessness that goes against not only Christianity but America. “Progressive values” of free choice abortion and same sex marriage are seen as direct attacks on Christianity, but this is a Christianity imbued with social and class antagonism which see the move towards egalitarian institutions as a direct attack on the American religion. This Christianity is spearheaded by the patriarchy and social antagonisms of capitalism. The American religion places an emphasis on individualism (c.f. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps). Thus, when proponents of the American religion see themselves falling, they see their religion under seige. A need was created to “Make America great again” which functioned as a rallying call to “Make the American religion great again” while simultaneously working towards “Making Christianity/Capitalism/Us (White, evangelicals) great again”.
The use of “again” signals the fact that this call is inherently reactionary. The American religion must have been great at some point for it to be returned to. Given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign it doesn’t seem far fetched that this (imaginary) past existed some time when there was stricter separation between the races, a time when White communities were allowed to deny access to Black people; the time of Jim Crow. This is emphasized in the campaign rhetoric surrounding Islamic refugees and Mexican immigrants. American greatness can only be realized through the eradication of the Other. A return to greatness is conditional on building a wall on the Mexican border and insinuating the dismissal of Islamic refugees from the country. Xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric is necessarily tied to the promotion of the great American religion. Keeping people who aren’t white out of America functions as the innermost ethic of making America great. (This isn’t even to mention the promotion of ‘stop and frisk’ as a means of controlling the Black community.) In order to make America great, America must first be cleansed of all its undesirables – it must be cleansed of those who aren’t white so that it can be made great for those who are.
“No, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism”
Much like the crowd who desired Barabbas, and the masses who desired Hitler, evangelical Christians desired and elected Trump. This was caused, at least in part, through the polymerization of Christianity, capitalism, whiteness and patriotism under the guise of the American religion. The Christians desired greatness. They desired the return to the greatness of the American religion. What American evangelicals believed was that their God – their great religion – was under threat (whether this religion was ever great, and whether it ever ceased to be great is another conversation). In the minds of many individuals this great religion needed to be saved.
Will Trump be able to make their religion great again? We cannot let that happen. Because making the American religion great requires the elimination of the Other. It means oppression for many who are seen as minor within the American landscape. We see this already in the propaganda of right wing Nazi groups in the United States – groups that are no longer afraid of professing white supremacy – and we see it in the attacks on individuals who do not fit the privileged norm. This is not something that I, nor any person who professes that love should conquer hate, should hope for. We must fight against the desire for hate with an affirmation of love, affirming differences rather than attempting to homogenize them. The God of America may have won the election, but we cannot allow it to win the day.
Citations and Mentions
Benjamin, W. (2005). Capitalism as Religion. In E. Mendieta (Ed.), C. Kautzer (Trans.), The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (pp. 259–262). New York ; London: Routledge.
Butman, J. (2016, August 8). Against “Sustainability.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/opinion/against-sustainability.html
Gilles, D., & Guattari, F. (1994). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University Of Minnesota Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) (1 edition). New York: Vintage. Thesis 125.
Sloterdijk, P. (2014). Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. (W. Hoban, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext.