Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Spiritual Challenge of a Trump Presidency

by Dean Dettloff

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Niklaus Manuel

Along with the rest of the world, a lot of Americans woke up yesterday morning to the surprising news that, barring some miracle, Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, despite being an accused sex offender, identifying black people with “inner cities,” seriously suggesting banning all Muslims from the US, making fun of people with disabilities on the campaign trail, calling Mexicans rapists and planning to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and more, Donald Trump will enjoy a majority Republican Congress as he looks to implement the platform of anxiety and opportunism he ran on. It appears the baffled double-take of referenda like the UK's Brexit vote or Colombia's rejected peace agreement is becoming the norm. Surprising though the results are, the disorientation seems almost natural following the embittered struggle of the 2016 campaign season, an affair that brought out the worst of the American populace and stirred up a mixture of fear and resentment unlikely to stop swirling any time soon.

What are American people of faith to make of this situation (I ask Ground Motive's significant Canadian readership to permit me to address my fellow Americans)? Now that we know Donald Trump will inherit that swirling mixture of fear and resentment, we are faced with two choices. Either we do what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among most other elected officials, advise us to do—accept Trump's presidency, painful though it is, and greet it with an open mind and willingness to cooperate. Or we do what a variety of Americans have already started to do—take to the streets and demonstrate, materially, an unwillingness to accept the presidency of a candidate who just days ago was being called unfit for the office by Clinton and Obama themselves, and try to build alternatives.

Many Christians have already begun to take the first strategy by appealing to Providence and praying for wisdom for Donald Trump in his new position of power. Trump won the election fair and square, even if he lost the popular vote, and the magnanimous thing to do is accept the results. The spiritual challenge suggested here is one of forgiveness and fidelity, reaching across the aisle in a spirit of good sportsmanship and charity. God is in control, so the view goes, and that means, for whatever reason, Trump could prove to be the negotiator many take him to be.

To accept the results of a Trump presidency under the assumption that God will sort it out without any help from us... is to take a view of divine sovereignty that serves the interests of polite society and party politics.

But this strategy is not so much a challenge as a luxury. It is especially easy for white Christians to make this suggestion, as we (since I'm a white Christian myself) stand to be least affected by a Trump presidency. For those who fall on the other side of Trump's campaign rhetoric, this strategy is tantamount to self-sabotage. To accept the results of a Trump presidency under the assumption that God will sort it out without any help from us, or to make voting the end-point of Christian political activity, is to take a view of divine sovereignty that serves the interests of polite society and party politics. It enables the privatization of religion so necessary for the smooth functioning of American projects, unimpeded by the annoyance of faithful believers whose shaping narrative is profoundly at odds with the story of exclusion and paranoia told by Trump. It rejects any prophetic vocation, as the prophets of the Old Testament certainly were not afraid to demonstrate their refusal to accept their leadership (whether by Isaiah's protests in the nude (Isaiah 20) or Ezekiel's odd theatres of resistance). What appears like an appeal to fidelity on the part of many Christians is in fact a betrayal, trading in the Gospel of a God executed by the state for good manners and civic duty.

The other strategy, the one that refuses to accept a Trump presidency, presents a far more difficult spiritual challenge. For those of us with the privilege that insulates us from legislation designed to enact a politics of hostility to the Other, refusing a Trump presidency means actively eschewing our ability to ride his term out in the comfort of smug feelings of moral superiority and platitudes. Many white Christians are reasonably upset with the results of this election, rightly discerning that a spirit alien to the love of Christ has won the day. While these feelings manifest in sadness, shame, and even rage, the challenge will be channeling those emotive responses into creative politics and refusing to be intimidated by what might seem like a pervasive sense of futility.

There are legitimate institutional grounds on which people of faith might contest a Trump victory and join ongoing struggles. We might, for example, protest the continued use of the Electoral College, an institutional leftover from a time when American slave owning states constitutionally encoded their prominence. We might protest an election where voter turnout is estimated to be only about half of eligible voters, and the result itself was divided tightly down the middle, meaning Trump's victory (and that of the Republican Congress) is hardly representative of the American population. We might simply protest an election that put fear and self-preservation above the common good and egalitarianism, holding parties and their functionaries accountable.

There are also legitimate institutional grounds on which we might build alternatives. The Bernie Sanders campaign opened up new possibilities for civic discourse, lifting the ban on “socialism” as a dirty word that was so intentionally imposed in the twentieth-century in the US, and those possibilities might very well lead to substantial platforms. Networks like #BlackLivesMatter have already done the organizing work necessary to not only combat state-sanctioned violence but also make proposals for change. Newly elected representatives and para-governmental authority figures, like bishops and pastors, can be reached by something as simple as an e-mail or a letter.

Taking up the hard work of opposition and affirmation, Americans of faith have plenty of examples. When the United States was drafting its citizens into the brutal Vietnam War, the Cantonsville Nine, a group of nine Catholic activists including clergy (e.g. the famous Berrigan brothers) and laypersons, stole 378 draft files and burned them with homemade napalm. When the Civil Rights movement fought for black lives, pastors, priests, and faithful Christians took to the streets to demand not only voting rights, but housing improvements, higher wages, and international peace. Apart from the heroism involved in these movements, however, a trip to a local protest will soon have you talking with pastors, prophets, seminarians—deep faith creates tangible action. falls to Americans to take up the proper spiritual challenge, the one that replaces energies of disappointment and resentment with opposition and creation rather than the one that rests on the comforts of privilege filtered through the language of faith.

Whatever possibilities for opposition and creation might emerge, it falls to Americans to take up the proper spiritual challenge, the one that replaces energies of disappointment and resentment with opposition and creation rather than the one that rests on the comforts of privilege filtered through the language of faith. Yesterday morning was disorienting, confusing, or as some around me expressed it, it was like waking up in a whole different world. The clearing of this ground, however, is precisely where those who are willing to recognize an American spiritual challenge will start to perceive what poet Wendell Berry articulates in his poem “The Real Work”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work, 
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey. 
The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies. His doctoral research deals with the intersections of media, politics, and religion.


  1. Thanks for this, Dean. Your post made me think of a passage from Gregory's De anima et resurrectione:

    >>Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too , until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire.<<

    Maybe we're called to be something like that fire, even if means pain for our friends and family (ourselves?) wedded to the evil that is this disastrous ideology.

    1. Ah, I love that, Josh! There's a book to be written on a medieval spirituality of activism. Let me know when you start writing it! ;)

  2. Not ready for a reading comprehension test, but it sounds like you're making a point.

    1. Hi Andrew, my apologies if the prose is unnecessarily dense. If I could summarize the point, I would say this. There seems to me to be two main Christian responses to Trump's presidency. One says Christians should forgive and forget, support Trump, and pray for his success. The other says Christians should speak the truth of their faith to power and work on behalf of those who stand to be further marginalized by Trump's platform. I think the second approach is much more in keeping with the biblical faith of the prophets and Jesus, and I think American Christians have a lot of good examples in history for how to do this.

      Thanks for encouraging me to put things more simply! I hope this helps, and I hope to see you out there in these coming years!