In full disclosure, I am white Christian, and therefore would appear to be part of the power structure of conservatism, but I did not vote for Trump, and my own history shows me to be somewhat of a rebel to the system.
If you don’t understand how Evangelical Christianity fell into what appears to be the black hole of a severe insanity and voted for Donald Trump, you may have had your head in sand for quite some time. Perhaps, we’ve all had our heads in the sand. This was a storm generated by decades of mocking and subtle abuse by acceptable mainstream voices.
If there is one group that it has been acceptable, even politically correct, to mock, they are found predominantly in America’s middle. They are white, they are Christian, they are often poor or lower middle class, they are often not educated beyond high school or with little college experience, and they are living out their lives in Thoreau’s “quiet desperation”. Among my fellow urban/suburbanites north of Boston, I have heard the mocking of the Christian middle for decades now. Some of you come from those middle places, and look back in derision to the homespun conservatism of your upbringing. You know who you are. I don’t have to point you out. You have talked about the prejudice of your kindly parents, the abusive past of a simple religious upbringing with its basic postwar morality. You have decried them as uneducated, prejudiced, and puritanical. You changed, and when they kicked back against your sometimes-open rebellion, you acted like something was wrong with them. After all, you are postmodern or millennial or postcolonial or educated or something they are not, and should be – according to you.
Somewhere along the way, you stopped listening to the voices they listened to, and made fun of America’s largest news network as though it was just a right-wing conspiracy. But, the Australian outsider Rupert Murdock understood the American cry for nostalgia better than you did, and tapped into the places your age-gap blinded you from understanding. Instead, you watched Michael Moore’s pontificating or Bill Maher and Jon Stewart’s de-moralizing propaganda. You began to use their verbiage and you started this war, while much of middle-America remained mostly silent.
You will say, of course, that they did not remain silent, and that is partly true. But, the evidence is in post-election results. Trump was a surprise win. Why? Because the years of mocking, and the swift and dramatic movement away from a powerful postwar nostalgia with its legitimate, simple, conservative, Christian culture left many people living in Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” and often afraid to communicate their conservative beliefs. They were uncool now. The polls could not find them. These are the people who avoid the conflict of what they see as a shrill left. They were the holdouts from what was once called the silent majority, and you might have been able to cajole them into silence, but not into inaction or into agreement with your wildly changing values.
Something happens to the scared dog backed into the corner. It does not typically quiver, rather it bares its teeth, it growls, and you are too aggressive in trying to make it trust you. The cities with their influence of an elite white intelligentsia and post-colonialism, which will always define truth through the eyes of a minority opinion or the abused, and always assumes blindness in the majority or any unchanged traditions, pushed the simple lower and middle class white majority into the corner. But, unlike the scared dog, most of them patiently lived out their lives waiting for hope – for a savior. They did not growl, but they did just bite back. Trump came along as an obscene reality TV version of their last gasp of hope against the waves of forced change to the cultural peace they wanted to live out the rest of their lives. He tapped into their fears, and took advantage of them. But, we postmodern, postcolonial, progressive know-it-alls mocking their quiet desperation set this all up. It is our fault as much as theirs.
We did not hold Bill Maher to account for his grotesque pseudo-intellectual mocking of Christianity. We did not pay attention to the fact that Jon Stewart barely read the news and prepared as well as a dope smoking Junior High Schooler for a math test. No, we mistook biased ranting for supposedly intelligent discourse. It became our news, when, in actuality, it might have made even FoxNews look like an academic research lab. For every mocking Dawkins’ quote, and for every Moore diatribe placed in film format there was an equally unbalanced opposition middle America trusted. While the late night “comedy news” took over the TV screen, Matt Drudge quietly racked up a billion hits a month in conservative news flashes.
It was a war of ideas and a war of culture. It could have been waged with a pint and debate, or at the Thanksgiving table, if someone could have played the gentle middle, or if we had remembered the art of civility. But, civility was overcome by the Reality TV show, the crude popular artist, and our favorite trash-talking athlete. So, to the left and to the right the lines where drawn, and we picked our voices. Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher, FoxNews or Jon Stewart….
With all the cultural distortion America has experienced over the last 60 years, we have just seen the backlash of the silent majority who are saying enough is enough. Most of the Trump voters were not protesting. They were watching their cities burn in protest, and they wanted the rule of law to return. They were watching Middle East extremism threaten Western culture, and thought it best to keep it at a safe distance.
Yet, disturbingly, Christian White America believed the ranting of a man, who in no way, represents their own beliefs. He is a womanizer and proud of it. He is a win-at-all-costs businessman that cares less about honesty and more about the bottom line. He is a crude communicator with a track record of abusive obscenity. But, he was okay, because he at least spoke to our basic concerns of safety and the loss of American industry. Our commitment to the simple postwar values became more important than God, and so if Donald Trump presented the voice we wanted to hear, it must be God Himself trumpeting to us – or so American White Evangelical Christianity reasoned, because it appears we voted for Trump in a 5 to 1 ratio (81%). The cognitive dissonance required for an Evangelical Christian to vote for a man with the apparent morals of Larry Flint is stunning, but we were told that Paula White led him to Jesus, and that he was just a “baby Christian.”(link) So, of course, all his past, and even his continued unconscionable behavior was acceptable, because hey, he was only learning and growing.
The biggest flip-flop of this election was not Hillary’s litany of differing opinions over the years, it was the Evangelical mind, which only four years earlier thought that character was a vital element in a President. Now, we reasoned, it was not that big a deal. In the change of survey results from 2011 to 2016 White Evangelical Protestants moved from being most concerned about candidates’ indiscretions, to being the least concerned about the issue. The flip-flop in opinion was a 42-point move in percentage – from only 30% saying they could entrust an immoral person to run the nation, to 72% saying they would trust an unethical individual to lead us. This flip-flop is the most dramatic change in the electorate this election. Because Trump spoke a protectionary language about our nostalgia for America – even in an obscene manner, we were willing to entrust him with our nation. Only a severe cognitive dissonance makes sense of this flip-flop.
The willingness to entrust someone we once thought too immoral to run our country may come back to bite us all, but only time will tell now. The danger of falling into this severe cognitive dissonance is something I have spoken about in Burning Religion:
Our cognitive dissonance is at its most damaging when we remain uncritically fixed to our own untenable positions. It is when we think we know the answers despite contrary evidence that our cognitive dissonance reaches its proud apex, and we are consequently unaware of our own isolation. (Burning Religion, page 72)
For all the church experts out there: Perhaps in all these years of thinking that Evangelicalism was shrinking and people were running away, we were wrong. Did we miscalculate the numbers of silently patient conservatives? Did we miss the rising cognitive dissonance on both sides of the aisle, and both sides of the pulpit? Did it actually mutate in front of us instead? Did we miss the fact that the divide between it and our transforming culture was becoming too wide to communicate across, and so simple conservative Evangelicals just waited patiently for some hope until it finally seemed nearly too late?
If we ever needed God, if we ever needed a miracle, we need it now. The space between the worlds of thought in our nation is impossibly wide, and the need to navigate across that space is too great.
You can purchase Burning Religion here. The Kindle version is on sale for $3.99 till November 13th, 2016 midnight EST.