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The authoritarian, patriarchal Trump style is not a stranger to the Eurocentric Christian world. The Christian faith, in its political construction, was founded upon an authoritarian organization modeled on an authoritarian family unit. Just as the husband is the ordained head of the household, called by God to be a modern-day Abrahamic patriarch, so too are priests, called fathers, the ordained heads of churches. And while Protestants shy away from the word father, they nevertheless create similar authoritarian structures where congregants submit to a pastor who serves as the spiritual head.
For centuries, even before the foundation of the republic, Eurocentric Christianity has legitimized a patriarchy where authoritarian men rule at home, rule in the church, and rule in public. The system of checks and balances in the U.S. government becomes a nuisance to be dismantled instead of a safeguard designed to protect us from authoritarian rule. Further complicating patriarchy is the way in which whiteness expanded the authoritarian model by feminizing men and women of color, thus placing their fate under the benevolent masculine hand of the white, male overseer who knows what is best for inferior people. Christianity in the United States is simply simpatico with a political model designed to justify white supremacy.
When authoritarian ?gures can do no wrong, the problem is not so much with the leader but with the followers, who, like followers of religious cults, willingly drink the proverbial Kool-Aid regardless of how high their IQ may actually be. Seeing their unearned, privileged positions threatened by merit-based concepts such as equality, they embrace cult leaders who present themselves as the only solution to their downward-spiraling predicament, or as Trump proclaimed while mounting the Republican National Convention stage: “I am your voice. I alone can ?x it.”
Because only the cult leader can save us, he can do no wrong. Mao, Stalin, or Castro from the political left can do no wrong; Hitler, Mussolini, or Pinochet from the political right can do no wrong; Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, or David Koresh from the religious fringes can do no wrong. And when leaders can do no wrong, lemmings follow unto death.
During the presidential campaign, Trump bragged about being able to shoot somebody in broad daylight in the middle of Fifth Avenue and lose no voters. And the crowd cheered. Trump can do no wrong. The people transfer their absolute faith in God to Trump. So, too, they redirect their unconditional love from God to Trump. In an ultimate narcissistic move, Trump replaces God in accepting what is due to the Deity and in promising what the faithful can expect in return. If this is not idolatry, then I don’t know what is.
Steven Hassan, a former cult member and current clinical professional dedicated to assisting and enfranchising cult members, believes Trump ?ts the stereotypical pro?le of a cult leader. When Trump’s followers continue to proclaim their ?delity (“He could do anything and we would still believe him, we will still follow him”), they reveal their total indoctrination into a totalistic mindset. Such a mindset can be maintained only by rede?ning reality. Even though Trump was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitalia without their consent—a tape we actually heard with our own ears—Trump can nonetheless dismiss it as fake news and profess no one has more respect for women. “Believe me,” he says, and they do.
Maybe Trump was simply a con artist when he was hustling nondescript apartments as the pinnacle of class and luxury or running a university scam that bilked many with promises of revealing the secrets to becoming rich. The con artist, fueled by a craving for approval and adulation, attracts followers who feed the narcissistic addiction to power, fame, money, and sex. Neither laws of nature nor human-made rules apply to cult leaders, for they appear to operate above the law.
“Jokes” of following China’s example of possibly having a president for life lose all humor when voiced by cult leaders. And here is the truly disturbing thing: the same people who opposed Obama for being, in their minds, an illegitimate president, a tyrant, and a dictator, embrace an illegitimate president who lost the popular election by almost three million votes and who has made no secret of his admiration for tyrants and dictators or of his desire to follow their example. These gun-toting, white Christian defenders of liberty and the American way are democracy’s current threat.
The Problem with Whiteness
If the faith of a people is the historical construct of a particular type of culture, then those born in or raised within the United States are a product of a society where white supremacy and class privilege have been woven into the very fabric of how whites see themselves and organize the world around them. My colleague Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us that the language of “exceptionalism,” which is partially responsible for Trump’s victory, can be traced back to the Pilgrims and Puritans who ?ed Europe in search of religious freedom.
Before the conquest of what would eventually become the United States of America, these early invaders saw themselves as descendants of an ancient, superior Anglo-Saxon race “free from the taint of intermarriages with foreign nations.” Germania, written by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus in 98 CE, described a people who were brave, faithful, virtuous, and honorable. Their racial purity, he wrote, contributed to their higher moral values and an “instinctive love for freedom.” Their Teutonic descendants would cross the Atlantic—as “new Israelites”—on a divine mission to build a new religious nation true to their “exceptional” Anglo-Saxon heritage. They were destined to become the “shining light upon the hill.”
This understanding of their exceptionalism was foundational in the thinking of the Founding Fathers as they established the new republic. They saw their revolution as an Anglocentric divine call. But after the end of slavery, non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrants began to arrive at these shores in large numbers. As long as they were European, close to the white Anglo-Saxon ideal, they too could learn how to be white “within the space of two generations,” according to President Theodore Roosevelt. Whiteness (unattainable to non-Europeans) became the passport into the exceptional space we have come to call America.
But as nonwhites began to demand their human rights during the 1960s and began to make strides in creating a more just social arrangement, the guardians of white exceptionalism perceived the danger of diluting their supposed supremacy. As repugnant as miscegenation, illegal until 1967, may have been for them, even worse would be the notion of nonwhites occupying exceptional white spaces—like the appropriately named White House.
Although institutional racism did not abate, its historical enforcers began to be seen as politically incorrect. Modern racism required sophistication, thus making race-based groups like Neo-Nazis, skinheads, and the Klan embarrassments. During the last decades of the twentieth century, members of those groups were dismissed as yokels by educated people who understood critical “race theory.” However, the benign act of dismissing those hate groups as irrelevant hid the fact that racism was alive and well, and had not, in fact, ended or lost its potency.
This also meant white Christian nationalists—clinging to feelings of exceptionalism and superiority—had, in fact, mastered political correctness. During this time, avowed racist groups were no longer taken seriously and were even relegated to the status of ignorant rabble-rousers, until Trump capitalized on their humiliation and ostracization. Through coded (and at times not-so-coded) language, political speeches stoked the cravings of “the forgotten Americans” for their nation to return to its past glories. For them, America, a once proud nation, had lost her way and had journeyed far from her mystical origins.
Trump’s inaugural address, which claimed to expose the truth of a dark and divided America, issued a call to stop such “American carnage . . . right here and right now.” Trump’s genius is the simplicity of his message: Make America Great Again, where “great” gets to be de?ned in whatever matter the hearer, speci?cally the racist hearer, wishes to de?ne the term. Even if some of Trump’s other pronouncements appeared obscene or obnoxious to his devotees, moral objections could be set aside for the reestablishment of a supremacy deemed lost.
Celebrating Trump for his fearlessness and speaking his mind—that is, being unashamedly racist in his description of citizens of color—these racist groups, previously ignored, experienced an invigorating resurgence. It has never been a secret that rabid white supremacists such as David Duke support Trump, as do hate groups such as the ones who marched in Charlottesville.
And yet Trump refused to disavow such groups in the wake of the violence they perpetrated until he was forced to do so days later in the face of mounting pressure and criticism. Was anyone really fooled by his delayed indignation, which should have occurred immediately? When a pair of Massachusetts men in August 2015 beat a homeless Latino whom they had encountered on the streets with a pipe yelling, “Donald Trump is right;” the then-candidate said it was a shame—before praising the passion of his followers: “They love this country, they want this country to be great again.” Days later, and only after facing mounting criticism, he condemned the violence.
These historical racist and classist national underpinnings contribute to the creation of a religious metanarrative that justi?es and protects the dominant culture and those whom the culture was designed to privilege. A so-called Christian worldview is created where complicity with the imperial imagination of the United States is deemed normal and where those who bene?t by God and country usually accept the present order of things, failing to consider the depths and pervasiveness of the racialization of their faith.
Few white Christians, and Christians of color seeking salvation through assimilation, recognize how the Christianity they advocate is reinforced and privileged by economic class and whiteness. As alluring as Eurocentric Christianity with its simplistic solutions to life’s complexities may appear to be for the dis-possessed, most of this form of Christianity remains embedded within whiteness and is thus incongruent with the gospel message of liberation.
Because social order in the United States continues to thrive on injustice, a national faith must be created that neither threatens or challenges the status quo. Calls for justice are either dismissed as a utopian vision that can never be realized until Jesus’s second coming (Billy Graham), seen as the antithesis of faith requiring true believers to ?ee from churches advocating social or economic justice (Glen Beck), or described as a mistake made by the church, which should instead concentrate on simply being the church, living within the faith community as if Christ’s message is true (Stanley Hauerwas). The problem with white Christianity is that most Christian moral reasoning is done from the sectarian realm of abstractions. Christianity has a problem with “what you do” because of its focus on “how you believe.” A mental decision to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and savior trumps using Jesus Christ as the paradigm for how to live one’s life.
Through this sleight of hand, white Christians can profess their belief in Jesus while refusing to “be Jesus” and create a more just social order, or worse, can engage in activities diametrically opposed to Jesus’s life and teachings. How else can Christians called to having their yea be yea support a pathological liar who made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his ?rst year in o?ce (or about six a day), according to the Washington Post fact checker?How else can Christians advocating family values dismiss the trysts of a serial adulterer who calls for the separation of immigrant children from their parents? How else can Christians called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and cloth the naked encourage the dismantling of the minimal United States safety net that provided bare scraps of humanity and whose absence will cause unbearable misery when the next recession hits?
Christians in the United States embrace untruthfulness, in?delity, and sel?sh greed as long as they advance conservative political and economic ideologies. The problem with whiteness is that the Christianity it advocates is, has been, and will always be idolatrous.
And while it is true that some white Christians might lean toward a more praxis-oriented faith, a commitment to abstract thinking over actively living one’s faith dominates the Euro-American Christian milieu. Why then should people of color assimilate to a white Christianity that dismisses the justice we call for and demands replacing praxis with ethereal thoughts? For the disenfranchised to assimilate to the white Christianity of either conservatives or liberals is damning, if not deadly, to our very existential being, even when Christianity is repackaged as progressive and worthy of implementation for marginalized communities.
This driving force responsible for electing authoritarian ?gures who privilege whiteness at the expense of others is a Eurocentric-driven problem creating a culture where communities of color are the object and the problem, never the subject or the solution. In order to reconcile the whiteness that bene?ts them with their commitment to Christianity, the dominant Euro-American culture must have an abstract faith which, while distinctly Eurocentric, can be presented as universal.
And while Christianity in the United States is neither uniform nor monolithic, still certain common denominators exist, such as a propensity toward hyperindividualism, a call for law and order, an emphasis on charity over and against justice, an uncritical acceptance of the market economy, an emphasis on whiteness, and prominent patriarchal structural norms. While such a Christianity is compatible with the dominant Euro-American culture, it remains incongruent for those residing on the margins of society because of how such a faith reinforces the prevailing social structures responsible for the causes of disenfranchisement.
The problem with whiteness is not a new concern; its roots can be traced to the so-called Age of Enlightenment, which spurred the development of racial classi?cations. Eurocentric enlightenment thought was obsessed with categorizing nature for the purpose of easy possession. Among those categorized by museums and scholars were people groups. Preoccupation with de?ning race through evolutionary stages became foundational in the intellectual justi?cation for the imperial conquest and slavery of those supposedly stuck at the lower stages of evolution. And while the modernity project attempted to replace God with science, Christianity nevertheless played a crucial role in globalizing racist practices. White Christians, using biblical justi?cations (the sin of Cain or the sin of Ham) and/or scienti?c justi?cation (eugenics), were quick to describe those awaiting colonization as shift-less, lazy, childlike, dangerous, and animalistic.
This view of nonwhites was interwoven into the very fabric of Euro-American culture, becoming the foundation on which history was constructed and the norm by which it is interpreted. Racism and ethnic discrimination cease to be a matter of beliefs or intentions, becoming instead the consequences of what it means to be white. Racial de?nitions undergird privileges for those closest to the white ideal while disenfranchising those further away, who are relegated to live under poorer economic conditions with fewer opportunities for proper sanitation, health care, and education, all resulting in their shorter life spans. For the past ?ve hundred years of North American history, the overwhelming majority of liberal and conservative whites saw the abnormality of racial and economic oppressions by the dominant culture as normal and legitimate, justi?ed morally and legally.
Reprinted with permission from Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity by Miguel A. De La Torre, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019.