November 9, 2016 is a day that I will remember for a long time. The previous day the United States had elected a new president – Donald Trump. I was in shock and I did not know how to process this information. A man who from all accounts envisions himself to be Tony Soprano had somehow been elected president of the United States. What had happened?
I have been a political wonk since at least fourth grade. I remember watching the election returns on an initiative to keep the nuclear power plant (Maine Yankee) open and being elated that it passed. I remember running up to my friends on the playground so excited and them having the most confused looks. History, civics, model UN, you name it I did it and I loved it all. In college I was a political science minor and I was on the executive council of the College Republicans at my school. I ate and slept politics. All that is to say that I thought I had a pretty good handle on what would happen in the presidential race in 2016. I was wrong, so very wrong. In order to cope with both the tragedy of who had been elected and my need to figure out how I had been so wrong, I dove into exit poll data. One number stuck out to me, the same number that stuck out to everyone else, 80% of white evangelicalsi had voted for the reality television star who liked to brag about his sexual conquests. This did not help my confusion. I was part of the chorus in 1998 crying, “character counts” when Bill Clinton was impeached. When did character stop counting?
To Change the World, The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter has gone a long way to helping me answer my question in a more complete manner. Hunter sets out to find the answer to two questions: “how is religious faith possible in the late modern world?” and “how do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?”ii Both of these questions play out into how Christians operate in cultures where they are given the opportunity to be part of the political landscape. In order to get to his answer of faithful presence we first need to wade through the fire swamp of power, which I think is where the U.S. election of 2016 went so very wrong and a R.O.U.S.iii ended up getting elected.
Hunter argues that as cultures become more pluralistic the foundational beliefs of people become less rooted. Essentially his argument is that “social systems seem to require some basic consensus to survive.”iv In a pluralistic society that basic consensus starts to erode as there is less chance of a dominant culture dictating what the consensus should be. In the United States we are just seeing the fruits of conservative Protestant Christianity losing its grip as the dominant culture and as such there is a sense that power is up for grabs. Conservative protestants are trying not to lose their position while those who have never had the power are seeking to get their part of the pie. Hunter writes,
“My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn to politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarization is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.”
He is in essence arguing that when cultural power ceases to exist, the next best thing is political power. I, and many other people, think this is what happened in 2016. White evangelicals where presented with a doomsday projection which defied all of their most cherished beliefs that could only be avoided by electing a man who lacks the character to be the dog catcher. Political power was equal to righteousness and so it went. The difference between what Hunter is arguing and what most pundits are saying is that with Hunter the striving for power is not a Machiavellian, Dr. Evil sort of thing. It is rather a natural process. It is not that white Evangelicals wanted to rule the world with an iron fist, they were just trying to not lose the foundation they had always known.
All of this is history, what is the way forward for us? Hunter suggests the answer is in faithful presence, which most clearly manifested in the incarnation and for us now in the Eucharist. Jesus’ pursuit of the lost, his identification with those in need, the offer of life, and his sacrificial love are all on display in the Eucharist. The challenge is for us to become active participants in living this sort of life.
The brilliant thing about faithful presence is that it forms a sort of floating foundation that is able to ride out the undulations of culture and allows us to look upon culture with a sympathetic eye rather than as a thing that is out to get us. Perhaps if white Evangelicals had focused more on faithful presence than on the fear of loss or Socialism we would have seen another outcome in 2016. We can at least start focusing on it now and hope for a better outcome next time.
i “Exit Polls 2016”, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/election/2016/results/exit-polls
ii James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, And Possibility Of Christianity In The Late Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 2010) 3.
iii “R.O.U.S.” Princess Bride Wiki, princessbride.fandom.com/wiki/R.O.U.S.
iv Hunter, 206.