Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Defeating Trump Is Not Enough
The rise of Donald Trump evokes our contempt. As it should. The man espouses abhorrent political views, advocates despicable policies, demonstrates abundant misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, and is the poster child of a narcissist whose concern for the public good extends only as far as his own family. He has debased our public rhetoric, jettisoned the truth at will, cheated partners and workers, and turned civic engagement into hate infused combat. Trump must be defeated. Period.
But defeating Donald Trump will not be the end of this sordid drama. For behind Trump is a legion of followers who have allowed him to give voice to their alienation and disaffection. His defeat will not alleviate their fears or their bewilderment at the changing face of America. His electoral humiliation will not sooth the disappointments and tragedies caused by the massive global economic and technological transformations that have left many behind and shattered expectations for their children and grandchildren. It will not clarify their confusion over the dramatic changes in sexual norms and values that have taken place in their lifetimes. That we Christian liberals abhor their responses to all of this does not give us license to heap condescension and scorn on them. Yet in the religious circles I move in, smugness, rather than understanding, let alone compassion, seems to be the order of the day.
Defeating Donald Trump is essential for furthering a society intent on eradicating racism, welcoming the enrichment of immigrants, expanding definitions of inclusive communities, protecting the planet, addressing severe poverty here and throughout the globe, and extending peace and security throughout the world. But if defeating Donald Trump means exacerbating the sense of estrangement and isolation of an already disaffected number of his followers, then we will have fulfilled only half of our civic responsibility and little of our Christian responsibility.
Christians, liberal or conservative, are called to the ministry of redemption and reconciliation. Jesus never said, “Be lavish in your condescension toward others.” While addressing a slightly different, though related concern, Alan Jacobs, writing in the current issue of Harpers magazine suggests that “when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging.”
Such “affiliation” must not mean tolerance of racist or xenophobic convictions, nor does it require that we accept as true every assertion of perceived threat and injury as rationale for whatever unpleasantness we see. The political temper tantrum now on display is dangerous; boundaries must be placed firmly around it lest vulnerable people and cherished values be trampled. But the affiliation Jones’ suggests as intrinsic to Christian belonging does mean that dismissing enormous segments of the U.S. population as irrelevant or inconvenient is neither wise nor faithful.
Inviting and welcoming Trump’s followers as full participants in the future America is becoming will be a challenging task, ripe with political, economic, and social implications. But if the phrase “extravagant welcome” which we so easily weave through our liturgies is to mean anything, it must mean efforts at reconciliation even with those who seem to us right now to be ignorant, ungenerous, or worse. In the coming politically charged weeks, a good place to start might be setting aside the smug jokes and cloying condescension we so easily cast on so many of our neighbors.
John H. Thomas
August 25, 2016