The following is one of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture. The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea. The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”
Pollsters and pundits tell us that Americans are more divided than at any point since the Civil War. I’m not sure that’s so.
Maybe we’re divided politically, but we certainly don’t seem to be divided emotionally. We’re all angry. Those angry at Washington D.C. and dysfunctional political systems voted Donald Trump into the presidency. A day after the election, people flooded streets in cities around the country to protest the election of a candidate they abhor. President-elect Trump—and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton—campaigned in a way to enflame.
Under the veil of criticizing “political correctness,” Trump stoked anger and gave tacit permission to his followers to use language and, on occasion, actions that gave ugly expression to their anger. Women, minorities, and various vulnerable populations within the U.S. are, in turn, angry at the Republican party for nominating and then falling behind a man whose moral failings and bullying ways should, they think, have disqualified him from the presidency. “Angry white male” voters directed their anger at a Democratic party that they believe has alienated them by choosing to fight cultural battles (gay marriage, racial inclusion, gender equality) in which they are portrayed as the bad guys rather than the economic ones in which they see themselves as victims.
Racial/ethnic minority voters are angry at white voters (and, seemingly, vice-versa). Rural voters are angry at urban ones (again, seemingly, vice-versa). Voters with college degrees are angry at those without (same). Female voters are angry at male voters (when they’re not angry at women who voted differently than they did). The working class seems to be angry at everyone.
Politics may be local but outrage is universal.
Or, rather, anger is one of the two things that unites us. The other uniting feature is just how displaced our angers are. Angry at the fact that industrial jobs have been leaving the country and financiers have been the primary beneficiaries of record Wall Street windfalls, Trump supporters elected a real estate mogul who has bragged about his ability to leverage money and repeatedly reneged on contracts that he made with laborers.
Angry at Trump, protesters have shut down major thoroughfares to protest—what? The fact that their candidate lost a free and fair election? The fact that the U.S. relies on the electoral college rather than the popular vote to determine the victor?
Angry at the free floating economic anxiety they feel, many Trump voters say the most important issues the country needs to address are immigration (which has been down significantly over the past decade) crime (also down) and voter fraud (which is all-but-nonexistent). Angry at the abuses that persons of color are experiencing individually (at, e.g., the hands of the police) and collectively (at the systemic racism in matters related, especially, to the economy, government, and American penal culture), many Clinton voters accuse Trump voters of being driven by racist reactions to eight years of a black president in spite of the fact that many of those Trump voters also voted for President Obama during the previous two elections.
There are good reasons to be angry. Even though the economy is strong by many metrics (Dow Jones up, unemployment and the cost of a gallon of gas down, inflation stable), the creative destruction built into capitalism has been disproportionately borne by some people. Even though there are reasons to celebrate national health as measured by metrics having to do with scientific achievement, a more widely insured population, and increasing connectedness, “news” sources treat climate change, the Affordable Care Act, and social networking—all products of those metrics–as causes for debate or disgust.
Baby-boomers continue to vote their own interests regardless of the impact their self-interest has on national well-being. Gender biases, racism and hate-speech are on the rise. Even though religious voices revealed a truer diversity of faithful theological perspectives about national issues during this election, the voting block of white evangelical voters further undermined Christian credibility by voting for a thrice-married, foul-mouthed, LGBTQ-affirming reality television bully (whose loose relationship to truth-claims drove a cottage industry in fact-checking) even though they’ve long claimed that candidates should be judged by their adherence to “traditional moral values.”
All elections are, to varying degrees, cathartic. This one, though, has been a national tantrum.
The problem with “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” as a political mantra is that if anger is all you’ve got, you will, apparently, take anything. When emotivism (which philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously defined as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral evaluative in character.drives voting), when Colbertian “truthiness” displaces truth, when tribal rage displaces independent reflection, then we reject the collective wager that sustains democracies, namely, that we’re all better off when we trust each other at least enough to listen for reason in the positions of those with whom we disagree.
From a Christian perspective, that also means we surrender the difficult but vital project of discerning what God is doing in the world and then responding faithfully in light of God’s actions. Such a project calls us to look beyond ourselves even as anger calls us to attend to our own pain. It calls us to be patient even as anger calls us to act now. It calls us to admit that we have neither the mind nor the love of God even as anger invites us to call down God’s wrath. It calls us to seek a greater unity even as anger calls us to reject others.
There is a place for anger in our political and spiritual lives. It can signal an injustice in need of address, motivate action in the face of apathy, and remind us of the significance of political issues—and it is at least a better response to widespread anxiety than quietism or despair.
But anger, untethered from and untempered by the central virtues of faith, hope, and love only destroys. “Be angry but do not sin,” Ephesians 4:26 reminds us.
That should have included the polling place on Nov. 8. And it has to include the public square after inauguration day on January 20, if we hope to make Nov. 6, 2018 – and beyond- meaningful in any way.
Mark Douglas is Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of Confessing Christ in the 21st Century (2005) and Believing Aloud: Reflections on Being Religious in the Public Square (2010).