By backing out of the Paris climate accord the Trump administration and its GOP supporters are forsaking the American future in more ways than one. We lose economically by falling behind in the transition to a clean energy future. We lose geopolitically by marking ourselves as an unreliable international partner. We lose generationally by condemning our children and grandchildren to a more insecure world.
However, one thing the Paris withdrawal does not forsake is the dominant American theopolitics of American exceptionalism. In fact, withdrawal from Paris not only epitomizes American exceptionalism, it graphically illustrates the destructive moral logic at its core. It also calls for an alternative American theopolitical option, one that is more radically democratic, culturally pluralistic, and ecologically conscientious.
But it is important first to acknowledge the staggering moral callousness of the Paris withdrawal. The climate crisis is a global injustice and the United States is the primary perpetrator. US cumulative CO2 emissions far exceed those of any other nation and American per capita emissions are the highest among other industrialized nations. And yet, although we have contributed more to the problem and have benefited more from a fossil-fueled industrial economy, the global poor are most immediately and devastatingly impacted by the effects of climate change.
On top of this, and despite the well-established global scientific consensus that humans are the major driver of contemporary climate change, Americans, and especially Republicans, are more prone to climate skepticism or outright climate denial than citizens in any other nation—indeed, we are home to the only major political party in the world that, as a matter of policy, rejects the human contribution to climate change.
As if these things were not enough to set us apart from the rest of the world, the Trump administration’s decision means that we now belong to a very small group of nations who have rejected the Paris climate accord. While Nicaragua abstained because they felt Paris was insufficiently rigorous, and Syria was uninvolved due to an incapacitating civil war (which evidence suggests was triggered by a climate-induced drought), Trump’s reasons for reneging on the agreement range from dubious and discredited, at best, to outright vindictive.
Absent any convincing or fact-based rationale, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has come to the conclusion that, by deciding to withdraw from Paris, Trump is essentially giving the rest of the world a giant middle finger. This is certainly consistent with Trump’s well-documented history of shady business practices, in which he has profitably used the courts to stick it to his workers and contractors.
Other assessments offer additional nuance. For example, Mark Lynas interprets Trump’s decision to cancel Paris as a perfect illustration of a post-truth approach to governance. Not only is it a decision that stems from “the outright denial of overwhelming scientific reality,” but in the preceding week it was “telegraphed in suspense-building gameshow style” through social media. The Paris withdrawal is simply Trump the reality television star at his most “callous, ignorant and attention-seeking.”
The assessment of climate justice activist and author Bill McKibben is even more damning. Reneging on Paris “is a stupid and reckless decision — our nation’s dumbest act since launching the war in Iraq.” But rather than being stupid and reckless in a typical Trumpian way, along the lines of his Twitter habits, for instance, the Paris withdrawal “amounts to a thorough repudiation of two of the civilizing forces on our planet: diplomacy and science.” Thus, backing out of Paris not only “undercuts our civilization’s chances of surviving global warming, but it also undercuts our civilization itself, since that civilization rests in large measure on those two forces.”
Indeed, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord is deeply problematic. But it is not surprising! And this is not only because Trump signaled his disdain for the Paris accord all through his campaign, and it is not only because it is consistent with long-standing Republican climate denial. Rather, the rejection of the Paris accord is unsurprising because it epitomizes the theopolitics of American exceptionalism.
Although the concept of American exceptionalism is frequently invoked by US politicians, its theopolitical structure is not often acknowledged. As I define it, political theology entails critical engagement of those spaces of reason and desire (e.g. civil society, government, the media, the arts) through which communities negotiate the normative structure of their common life—the moral stories and values that orient them and the concepts of power that organize them. In a pluralistic and democratic society such as the contemporary United States, the orienting values, moral stories, and concepts of power are diverse.
These values, stories and concepts are mediated by symbols and faith commitments of some kind, religious and otherwise, whether they are made explicit or not. Thus, one of the critical tasks of political theology is to bring to view—to make explicit and to critically examine—the symbolically mediated moral logic(s) that animate political communities’ debates about the normative structure of their common life.
In a forthcoming book of mine, I interpret the moral logic of American exceptionalism through the concept of the “redeemer symbolic”. As I will explain just below, the redeemer symbolic is a set of symbols and stories that are religious in origin but have also taken on secular forms. The historic function of the redeemer symbolic has been to legitimate the extraction of diverse forms of value (e.g. Native American lives and cultures, natural resources, the labor of migrants) and the externalization of diverse costs (e.g. polluted air, waters, and soil, carbon-saturated atmosphere) as the redemptive price of American exceptionalism.
As the redeemer symbolic migrates through American history, it takes different forms. In its earliest phase, for example, the redemption in question is the redemption of the Church to be brought about by Providence through Puritan example; the sovereign agent of redemption is the God of Israel who will save those who are obedient to his purposes and damn those who are disobedient; and the medium of redemption is covenant.
These symbols formatted a political ethos that was radically hierarchical, with magistrates and ministers exerting their sovereignty over all but God. Socially, morally, and theologically, conformity was prized above all other concerns. The “new world” was no place of freedom. Dissenters such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, despite their Christian piety, were banished from Massachusetts. The threat of externalization became a tool of social order.
The decimation of native populations and the theft of their land, along with the harsh internal discipline within the early plantations, were theologically justified as means to the redemptive purification of the Church.
While in early national history, the redeemer symbolic took on racialized and nationalist, for instance through the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, in more recent times it has taken the on the political-economic form of neoliberalism. The Trump administration epitomizes this form of the redeemer symbolic—Trump has self-identified as a redemptive figure (“I alone can fix it”), and his claim to his singularly redemptive powers is rooted in the aggressive branding of his name and his business pursuits—which includes a long and litigious history of the many ways he has extracted value from contractors and failed to pay them. Indeed, as journalist Julian Borer observes, Trump is approaching the presidency “in the spirit of a tycoon making a new acquisition, overseeing the merger of Trump Inc and America Inc – a merger in which it is far from clear which [will] be the senior partner.”
But if Trump epitomizes the neoliberal transubstantiation of the redeemer symbolic, neoliberalism itself functions as the dominant cultural ideology of the climate crisis. As Adrian Parr provocatively puts this, “environmental degradation is the concrete form of late capitalism.” Sustained by a pervasive social ethic and political ethos, neoliberal capitalism incarnates the dangerously unsustainable human and environmental impacts of an exceptionalist, extractive, and externalizing theopolitics. Profits are privatized, costs are socialized, and increasing inequality, environmental pollution, and the saturation of the atmosphere are justified by the moral story that a free and unfettered market is the most equitable and efficient way to allocate wealth.
Thus, the election of Trump is the redeemer symbolic come full circle. The free market is revered as sovereign, transcendent, and providential. Corporate tax cuts and deregulation provide the keys to the Kingdom of God. Government is the Whore of Babylon. Affluence is a sign of righteousness; and American capitalism has become a sacred crusade—the Paris climate accord be damned.
The encouraging news is that the Trump phenomenon is galvanizing a multitude of progressive activists in the United States and around the world. Contrary to its own antidemocratic tendencies, the Trump presidency has “awoken American democracy like never before” and ushered in a “golden era” of grassroots activism, as evidenced by the scaled-up energies of groups such as Indivisible, the Movement for Black Lives, the 350 climate justice movement, the Next System Project, and the commons movement.
Are the activist energies of these and other groups bringing life to new symbols and moral stories, new orienting values and concepts of power? Might an alternative theopolitics help to connect and amplify these new values and symbols in a way that is pluralistic, radically democratic, and ecologically attuned?
What sacred story or theological vision can catalyze such an alternative theopolitics? In place of the exceptionalist, extractive and externalizing logic of the redeemer symbolic, we need to imagine a theopolitics of American immanence organized around a moral logic of resilience, resistance, and responsibility.
Michael Hogue is Professor of Theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School. His published articles have appeared in The Journal of Religion, Zygon: A Journal of Religion and Science, Crosscurrents, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, among others. He is the author of two books, The Tangled Bank: Toward an Ecotheological Ethics of Responsible Participation (Pickwick, 2008) and The Promise of Religious Naturalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). He is the Editor of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy.