Susan Abraham – « Masculinist Populism and Toxic Christianity in the United States »

Susan Abraham

« Masculinist Populism and Toxic Christianity in the United States »

Thierry-Marie Courau, Susan Abraham, Mile Babić

Concilium 2019-2. Populismus und Religion
Concilium 2019-2. Populism and religion
Concilium 2019-2. Religiones y populismo
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religione
Concilium 2019-2. Religions et populisme
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religião


1. Democracy Imperiled 

In the United States, populist rhetoric highlights racial and gendered essentialist identities through a specific idea of Christianity, which imperils American democratic institutions. American Christianity, which is largely evangelical White and Protestant in orientation, exemplifies the ideals of “muscular Christianity,” emphasizing a particular view of masculinity and femininity. Muscular Christianity is also associated with the rise of Eugenics and its belief in white American masculine superiority. In the shared cultural context of muscular Christianity, American Protestantism and American Catholicism are barely distinguishable because they agree on the superiority of whiteness, the superiority of men and traditional gender roles in family and society. This context, described as militant Christian Evangelical Masculinity, or, muscular Christianity, is the context for the rise of Donald Trump and his brand of rightwing populist politics in the United States. 

In the months leading to the election, it seemed to many that Hillary Clinton, with her experience and her clout would trounce her opposition, the fantastical Donald Trump. The fact that he was elected (even as he lost the popular vote), and continues to bulldoze through with a culturally and politically narrow conservative agenda is remarkable. His populist message hits home, even though he is no member of the class identified with “the people,” and had never been identified, until his candidacy, with a Republican or conservative political agenda. Wealthy white masculinity, as the embodiment of what it means to be an “American” and “Christian,” has successfully beaten back bodies of color and bodies of women encroaching on their presumed turf. While it is not true to claim that Clinton’s success would have automatically led to the inclusion and participation of bodies of color, the fact that Trump has succeeded to gain so much ground for the Republicans deserves careful consideration by scholars of religion and theologians. 

 In an essay written shortly after the US Presidential election of 2016, Catholic theological ethicist, Fr. Kenneth R. Himes asserts that the US elections present a contemporary agenda for Catholic social ethics. In the early days following the election, many academic arguments identified white race anxiety and loss of economic mobility as the reason for electing Donald Trump to the Presidency. Himes provides one more reason: that anger was the motivating force behind the rise of “populism, a word coined to describe the People’s Party that emerged during the 1890s in defense of rural and urban workers in the grip of monopolies and financial institutions.”[1] While populism’s ideological stance is flexible, depending on the context, its main feature highlights that politics is a moral fight to the finish between the “good people” and the “corrupt elites.”  In the US context, the last electoral cycle yielded two kinds of populists demonstrating that the composition of “the people” and “the elites” is highly contended. Each side constructs the other in an “us-and-them” relationship. Himes points out that Bernie Sanders represented one kind of populist whose rhetoric stressed class inequality. In contrast, Donald Trump’s strategy emphasized race and religious victimhood imposed on “the people” by immigrants and non-citizens.

Himes points out that both Sanders and Trump appealed to the anger and anxiety about economic issues felt by their constituents. Economic anxieties and loss of cultural power intersect with the changing nature of work and employment.  Work has changed from a guarantor of economic stability and job security to a condition marked by precarity. A whole new class of workers, called the “precariat” now only have access to temporary or perma-temp (longer term contracts) or contracted employment. They have no access to the “American Dream” which solidified in the post war period of the 1950s. Workers are facing extremely reduced job security and incomes even as social services including education and health care have steadily lost state funding. US populist rhetoric capitalizes on the felt condition of precariousness by identifying scapegoats and villains on the other side of each divide.

Another critical issue that Himes identifies in US populism is its deployment of overt racism and anxiety at the loss of cultural and political eminence. With particular reference to Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land [2] published right before the elections, Himes asserts that

There is anger, for sure, but also mourning, a sense of sadness and grief over a lost life. The people portrayed in the book feel the loss of a religious culture in a secular age, the loss of a white majority to diversity, the loss of a way of life to global economic forces and the loss of hope for attaining the American Dream. There is also a feeling of resentment toward elites who seem indifferent to the pain of the white working class and even scorn the group as racists, homophobes and nativists.[3]

Of course, the lack of access to the “American Dream” has always been a reality for Black and Brown people in the United States. As a new reality for White people, it has now bred a particular sense of displacement and alienation due to the anticipation of the same upward economic mobility that their parents experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. Hence, while Black and Brown people in the US report relative improvement in their circumstances for the past 40 years, white people see erosions of their power, influence and economic security. Trump’s highly successful strategy was and continues to be to join the sense of displacement to the economic despair felt by the whites as a particular form of racial and gender victimization. The strategy requires playing to the stereotypes about racial, immigrant, religious, gendered and sexual minorities and their presence in the nation’s cultural and political life. 

In contrast to Himes’ analysis, Republican and conservative commentator Carson Holloway argues that “Christianity does not bar one from supporting a Trumpian politics of Machiavellian populism.”[4] Clearly recognizing that Trump is no “savior” of Christians, Holloway, nevertheless also welcomes the stratagem of dividing to conquer. Holloway, therefore, in contrast to Himes’ social analysis, points to a single reason why Trump is so effective in mobilizing his party and his base: Trump appeals to American Christian self-interest. The will of “the people” is paramount and “the people” are those legal citizens invested in national identity and national security, equal to personal and psychological identity. Self-interest, self-governance and American supremacy are core aspects of North American rightwing populism, but it is also intimately tied to Christian religious identity. More importantly, Holloway makes a very important connection between Trump’s Machiavellianism and his masculinity:

In light of the outpouring of criticism from elites, it is more than a little ironic that Trump appears to have more integrity than many politicians. This stems, in part, from his forthright approach. He makes few appeals to noble principles, and thus there is little for him to betray. Moreover, he seems to remain true to his Machiavellian populism…Trump’s preoccupation with manliness and strength is legendary. It is likely he thinks it would be weak and dishonorable for him to abandon positions he vigorously affirmed during his campaign.[5]

Holloway goes on to suggest that even though Trump’s personal failings may bring pause to Christians, he is the best choice in the circumstances because, “truly principled statesmen” though “most desirable, are rarely available.” In other words, Trump is the best solution for Christian Americans at this time. Electing Trump and supporting his government is to take Scripture to heart, where Christians are enjoined to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” even as they acknowledge that Trump is a less than perfect candidate as President. Such rhetorical rationalizing is astonishing given the fact that the Christian conservatives in the United States generally have demonized candidates for the Presidency if their perceived religious identities and moral qualities are questionable in any way. 

Striking in both of these analyses is the framing of the argument for or against Trump through a cultural and religious lens. Both Himes and Holloway are academics, the one teaching Theological Ethics, and the other Political Science. Both men are Christian; Himes is Catholic. The one concludes with a social analysis advocating understanding and empathy between differing groups, and the other with a rationalization of what it means to accept a leader who does not embody culturally acceptable moral and religious views. At the heart of both arguments are disagreements of who belongs in a democracy and the role of religion in a democracy. For Himes, all belong, especially, the minoritized sections of the nation’s people (including also white people facing economic hardship) and it is incumbent on Christians to foster pathways to deeper understanding. For Holloway, White, Christian, wealthy, and masculine people (supported of course, by their White and Christian women) belong; democracy is a forum to articulate aggrieved claims of how belonging is compromised by the advance of “others.” For them, White Christianity is under attack in the United States.

2. Masculinist demagoguery 

While scholarly literature generally asserts that populism has little to do with gender issues, it also asserts that populism, like other political realities is often associated with powerful men. For example, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argue that the relationship between populism and gender politics is dependent in great part on the ideology of nationalism in which it manifests itself.[6] Their comparative study focusing on Europe and South America is instructive. In the oppositional relationship between the people and the elites, “gender” issues do not follow predictable lines; often, women are leaders of populist movements, like Marine Le Pen in France or Keiko Fujimori in Peru.[7] In Northern Europe, populists cast immigration as threatening European gender equality and advancement. In contrast, in South America, there is more ambivalence about gender issues because the main issue facing populists is economic inequality. The authors point out that in both cases, gender issues are secondary to nationalist politics.

The situation in North America is no different. “Muscular Christianity” which advocates traditional gender roles for men and women drives nationalist discourse. For example, Kristin Du Mez in her essay “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity” argues that evangelical Christianity in the US has replaced the “Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of machismo.”[8] Since democratic practices have eroded the preeminence of white Christian males, there is a conflated sense that Jesus and Christianity are losing cultural value as well. Mez points out that the militant Evangelical masculinist vote for Trump is in continuity with decades’ old efforts to reinforce “family values” as a core area of evangelical concern in American politics, with its emphasis on traditional gendered roles. Also extremely successful is Trump’s subtle strategy of linking Christian and White machismo to the security of the nation, a form of demagoguery. Despite his personal transgressions of traditional marriage, the countless dalliances with multiple women, Trump’s unfiltered speech and braggadocio appeals to militant males as a form of machismo that can secure the place of White men and the supremacy of America as the world’s superpower. As Mez asserts, “On the role of gender in the 2016 election, most observers have scrutinized Clinton’s appeal or lack thereof. Still, more revealing is Trump’s testosterone fueled masculinity, which aligns remarkably well with that long championed by evangelicals. What makes a strong leader? A virile (white) man. And what of his vulgarity? Infidelity? Bombast? Even Sexual assault? Well, boys will be boys.” What Trump is modeling is that a man can have cultural power even in the face of the losses due to changing gender roles and the success of the women’s movement, precisely by being an “authentically” virile man (who abuses and debases most women as sexualized objects) but treats his (third) wife and daughters (somewhat) differently.

Populist demagoguery depends on convincing performances by a lead character. It is no surprise that Donald Trump is an expert at a particular kind of public performance. It all began with his reality TV show The Apprentice. His image in the show was the decisive “CEO, business-man-in-charge.” The show made a clear connection between money and male power, a connection that Trump has successfully capitalized. He embodies the desire to secure power by being wealthy and his behavior as a man actually secures the space for dominating male power in national politics. Even more effectively, Trump is channeling another nostalgic figure from America’s TV past. In the 1970s, a highly popular sitcom on American TV called All in the Family depicted a man who was the opposite of “politically correct.”[9] As entertainment, Archie Bunker provided both comic release and catharsis as tragedy. Bunker’s overt racism, sexism and homophobia played on the anxieties of the 1970s: the instability of the postwar period and its sluggish growth, high oil prices, loss of manufacturing jobs and deindustrialization, together with foreign competition. He gave voice to White anger and fear of America as diverse. As satire, the show depicted Archie Bunker, and people such as he as relics from a bygone time. Yet, he also was a wistful figure—the “Strict Father,” who called it like it is, evoking a homogenously imagined cultural time and space. 

For many, Donald Trump is Archie Bunker come to life, irreverent, funny, honest, and authentic, someone who nostalgically evokes the strict white Dad. Contrarily, they do not take Trump literally; now, schooled by Archie Bunker, they interpret Trump’s behavior as political satire against the hated liberal “elites.” The people that voted for him understand the performative aspect of his words and actions. Yet, to take Trump seriously, as the people who voted for him do, is also to understand that the Archie Bunker phenomenon on television was the voice of “the people,” though now, instead of a crude character on TV, he is the President of the United States. Trump is a better Archie Bunker than Archie Bunker! As a figure who occupies a very powerful position of power, Trump and his followers cannot be “turned off” like a TV show. They are here, to occupy the center of power because it rightfully belongs only to them. Hate speech, legitimized by the bully pulpit of the Presidency is effectively triggering multiple hate crimes around the US.

3. Spectacular Masculinity

Rightwing Populism in the US is dependent on a media driven caricature of a lost ideal of white American patriotic masculinity. Its success depends on a central character craftily using a televised satire to play on the anxieties created by the loss of economic and cultural privilege. Trump’s genius is that he creates and sustains a spectacle of patriotic masculinity that resonates with many American White men. Ethnographers Kira Hall, Donna M. Goldstein and Matthew Bruce Ingram in their essay “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle”[10] suggest that Trump’s use of the taboo through comedic gestures and behaviors offers a space outside of “pure” religious and moral behaviors, effectively separating the sphere of the religious from political comedy. I think that this is a very interesting point that is undeveloped in their essay. Clearly, Trump is not a religious person. However, because of the performative significance of his behaviors, a space opens up for those who are religious to support him. Of scholarly interest here is the distinction made by historian Kevin Kruse between the separation of church and state, and religion in politics in the United States.[11] Trump is an ideal candidate; he represents the separation of church and state (and can be morally or religiously vacuous), while his followers represent the presence of politicized religion (and can enact their pious Christianity in service of the nation).

As ethnographers, the authors do not extensively dwell on the taboo breaking aspects of Trump’s behavior and do not explain how the separation of religion and religious belonging occur. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand that Trump’s performance simultaneously crosses taboo barriers while inoculating spectators from the effects of that performance. For the authors, Trump’s greatest success lies in his entertainment value. It is carnivalesque entertainment, different from reality. It effectively identifies Trump as the opposite of a “religious” actor, as one who has the license, like a clown or a fool, to break rules with impunity. The arena of image, visuality and entertainment is easily the arena where outrageous and fantastic explorations of self and other, winning and domination take place, much like the American television entertainment of “professional wrestling.” Trump, in fact, owns WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and has built his presidential persona around the organization’s strongman methods. Additionally, Trump imports tactics employed in beauty pageants (he used to own Miss USA) to assert discordant standards of femininity for women. This allows him to make outrageous comments on women’s bodies and looks, the way weak men assert their power over women. As the authors write, “Beauty competitions do for femininity what wrestling competitions do for masculinity: they create a world of gestural performance based on an exaggerated and idealized notion of gender.”[12] Trump dominates by entertaining, and wins by bearing the taboo on behalf of his followers. He is the mythical hero, a colossus who saves his people through muscular masculinity. 

Hence, while many white Christians like Carson Holloway above will acknowledge Trump’s moral failings, the entertaining spectacle presented by his boorish public behavior reinscribes idealized masculinity and idealized Christianity, all the while saving American Christians. Because of the separation of Church and State, it does not matter that Trump is a moral failure because his morality is irrelevant to politicized muscular Christianity. Simultaneously, because religion must animate the public sphere, his followers bring their moral, religious and masculine selves to their patriotism, unsullied by the taboo-crossing hero. It is the reason why White Christians take Trump’s behavior seriously. Because the locus of morality and religion is situated in the individual, the Presidential performance of crude humor and vulgarity exempts his followers from any personal culpability. Moreover, his crass behavior and humor are directed at the enemies of “ordinary Americans,” the people. The people, ordinary Americans, now take up the gauntlet of keeping America Christian and White. To take Trump seriously is to instrumentalize his performance for political gain whilst keeping a particular idea of religion and muscular Christianity in play.

Through the form of spectacle, Trump and his empire bring together “many of the elements analyzed by scholars as spectacle in late capitalism: hyperbole, casino capitalism, branding, simulacra, nostalgia, mediatization, excess, consumption, and vacuousness.”[13] Trump’s use of spectacle in politics affirms the sense that politics is mostly about spectacle and show. Yet, because he does it in a particular way, to call out the “elites,” he is also perceived as more trustworthy and reliable, a paragon of male power. The authors wonder why the privileging of style over content in Trump’s spectacular performances “win” despite the lack of substance and many political gaffes. In my reading, there are two reasons for this. The first, already alluded to, has to do with the notion that religion is after all a privatized and individualized experience, and Trump’s taboo crossing proclivities protect White American Christians from culpability. Second, for those who support Trump ardently, there is the affirmation of personal and masculine individualism, since he presents the spectacle of the lone autonomous hero who resists any script for acceptable masculinity. As spectacle and taboo-crosser, he represents the form of successful and mythical masculinity.

In recent analyses of Trump’s supporters in the US, scholars have named as “toxic Christianity,”[14] the form of Christianity that understands masculinity in specifically White Christian terms. Trump himself is hardly Christian, but he resonates with Christian groups in America by reproducing an identifiable rhetoric of masculinity and Christianity, both of which are toxic. The context of such masculinity and religious identity is one of aggrieved identity politics. Jerry Falwell Jr., President of the conservative Liberty University, is quite content with the fact that Mr. Trump is less than an ideal Christian. When the “grab them by the pussy” tape leaked, Falwell said, “We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.”[15] Of course, such a rationalized opinion would not be forthcoming if the candidate represented the opposing party, as was clear with the many aspersions cast on Barack Obama’s Christian and American identity by Trump and the Republicans. The win-at-any-cost of contemporary American politics thus blends a particular form of masculine identity to a particular form of Christian identity. It is a highly successful, if contextual, strategy for American right wing, conservative, Republican populism. Its Christianity is barely recognizable as the form of discipleship to Jesus. It is toxic because all it seeks is its own power, eminence and dominance.

A key feature of the elections of 2016 was the numbers of White women voting for Donald Trump. Right wing populism is often identified with angry white, nationalistic men. Scholars have been pouring over data attempting to analyze why so many white Christian women voted for Trump. One reason is that they are attempting to find economic stability for themselves, their children and their families. They are also angry that many public services go towards immigrants and refugees. Many women who voted for Trump are among the white underclass, dismayed and frightened by the impossibility of anticipated upward mobility. Voting in line with their men to guarantee their own economic stability is common, more so also because in many such communities, women are still dependent on men economically. Some commentators are wondering whether the induction of Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, given the mass of evidence against him of sexual violence, will lead to a women-led overturning of Republican power in the midterm elections. Nevertheless, the dismissal of the #MeToo movement by many conservative women gives lie to that wish. In a recent New York Times analysis, Republican women voting for Trump also reveal their deep anxieties about national security.[16] They are convinced that their world, white, Christian and conservative, is being destroyed internally and externally. When asked how they can support Trump’s misogynistic behavior, they scoff at liberal sensitivities. They see Trump as a hero and his behaviors as benign and nonthreatening. One wonders at the extent of institutionalized sexism and nostalgic acceptance of machismo by these women, pitting gender against race in such a way that race difference trumps gender difference for white women. 

4. Restoring Democracy

Gender, Race, Class, Religious identity and Citizenship are neuralgic and mutually contending issues in all democratic societies. These are also urgent issues for religious traditions, communities and scholars who must provide constructive religious and theological responses to the erosion of democratic processes by populist rhetoric. The challenge is to restore democratic institutions without propagating toxic and masculinist Christianity. This essay has identified certain critical pathways. As Ken Himes’ essay argued, understanding and empathy between different groups is essential. Can we find Christian leaders who will be able to shape and form their communities to be more understanding and empathic by redefining the space of the nation as a shared space for women and men, the rich and poor? Instead of global economic and cultural dominance, can US Christians model a coequal responsibility for the flow of labor, finances and resources? And can such a sharing of responsibility lead to a redefinition of national security? These are tantalizing questions for a constructive non-toxic Christianity.

In the US, the Catholic Church has lost its credibility in the wake of the child abuse revelations. Its culture of secrecy and self-serving power has been shamefully revealed. Yet, US Catholic leadership and many of its conservative adherents pretend that the only issues of note are the advance of secularism and women’s reproductive rights. If the American Catholic Church could model self-renouncing power by its all-male leadership and call for corporate repentance and public examination of its masculinist structures, it may yet be a Church for the times. If it can draw on its vibrant strand of liberation theology and option for the poor, there is hope that it might neutralize the reach of right wing racism to cultivate understanding and empathy for economically and politically disadvantaged citizens. Catholic theology has also consistently used capacious theological idioms like “the people of God,” to redefine belonging in larger than institutional terms. Such inclusive idioms can help redefine democratic inclusion. If it can re-envision models of governance that keep men and male clergy in continuous power, albeit as benign and mild leaders, Catholic constructive theology may catalyze the creation of non-toxic communities. If it can embrace the role of religion in politics and call out the greedy, self-interested, self-serving fragile anxiety of White Christians, it will honor its prophetic calling. If not, it is a form of toxic Christianity, complicit and as responsible for the rise of exclusionary nativist and populist politics around the world as the worst populist demagogue currently in power.


Notes

[1] K.R. Himes, “The State of our Union” in Theological Studies, Vol 78(1), 2017, p. 148.

[2] A.R. Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land (New York: New Press, 2016).

[3] Himes, p. 158.

[4] C. Holloway, “Donald Trump, Principe” in Opinions, First Things, (August/September 2017), p. 12.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] C. Mudde and C.R. Kaltwasser, “Vox Populi or Vox Masculini? Populism and Gender in Northern Europe and South America,” Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 49, 2015, p. 16-36.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] See https://religionandpolitics.org/2017/01/17/donald-trump-and-militant-evangelical-masculinity

[9] See N. Scheper-Hughes, “Another Country? Racial Hatred in the Time of Trump: A Time for Historical Reckoning”, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7 (1), 2017, p. 449-460.

[10] K. Hall, D.M. Goldstein, M.B. Ingram, “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6 (2), 2016, p. 71-100.

[11] K. Kruse, One Nation under God: How Corporate America invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books), 2015.

[12] Hall & alii, ibid., p. 81.

[13] Ibid., p. 91.

[14] See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/21/evangelical-christians-trump-liberty-university-jerry-falwell

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/21/evangelical-christians-trump-liberty-university-jerry-falwell

[16] See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/us/politics/trump-women.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

Auctor

Susan Abraham is Professor of Theology and Postcolonial Cultures, VP of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Pacific School of Religion. She is the author of Identity, Ethics, and Nonviolence in Postcolonial Theory: A Rahnerian Theological Assessment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and co-editor of Shoulder to Shoulder: Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology (Fortress, 2009). Ongoing research projects include issues in theological education and formation, interfaith and interreligious initiatives for social transformation, theology and political theory, religion and media, global Catholicism, and Christianity between colonialism and postcolonialism.

Address:  Dean of Faculty – Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709 (USA).