Let’s start with the obvious: Donald Trump is not a Christian saint, nor even (apparently) someone devoted to becoming one. He has turned personal epithets into a pop culture art form and has made braggadocio and bluster synonymous with power and the prospect of making America “great again.” The Christ of the Cross, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy . . . no, these cannot be considered Trump’s models.
By his own declarations and actions, Donald Trump also has made clear that he is not rock-solid on the hot button “values” issues usually identified with what have been dubbed “values voters.”
Yet exit polls are telling us that Donald Trump is garnering a large plurality share of the evangelical Christian Republican vote, even with Senator Ted Cruz, a preacher’s son, as an available alternative.
One answer offered is the desire of some members of this voting block to find someone they believe will be a powerful leader . . . even if they are not entirely sure of what he will do with power. I think that explanation has some merit, for somewhat complex reasons.
By definition, being “conservative” means wanting to preserve (or even return to) certain ways of living, thinking, believing and working that have been around for a meaningful period of time. One wishes to “conserve” the best (as one understands it) of what humanity has learned and experienced. Change is not inherently bad, but neither is it embraced without reservation.
Our post-modern culture has a peculiar relationship with the past. Post-modernism cherry-picks from the cherished and familiar in tradition and history, re-appropriating it and blending it with very contemporary and seemingly incompatible ideas. The results can be whimsical, fantastical, satirical or deeply serious (and perhaps seriously troubling) new cultural expressions. In some ways, these new expressions seem conservative, while they also can be disturbingly unfamiliar and alter what they conserve.
What post-modernist creatives have been doing in art, music and literature, contemporary political movements have done at the societal level. One of the most dramatic illustrations has been the re-appropriation of tradition of marriage.
When conservative Christians speak of the sanctity of marriage, they are referring to an institution and a set of values that they understand as having endured, as having had core characteristics and components that are essentially unchanged over centuries of human experience. One man, one woman, with a natural product being children, with a duty of mutual concern, care and self-sacrifice.
With the declaration of a constitutional right to marry without regard to the gender of the two partners, the word “marriage” was re-appropriated in a post-modern way. Something old and treasured (marriage) was at once conserved (it’s still important; it’s still enshrined in law; it’s still celebrated with ceremony; it’s still about a deep and complex union of two people) and yet radically altered. The resulting cultural product seems at once to pay tribute to and to mock some of what evangelical Christians hold dear.
And this happened (along with various other developments) in an era in which “values voters” had secured the goal of a Republican-controlled Congress. The best efforts of Christian conservatism have not been able to prevent this and other transformations.
What is missing? One might imagine that it is power. Not simply the power of the voting booth or the power of the legislative majority; neither of those have proven sufficient.
But if one could find someone with the strength to arrest the course of social change like a police officer arrests a criminal, wrestling it to the ground, cuffing it, and throwing it in the back of the social squad car to be taken where it ought to go, then, maybe then, what is cherished can truly be conserved, and even what was lost might be restored.
Enter Donald Trump.
What is attractive, to some at least, is his take-no-prisoners, tolerate-no-correctness, I’m-doing-it-my-way-whether-you-like-it-or-not approach to all things. It’s not eloquence; it’s not sophistication; it’s not knowledge or skill. It’s the simple, persistent, unaltered declaration of personal power.
Whether a Donald Trump candidacy or presidency would make for a world (or even a nation) more pleasing to Christian conservatives is, I think in all fairness, a profoundly open question. But it may be that, for those who have sought to tame the course of history, it feels like the best available option. All the others, one might claim, have been tried, and have failed.
Bring in the strong man and let’s see what he can do.
Of course, there’s a problem with choosing to run on ahead of a gale-force wind. It can get us somewhere quickly, but where (and what happens when we arrive), we won’t know until it happens.
Which is why sailors, centuries ago, learned to navigate by the stars, not the wind.