By Rudy Barnes, Jr., January 16, 2016
Public expectations drive politics, and those expectations are shaped by religious beliefs. Today many middle-class white Americans feel insecure and threatened by events beyond their control, and their fear and anger has produced the likes of Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz whose campaigns have stoked public fears into anger, hate and hysteria.
It is ironic that many of those supporting Trump and Cruz claim to be Christians, but that should be no surprise given the populist rhetoric of Christian evangelists who ignore the teachings of Jesus and pander to public expectations. After all, the worldly power of religion has always been based on its popularity, and evangelical Christianity has produced some of history’s most notorious (and popular) religious charlatans, such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
In their competition for converts, exclusivist religions like Christianity and Islam appeal to public expectations—especially their fears—much like competing GOP campaigns. That is reflected in the “hellfire and damnation” and “prosperity gospel” themes of fundamentalist Christianity, as well as the hateful rhetoric and terrorism of fundamentalist Islamists like those of ISIS and al-Qaeda. It is typical of all religions that assert belief in their religion is the only means to salvation, and that all unbelievers are condemned by God to eternal damnation.
Fareed Zakaria has noted the connection between the insecurity, fear and anger of many white people in America and the popularity of Donald Trump. Many middle-class whites feel their expectations for social, economic and political well-being are in jeopardy, and they have good reason to feel that way. Many of them are fundamentalist evangelical Christians who consider themselves God’s chosen people living in the new Promise Land, and they feel threatened by immigrants—especially Muslims—who represent a threat to their political dominance in American politics.
This paranoid view of the future is motivated by divisive religious and political beliefs that favor the faithful and condemn all others. Both fundamentalist Christians and Muslims (known as Islamists) share the same salvation/condemnation dichotomy and the same insecurity and fear; and they expect God/Allah—and his chosen leaders—to save them from perdition and to destroy their enemies, with a little help from the faithful. It is an apocalyptic scenario, and one that attracts demagogues who exploit religion and politics to promote their power, whether among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. or Islamists in the Middle East and Africa.
Zakaria cited Carolyn Rouse who suggested that blacks have done a better job of coping with pessimistic expectations than whites, relying on a different perspective of Christian faith.
Other groups might not expect that their income, standard of living and social status are destined to steadily improve. They don’t have the same confidence that if they work hard, they will surely get ahead. She said that after hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and racism, blacks have developed ways to cope with disappointment and the unfairness of life: through family, art, protest speech and, above all, religion.
“You have been the veterans of creative suffering,” Martin Luther King Jr. told African Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963: “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” Writing in 1960, King explained the issue in personal terms: “As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. . . . So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ ” The Hispanic and immigrant experiences in the United States are different, of course. But again, few in these groups have believed that their place in society is assured. Minorities, by definition, are on the margins. They do not assume that the system is set up for them. They try hard and hope to succeed, but they do not expect it as the norm.
The United States is going through a great power shift. Working-class whites don’t think of themselves as an elite group. But, in a sense, they have been, certainly compared with blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and most immigrants. They were central to America’s economy, its society, indeed its very identity. They are not anymore. Donald Trump has promised that he will change this and make them win again. But he can’t. No one can. And deep down, they know it.
For good or for bad, religion will continue to shape public expectations and politics, both in libertarian democracies like the U.S. as well as in Islamic cultures. It is incumbent upon Jews, Christians and Muslims to insure that the influence of their religions on future generations is for good rather than bad. That requires that they put love over law and embrace the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves—including their unbelieving neighbors—as a common word of faith. If that happens, competing religions can be reconciled and demagogues like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will lose their legitimacy with Christians—as will Islamist terrorists with Muslims—and the world will be a safer and better place.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?, February 8, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, December 12, 2015; and Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism or Assimilation?, December 26, 2015.
See Fareed Zakaria’s commentary on America’s self-destructive whites at
In an ugly incident at a Trump rally in Rock Hill on January 8, 2016, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was escorted out of Donald Trump's campaign event by police after she stood up in silent protest during Trump's speech. See http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/08/politics/donald-trump-muslim-woman-protesting-ejected/.
In his last State of the Union address on January 12, 2016, President Obama acknowledged the fear and anger contaminating the political process, and Governor Nikki Haley acknowledged that GOP contenders for Obama’s job, like Trump and Cruz, were contributing to the malaise. See E. J. Dionne, Jr., Obama and Nikki Haley fight the GOP faithful’s fury, January 13, 2016, Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/obama-and-nikki-haley-fight-the-gop-faithfuls-fury/2016/01/13/dd601128-ba28-11e5-829c-26ffb874a18d_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions. See also, Kathleen Parker’s commentary on Governor Haley’s equanimity in a volatile political climate—her courageous attempt to counter the demagogues who are seeking to take over the Republican Party, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/nikki-haleys-righteous-gamble/2016/01/15/3038fdfc-bbcc-11e5-99f3-184bc379b12d_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.