Trump & the End of Republicanism, Cont’d
In the late medieval period, the small city-states of the Italian peninsula wore each other down through warfare and internal conflict, and eventually, toward the end of the period we usually call “the Renaissance” began to be replaced by various forms of hereditary rule or to be swallowed up by larger powers. The proud republic of Florence, so long ruled behind the scenes by the Medici family, was eventually replaced by a ducal form of government centered on that family. It was in this context that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his infamous work The Prince, whose pages breathed the air of that earlier republicanism; Machiavelli was a convinced republican, and much of what critics vilified in Il Principe was its unrelenting focus on maintaining the independence of the state in an era of financial instability and endemic warfare. The situation is not analogous to the situation in contemporary America any more than the often invoked comparison of the United States with the ancient Roman republic. But Machiavelli’s analysis of what makes a ruler successful calls to mind our situation in one respect: in both cases it took great political shocks for people to realize their institutions and political arrangements had changed, largely without their noticing until those shocks came.
In my last post, I posited the thesis that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency signals the end of a certain form of republicanism that has dominated American life since its inception, one that is obsessed with political independence. I do not suppose that republican ideas are reducible to this overarching emphasis on independence, but it does seem to me the most salient aspect of it. It is also the most problematic; as Alasdair McIntyre called them, human beings are “dependent, rational animals,” whose dependence is inscribed into our biological nature. This overwhelming exaltation of independence seems to me sit rather uneasily with the tenets of Christian faith, which largely have to do with obedience, and an acceptance of one’s dependence upon God. There are versions of republicanism that try to reconcile a robust, active view of citizenship with an acknowledgement of human limitations, many of whom emphasize, as did the old Anti-Federalists, the local, face to face nature of human community. In contemporary America, there are still a few political philosophers and writers who advocate something like this. But their lack of success (and adherents) is instructive; such ideas no longer seem to have much purchase outside of the small communities they represent, at least not to most of their fellow citizens, and indeed some of them don’t want a larger following. For many of these authors, such as the journalist and author Rod Dreher, the whole idea is to create small communities that are (relatively) independent of the main currents of American society, which they see as inimical to virtue, or Christian faith, or both. I’ll have occasion to talk more about Rod Dreher’s work in a further post, but for this blog I want to concentrate on the consequences for American Christianity of the withering of republican ideology.
As the historian Mark Noll wrote many years ago, republicanism in America was bound up from the beginning with a revivalist, quite voluntaristic form of Christianity, and that both are declining at roughly the same time is not a coincidence. Now that the type of independence espoused by the older republicanism seems to be on the wane, so is the form of Christianity that supported it. At least part of its decline can be traced to the way in which its detractors have managed to successfully brand American Christianity as the belief of the dependent, the weak minded. Christianity can be seen, legitimately, as a “liberating” force, both socially and culturally speaking, as historians have noted with regard to the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century. In that earlier version of Christian republicanism that flourish in the 19th century, the Christianity part was key, because it placed great emphasis upon the personal, moral regeneration of the individual. Being saved meant not only would you go to heaven, but that you were in part responsible for building heaven on earth. The parallel with being a redeemed as an individual with being redeemed as a nation was perfect, in some respects: just as the States had been redeemed from political “slavery” to monarchical Britain and reborn as a republic, so now could individuals be freed from both sin but also from the shackles of religious and political institutions—religion as an individual or communal experiment has a long history in the U.S., as does the history of religion as a series of movements or revivals, from the pre-Revolutionary revivals of the 1740s and 50s through the birth of the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century, to the great success of Billy Graham and other postwar evangelists later in the same century. The most explosive of these movements was the abolitionist movement, of course, the prime example of Christian ideals being used to liberate people from dependence. Christianity was a force upholding this ideal of independence, and therefore an integral part of the country’s republicanism.
But not anymore. Now, it is associated with debilitating psychological weakness—usually, some sort over reliance on authority, excessive dogmatism, sexual dysfunction, etc. The great desire of the modern political progressives is to liberate as many people from as many types of dependence as possible: not only the authority of religion, but of parental, social, even biological authority must bend its knee before the god of choice and independence. Gender is not determined by biology, children’s beliefs cannot be “imposed” upon them by parents, and so forth. Christianity, with its dogmatic claims and emphasis upon obedience—the way Christians refer to Jesus as the “the Lord” sounds odd and not a little suspicious to anyone who thinks of themselves as being self-consciously “modern”—can easily made to look as if it were a pathology of dependence, rather than a muscular religion of independence.
All of this means a great reorientation for the religious life of the United States, as can be seen by the dwindling political influence of Evangelical Protestantism over the past decade and a half. This change has been taking place for some time, actually, and is still under way. Most of that Christian republican vision described above was the work of a peculiarly American form of Protestant Christianity—the theological and social voluntarism, the emphasis on personal regeneration, the drive to “reform” society of its ills, to name only a few items. This dynamic form of Christian faith provided much of the vitality but also the volatility of American society in the past two hundred years. But those Protestant movements and institutions did so from a vantage point of relative social independence—from the Federal government at least (though in the early republic some churches were state supported). But the fact that, by the end of the 19th century, as the late Richard John Neuhaus once noted, pretty much every Protestant denomination called itself “Evangelical,” also gave Protestants a sense of psychological independence as well. It is easy to assume one’s place in society if you think most people share your beliefs, which despite continuing denominational and theological differences, most Protestants did. This began to change, however, with the split between “Fundamentalists” and the “Modernists” within Protestant bodies in the early 20th century. By the time the 1960s rolled around, Protestant Americans could no longer even count on their shared contempt for the obvious outlier in their midst—Roman Catholics. For most of Americans, many if not all Protestants had seen Catholics as suspect because they were supposedly dependent upon the authority of the Pope, and therefore incapable of thinking for themselves in religious matters. And thus by extension they were unfit for a Christian, republican society of the American type. The election of a Catholic president, as well as the postwar economic boom that allowed working class Catholics to join the ranks of the middle class in large numbers put an end to this last vestige of Protestant unity. This ceased to matter for several decades, as Evangelicals took the place of the old so-called “Protestant Establishment” as the religious element in the New Right from the late 70s through the presidency of George W. Bush, of course, but the eclipse of Evangelical political influence is an undiscovered country: for the first time since becoming a nation, Protestants are going to be a dependent political minority in the United States.
This is and of itself is not earth shattering; there are still Catholic and Jewish Americans who can recall the old Protestant Establishment and how it utilized its superior social position against them who I doubt will shed many tears over this development. But the fate of Evangelicals points to a larger problem for those Christians, of whatever stripe, who take their faith seriously. In the past few years under the Obama administration, legal opinions treating traditional Christian doctrines about marriage, family and sexual mores as the moral and legal equivalent of racism have gained such traction that many religious voters swallowed their objections to Donald Trump on a personal level to help vote him into office, a phenomenon several observers noted even before the election. I can easily understand traditional Christians of whatever sort having serious qualms about Trump; the comments that one Evangelical leaders made about Russell Moore, the Baptist leader who has been highly critical of Trump, do indicate a lack of perspective on their part. They appear too concerned about power politics and not enough about how Christians are to practice and transmit their faith in an increasingly hostile society. But those Evangelical and other Christian voters who voted for Trump did so for what I think are good reasons. If republican beliefs really are no longer operative in American life, if, as appears the case, they can no longer simply assume that the legal institutions of the United States will protect their religious liberty, then Christians of a “traditional” or conservative bent (usually about doctrines concerning sex, of course) will in the future need political patrons willing to protect their right to practice their religious faith openly, as members of a dependent class of citizens. And if I am right, Trump will not be the last politician to successfully appeal to voters who might otherwise find him otherwise so unacceptable. Or at least, they had better hope so, because their days of living their faith unmolested are likely at an end, Trump’s election notwithstanding. In my last post on this subject, I will come back to Trump and his possible policies towards Christians, and what Christians might do in this changed landscape where their political independence can no longer be taken for granted.