Magical Thinking and The Antiquity of Sin: What Trump Says About Religion

As exhausting as this election has been, I continue to submit that we will grow more from this than from almost any other political interactions in our time.

I’ve spent a good number of my columns on Trump discussing the dynamics of race. This isn’t a coincidence: Not only do I accept the arguments from people like Martin Gilens that race is one of the biggest predictors of attitudes such as anti-welfare sentiments and the degree to which one will tolerate the far right, but Trump has openly run with the alternative right. A lot of people missed that, when Trump was vomiting his horde of slugs and Shoggoths while making a plaintive wail about conspiracy theories, he flat out invoked far-right propaganda in imagining Hillary as the puppet of international bankers. He’s invoked Soros repeatedly, the bugaboo of the far right. The only thing he didn’t do was say that Hillary is a Jewish puppet.

But of course not everyone hears that in Trump. Many are not aware of the degree to which white supremacy and nationalism is influencing and informing his campaign. For others, there’s homophobia and Christian supremacy. Though his imprimatur with Christian conservatives is nowhere near what it is with racists, to the point that in Utah there is a candidate running to try to shore up the Christian conservative vote, there are still many who take the superficial “Make America Great Again” slogan.

To wit: This clip on the David Pakman show, where a woman, Barbara, says that she thinks that Trump will bring us back to the days before homosexuality and abortions.

We can put aside the ignorance this woman, and Trump, demonstrate when they think that the President is some kind of super-monarch who can reverse decades of social trends by fiat, as if Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges were just fictions invented by Obama. What’s much more important is the worldview of this woman, in context of something that Pakman and his co-hosts state.

During the video, one of Pakman’s co-hosts says that, when you have health insurance and a stable job, you can get to legislating morality.

But of course it’s quite likely that Barbara, or at least people like her, are in fact a few paychecks from serious trouble. Some may fall into the Medicaid gap; others would undoubtedly be treated as under the poverty line if the federal poverty line were not a joke in poor taste.

See, this goes back to Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, which led others to point out that geography and Christian fundamentalism have to be understood in the context of race and gender too. The recent Young Turks interview with Thomas Frank excoriating Democrats for their elitism and failure to truly reach out to the poor the way that Truman and FDR did is helpful here too, but Frank is again making a major error, insightful as he is.

There are lots of very desperate people who vote against their own class interests. Race, the identification with wanting to be the boss rather than the worker, gender, and other issues are all a part of it, of course, but there’s also a natural laziness based in magical thinking and Christian supremacy that has to be really understood.

If you’re someone like Barbara, you are likely not intricately aware of the dozens of sociological variables and historical factors that explain why things may not be going your way. Whites may not understand the way that the opiate epidemic deeply harmed white communities, or the way that neo-liberal globalization costs them their jobs no matter if Mexicans are in the country or in Mexico. All they know is that things seem to be going badly, and the culture seems to be changing to a degenerate state. The two must be connected!, or so the thought goes.

If you have a worldview where a magical entity dispenses judgment in disgust at sin, which you view in this magical context as somehow pervading like a thick fog, it’s easy to think that your present situation must be the result of a judgment against America for having lost its moral compass.

Even very liberal people are likely to think in these terms: Instead of divine judgment and divine command theory, they’re likely to think in terms of karma. But both these notions share the same morally and philosophically bankrupt concept: that thoughts and actions that harm no one can somehow be immoral, that “sin” isn’t just a way for us to characterize human actions that are harmful but rather some really existing thing. Terry Pratchett’s Death once asked to be shown one atom of justice or one molecule of mercy. Similarly, there is no quark of evil. The only place where evil exists is in human actions.

People like Barbara are seeing challenges in the world that seem scary and new. The illusion that America could run the world has long since crumbled. It seems like there are threats on our doorstep. The media reports crime constantly. And then they see that this multicultural, diverse popular culture seems to celebrate excess, sexuality and what they view as sinful depravity. Is it any wonder that the society, to their mind, is backsliding?

It doesn’t matter to people thinking this sloppily and this judgmentally that Trump himself represents damn near every part of what they despise, from the way he profits from globalism to the way that he promotes narcissism, sex and self-aggrandizement. He says that he will Make America Great Again, and they can hear just enough of what they desperately wish to hear, that he will fix the sinful state of the nation.

For a much more overt version of this, one can see the women apologizing for Trump’s sexual assault by saying that Hillary is wicked while Trump is godly. Again, we can put aside the utter absurdity of the idea that a man who openly admitted on a hot mic to sexual assault and who bragged about dodging STDs is godly, or Christian, or anything of the sort.

And yes, of course, race is all mixed into this. This is overwhelmingly a white evangelical way of thinking. Black evangelicals will in 2016 as always be voting overwhelmingly Democratic. Black churches may share many of the ideas that some right-wing Christians do about homosexuality, the proper role of women, feminism, and so forth. But those churches overwhelmingly are far more likely to emphasize the role of mercy, the importance of peace, and the need for social justice and real efforts against poverty. They emphasize the idea of a blessed community united together from many diverse backgrounds: one saw this in the DNC, with many black religious thinkers, including one of my favorite speeches that said that Hillary was like a moral defibrillator. In contrast, subconsciously or consciously, many of these white evangelicals and religious people think of America’s natural state as godly and think of all of the efforts to push diversity and rights as having been a shift away from that godliness. The fact that this belief literally makes Native American genocide and slavery into God-sanctioned righteousness doesn’t matter: it’s part of that destructive mix of religion and patriotism that leads people to accept that what their group does is right by definition.

This is part of why Trump can succeed so well by yelling at invisible enemies and threatening intangible assailants to the American dream. The people he is appealing to have often not thought carefully about who or what they blame as the problem: they can think of the problems they face as magically intertwined.

And this is why left-wing populism in the Sanders vein is both so important and so challenging. We cannot duck around the issues of race and Christian supremacy. As much as we wish it would be possible to talk about the economy without talking about gay marriage and immigrant crime rates, that will simply not be possible. Because in the sloppy mindset of all too many Americans, these actually disparate phenomena are in fact a continuum of sinful behavior and deviance.

Luckily, it is in fact possible to raise people’s awareness and force them to grow out of simplistic and indeed childish ideas of how evil operates. And every time someone like Barbara speaks, it becomes possible to engage with these ideas and tear them apart, getting rid of rotten foundations to build something new in its place.

Understanding magical thinking is vital to understanding Trump’s appeal to all too many Americans. But reason is having its day.

This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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About Fred B-C (28 Articles)
I'm a freelance hope warrior. While I am still figuring out exactly what that entails, I write novels and short stories, write for video games, design board games, do inspirational speaking and life coaching, and generally try to make the world just a little bit more pleasant. E-mails at frchristie@ucdavis.edu are always appreciated! (Yes, even trolling ones).

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