Dark Days: Trump, Christianity, and a Low Dishonest Decade
Many decades inspire in our popular American memory a certain nostalgia and romanticism. Think of the “roaring ‘20s,” the national purpose and sacrifice of the 1940s, the unity and prosperity of the 1950s, the social revolutions and artistic creativity of the 1960s, or the national renewal of the 1980s.
In contrast, the 1930s is not a decade that inspires much nostalgia. Globally, it was a decade of protectionism and isolationism, authoritarianism and demagoguery, racism and religious bigotry, utopian ideologies and totalitarian genocides, grandiose promises and cruel realities. It saw Europe torn asunder by militarist dictators using threats of violence and eventually unprovoked force to pursue territorial aggrandizement and plunge the continent into war, all while the United States was bitterly divided and demoralized at home, uncertain in its posture abroad. Intellectuals and many policymakers then adopted “crisis” as their watchword, and not without good reason. The 1930s witnessed much more than just mere policy failures and political differences. The very values and institutions of democracy, capitalism, and a peaceful and stable international order themselves faced a crisis of public trust and legitimacy.
Eighty years later, what do we have to do with this dismal decade? More than we might think. It is the era that best explains what Donald Trump represents. Though he was not even alive at the time, Trump embodies the worst ideological commitments and impulses of the 1930s. Various efforts by pundits, scholars, and politicians to compare Trump to a particular leader — whether Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Joseph McCarthy, Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, or George Wallace — all ultimately fall short. For analogies with individuals, the dissimilarities eclipse the similarities. Instead of being seen as a latter-day incarnation of any one prior historical figure, Trump is best understood as embodying the ethos of an era.
Brookings Institution scholar Tom Wright has produced the most perceptive and probing analysis of Trump’s foreign policy views thus far. In Wright’s description:
[Trump] has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.
With his embrace of economic protectionism, foreign policy isolationism, cultural nativism, and authoritarianism, Trump has built his campaign around the animating themes of the 1930s.
As a Republican, I have made clear on multiple other occasions my opposition to Trump, and I stand by those earlier denunciations. In the aftermath of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party in Cleveland, I seek to build on the analysis of Wright and others in attempting to situate Trump and his peculiar convictions in the context of history. This will include a theological dimension, exploring the religious principles appealed to by supporters and opponents of Trump’s policies then and now. Here I write also as a practicing Christian, specifically a confessional Protestant in the Augustinian tradition, and one who is perplexed and grieved at the enthusiasm that some of my fellow Christians have shown for the Trump candidacy.
Describing Trump’s convictions in the context of the 1930s does not imply a belief in the progressive conceit of inexorable progress in history. Such a determinism believes history moves inevitably in a positive direction, often just needing the nudges of enlightened elites. This is the worldview that seems to permeate the Obama administration, judging by Secretary John Kerry’s tut-tutting to the Kremlin that Putin acts “in a 19th-century fashion” or President Obama’s ham-handed jibe at Mitt Romney that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” In this belief system, the harshest indictment one can make of a person or idea is that they will “turn back the clock.” This worldview, simultaneously simplistic and presumptuous, fails to account for the contingencies and tragedies of history. Progress and regress take place simultaneously and often in tension with each other, as an inscrutable combination of human agency, structural forces, and the hand of providence shape the unfolding of time.
In the case of Trump, the problem is not that he wants to take America “back” to the 1930s; it is just that he is acting to import some of the worst policies of the 1930s into America today. His adoption of “America First” as the slogan for his foreign policy merely makes this explicit. Whether or not Trump actually realized the noxious historical provenance of the “America First” slogan when he embraced it is immaterial. On substance, his policy convictions would have been applauded by the America First isolationist movement of the 1930s.
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For the United States, the 1930s was arguably the most protectionist decade of the 20th century. Beginning with the passage of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs in 1930, America’s actions catalyzed a reciprocal series of trade recriminations around the world, deepening and prolonging the global depression. Historian David Kennedy notes that Hawley-Smoot raised “import duties to their highest level in American history” and “signaled the world that as the depression lowered the United States was moving toward the same autarkic, beggar-thy-neighbor, protectionist policies with which other nations were already dangerously flirting.” In the case of Trump, his protectionism is not an incidental belief, but rather a core conviction that occupies a central place in his worldview. For Trump, it is much more than just an economic analysis that free trade’s costs outweigh its benefits. Rather, he marshals visceral denunciations of trade agreements as hostile actions by other nations that are “beating” or “killing” the United States. In this framework, other nations are not only poor economic partners — they are not even mere friendly competitors, but rather hostile adversaries. Trump’s approach comes straight out of the 1930s mindset that saw free trade as an unmitigated threat rather than economic opportunity.
America’s erection of economic barriers in the 1930s also reflected a larger distancing from international politics, and particularly an aversion to alliances, multilateral commitments, and military preparedness. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 may have marked the onset of the security crisis of the 1930s and signaled the final delegitimization of the League of Nations, but for the United States it also reinforced an aversion to any sort of assertive actions to resist aggression and restore international order. Instead, the only American response was the feckless Stimson Doctrine of diplomatic non-recognition of territories seized by force. In contrast, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (on whom more later) called in vain for a strong American response in the recognition that Japan’s aggression could presage “the drift toward disaster, another world war and possibly a revolution.” The United States was not the only Western power to embrace isolationism. Still traumatized from the charnel house of the Great War, many in the British public resisted any possibility of the future use of force. Exemplifying British attitudes at the time, in 1933 the Oxford Union overwhelmingly passed a resolution that “this house will in no circumstances fight for its king and country.”
While Hitler’s calculated violation of the Munich agreement and 1939 invasion of Poland changed British attitudes and brought the United Kingdom into the war, the American public continued in its decade-long posture of neutrality. Some American sentiments against any support for the Allied effort, especially among liberal Protestant clergy and parishioners, seem to have been grounded in a principled pacifism. However, the bulk of anti-interventionist attitudes were grounded in an isolationism that eschewed any involvement in foreign disputes. Reinhold Niebuhr by this point had emerged as one of the leading interventionist voices in the nation, and he was unsparing in his critique of both the pacifists and the isolationists.
Himself a former pacifist, socialist, and parish pastor in Detroit in the 1920s, by the 1930s, Niebuhr had become a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and one of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals. Along the way, he had rejected the theological liberalism of his early ministry years and rediscovered the classical Christian doctrine of original sin. Bringing human fallenness and self-interest back into his theological framework disabused Niebuhr of what he regarded as his previous utopian idealism. He took a pioneering role in the development of “Christian Realism,” a theological tradition that emphasized the perpetual contest for power in every aspect of human endeavor, the imperfectability of all institutions, and the divine sovereignty that sits in judgment on human ambition. Christian Realism was not fatalism, however, and Niebuhr and his compatriots consistently emphasized the need for action against oppression and evil, up to and including the use of force. Notably for a theologian, his audience soon transcended the church pews, and he became a regular interlocutor with the leading journalists, scholars, and policymakers of the United States and Europe. For students of international politics he stands as a particularly notable figure, given his close friendships with and influence on giants such as Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan.
As the international crisis of the 1930s unfolded, Niebuhr became more and more active in trying to mobilize public opinion for stronger American involvement in Europe and Asia. He dismissed the Christian pacifism espoused by many of his fellow Protestant clerics as a “heresy” and averred that “one of the most terrible consequences of a confused religious absolutism is that it is forced to condone such tyranny as that of Germany in the nations which it has conquered and now cruelly oppresses.” Of the isolationists, he noted grimly that in both the United Kingdom and United States:
the general public did not understand strategy well enough to know that by yielding to a tyranny now, or by sacrificing allies and refusing them help, it was merely hastening the day when it would have to face the same tyranny with fewer resources.
Opposing Niebuhr and American involvement in World War II was the America First Committee. Its founders and early supporters included many luminaries, such as future presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy (both of whom later repudiated their early flirtations with isolationism), Gore Vidal, Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Quaker oats scion Douglas Stuart Jr., Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, and the group’s most ardent spokesman, the aviator and Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh. While some, perhaps many, America First members held to non-intervention as a matter of their prudential judgment of the national interest, their cause and compatriots were entangled with darker motives. Lindbergh gave his most famous America First oration in Des Moines on September 11, 1941. The date and Lindbergh’s words are ominous:
The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration….The second major group I mentioned is the Jewish….Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government….When hostilities commenced in Europe, in 1939, it was realized by these groups that the American people had no intention of entering the war. They knew it would be worse than useless to ask us for a declaration of war at that time. But they believed that this country could be entered into the war in very much the same way we were entered into the last one. They planned: first, to prepare the United States for foreign war under the guise of American defense; second, to involve us in the war, step by step, without our realization; third, to create a series of incidents which would force us into the actual conflict. These plans were of course, to be covered and assisted by the full power of their propaganda.
Such was the conflicted nature of the America First movement: the combination of idealistic and legitimate (if profoundly wrong) policy concerns about whether U.S. interests were best served by intervention in World War II with an insidious anti-Semitism.
Trump is most certainly not a pacifist. But his persistent disdain for America’s alliances, his disparagement of American military interventions, and — it must be said — his occasional trafficking in lunatic conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, September 11th attacks, and the origins and conduct of the Iraq War, all are of a piece with America First-style isolationism. After months of invoking the phrase, Trump has only just disavowed its nativity in the pre-war isolationist movement. But notably he did so in the context of an interview deprecating America’s moral standing in the world, leading Mike Gerson to the acid observation that “this is not ‘America First.’ This is ‘Blame America First.’”
On a policy level, Trump’s views bespeak a strong aversion to America’s international posture for the last 70 years of underwriting global security and order. The last time in history that the United States did not occupy this role was the 1930s. Perhaps the most consistent theme in Trump’s foreign policy belief system, going back decades and continuing up to the present day, is his abiding hostility to America’s international alliances. Often his lamentations focus on the alleged costs to the United States of stationing military forces in Asia or Europe. Yet the very nature of alliances and reciprocal defense obligations also attracts his disdain, evidenced most recently by his blithe disregard for NATO’s Article 5 treaty obligations when he said the United States might not defend a Baltic state under attack from Russia. And for Trump, just as in the heyday of America First, alongside and intertwined with this critique of America’s national security policy lurk reprehensible slurs.
Such slurs lead to the third distinctive value that Trump shares with the 1930s: cultural nativism. Similar to some other 1930s trends, restrictive immigration measures had accelerated a few years earlier, with the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that established quotas for immigrants based on country of origin and banned immigrants from Asia entirely. As with many debates over immigration measures, Johnson-Reed appears to have been fueled by a complex amalgam of cultural and economic concerns, as well as overt racism. As the 1930s dawned and the depression deepened, feeling beleaguered and insecure, many Americans grew resistant to further immigration or even permitting endangered refugees to seek shelter in the United States. For example, as Mike Gerson has recalled, a 1939 poll found that 61 percent of Americans opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish refugee children into the United States. The date matters, as it came a year after Kristallnacht and other abundant evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism. The bill was never brought to a vote in Congress.
Trump wears his cultural nativism defiantly and has made it a defining feature of his candidacy. His two most well-known policy initiatives both emanate from this predilection: building a southern border wall purportedly paid for by the Mexican government and banning all Muslim immigration. Sometimes it veers into overt racism, as with his disparagement of an American judge whose parents emigrated from Mexico, his clumsy refusal to disavow white supremacist support, and his dissemination of anti-Semitic symbols on social media. His vile promulgation of conspiracy theories about President Obama’s place of birth should also not be forgotten.
Trump’s meretricious praise for authoritarians is also of a piece with the 1930s. That decade’s crisis of faith in democracy led many Americans to find authoritarianism appealing. Amidst economic decline and political decay, the seductive allure of a strongman’s rule found acolytes across the political spectrum. The reporter Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of fawning profiles in The New York Times of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Excusing Stalin’s murderous campaigns against his own people, Duranty’s articles voiced the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that control of the economy by a strongman would overcome the messiness and inequities of capitalism. Nazi Germany under Hitler’s iron hand received similar praise from some sectors of American society. In her magisterial study of American attitudes towards Nazism, Michaela Hoenicke Moore records that Charles Lindbergh defended Hitler’s aggression as “the right of an able and virile nation to expand” and excused Nazi oppression as justifiable given “the great hardship and chaotic times” Germany had endured under the Weimar Republic. Moore also cites Charles Clayton Morrison, the non-interventionist editor of the Christian Century magazine and one of Niebuhr’s intellectual nemeses, as regarding the “Nazis as the instrument of God’s wrath against the sinful and corrupt democracies.” Some ordinary Americans who visited Germany liked what they saw under Hitler. According to Moore
tourists, students, and business people turned out to be easy prey for Nazi propagandists…upon their return [to the United States] they often raved about the cleanliness and orderliness of German towns, the friendliness of the people, the absence of homeless and jobless people in the cities, and the moderation of certain Nazi officials.
Not surprisingly, Niebuhr also stood as a consistent voice against authoritarianism and in defense of democracy. He anchored this political conviction in his view of human nature, most famously in his oft-cited aphorism from his 1944 book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In the 1930s, he aimed his defense of democracy at his fellow Americans who seemed drawn to, or at least insufficiently opposed to, dictatorships, writing in 1939:
[W]e cannot fully trust the motives of any ruling class or power. That is why it is important to maintain democratic checks on the centers of power….whatever may be the moral ambiguities of the so-called democratic nations, and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice.
In contrast, the sympathetic sentiments of the 1930s for authoritarians find their latter-day echoes in Trump’s repeated encomia to dictators today. If there is one consistent thread to Trump’s often erratic foreign policy pronouncements, it is his affinity for the strongman ruler. Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have all received fawning praise from Donald Trump. And in each instance, Trump has lauded them not in spite of their tyrannical governance but because of it. A ruler’s “strength” enchants Trump above all else, even — especially, if one takes his pronouncements at face value — when that “strength” is displayed in the massacre of peaceful dissidents as at Tiananmen Square, or the murder of journalists in Putin’s Russia, or the execution of political opponents in North Korea. The frequency of such statements by Trump, alongside his perverse affirmations of dictatorship’s moral equivalence with the United States, give evidence that these are not exaggerated, careless bloviations, but rather his considered and deeply-held convictions.
In the 1930s, authoritarianism arrived hand-in-hand, as it often does, with demagoguery. Amidst the widespread failures of institutions and erosion of public faith, individuals emerged on both sides of the Atlantic making audacious claims to fix the problems besetting their community or nation, channeling popular anger against the systemic failures and supposed conspirators that were somehow causing the misery. In America, many angry and despondent citizens tuned to the seductive appeal of voices promising in their own perverse ways to make America great again. Diverse voices such as radio host Father Charles Coughlin, racialist preacher Gerald Winrod, Louisiana politician Huey Long, and senior citizen activist Francis Everett Townsend all attracted large followings among discontented Americans.
Spanning the political spectrum, these demagogues hurled imprecations against the various groups they blamed for America’s ills, whether Jews, financiers, industrialists, arms-makers, communists, capitalists, Wall Street, Washington, or “elites” and “the establishment” in general. Trump’s fulminations against “the rigged system,” as in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, are of a piece with this tradition. Populist demagogues such as Coughlin and Long appealed not so much to the truly destitute; in historian Alan Brinkley’s description, they attracted those Americans:
who had more to protect: a hard-won status as part of the working-class elite, a vaguely middle-class lifestyle, often a modest investment in a home…They were people with something to lose…what they shared was an imperiled membership in world of modest middle-class achievement.
Brinkley’s description of Coughlin supporters then comes eerily close to describing the core of Trump’s supporters now. In more sanguine eras, this sector of American society constituted the vital middle, the social ballast anchoring the institutions and values of democratic capitalism. That they would be drawn to agitators of Coughlin’s and Long’s ilk only further illustrates the turbulence and crisis of the times as many Americans lost faith in their own institutions.
These years also saw the growing appeal of radical political movements in the United States that, while not led by textbook demagogues, still attracted meaningful followings while challenging American constitutional norms. For example, on the left, Norman Thomas’s American Socialist Party and the U.S. Communist Party led by Earl Browder attained considerable influence within some sectors of the labor movement and American intellectuals. On the other end of the political spectrum, Charles Lindbergh tried to defend Hitler while rallying Americans to the cause of neutrality.
In Europe, the demagoguery took far more destructive forms and captured entire nations. Some of these leaders had assumed power earlier, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, but took advantage of the crisis of the 1930s to expand their authority, purge dissenters and opponents, and build their personality cults. In Germany, of course, it was Adolf Hitler who took power in 1933. Oppression at home soon turned to aggression abroad, such as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Germany’s annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938, and 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop pact granting Stalin control of the Baltic states and conceding Germany’s claim to most of Poland. And then, to paraphrase Lincoln, the war came.
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Looking back, it is clear that the tragedy that was the 1930s came not from a single toxic issue or malevolent leader, but from a concatenation of political and economic pathologies, including protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and authoritarianism, all further fueled by aggressive and opportunistic demagogues.
The crises of the decade did not spare religious leaders. Clergy on both sides of the Atlantic wrestled with the multiple economic and political shocks buffeting their nations. Sadly, too many religious leaders succumbed to the aforementioned pathologies, emerging as voices endorsing their nation’s worst impulses rather than prophetically calling for a better way. Yet some of the decade’s most admirable figures were also clergy, who in some cases became the most principled and effective voices against oppression and demagoguery.
In Germany, the political crisis became a religious crisis when Hitler, attempting to consolidate his complete political and social control, demanded subservience by the clergy to the Nazi Party and created the movement of “German Christians” who bastardized their faith by marrying it with anti-Semitism and Nazi iconography. While the “German Christian” movement captured a majority of the Protestant pastorate, a courageous minority of German clergy dissented from Nazi co-optation by forming the Confessing Church, led primarily by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller. Bonhoeffer, a protégé and friend of Niebuhr, turned down the safety of a seminary professorate in the United States that Niebuhr had arranged for him, instead returning to Germany to pastor his underground flock of Christians who refused to bow to Nazi rule. Bonhoeffer’s letter to Niebuhr in July 1939 describing his decision stands as a bracing statement of principle:
I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.
Bonhoeffer counted the costs of his convictions. Eventually learning of the genocidal intention of the Final Solution, he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually captured and suffered a martyr’s death when the Nazis executed him in the Flossenburg concentration camp just a month before Germany’s surrender.
In the United States, the clergy were spared the existential crises that beset the German church, but still faced acute questions over their nation’s role in the world and their responsibilities to be prophetic voices of conscience. Many of the nation’s leading pastors promulgated pacifism and isolationism. Still scarred by the Protestant church’s vocal enthusiasm for America’s entry into the Great War two decades earlier, these men of the cloth had grown disillusioned with any use of force or any involvement in the tawdry affairs of international politics. Besides the aforementioned Charles Clayton Morrison and Christian Century magazine, other mandarins of liberal Protestantism and influential cultural figures such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harry Ward, and John Haynes Holmes were vocal pacifists who opposed any American assistance to the Allies. Sometimes they grounded this opposition in moral equivalency between the United States and Nazi Germany. Holmes, for example, wrote in December 1940 that “if America goes into the war, it will not be for idealistic reasons but to serve her own imperialistic interests” and called Hitler “the veritable incarnation of our nationalistic, capitalistic and militaristic era.” Trump appears to stand in this same unsavory tradition of moral equivalence, as when he told The New York Times last week that the United States:
has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country…When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.
(For a thoughtful historical commentary on Trump’s equivocating, see this excellent article by Mary Dudziak).
Against such sentiments in the late 1930s, Niebuhr and his cohort of “Christian Realists” began to grow in national influence as Americans also perceived the growing threats of German and Japanese oppression and aggression. After his final break with the Christian Century, early in 1941 Niebuhr founded a new journal, the aptly named Christianity and Crisis, to serve as a platform for Christian Realism and interventionist policies. In the inaugural editorial, he wrote:
American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression…in this instance, the immediate task is the defeat of Nazi tyranny.
Several months later, following the Pearl Harbor attack, he observed:
[T]he real question has not been whether the United States would become involved but when the American people could bring themselves to face the inexorable logic of our tragic contemporary history.
Yet Christian Realism also counseled against jingoistic nationalism or making an idol of the state, and in this same editorial, Niebuhr also called on his fellow American Christians “to proclaim and to mediate the mercy of God that we may help our nation to live through this ordeal with fortitude and, above all, with freedom from hatred and bitterness.”
At first blush, the situation for American Protestants in the era of Trump is very different. No longer holding the positions of dominant cultural influence that Protestantism enjoyed in the 1930s and political heft it exercised up until more recent years, many American religious leaders today feel, not without reason, bewildered by their own diminishing influence and dwindling flocks while also besieged by a governing and media establishment largely hostile to their convictions.
In the 1930s, the dilemma that Protestant leaders faced was how to exercise their influence with the most wisdom for the nation’s policies. Should they favor withdrawal and isolation to insulate America from the gathering storms abroad, or should they advocate for an assertive resistance to totalitarian aggression? In contrast, Protestant leaders today face the dilemma of how much to compromise their principles in supporting a presidential candidate of profoundly antithetical character and policies. Into this cauldron has stepped Donald Trump, alternately flattering and condescending to them, provoking perhaps the deepest political divisions among conservative Protestantism since the 1976 presidential election, when the evangelical movement split between support for the conventional Protestantism of Gerald Ford and the born-again piety of Jimmy Carter.
Further complicating this is Trump’s decidedly unconventional religious identity. In a man who proclaims Christian faith yet boasts never to have asked God for forgiveness of sins and displays little knowledge of the Bible, many observant American Christians find themselves perplexed. Political commentator and devout Christian Pete Wehner has distilled the essence of Trump’s theology into a perverse worship of power. As Wehner wrote recently, in Trump’s mind, “a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it.” He then quotes Trump’s remarks to a group of evangelicals:
And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.
As Wehner points out, Trump’s obsession with power is inimical to the Christian Gospel, which proclaims the paradox that only in our weakness can God in Christ redeem us and make us strong.
Trump’s entreaties to evangelical Protestants play to another dimension of power: the powerlessness and alienation that so many feel today. When not flattering them for their alleged strength and influence, Trump is pitying them for their weakness and vulnerability. He is hardly subtle about this, as when he promises demoralized audiences of Christians that if he becomes president, “you’re going to have plenty of power — you don’t need anybody else.”
On one level, the appeal of Trump’s pitch is understandable. American Christians are generally a very patriotic lot, and we feel a sense of grief at our nation’s eroded standing abroad and the hostility at home that many in the media and our governing and educational institutions display towards our beliefs and our liberty to hold them. It is right and just for Christians to advocate for the responsible exercise of national power internationally and for legal and cultural respect for religious convictions domestically. But Trump’s crass promise of power seems to go well beyond that into the realm of the potentially idolatrous. Many biblically informed Christians who hear Trump’s seductive offer of power embedded in his strongman persona will recall the third temptation of Christ, from the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’.”
Mindful of this temptation, one alternative for Christians leery of compromising core principles, as articulated by Southern Baptist theologian and Trump critic Russell Moore, is to stand fast in conviction and assume the posture of a “prophetic minority.” Being a prophetic minority does not mean withdrawing into a cave or fleeing to the hills. The biblical witness clearly permits and even encourages Christians to be involved in politics and statecraft. Yet it does so in the context of warnings against placing unwarranted faith in the vessels of earthly power. Such is the psalmist’s admonition:
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
This does not mean that any exercise of power itself is antithetical to Christian ethics, but rather that the use of power in statecraft must be chastened and circumscribed by humility and a higher moral purpose. This was a perennial concern of Niebuhr’s. It is no coincidence that he titled his volume of essays on the crisis of the 1930s Christianity and Power Politics. For all of his advocacy of the use of American power, Niebuhr did not lose sight of its capacity to corrupt. As he later wrote in his classic The Irony of American History, published in the early years of the Cold War as he urged a vigorous American stand against Soviet communism:
Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power. They are the ironic perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency . . . of power to become vexatious if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently.
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W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” marking the start of World War II famously derided the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade.” As the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland put the final lie to the Western democracies’ last remaining hopes of appeasing Hitler, much of the entire preceding decade appeared as a tangle of transatlantic pathologies that had brought the free world to the brink of collapse and subjugation. For the American policies that indulged in various ways protectionism, nativism, isolationism, and authoritarianism, it was not a sanguinary record. For the Protestant leaders who had optimistically hoped that pacifism and anti-interventionism would preserve their moral purity and protect their nation, it was a moment of reckoning, and for many, repentance.
It is a shame, then, that the year 2016 has brought a new low, dishonest candidate to the fore who espouses these same failed policies as the presidential nominee of one of America’s main political parties. The temptations of Trump are many. American foreign policy would do well to avoid them. And American Christians would do well to resist them.
William Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Images: (1) AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, (2-3) Getty Images, (4) Public Domain