Race and Religion; Race and Social Class
Meanwhile, four out of five white evangelicals, a quarter of the electorate, some thirty million people, voted for Trump – despite his serial adultery, his casinos, his shady deals, his narcissistic tantrums, his reality-TV clowning, his wife’s soft-porn photos, his palpable insincerity, his profoundly uncharitable threats and accusations, his obnoxious vulgarity, his disgusting misogyny and his gleeful ignorance of the Bible; despite his hinting that he’s never done anything worth repenting.
His numbers among these voters exceeded those of Romney, McCain and even the born-again George W. Bush. And lest we forget, in the primaries he destroyed several religiously identified competitors. What was the difference? Conventional political scientists had predicted that evangelicals, disgusted with Trump, who’d trashed their man Cruz, would stay home. But such academics, willing believers in their own religion – American innocence – have never understood that, along with patriotism, the essence of American fundamentalism is race.
Mike Davis writes:
The key factor was Trump’s cynical covenant with religious conservatives…He gave them a free hand to draft the party platform at the Convention and then teamed with one of their popular heroes, Pence of Indiana…At stake for right-to-lifers, of course, was control of the Supreme Court and a final chance to reverse Roe vs Wade. This may explain why Clinton, who unlike Obama allowed herself to be identified with late-term abortions, underperformed him by 8 points among Latina/o Catholics.
I would suggest that many of the most famous televangelists are politicians first and religious leaders second. They knew as well as anyone else that he was conning them. In America, when we speak about religion, all we need to do is follow the money. Qui bono. One pastor was candid about this:
Every Bible school and college, are we still going to be allowed to maintain our biblical positions? Are we going to lose government subsidized college loans? Are we going to lose tax-exempt status for churches?
Twenty-six percent of Hispanic Catholics chose Trump, while 60 percent of white Catholics did. Mormons, previously touted as disgusted with Trump, chose him by 61%. Jews are traditional Democrats and 71% of them supported Clinton – except for the Orthodox and Hassidic communities in Brooklyn, where Trump got 69%. Let’s call a “spade” a spade. What, we might ask, is the one thing these sects have in common besides their extremism, their in-group consciousness and their severe tests for admission into the core standing of the elect of god? It’s their whiteness.
Derek Beres writes:
It is surprising, from a doctrinal perspective, that political affiliation overrules spiritual belief. This forces us to confront a starker reality: religion is fluid and conforms to the tribe, which is opposite of how religion is usually advertised, as a pre-existing condition. If that were truly the case, Evangelicals, Protestants, Mormons, and Catholics would have never voted for the most uncharitable candidate in modern times. Voters might claim religious affiliation, but in an election like this the numbers paint an entirely opposite picture.
I’ll stand by the old standby: race. Evangelicals are concentrated in the same states that made up the Confederacy, the “solid South,” where de facto segregation, church bombings, police violence, defunded social programs, anti-gay laws and voter suppression exist side-by-side with, are indeed inseparable from Protestant religion.
Obvious but mostly superficial progress has transformed the social face of the South, but old beliefs and the myths that underlie them change very slowly. Please see my blog series “Hands up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus” for a longer discussion of this issue. For now, here are some thoughts from Chapter Ten of my book:
Since white supremacy was a religion, wrote theologian James Sellers, all threats to it took on mythic importance. “Segregation is a system of belief that would protect its devotees from…‘the powers of death and destruction’…It therefore becomes a holy path, complete with commandments, priests, theologians…” The question of actual guilt was often quite irrelevant. If the mob couldn’t apprehend the accused man, they’d randomly select one of his kinsmen for the sacrifice. Often, they ritually tortured him for hours before burning him at the stake. Then they distributed his remains like religious relics, for his death and dismemberment…had cleansed and unified them.
The myth of the Old South, writes Orlando Patterson, stated that the presence of the Other, not a slavery-based economy, had caused its shameful defeat. The ex-slave symbolized both violence and sin to an obsessed society. He was “obviously” enslaved to the flesh, and his skin invited a fusion of racial and religious symbolism. His “black” malignancy was to the body politic what Satan was to the soul. “The central ritual of this version of the Southern civil religion…was the human sacrifice of the lynch mob.”…Patterson writes, “…the burning cross distilled it all: sacrificed Negro joined by the torch with sacrificed Christ, burnt together and discarded…”
Such attitudes survive because black men represent the violence that whites can’t admit is a core part of the American soul. For over seventy years, lynching was the perfect symbolic tool to expiate it. “Today,” writes Patterson, “ we no longer lynch in public rituals supervised by local clergymen. Instead, the state hires the hangman to do it.”
Still, I hear the voice of the innocent liberal: Sure, many of his supporters are racists. But how could the vast majority of religiously identified people choose the most unashamedly irreligious person imaginable? The answer, we have to admit, is that they didn’t see it that way, because there was one more factor.
Chris Lehmann reminds us that American Protestantism has a long history, going back from Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins (with whom Trump has gone on motivational lecture tours) and Pat Robertson through Jerry Falwell and Norman Vincent Peale, all the way back to Jonathan Edwards and the original Puritans, in which worldly prosperity has been inextricable from, indeed proof of spiritual redemption.
Deep in the American psyche lies the firm belief that whether or not rich people actually worked for their money, they deserve it, that in fact God wanted them to succeed – and if you think positively enough for long enough, so can you. You can visualize yourself into a shared residence among the elect of God (this attitude of course, minus the fundamentalist moralizing, is also the bedrock of New Age thinking).
Trump isn’t just a tireless doomsayer; he’s also an apostle of the upward-striving mantras of self-help, a lay preacher of the deepest fantasies and longings of the aspirational American soul. He draws his power from the age-old gospel of American success, the spiritual-cum-motivational faith that beholds the most lavish spectacles of unequal accumulation and pronounces them duly anointed blessings of the divine will…Trump’s political genius comes from his deft rhetorical maneuvering between the poles of apocalyptic despair and spectacular optimism…Trump understands that the specter of chaos and damnation only whets the wavering believer’s appetite for deliverance. Whether he’s scowling or beaming, invoking the immigrant hordes or the sensational ratings of The Apprentice, Trump comes bearing the tacit message that he is not merely the aggrieved voice of dispossessed Americans; he is also the embodiment of their greatest aspirations. He is, believe it or not, the nation’s premier positive thinker…This is the guiding directive in Trump’s preferred narrative of his otherwise far from self-evident personal success—and it’s just as powerful a driving force in his assured prophecy of an America that he will make great again.
Indeed, one of the primary exponents of the Prosperity Gospel (previously investigated by Senate for her shady fundraising practices) — is Paula White, who will be among those preaching at Trump’s inauguration.
In other words, there has been a large population deeply steeped in celebrity worship, the Prosperity Gospel and the expectations of white privilege. Trump saw them, claimed them – and added the proven Republican threat that people of color were taking resources that were meant for them. He stands, regardless of his style, squarely in the tradition of American Protestantism. The religious voted for him because they saw themselves – their spiritual selves – in him.
His ability to mix fear mongering and role modeling easily overcame his dreadful personal vulgarity among the religious because the shadow of the Prosperity Gospel is the old Puritan demonization of the poor (see my Chapter Seven). Back in our last gilded age, the Reagan years, Falwell himself had told us, “This is America. If you’re not a winner it’s your own fault.” And most Americans still tend, quite inaccurately, to equate poverty with dark skin. Even among liberals, let alone blatant racists, this remains true. Studies of inherent racial bias have confirmed that when we are asked to picture a poor person in our minds, 95% of us picture a Black person. And poor people, in our theology, deserve their fate.
Trump, like Reagan before him, evoked both ends of the mythic spectrum. He told his flock that they could have it both ways. They could get rich (if they emulated him) and they could retain their traditional values, while paying no price. They could be both Puritans and Opportunists in an America zoned all-white.
The moral: In America, race still trumps religion.
Race is the primary determinant of the fact that the white working class began to abandon the Democrats exactly when that party began to support the Civil Rights movement. In 1948, 66% of manual laborers voted Democratic. In 1964 that number was down to 55% and by 1980, just as Ronald Reagan was framing his message of soft racism, it was 35%. By the 2012 election, Democrats possessed only a 2-point advantage among poor whites. Among whites making $30-75,000 per year, the GOP has taken a 17-point lead.
Tamara Draut writes:
Trump was as likely to win affluent voters…as Clinton. This wasn’t a working-class revolt. It was a white revolt…Only white people had the luxury and the safety to ignore Trump’s promises to restore law and order, to deport millions…His phony economic populism was the icing on the cake…It was not the driving motivation… Not all Trump voters are racist, but they were willing to vote for a racist. Not all Trump voters are sexist, but they were willing to vote for a sexist. That is the definition of privilege.
Historically, whites have been privileged to believe in the American Dream, to share the expectation of constant progress into a better future, often with an absurd naiveté encouraged by the media. As I pointed out in Chapter Nine of my book,
We are similarly ignorant about one of our most fundamental values: social mobility, or the opportunity to get ahead. The likelihood of advancing in social class has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But 56% of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived Bush’s 2003 tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them. The myth of the self-made man is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism; in 2000, 19% believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought they already were. Two-thirds expect to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will).
There is a deep and universal mythological theme around the archetypal image of The King, who symbolizes order, blessing and fertility, our deepest aspirations. Throughout most of history and literature, the King and other members of the nobility (a word whose etymology indicates self-knowledge) have often carried these hopes for the entire community. But in our demythologized America, with its emphasis on democracy, self-improvement and upward mobility, we have always lacked such figures. What we’ve had instead is the culture of celebrity.
Our American hero mythology provides us with a paucity of images. If we cannot be heroes, or in economic terms, winners – our only option is to identify as victims, or as Trump would say, losers. We’re kicked off the island, because we deserve it. And this is because our Puritan heritage teaches us that wealth is a sign of being among the Elect of God, while poverty indicates the opposite. As political activists we may despise the rich, but as Americans, we generally prefer to emulate them.
But it’s not the refined Ivy-educated, snooty, proper-English-speaking upper class that Americans want to join. For decades, Hollywood has made fun of such people. What we love are men who have made it on their own (or so we’re told) but remain loyal to their roots, guys who retain their working-class values and language and tweak the noses of the gentry. Think Reagan. Think George W. Bush (not his father). Think Trump. Draut argues that Trump’s victory
…didn’t happen because you like chardonnay and the white working class likes beer. Thinking that this vote comes down to where people shop, the television shows they watch or what kind of alcohol they like to drink after a long day of work is an elitist reduction of people to their consumer habits.
Perhaps, but I’d strongly recommend a little-known classic from 1992, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, a book which presents itself as humorous but is in fact deadly serious. Fussell argued that in America, where we pride ourselves on not having a traditional, European class system and where anyone (or so we’re told) can “make it,” we advertise our degrees of value not necessarily with our money but by our styles of living.
Class is not the same as wealth; it’s all about symbols. He gives as an example the size of the balls we play with indicates our actual social class, from basketballs to golf balls. Of course, he spends an entire book making his arguments, but he concluded, for another example, that Ronald Reagan (Reagan’s image, that is, or what we’d now call his brand) was “high-prole.” Or more importantly, he appealed to people in the upper working class who had aspirations to rise higher but not to change their styles and tastes.
This is why, according to Joan C. Williams, “the white working class…resents professionals but admires the rich”:
…Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money…Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect.
In 2016 they voted for a racist for all the reasons enumerated above. But they also voted for a New York billionaire with the most vulgar, misogynist and ostentatious lifestyle, a motor-mouth (or at least a brand) with no social graces or politically correct censor on his opinions, an “outsider” who insulted the people in tweeds, a man with unlimited money but no taste who gilded his toilet seats, just because he could. He was a man they could imagine having a beer with, unlike that black patrician in the White House. He’s a high-prole, and they could imagine becoming like him, if he’d only get the niggers out of the way.
Work hard, rise in social class. This was their historical, if wildly inaccurate, expectation. But by 2000 they had also been hearing for thirty years that the pie was shrinking, and that undeserving minorities were grabbing the crumbs away from them.
Trump offered them no economic plan, just the old Southern strategy: blame blacks and browns (and now a black president) for their problems, and frame government as favoring people of color. The genius of the Republicans was to sense their class anger, combine it with racial anxiety and turn it away from its appropriate targets and toward liberals by speaking the language of American myth. Draut is right, at least at this level: “…we’ve got to grapple with the reality that we lost this election largely due to white privilege.”
And there is one more issue that ties class to race: money. Cui Bono, follow the money. Trump strode onto a racially charged stage that had been prepared for years by the lilly-white Tea Party movement and its hatred of a black president. Remember them? They’re now in charge of the government. Trump the con man grabbed their paranoid birther fantasies and ran with them. No Tea Party, no Trump. And the Tea Party itself, as even Time Magazine admits (http://time.com/secret-origins-of-the-tea-party/), was created and extravagantly funded by none other than the Koch brothers. No Koch money, no Tea Party, no Trump.
The moral: In America, race still trumps social class, but it needs a little help from the super-rich.
But we need to go deeper. Read Part Four here.