From Trump’s support among evangelicals to Bernie Sanders’ secular Judaism to Hillary’s “voice of God” ad campaign, the religion-in-politics rule book is getting a major rewrite in 2016. And while religion watchers everywhere are laboring to make sense of this brave (cowardly?) new world, we asked four scholars—advisors to our Remapping Christianities initiative—to consider what this election might reveal about American Christianity in particular.
In this special feature, J. Kameron Carter, Paul Harvey, Yolanda Pierce and Neil J. Young each weigh in, offering insight and expertise, as well as the promise of more to come, from now until November.
Postracial Blues, Presidential Politics
J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School and author of Race: A Theological Account
Since it got off the ground last summer the presidential race for a post-Obama occupant for the White House has been both grossly entertaining and at the same time painful to watch.
I say “post-Obama” as an intentional echo of the claim that with the election of Barack Obama almost eight years ago the country entered a “postracial era” and started proclaiming its postracial gospel. For a society believed to now embody this faux gospel, Obama’s election lifted the burden of race from America’s back.
With Obama’s election, this gospel proclaimed, we arose as a nation into a new phase in which the color line has been cut, and with its cutting those who had historically been on the wrong side of that line or behind its veil could now become mainstream. Through sheer will and force of effort—you know, going to the right schools and becoming respectable and such—those people could now function within and be deemed acceptable to the neoliberal order. In the wake of the damage of the George W. Bush presidency, Obama came to personify this postracial transubstantiation of race. He became its master signifier.
Over these eight years though, what has become clear is that the incorporation of mainstreamable “others” who can carry the bucket of American power and represent the nation has misfired. By that I mean that the incorporation of acceptable and exceptional others has brought into stark relief another problem: the exceptional exceptions (what Obama signifies) brings more starkly into view the unexceptional exceptions who cannot be mainstreamed. Such non-mainstreamable life is both precarious and at the same time signifies fugitive communions, the sociality of the escaped who already reference the alternative and practice an alter-politics of the possible.
What I am talking about in terms of precarity is evident in the spike of police violence in the postracial Obama era, violence against “certain blacks,” as the Art Ensemble of Chicago put it in their album by that name: those too Black, too queer, too femme, too tranny, etc., to “count” for the nation.
Their out(sider)ness points to the nation’s limit while also (and this is their threat) prophesying alternate modes of life together. They prophesy the alternate, that an alter-politics is here as an open secret. Formal, electoral politics is the most visible part of a wider process aimed at trying to regulate the alternative by regulating precarious populations that refuse postracially to fit. Religion is a prime location for marking and measuring that postracial misfit while avoiding speaking racism’s name. In this way, the postracial is racism’s afterlife, its born-again eternal life.
Such is the American condition, with the slate of presidential hopefuls—both left and right postracial avatars—we have been given a front seat to America’s postracial blues.
On the Republican side, there’s Donald Trump’s insult-driven campaigning, his “art of the deal” businessman politics in the name of “making America great again.” His message resonates across the Republican electorate. With seemingly few qualms regarding Trump’s down and dirty dog-whistle politics of race and nation (in some instances, his whistle on race has been anything but silent), many religious conservatives have thrown their hats in with the deal-maker. It matters not that in a speech meant to signal that he’s down with Christianity, instead of saying “Second Corinthians,” he said, “Two Corinthians.” What matters for these evangelicals and other conservative Christian constituencies on the right is that Trump is their “id” on matters of race, immigration, Islamophobia, and the like. Their affective attachment to him, which is a wounded attachment to America, is that he recognizes that certain Others simply cannot be incorporated—and says as much.
On the Democratic side we have Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Under pressure from black activists and others, both have fumbled about, trying to figure out how to talk about matters affecting black and other racial minorities without reducing race to class—as white liberals basically do.
Sanders has struggled the most in this regard, and perhaps that is tied to the fact that he lacks a certain Bill Clinton skill. That is, Sanders has been unable to connect with African Americans at the level of religious culture, or at the level of a culture imbued with themes of religion even beyond the formal institutions of black religion. Bill Clinton, rhetorically at least, knew how to go to (Black) Church to play Black people.
And notwithstanding her marriage to Bill Clinton, Hillary has not been much better than Bernie in this regard. At least until recently. For while Hillary Clinton has also fumbled on matters of race (just think of her, back in the ’90s, likening black youth culture to an animal needing to be made to heel, or her support of policies that led to the overpopulation of prisons with black men), she seems recently to have found her rhetorical mojo with black voters.
And here’s where her “postracial” performance becomes clear. Clinton has found her mojo with a certain Black electorate in no small measure due to her wrapping herself in President Obama’s exceptional Black mantle. She’s also found her mojo through a series of political ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as the voiceover. In this striking postracial performance, Hillary claims both blackness and the “voice of God” for herself. In this way, she symbolically enters into black religion through Freeman’s black masculine voice, and extracts value from the precariousness of black life in America to advance her campaign.
I’ll be weighing in more on these iterations of postracial blues and on other issues of race and religion throughout this election season.
Professor of history at University of Colorado and author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America
Commentators have seized on two data points that suggest much about the contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The first is the generation gap: The older the Democratic voter is, the more likely he or she is to swing Clinton’s way. The second is the continued power of the black vote. Bernie’s strengths come in predominantly white (and usually blue or purple) states, while Hillary’s “firewall” in the South has held up even more strongly than might have been predicted.
On the Republican side, we continue to wonder about the phenomenon of the “Trump evangelicals,” and the splintering of evangelical leaders who seem unable to settle upon a candidate to support. That suggests much is in flux within American conservative Christianity.
On the Democratic side, however, we see how much is not in any flux or transition. African-American religious organizations continue to turn out voters, and once they have settled on a candidate, they form arguably a more important part of the base of that candidate than the fractured (and overwhelmingly white) religious right does for their candidate.
In 1998, Toni Morrison famously (and controversially) referred to Bill Clinton as America’s first black president. She said he “displays almost every trope of blackness,” and more importantly, that those in power (this during the impeachment crisis) treated him metaphorically as black.
The argument suggested that the most powerful man in the world had a relationship to power that was akin to black men, among the least powerful in American society. But of course, the fruits of Clinton’s policies towards welfare reform and even more importantly towards incarceration are the fundamental issues driving #blacklivesmatter and other social movements focused on disparities of racial power.
Thus, Hillary Clinton’s ability to harness the power of black voters especially in southern states is a phenomenon suggesting the power of American Christianity to shape American electoral patterns. Black religious lives matter when the votes are tallied.
Who is the “We”?
Professor of African American literature and religion at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of Hell Without Fires: Slavery, Christianity & the African American Spiritual Narrative
The frenzy of the primary election cycle is taking place during the Christian season of Lent, a period of religious observation between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday when Christians pause to reflect on the events leading to the eventual arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. And while the Lenten season ends with a celebratory proclamation of the resurrection and the declaration, “He Is Risen,” it’s supposed to be a somber reflection on death, violence and execution. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the images emerging from this election cycle force us to think quite concretely about death and violence, the most vulnerable among us, and those who wield the power of the state.
Everyone is now quite familiar with the viral video of a Donald Trump rally in North Carolina in which a white Trump supporter sucker-punches an African-American protestor who was being escorted from the rally. In a subsequent interview the man not only cheerfully admits to punching the black protestor, he also declares “the next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
Who is the “we” to whom this person refers? Who is the “we” that might have to extrajudicially kill someone, a man who was already violently assaulted and left unprotected by police? Who is the “we” advocating for the return of a violent mob? Who is the “we” justifying domestic terrorism, boldly threatening to kill a specific target, “the next time we see him?”
For people of faith, the challenge of this election cycle—and perhaps the challenge of the Lenten season itself—is to figure out who we are in this particular season of death and violence.
In a time of significant transition for the entire landscape of American Christianity itself, we need to ask ourselves, “who are we now?” and whether it’s possible to build a coalition with those advocating for the death of a black man “the next time we see him.”
Neil J. Young
U.S. history scholar and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics
The big story for me in the 2016 election has been the relationship of white evangelicals to Donald Trump. Trump has garnered hearty support from white evangelicals—they have been critical to his wins, especially in Southern Bible Belt states. And yet that development has also produced a spirited and robust counter-response from evangelical leaders who are opposed to Trump.
All of this has occasioned a debate over what it means to be an evangelical. This is not a new development in evangelical circles, certainly. Since the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the early twentieth century, evangelical leaders and theologians have worried about and wrestled over questions of belief and identity.
Most of those were strictly religious debates about matters—like the authority and inerrancy of the Bible—that largely stayed within the cloistered evangelical world. But others drew from the social and political issues of the day, particularly those regarding sexuality and gender.
The Trump fracas grows out of these moments, but also seems to be revealing something new. While white evangelicals have largely voted for Republican presidential candidates for more than thirty years now, political diversity has generally been tolerated and even celebrated within evangelical circles.
Yet the support for Trump from some evangelicals has led to Trump’s evangelical opponents arguing his backers are not “real” evangelicals. In doing so, these anti-Trump evangelicals are arguing for something rather rare, particularly in a public setting. That is, they are contending that there are far fewer evangelicals in America than survey data has revealed.
This is a startling development for a group that typically touts these very numbers as evidence of evangelicalism’s vitality in an increasingly secular nation. But it’s also a telling indication that evangelical leaders may retreat further from politics in order to better address what they see as a religious crisis within.