Dobson’s Baby: Trump’s Baptism at the Evangelical-Washing Font

Donald Trump is now a “baby Christian“?

Now that Trump has become the presumptive GOP nominee—the old guard has stepped forward to engage in an ancient ritual of the Right, dating back to the Reagan years: evangelical-washing.

Trump has won the populist bloc without the rhetoric the old guard so wants to hear—the language Dobson is injecting here on his behalf via the he-prayed-the-salvation-prayer motif. And now we’re watching the evangelical punditry talk themselves into supporting this “baby Christian,” into heralding the softening and engendering of ‘faith’ within him.

In one sense, this whole conversion affair is affect all the way down. Trump’s success with the populist base took everyone by surprise. Now, the punditry is trying to feel what they need to feel from him. Just see the transcript of the meeting he held with nearly 1,000 evangelical leaders in New York. They’re trying, mightily, to see their feelings reflected in his affect and to hear their language in his rhetoric.

Now, with this weekend’s interview, Dobson has joined Jerry Falwell Jr. in the rite of evangelical-washing.

Think of it as an ancient ritual, with Dobson and Falwell as priestly leaders initiating the ritual bath of this otherwise irreligious gambling industry real estate mogul.

Crucially though, this is not a devious act, but a truly pious one—sometimes appearing to be carried out almost unconsciously. For them, this just is the candidate. This must be whom God has chosen because he has submitted to the Right, and therefore the ritual is—for Dobson and Falwell—a self-clarifying and self-convincing ritual.

We act into Baptism or the Eucharist to make sense of the world even as we actively do not get it—as we fearfully try to apply it to our otherwise precarious situation in life.

(Conservative) evangelicalism stands in exactly this kind of socially precarious position right now. Divided between some young guns holding the line on social-theological views (but openly criticizing the Right’s political output) and the nostalgic older guard more entrenched in the necessary link between the social-theological and the political output, deeply committed to making sense of a senseless situation.

They need to create what I’d name a Trumpvangelical Frankenstein. It is in this otherwise untenable context—the unhinging of the populist base within evangelicalism from all need for Trump to fit what the punditry wants—that the Dobsons and the Falwells appear unable to do anything but return to the ancient rite that founded this convoluted religious-political-economy in the first place: the evangelical-washing font.

They have, in the face of the unknown, donned priestly garb again, hoping the ancient ritual will provide answers. Hoping the long-practiced act of baptizing a Trump with the language and affect of the evangelical will make sense of things within—within themselves, not Trump.

Trump, I’d argue, is not really the focus. The focus is the ritual and the ritual’s potential to make sense of the life of the priests—of the life of contemporary conservative evangelicalism

If he will just sit still long enough and learn enough of the language (for example, stop talking about “religion” and start speaking of faith and belief) to accept the bath—or rather, to at least let the bath take place.

Again though, the priests, the old guard, are acting on their own account, trying to make sense of Trump with a ritual he seems otherwise ill fit for.

Indeed, no Frankenstein-creating scientist can be certain what exactly he’s giving life to. There is, in the very essence of the act, a fear of what might be—a question of the sanctity of the experiment. However, if anything can sanctify it, if anything can make Trump the baby Christian they need him to be, a good scrub might do it. And as with any good scrub, cleaning our own hands in the process is a nice byproduct.

It just might be the main focus of this particular priestly act.