Trumpism and religion (crosspost from CT)

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s election victory was the overwhelming support he received from white Christians, rising to near-unanimity among white evangelicals, where Trump outpolled all previous Republican candidates. In thinking about the global rise of Trumpism, I’ve been under the impression that the US is a special case, and that the rise of Trumpism in a largely post-religious Europe suggests that the link between Christianism and Trumpism is a spurious correlation.

But, on reading a bit about the Dutch election, I found the suggestion that there is a long tradition of confessional politics in the Netherlands (maybe Ingrid could explain more about this) and that support for the racist PVV is centred on Limburg, and inherited from the formerly dominant Catholic party there. And, re-examining my previous position, it’s obvious that being “largely post-Christian” does not preclude the existence of a large bloc of Christian, and therefore potentially Christianist voters.

So, I’m now thinking that Trumpism can be seen, in large measure, as a reaction by white Christians against the loss of their assumed position as the social norm, against which assertions of rights for anyone else can be seen as identity politics, political correctness and so on. As is usual, as soon as I formed this idea, I found evidence for it everywhere. Obvious cases are Putin and Russian Orthodoxy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Fillon in France. Looking a bit harder, I found that British Christians voted strongly for Brexit. And, in my own backyard, all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist.

Of course, there’s nothing distinctively Christian in the actual politics of Trumpism, so the analysis applies equally well to Islamists like Erdogan (and al-Baghdadi for that matter) and Hindu nationalists like Modi. In fact, looking over the recent upsurge of Trumpists, the only counterexample I can find to the analysis is Duterte in the Phillipines, who has been denounced by the Catholic Church and has returned the compliment in spades.

What does this mean for the future of Trumpism?

If religious belief is declining, as it would appear to be in the developed world, this analysis suggests that Trumpism is a symptom of that decline. Moreover, on that view, the repugnant hypocrisy of Trumpism seems likely to accelerate the decline of religion, which in turn will hasten the downfall of Trumpism.

Against that very optimistic view, there’s this study by Pew, projecting an increase in global religious affiliation through 2050, on which I’ve blogged a couple of times previously. I had discussions with some of the authors of this study, which gave me a bit more understanding of how their numbers were derived and how they should be interpreted. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting them, but obviously this is my interpretation not theirs.

The first point is that a projection is not a prediction. It’s an analysis of what would happen if trends observed in the past continue into the future. For predictive purposes, this is useful as a baseline. If you think the future will be different from the projection, it must be because the trends in question will not continue. In the Pew case, the central assumption is that rates of conversion between affilations, observed in the current population will be sustained. For example, if 20 per cent of 30-year olds who were baptised Catholic are now Protestants, we assume that the same will be true of people born Catholic in 2020, when we observe them in 2050.

One immediate consequence of this is that, if a dominant religion has, until now, had 100 per cent affiliation in a given country, the projection method implies 100 per cent affiliation forever. The same is true with multiple religions if their proportions have been stable over time. But, given that until relatively recently, 100 per cent affiliation was the rule, this projection method rules out, by assumption, whatever process has produced the rapid decline of religious belief in many developed countries.

A second problem is that, for reasons of consistency, data for the US is from 2010. So, the model takes no account of the sharp decline in Christian affiliation since then, a decline that has already gone further than the model projections for 2050.

To sum up, I don’t think the Pew projections tell us much one way or the other about whether religious belief in general, and dominant religion identity politics in particular are likely to rise or decline over the next thirty years. Since Trump’s victory, there have been quite a few results going the other way. Let’s hope this continues.

28 thoughts on “Trumpism and religion (crosspost from CT)

  1. We need to be mindful that many of those in the US who identify as Christians would not in fact qualify as Christian, if we test them against our understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
    “Christian” is a handy positive label for reactionary right-wingers whose attitudes are intolerant of difference, of change, of minorities, of just about anything progressive.

    Speaking as an atheist who acknowledges the efficacy of religious belief in others, I know that there are active progressive movements within the vast range of Christian organizations, but numerically they are much less significant than those who simply find that Christian is a useful rubric with which to label their membership of the anti-progressive segment of the population. (I refuse to dignify them with the term “conservative”.)

    Jesus advocated humility and caring for others, and this has little to do with the attitudes of Trumpist Christians.

  2. I see the word “Trumpism” being bandied about a lot, but what does it actually refer to?

    To me an -ism would refer to some kind of philosophical underpinning for a set of actions. I doubt that Trump would so much as understand the meaning of the phrase; his philosophy, such as it is, amounts to little more than “I am right”.

    Which, now that I write it down, is maybe not so far from fundamentalist religion.

  3. John, I’m not sure why you are labelling Geert Wilders racist.

    *snip – lots of Wilders apologism deleted:JQ *

    Sure, Wilders makes intemperate and racist comments from time to time ( “Moroccan scum” etc )

    I think you answered your own point. Nothing more from you on this thread, or this topic, please. JQ

  4. @Andrew
    Prof Q explains what he means by Trumpism in one of the links – I think it’s the one embedded in ‘all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist’.

  5. I am perfectly happy with “ism” words, both more usual ones like “capitalism” and “socialism” and neologisms like “Trumpism”.

    An “ism” isn’t necessarily a word with serious philosophical or political economy underpinnings though it could be of course. They occur in many other fields too. For example, the visual, musical and literary Arts use many “ism” words. “Cubism”, Formalism, Surrealism”, Realism, Social Realism, Magical Realism, Naturalism, Romanticism etc. etc.

    Personally I love “ism” words. They are very useful and very evocative. Many of them are also very well defined in the disciplines which use them.

    “Trumpism” as a neologism is useful and evocative. We quickly have a good idea of what is meant… unless we have been living under a rock. Trumpism is an amalgam of populism, opportunism, nationalism, narcissism, jingoism, chauvinism, sadism and anti-intellectualism.

  6. My last comment is held up in moderation so I’ll extract the last part of what was a long comment:

    @Ron E Joggles

    You say:

    Jesus advocated humility and caring for others, and this has little to do with the attitudes of Trumpist Christians.

    I can barely believe anyone still repeats that Zombie belief. Jesus was as big a thug as Mo. Even according to the The Bible, which is an advertorial for Jesus, the man smashed up businesses (stalls in a market place), told his followers to buy swords, said plainly and unequivocally that he did not come to bring peace and just like every other smart cult leader, he tried to distance his followers from their families, telling them that if they want to follow him, they must first learn to hate their parents. All of this is right there in the not so good book and it is fun to see the true believers twists and turn to explain these things away.

    Also note how Jesus never bothered to denounce slavery, in fact, by saying that he came to fulfill the law of Moses, which promulgated slavery, he very clearly advocated a pro-slavery theocracy with himself as dictator (fortunately the Romans killed him first). I’m sorry Ron Joggles, but Jesus was much more like Osama Bin Laden than Nelson Mandela.

  7. To me the ironic thing is how profoundly and obviously irreligious and amoral (or immoral) the political leaders harnessing religious fundamentalists to their own uses are.

    The only explanation I know that makes sense is that fundamentalism and authoritarianism often go hand in hand, with illogic and hypocrisy coming along for the stroll.

  8. @HED PE

    I kind of have sympathy for the idea of the purported JC’s purported overthrowing of the tables of the moneychangers (the financiers of the day). Also sympathy for the idea of the purported overthrowing of the tables of the sellers of doves (no doubt for sacrifices).

    But overall you are correct. The whole tale has the ring of just another bout of cultism. As the wits say;

    Q: “What is the difference between a cult and religion?”
    A: “A few thousand adherents.”

    The bottom line is that the monotheistic religions merit no respect or special treatment at all. Adherents deserve no persecution of course and should be left to practice their beliefs in peace provided they do not harm others. It’s a difficult one though. There is an argument that proselytizing mythical falsehoods does harm others. On balance though, persecution or suppression causes a vicious spiral of reaction and intensification of blind belief into fanaticism, so suppression is best avoided.

    What is needed is that all special privileges should be removed from religions, including their tax-free privileges and their lack and transparency and accountability to the society upon which they prey. (Pun intended.)

    Some branches of the monotheistic religions prate now of their caring, humility and charity. There may be some truth to this in some cases. However, it was only the scientific humanist, socialist and democratic revolutions which forced the religions to abandon their outrageous abuses rooted in theocratic power.

  9. Huxley, I remember, came out against the New Testament for the Gadarene swine incident, where Jesus had removed someone’s evil spirits into pigs who then threw themselves off a cliff, on the grounds that this was a clear interference with private property. Bear in mind, though, that the testaments are hadith; the man himself never wrote a word, and we have no real idea what he thought or what he meant.

  10. @HED PE
    I’m with ChrisB. First, Jesus spoke in parables in the village language of the period, and these stories have to be interpreted in the context of the cultural fabric of his listeners. Although modern translations rest upon a wide body of scholarship, translating from one language to another remains an inexact science. Second, some of the passages to which you refer were grafted in from other bodies of literature circulating at the time and are a further step removed from what he may have said. All kinds of incongruities arise if you pick out individual verses and pit them against each other.

  11. @Magma
    The only explanation I know that makes sense is that fundamentalism and authoritarianism often go hand in hand,

    They do. See some of Bob Altemeyer’s work on authoritarianism for some evidence of this. They do not necessarily have to go together but it is common that they do. In a communist country firm belief in the party could replace God. I had not thought of it but perhaps Putin and the Orthodox Church are replacing the Party.

    See for a very enjoyable and maddeningly idiosyncratic book summarizing much of his work Altemeyers’. What makes an authoritarian and a fundamentalist is often the same thing—btw I am speaking of what was originally called a Right Wing Authoritarian something of a misnomer as you could get LWA’s in the Soviet Union. It was not the left-right politics that were important but the ‘authority’.

  12. Prof John, I don’t think the explanation in your third paragraph – that white Christians voted for Trump because of loss of social status – is an adequate explanation for the statistics. I think you will need to delve more deeply into Christian thought to find some causative forces.

    First, remember that the US pioneers were religious refugees at a time of religious intolerance in Europe. Religious enthusiasms have a long history in the US. Australia’s convicts and settlers lacked that profile.

    Second, Calvinist theology is individualistic, moralistic and judgemental. Without delving too deeply into the features of Calvinist versus other branches of theology, it can be observed that American public discourse tends to be judgemental of those who don’t conform to society’s norms and supportive of those who demonstrate worldly success and life skills. Calvinism is strongly represented in public discourse in some European countries also.

    Third, Christians who take a ‘literal’ view of the Book of Revelation (yes, that term is rubbery) often see in it references to big government and world government as the devil (beast) personified. A line of this fundamentalist thinking sees contemporary social immorality as a portent of an imminent destruction of civilisation. Christians who take a more relaxed ‘liberal’ approach interpret Revelation as a message regarding the Roman Empire fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 . These more liberal strands of Christian thought accept a second coming and cheer on the accompanying release from worldly pain and suffering; they don’t cheer on the destruction of this world order in flames. Many Christian groups in the US however anticipate the second coming as imminent and welcome the accompanying judgement and destruction. Trump promised to smash big government and banish those who don’t conform to Christian norms. In this way he tapped into a rich vein of the fundamentalists’ apocalyptic thinking.

  13. some evidence that the bulk of Evangelical support for Trump comes from those who actually don’t attend church.

  14. One thing I’ve noticed which maybe supports Prof Q’s thesis about Trumpism and religion (although I’m not entirely sure) is that the various Trumpist eruptions over the past few years have tended to attract a particular sort of perennial candidate who usually has a strongly Christianist background. In WA, the 2014 Senate by-election saw the highly eccentric Teresa Van Lieshout running for the Palmer United Party (before being disendorsed, I think). Van Lieshout had previously run as a One Nation candidate and ran as an independent during the 2016 federal election (presumably due to her being to crazy for even One Nation or Palmer United. Van Lieshout is a militant Christianist and anti Islam campaigner who has also had associations with the ‘old-school’ Christianist parties Family First and the Christian Democrats at various times. In the 2017 WA election campaign, one of the numerous One Nation mishaps involved the candidate Michelle Meyers making some ludicrous remarks about ‘gay thought control’. Meyers is another long-time Christianist who had former associations with the Christian Democrats and was involved in anti-gay campaigning when various pro-equality reforms were pushed through the WA Parliament a decade and a half ago.

    An alternative explanation, of course, is that the poor party structure and the short time required to build up a campaign base, in addition to their anti-establishment stance, has meant that these Trumpist parties invariably attract fringe dwellers as candidates. It is interesting, however, that so many of them seem to have a Christianist tendency.

  15. In any evaluation of Trump voters, you must remember that most of them have a low opinion of politicians. As such, they are more interested in strengths rather than their flawless because they regard most politicians as deeply flawed.

    For example, UKIP voters are perfectly aware that there are a bunch of clowns leading the party but they still want their voice in the House of Commons and hope they might improve once they get there.

    The same goes for Hanson. The supporters look for what she says that resonates with them and ignore she is of an incompetent politician

  16. I had not seen the term “Christianist” before today, and I like it. Unlike some of the commenters, I have little problem with genuine Christians. And I’ve met genuine Christians who find Christianists really annoying.

  17. @Tim Macknay
    Van Lieshout had previously run as a One Nation candidate and ran as an independent during the 2016 federal election (presumably due to her being to crazy for even One Nation or Palmer United

    Wow, as an outsider (Canada), I had not realized that was possible.

    @John Brookes

  18. @John Brookes
    Re “Christianist”
    Thanks John, I had missed the significance of that term.
    Is it Tim’s ? In any case I may use it too. It conveys just the right feeling.

  19. Jamelle Bouie (and I’m sure many others) have written what I think are similar analyses, but focusing on the ‘White’ instead of the ‘Christian’ aspect of Trump’s base*. I don’t know much about American history beyond the obvious/basics, but I suspect there’s a lot of truth in both.

    It also seems overwhelmingly true to me that the Conservatives / Far Right are much more effective in peddling resentment and channeling it into votes – especially with optional voting. Changing this is one of the key challenges for progressives / social democrats.

    * We should not forget that the main reason Trump won was that he was the Republican candidate, and party affiliation is so strong that the overwhelming majority of self-identified Republicans voted for him (/against Hillary) – even those that aren’t Christianist or out-and-out racists, and probably knew he was unfit.

  20. Evangelical Christians say it is good to be outstandingly wealthy, Trump is ‘successful’. If people are worried enough they will support a nasty and/or incompetent leader ,Christians will even support one who is at best a pretend Christian .Anyway, like Steve Bannon and Andrew Bolt , Trump may not be one but he believes in the superiority of Christian civilisation .Leftists are barking up the wrong tree if they expect Trumps repulsive nature to always automatically work against him domestically.

    Trump must be good at some things like – bullying, working a crowd, selfishness, and he probably has a good memory and lots of energy, but it is revealing that someone so dim witted can reach that high office. Who couldnt amass a fortune working in real estate over the last 40 years with a small fortune to begin with ?

  21. @Geoff Edwards
    Maybe this is post Calvanism? This might be a bit more last century. From dim recall of Maslow, maybe the correlation with religion , particularly white evangelicals, would be stronger with some measure of drop-outs from self-actualisation (SA for short). Multicollinearity can be a nuisance. I first heard about SA decades ago interviewing a too keen young job-seeker claiming to be into SA. After he explained what the …….. , I asked him if a seeker of SA would actually use the term – he had to say no – say no more. There are many characteristics of SA. One characteristic stands out – autonomy and you can demonstrate same by looking up the main features. I was forced to think of some alternative explanation to religion to account for not just smug happy clappers ditching autonomy, embracing creationism, denying global warming etc etc , but also for the many best described as a-religious . All can be labelled and libelled as refugees from SA

  22. Andrew :
    I see the word “Trumpism” being bandied about a lot, but what does it actually refer to?
    To me an -ism would refer to some kind of philosophical underpinning for a set of actions. I doubt that Trump would so much as understand the meaning of the phrase; his philosophy, such as it is, amounts to little more than “I am right”.
    Which, now that I write it down, is maybe not so far from fundamentalist religion.

    “trumpery” as in the “contemporary age of trumpery” seems to just about cover it.

    maybe historians of the future will label this time as such.

    then, maybe some thesis writer will dig down and find the first to coin the label is meeee.

    famous i will be .

    but as it’s in the hypothetical future, luckily i’ll already be dead.

    i’d better copyright the phrase though.


  23. @may
    Sorry to break it to you, but the word ‘trumpery’ already exists, and has a dictionary definition. The meaning is surprising apposite though – it means ‘worthless nonsense’ or ‘trivial and useless articles’. Google it.

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