The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” From then on Pilate sought to release him…
In this post I will argue that Donald Trump was able to grasp at an instinctive level what many other more “committed” Christians are unable to grasp with all their command of theology, that particular theological truth claims have public effects, and in that process, ironically reveal himself as possessing a greater respect for the reality of theological truth claims. First however we shall need to outline briefly how Trump has changed political discourse before going into more details that effect has with respect to theology.
Donald Trump’s Effect upon Political Discourse and Consciousness
Donald Trump, that enfant terrible of the American political world, continues to menace the American establishment with politically incorrect bluster which would have sunk the political career of a lesser man. Even the combined might of the American mainstream media, political establishment, and academia, could not dent his poll numbers. No less than The Onion has began satirising predictions of his imminent demise.
An article in the National Review has very helpfully outlined how Trump has practically turn the political discourse of America completely upside down. As David French observes:
Here’s a term you need to know — the “Overton Window.”… refers to the range of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. As the Mackinac Center explains, “the ‘window’ of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election.” The key to shifting policy lies not so much in changing politicians but in changing the terms of the debate. In other words, “The window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.”
The leftward pressure on the Overton Window has been relentless, with conservatives reduced to applying herculean effort to simply maintain the cultural and political status quo. Yes, the Tea Party has nudged Republicans just a bit to the right, but it’s a sign of the success of the Left that a relatively unchanged GOP can be labeled as ever more extreme and “reactionary.” And few realities show this leftist success better than the fact that the Window now enables expressions of overt leftist hatred and bigotry — against Christians, against conservatives, against whites, and often against Jews.
Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.
Critically, the Overton Window was smashed not by a politician but by a very American hybrid of corporate/entertainment titan — a man rich and powerful enough to be immune to elite condemnation and famous enough to dominate the news media. How many people can commandeer live television simply by picking up the phone and calling in? How many politicians can cause Twitter to detonate seemingly at will?
While many of Trump’s actual proposals are misguided, nonsensical, or untenable, by smashing the window, he’s begun the process of freeing the American people from the artificial and destructive constraints of Left-defined discourse.
In other words, Donald Trump is able to say the unsayable and to force people to consider opinions and beliefs which before simply could not even be thought, or if thought, must not be said.
Donald Trump and the Effect of Theological Beliefs
Trump’s advocacy of the ban on Muslim immigration to the US has been all the rage recently (albeit qualified to exempt citizens). This understandably has caused quite an uproar in the establishment but Trump is still ploughing through, completely unfazed. Even respectable media outlets like the Wall Street Journal has began to weigh the merits of his proposals calmly instead of simply employing the same old tired reductio ad Hitlerum.
What however is the unacceptable idea which Trump has forced onto our consciousness? What is the heresy which has caused the near entirety of the establishment to come out in force and pitchforks? The unpopular idea, I would argue, are two.
(1) Particular theological beliefs have an effect upon the public behaviour of its adherent in the civic sphere. Or more simply, theological beliefs does actually have an effect upon the political.
(2) The effects of these particular theological beliefs are substantial and of sufficient public significance as to be the object of state scrutiny, judgement and discernment.
One of the unspoken consensus of our time is that religion does not make any real difference in the way people live their lives in the public sphere. It is, as it were, completely epiphenomenonal. Regardless of one’s particular or specific theological beliefs, one can still interact in public with people of differing religious convictions without any problems.
Slavoj Žižek expertly articulates this unspoken civic orthodoxy and explains why the fundamentalist barbarians and Taliban horrify us so.
… perhaps, the prohibition to embrace a belief with a full passion explains why, today, “culture” is emerging as the central life-world category. Religion is permitted — not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular “culture” or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express our innermost feelings and attitudes. We no longer “really believe,” we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the “life-style” of the community to which we belong (recall the proverbial non-believing Jew who obeys kosher rules “out of respect for tradition”). “I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture” effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: what is a “cultural life-style” if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.” Is this not also the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture — it is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians,” as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture — they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance towards it. Recall the outrage when, three years ago, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan dynamited the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us, enlightened Westerners, believed in the divinity of Buddha, we were so outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show the appropriate respect for the “cultural heritage” of their own country and the entire humanity. Instead of believing through the other like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion and thus had no great sensitivity for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions — for them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not “cultural treasures.”
How dare Trump suggest that Muslims actually believe in their own theological truth claims directly unmediated by respect for a common cultural space? Or that this belief has such substantial and public effect as to warrant the attention, scrutiny and response of the state? It is a testimony to how entrenched this unspoken civic orthodoxy is when confronted with the ISIS who kills explicitly in the name of Islam the Western world in general simply refuse to admit that it could possibly be religiously motivated, or that Islamic theology has anything to do with it. The radical jihadists must either be losers, poor, discriminated or even insane. Any explanation, no matter how far fetched in certain cases, is preferable to the admitting that people could genuinely live in the immediacy of their theological truth claims and act upon it.
Two Models of Secularism
One can understand better the resistance to admitting theological facts as a serious proposition for civic consideration by distinguishing two models of secularism, the British and the French model also known as laïcité.
In the British model of secularism the government or state, while officially tolerating a plurality of religions in the civic space in the sense of allowing them to exist and participate in civic life, still recognises theological facts in the civic realm and can discern and judge them. For example recently the Singapore high court noted that the use of drums was not a universal practice in the festival of Thaipusam, and thereby upheld the ban on the use of drums in that festival in aid of public peace and tranquillity.
Another example where civil courts can recognise theological facts can be found in Britain a priest in a same-sex marriage took a Church of England bishop to the Employment Tribunal for refusing to grant him a licence to serve as a chaplain in a hospital. The Employment Tribunal heard the case and dismissed all the claims. What is interesting is that the Employment Tribunal, although a civil court, was able to discern the doctrinal standards of the Church of England, recognise the relevant theological facts and thereby the theological criteria for its clerics. Thus, a civil court was able to discern theological facts and judge its relevant civil effects.
These examples show how on the British model of secularity, the civil courts can engage and discern theological facts and practice to determine civic affairs, and not simply shut it out of the civic space.
Thus under the British model, religion has a substantive place in civic life and theological facts are not shut out of the civil courts and state but acknowledged and weighted. Although naturally with respect to civic claims the civil courts are impartial towards all religions.
The French model of secularism on the other hand is a strict separation of religions from civic life. Religion is strictly confined to its own space and cannot transgress it, the civic realm does not recognise or engage theological facts but they are excluded by default.
Needless to say that sadly many even within the Anglosphere have been steadily moving towards the French model of secularism. Understandably the sudden intrusion of theological considerations into the civic sphere, never mind state policy itself, would cause no small upset and cognitive dissonance.
Conclusion: Donald Trump as Pontius Pilate
From most accounts, Donald Trump appears to be at most a very nominal Presbyterian who doesn’t seem to think much of asking for forgiveness. But then again, he is running for President, not the See of Canterbury or the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.
Despite the fact that most public Christian theologians and pastors have condemned Trump, Trump, with his marginal understanding of theology and even thinner spiritual life, seems to be able to grasp at some instinctive level what many theologians with their academic credentials could not. That particular theological beliefs have an effect upon the civic realm. Furthermore, he seems to actually believe that particular theological truth claims do make a substantive difference in the way in which people will behave in public, a great enough impact to warrant the scrutiny of the civil courts as a legitimate factor in coordinating civic affairs. Does it really honour the value and importance of particular theological truth claims if they have no discernible effect upon public behaviour, or at least, have effects which are virtually indistinguishable from that of other theological beliefs or even those of none?
To that end, I would suggest that Donald Trump is very much like Pontius Pilate. Both were man of great power and influence, and in both cases Christianity but marginally touches their lives. However, what is often forgotten that is even a Pontius Pilate could recognise the Son of God and confess him as King of the Jews in public while his very own apostles abandoned him. Donald Trump, although not a Christian saint, seem to likewise have an appreciation for the significance, the importance, and the substantial effects, of particular theological truth claims.