“A King Cyrus President” just published!

I’m pleased to share the news that Humanity & Society has just published my article “A King Cyrus President: How Donald Trump’s Presidency Reasserts Conservative Christians’ Right to Hegemony.” Here is the abstract:

Religious right leaders and voters in the United States supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election for the same reason that all blocs vote as they do: They believed that the candidate offered them the best opportunity to protect and extend their power and create their preferred government. The puzzle of their support, then, is less why they chose Trump and more how they navigated the process of inserting Trump into their story of themselves as a “moral” majority. This self-understanding promotes and exploits feelings of entitlement, fear, resentment, and the desire to dominate to encourage political action. Because Trump’s speeches affirm these feelings, religious right voters were open to writing a plot twist in their story, casting Trump as a King Cyrus figure, as their champion if not a coreligionist. This article analyzes appeals to and expressions of entitlement, fear, resentment, and the desire to dominate from more than 60 sermons, speeches, and books by religious right authors, Donald Trump, and Trump surrogates. Using open coding, it identifies themes in how these emotions are recognized, affirmed, and invoked by speakers, focusing on Trump’s Cyrus effect.

The article was released the same week as the film The Trump Prophecya rightwing Christian film arguing that Trump is God’s candidate.

Ferdinand Baltasars Pain. King Cyrus gives the stolen treasures of the temple of Jerusalem

Above, in this painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Ferdinand Bol, King Cyrus returns the treasures of the Jewish temple to the Jews who have been living in Babylon but who have been authorized to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Conservative Christians view Trump as a King Cyrus–not one of them, but the strong leader who will allow them to reassert their religion with government support. Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, the Jews rebuild the wall around the city, commit to ending pluralism (especially inter-religious marriage), and create a religion that is much more strident than its predecessors. 

The entire issue focuses on the question emotions in backlash politics in the US and Europe. Special guest editors Joel Busher, Philip Giurlando, and Gavin B. Sullivan have brought together a group of outstanding articles could be usefully discussed together in a class or reading group focusing on the current political moment.

Joel Busher, Philip Giurlando, and Gavin B. Sullivan. “Introduction: The Emotional Dynamics of Backlash Politics beyond Anger, Hate, Fear, Pride, and Loss”

Tereza Capelos and Nicolas Demertzis, “Political Action and Resentful Affectivity in Critical Times.”

Catarina Kinnvall, “Ontological Insecurities and Postcolonial Imaginaries: The Emotional Appeal of Populism.”

Mehr Latif, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Pete Simi. “How Emotional Dynamics Maintain and Destroy White Supremacist Groups.”

Mikko Salmela and Christian von Scheve. “Emotional Dynamics of Right- and Left-wing Political Populism.”


I want to share a very warm thank you to Joel, Phil, and Gavin for their leadership on this issue. Joel Busher, in particular, provided invaluable editorial guidance on my (many, many, too many) drafts. His intellectual generosity made this a much more insightful piece, and I’m so grateful.


The article is available from Humanity & Society and will be available within the new few weeks in academic libraries. If you don’t have access to it in either of those ways but would like to read it, please let me know and I can help you locate a copy.

Highlights from _Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump_

I recently read historian John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdman 2018) and found it to be a really useful discussion of some of the themes we regularly discuss here. I’ve shared a full review of the book at Reading Religion, but I wanted to share with 606 readers some quotations that I found really compelling:

On what many of us felt returning to church on the Sunday after the 2016 election: “But my emotions were less about the new president and more about the large number of my fellow evangelicals who voted for him” (6).

On coming to see Trump not as an anomaly but as a fulfillment of white evangelical Christian politics: “Over time, my distress did not wane, but my surprise did. As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming” (6).

“The social and cultural changes of the Obama presidency–particularly regarding human sexuality–happened so quickly that conservative Chrsitians had very little time to process what they believed to be an erosion of the moral foundations of their nation. in this state of panic, evangelicals saw Trump as a strongman who would protect them from the forces working to undermine the values of the world they once knew” (7).

“Trump… was appealing to a different kind of evangelical voter” (33).

On white conservative evangelicals in the US south, their use of scripture, and their failure to be anti-racist: “they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to structural racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did” (108).

“the short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long (112)

On why Christians need to resist nostalgia: “In the end, the practice of nostalgia is inherently selfish because it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others” (159).

See the source image

And two facts only tangential to Fea’s argument but that stunned me:

  1. after the end of legal school segregation, white Christians built private academies at a rate of two per day to pull their white children out of integrating schools (55).
  2. Liberty University, which is basically a den of vipers at this point, receives $445 million dollars in federal loans–the highest amount of any four-year university in Virginia and the 8th largest in the nation. “It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say,” Fea writes, “that the future of Liberty University as the world’s largest Christian university [no longer true as Grand Canyon, an online Christian school has surpassed it] may have been in jeopardy had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in November 2016” (141).



There are two tiers of ‘the resistance.’ Which path will you take?

Over at The Week, I offer a caution against liberals who are ready to delegitimize the Supreme Court now that a conservative majority is firmly entrenched.

Another problem with the delegitimization agenda: It mostly works if you are in control of one of the other two branches of government. At this moment, undermining the authority of the Supreme Court means empowering a White House and Congress that are both held by Republicans. Maybe that changes after next month’s midterms, maybe it doesn’t. A conservative court may be just a minor obstacle to President Trump’s plans, but it can still be an obstacle. Liberals surely don’t want to be part of inadvertently making life easier for Trump, do they?

The column appears the day after I tweeted this, and found my timeline packed with angry liberals accusing me of surrendering to conservatives.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 9.55.01 AM

I was trying to caution against short-term “fixes” to our political situation that don’t solve anything over the long-term, but a lot of folks saw it otherwise. (Including, it seems, a lot of folks who think FDR succeeded in his own court-packing scheme. He didn’t.)

But in thinking through all of this I realized that in the Trump Era there are two kinds of “resistance”:

• There are those who think Trump is the culmination of our systems failing us, that our institutions were built to protect white male power and they have finally given us him, and through him, Brett Kavanaugh. If this is your point of view, your solution to Trumpism might be something like “burn it all down.”

• There are those who think Trump has shredded and attacked institutions that have protected rights and kept the peace for more than 200 years. If this is your point of view, then what you want to do is work to preserve and restore those institutions in what is hopefully a forthcoming, glorious post-Trump era.

I think … both sides are right. Or, at least, both have an important point to consider.

Yes, the system we live in was designed and built for a relatively small group of people, and today’s reactionaries are using that system for its original intended purpose. The institutions have evolved over the years, but extracting them entirely from those original purposes is a difficult, maybe impossible job.

On the other hand…

Those institutions have evolved. Fast enough, far enough? No. There’s much, much more work to be done, certainly, if we can get through the current Bad Times. But the Supreme Court that has made it possible for guns to proliferate in America also struck some of the earliest and most effective blows for racial and gay equality in this country.

Today is Columbus Day, also known as Indigenous Peoples Day. We are heirs to flawed origins. We are also heirs to people who took those flawed origins and worked mightily and sacrificed much over decades and centuries to make a more perfect union. Their work today is threatened as it hasn’t been for a long time.

Me, I think the myth of the Phoenix is just a myth. Fire usually destroys more than it creates. The Law of Unintended Consequences is a thing. The world is full of examples of bad regimes being torn own and replaced with something worse. Revolution is a tricky thing that doesn’t always go where you expect. Caution might be useful.

Stepping back: We’ve arrived at this moment on the Supreme Court because conservatives have been planning for it and working for it, even through setbacks, for more than 40 years — and they’ve done it in full view. Liberals, for whatever reason, didn’t do the same work on the other side. So while we should work as hard as we can to protect rights in the short-term, we should also be aiming to build our own long-term effort to compete with conservatives. Today didn’t happen last week; it’s been happening since 1980, at least. Our best solutions to that challenge will involve a similar commitment.

Where does that leave me? A resistance viewpoint that I think is somewhat radical in outlook – sympathetic to critiques made by minorities and feminists – while being somewhat conservative (in the sense of cautious, not in the sense of being right-wing) in my viewpoint on the best solutions and practices going forward.

There’s danger in becoming MLK’s famously ineffective “white moderate” from that stance, I realize. I don’t have all the answers. I’m wrong sometimes. So I’ll try to keep listening to people who have lived most intensely with injustice, and try to work for justice as best I can — and hope my best actually works for the good.

We can be brave in defending the vulnerable.

Hi Joel,

You observe:

We — nearly all of us — have a belief that we’re on the side of the good guys. People who think differently? Bad guys. We’re good at recognizing the side’s motivated thinking. Less great at evaluating our own.

I don’t think we’re in such desperate times that we have to discount everything those who disagree with us politically have to say. In fact, we can’t. Some of our problems–climate change, for one–are too big for us to solve without everyone’s involvement.

And our family is trying to practice avoiding the fundamental attribution error: thinking that another person’s actions are due to an inherent personality problem rather than some external force. Life is much more pleasant when we don’t assign others the worst intentions. If we are wrong–if they really do have the worst intentions–we’ll  find out soon enough. Why borrow unhappiness by treating everyone suspiciously?

But I think we have to be really careful in when we fall silent. When we speak about contentious topics, we have three people to consider: ourselves (Am I speaking and behaving in ways that align with my values? Am I acting with integrity?), our opponents (those we disagree with), and those eavesdropping (those who hear what we say, even though they aren’t the primary targets of our speech). I owe it to myself and to my audience to speak with integrity; otherwise, how would they know if they can trust me? I think, also, that I have to speak in such a way that shows care for those eavesdroppers. The last priority in my speech is caring for those who disagree with me.  Sometimes, caring for my eavesdroppers–the kids who are listening to me speak up for justice or not, my friends of color who are watching me challenge racism or not, the closeted queer teenager who sees me sit on my hands when I see homophobia–means speaking more harshly than I would if my only listener was the person I disagree with. Sometimes, though, I am called to speak more kindly than they might deserve. I think there are times and places where we use different methods of persuasion.

Image result for black jesus in art

Above, Jesus enters Jerusalem in this painting by Zambian muralist Emmanuel Nsama’s. The image reminds me that God loved the world, but Jesus brought salvation explicitly for the downtrodden because they were the ones who needed it most urgently. 

When I look at the gospels, I see Jesus’ consistent orientation toward the powerful is challenging them–which he does even in his silences. He sides with the vulnerable, not the strong. In those days, it was unlikely that a powerful person would become a follower of Jesus–and if he had money, he would have to give it up. Today, you might argue, times are different: Christians occupy positions of power. Back then, Jesus could safely say that we should side with the widow and the orphan because the tax collector and the landowner were not his followers. Today, they are, and so our the automatic preference for the poor that Jesus modeled is not longer relevant.

I disagree; if anyone, the wealth and power of some many Christians should make us braver in challenging the wealthy and powerful, because we have a special duty to them. That makes me cautious about making questions about power more complicated than Jesus said they were. It might be the one area where I’m a bit of a Biblical literalist: the way of Jesus is mercy and justice, so it’s often easy to see when we are on that path and when we are not. Many times, tolerance is appropriate; for others, encouragement toward a better way is most effective; for some, though, stronger words are necessary. If Jesus is our model, our care will always be for the vulnerable. That’s never been wrong yet.


No, Republicans don’t believe women

And Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court.

If it wasn’t Kavanaugh, it was going to be some other conservative. Once Mitch McConnell refused a hearing to Merrick Garland, then Donald Trump won the presidency, this moment of rage was inevitable. It is worse because of a belief that Republicans made a real effort to avoid fully investigating the sexual assault allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford. We’re not going to forget this moment for a long time.

A lot of Republicans they believe, for whatever reason, Ford was either lying or badly used by Democrats, implying they’re reading to hear and help real victims of sexual assault. But there’s no reason to believe them.

Why? Because they don’t even believe men who tell us they treat women badly – or, at least, not enough to keep those men out of power.

Donald Trump on the “Access Hollywood” tape told us he sexually batters women.

Donald Trump told us that he would go backstage at beauty contests to see young women in various states of undress because he could.

Donald Trump told us repeatedly how he viewed his own daughter in sexual terms.

Republicans made him president.

So it’s hard to credit statements from Republicans about how this time they couldn’t believe a woman, and oh dear, the fakers like Dr. Ford will make it hard for the real victims, like they really want to help sexual assault victims who have been abused by powerful men.

All they have to do is believe a woman’s word – or a man’s repeated confessions – when it costs them something, once. Believing that Democrats have done bad things – and they have – is easy. Do it when it means losing a Senate seat, or a spot on the Supreme Court, or the White House.

Until then, the evidence is that Republicans just don’t care enough.

On the 17th birthday of the evil War in Afghanistan

Hi Joel,

You recently shared your concerns about the challenge of approaching political discussions humbly. That post has given me a lot to think about, and I’ll likely keep thinking about it over several posts over the next weeks, but I wanted to start with the outrage that Howard Dean’s 2005 comment caused. As you shared, Dean, then the DNC chair, was fundraising in Kansas and also working his 50 state strategy, in which the Democratic Party would invest even in places that were traditional Republican strongholds.

During one of Dean’s speeches, he told Democratic listeners,

“This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”

That upset some Republicans, who, like most of us, don’t like to be called evil. The local party leader claimed to be “shocked” at the words, and called Dean “hateful.” (Please keep in mind that this is the party, even then, that regularly calls its opponents “baby killers” and accuses them of hating America and wishing for our destruction.)

But Dean was right (well, half right). He was clear in his speech that he was talking about conservative Republicans. He made the point that moderate Republicans want better choices. Conservatives are intolerant, he argued. In fact, “They don’t think tolerance is a virtue.” And when you reject tolerance in favor of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia… well, that’s evil.

After decades of rightwing attacks on the very idea of toleration (whether they derisively call it “moral relativism” or “political correctness”), Dean simply echoed what the rightwing says about itself: “They don’t think tolerance is a virtue” isn’t an insult but an observation from the outside and, from the inside, a boast.

But what strikes me most about this quotation is that Dean was right that conservative Republicans were up to evil. By 2005, we were just 4 years into one of our longest-ever wars; Tomorrow, October 7, we will have been waging war in Afghanistan for 17 years

The War in Afghanistan can almost vote. I wonder how it would have voted back in 2000, when the Supreme Court, violating the will of American voters, put George W. Bush into office.

During that time, we’ve seen thousands of US servicemen and women die abroad. We’ve seen more come home to commit suicide. Others live with scars physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Above, George W. Bush paints portraits of members of the US military whose lives he endangered or ended by waging a war in Afghanistan. If there is a less-evil alternative to warfare, Republican leadership has yet to consider it.
And we’ve killed anywhere from half a million to 4 million, depending on how “Global War on Terror” is defined. In any case, we’re talking about casualty rates that can easily be described as “evil” no matter how you look at them.

Dean was right: in 2005, Republican leaders were doing evil things. And, if you do evil things over a lifetime, you end up shaping your character into an evil thing, too.

But Dean was also wrong: the Republicans launching a poorly considered, unwinnable, expensive, highly lethal war on questionable legal grounds was evil, but that doesn’t mean that Democrats are good. While we can imagine that Al Gore would have responded differently to the attacks of September 11 (After all, his predecessor had responded quite differently to the truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.), we just don’t know. And while Democrats tend not to rush headlong into war, Congressional Democrats overwhelming supported military intervention and, on the homefront, a frightening expansion of executive power.

I don’t think that both sides are equally evil. I also don’t think that Democrats are good enough to be called good. But, one day, we could have politicians who are.


*In an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly said we had been in Afganitan for 18 years. That wasn’t accurate, so I have updated the post.