By Alan Bean
The election is over and the season of recrimination begins.
Donald Trump will be president, some say, because rural white America is a sinkhole of fundamentalist racism.
Others blame the outcome on the aloof arrogance of a latte-swilling “coastal elite” that is oblivious to the pain in the flyover regions.
Writing in the Age of Reagan, Walter Fisher spoke of the “rational-world paradigm” that dominates American liberalism. Because human beings are conceived as fundamentally rational, decision-making should be driven by logical argument. The world is a matrix of logical puzzles that can only be solved by experts with the necessary subject-matter knowledge.
But Fisher saw humans as storytellers, not logicians. The stories that drive the decision-making process are not illogical, they are rooted in life experience, they point toward positive consequences and they plug into “transcendent value,” the highest good we know:
Any story, any form of rhetorical communication, not only says something about the world, it also implies an audience, persons who conceive of themselves in very specific ways. If a story denies a person’s self-conception, it does not matter what it says about the world.
That’s why Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. Operating out of a “rational-world paradigm,” Carter laid out the evidence for his policies. To the consternation of his liberal opponents, Reagan didn’t make arguments, he told stories. Utilizing what Fisher called a “narrative paradigm,” Reagan described America as a nation of heroes by telling stories.
Fisher saw the presidential election of 1980 as “a contest between argument and narrative as individuated forms of address” in which the pragmatic, nuanced arguments of Carter were overwhelmed by the romantic images of the Great Communicator.
Leaning heavily on Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, Fisher focused on two distinct, and often conflicting versions of the American dream. Reagan focused almost exclusively on the materialistic version of our national myth, a Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches narrative in which any ragamuffin child can grow up to be the president of the United States or a captain of industry.
Carter’s rational-world rhetoric presupposed a moral version of the American Dream best summarized by these familiar words from “The New Colossus”:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The materialistic and moral versions of America’s national myth are too deeply ingrained in the national imagination to be criticized. Politicians emphasize one version or the other, but must give a salutary tip of the hat to both.
Donald Trump will be president because he personifies the materialistic version of the American dream.
According to exit polls, only 34 percent of the electorate thought Trump possessed a presidential temperament. It didn’t matter. Trump sold himself as the incarnation of the American dream, a deal maker who parlayed a $2 million grubstake into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. If he did that for himself, maybe he can make America great again.
The moral and materialistic versions of the American Dream dictate very different responses to the masses huddled in the shadow of the American empire. If any American can succeed through sweat, smarts and determination, failure implies sloth, stupidity and low expectations. And why should hard-working Americans help those who will not help themselves? The nasty side of Trump’s campaign was rooted in this dark logic.
On the flip side, you can’t champion the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” without peering into the dark corners of our collective past: slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, people excluded by white male suffrage and the millions of Native Americans sacrificed to manifest destiny. If you see America as “a city set upon a hill” you won’t want to go there; and if you hang out at Republican political gatherings, or white evangelical worship services, you never have to.
It isn’t enough for liberal Democrats to quote fewer stats while spinning more inspiring yarns; we must tie our national stories to what Fisher called “transcendent value,” the highest good we can imagine. If we don’t, we will deny the “self-conception” of most Americans.
And for most white liberals, that’s a problem.
Hillary Clinton is a devout United Methodist who knows her Bible almost as well as she knows foreign policy.
Donald Trump is a stranger to Bible-land and it shows.
Again, it didn’t matter.
So long as the Donald paid fleeting homage to the Bible while endorsing the myth of Christian America, white evangelicals were satisfied. Not thrilled, but satisfied.
And so long as Clinton reached out to those who have spent generations exiled from the American dream, vast swaths of white America perceived a threat.
Alternatively, every time Trump betrayed his racial insensitivity he was massaging the troubled conscience of white America. And we loved him for it.
Jesus was all about the huddled masses: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
And Jesus was an unrelenting critic of heedless ambition: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
That didn’t matter either.
Evangelicals can give you a verse-by-verse refutation of every word Jesus spoke on the subjects of money, poverty, ambition and success. Correctly interpreted, Jesus and the Donald are one.
American liberals are equally adept at pointing out the great gulf fixed between Jesus and the white evangelical celebration of hard-right politics. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel — the disconnect is that obvious. Liberal Christians point to evangelicals and plead, “Please don’t lump us in with them; we don’t believe what they believe.”
But what do liberal Christians believe? Specifically, what do liberal Christians believe that distinguishes them from secular liberals?
Liberals have traditionally played down the divinity of Jesus, but I am increasingly inclined in the opposite direction.
Jesus opened his heart to the huddled masses because that’s what God does. If Jesus was an unusually gifted Palestine preacher, and nothing more, why should we take his vision of transcendent reality seriously?
The radical compassion of Jesus does not flow inevitably from rational-world skepticism, it flows from the vision of God taught by Jesus.
H.L. Mencken, the granddaddy of American skeptics, was a champion of evolutionary science and a brutal critic of American fundamentalism. Here’s Mencken’s take on “the race problem”:
The negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness.
American liberals didn’t embrace civil rights because the empirical evidence requires it; we support civil rights because the witness of black Christians like Martin Luther King Jr. drove us to repentance. And if we lose King’s vision of transcendent reality, we could lose our ethics in the course of a single generation.
Walter Fisher was right, the American dream only works when anchored to a transcendent vision.
The God of white American conservatism is no longer credible.
White liberals have punted on the transcendent. We have no lamp to lift; no golden door to open.
Given these stark realities, what should Christians do?
Following Jesus means embracing the moral version of the American dream.
Following Jesus means renouncing the materialistic version of the American dream.
We turn our hearts to the huddled masses exiled from the American dream because that’s what God, our transcendent reality, does. And we can’t believe in that kind of a God unless we believe that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God incarnate.
Christians, like all devout Americans, place our religion above and before politics. We honor the principle of E Pluribus Unum by translating our opinions into secular parlance; but it is our religion, our vision of transcendent reality, that drives us into the political arena when we’d rather be watching football or reading a good book.