Moral Opposition to Trump's Fundamentalism: Strategies from the Christian Left

Catherine M Wallace

The Religious Right paved the way for Donald Trump: for generations now they have draped false piety around a complex of transparent lies, reactionary political ambition, and radical authoritarianism. Trump is, in fact, best understood as a secular fundamentalist. His overwhelming support among white evangelicals and white Catholics demonstrates just how little connection remains between what Jesus taught and what the Religious Right represents.

Recognizing Trump's roots in the Religious Right offers culturally powerful strategies for confronting him: reclaim the language of morality and moral obligation, a language that the Democratic Party has foolishly ceded over the last seventy years. Here's what it might look like to offer moral opposition to Donald Trump.

1. We must defend evidence-based reasoning as a moral obligation. Critical thinking about documented facts is not "liberal bias" just as it's not "heresy." Evidence-based rational argument is the great intellectual heritage of the West. From the depths of classical antiquity, intelligent debate has provided our major alternative to bloodshed.

Christian fundamentalism threatens this heritage by threatening the damnation of those who refuse to surrender critical thinking and moral judgment. By insisting upon an array of irrational claims derived from biblical literalism and misreadings of church history, the Religious Right has taught generations of the least educated believers to distrust classic Western standards of objective inquiry and rational evaluation of evidence. That's why climate-change denial is a uniquely American problem: only in hard-Right radical media is "expert" a term of contempt.      

Trump's persistent mendacity builds upon this Religious-Right tradition of flagrantly denying objective evidence. In confronting him, we must explicitly, calmly, and repeatedly insist that honest, evidence-based reasoning is a moral obligation. We must do so before we get into the weeds of fact-checking. The conclusion will then be self-evident, but in particularly serious situations it may be worth restating the obvious: Trump and his cronies are failing to meet a rudimentary moral obligation. He is morally wrong. Democratic officials in particular need to practice saying that—saying it with quietly self-possessed moral seriousness.

2. We must deny any claim to absolute authority and unquestionable ideology. Christian fundamentalism demands abject obedience to unquestionable authority, whether that's an infallible pope or an inerrant Bible that must be read literally. For generations now the GOP has similarly insisted upon fealty to irrational and demonstrably false doctrines like the claim that tax cuts for billionaires will provide good jobs at a living wage to the working class or the well-being of the nation will be served by locking millions of people out of the healthcare system. Far more dangerously, they have demanded allegiance to a radical ideology seeking to destroy all federal government functions except for the military and the criminal-justice system. Such nonsense arises from the same indefensible absolutism as the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Both absolute authority and unquestionable ideology are dangerous illusions. They are the foundations of tyranny and totalitarianism. We need to say that. We need to say—repeatedly—that American democracy is conceptually rooted in objective evidence and the open, honest, rational evaluation of objective evidence. If we sever these roots, we will cease to be a democracy. Genuine American patriotism demands reality-based policies, not lunatic-fringe ideology.

3. We must defend our moral obligation to tell the truth. Personal integrity is essential. It is the non-negotiable requirement for leadership. It is the bedrock of democracy just as it is the bedrock of Christian religious faith.

This bedrock has been eroded both by the libertarian Right and by the elite-intellectual Left, especially in its academic forms. The intellectual Left is corrosively cynical. Everyone lies, they say; only fools and hypocrites claim otherwise. We are all "rational actors," they say; we seek our own self-interest, period. Morality is merely a "cultural construct" to be rejected out of hand; they dismiss believers as pious ninnies.

The libertarian Right similarly erodes personal integrity, but they do so to much darker ends. Their lies are intentional and strategic. They seek to manipulate the political process to serve the interests of reactionary billionaire-class kleptocrats and crony capitalists who resist any regulations limiting their exploitation of workers, consumers, and the environment.

The new "indivisible" progressive movement following Trump's election seems poised to reclaim both hard facts and the hard truth that personal integrity is a non-negotiable requirement for democracy. That's a remarkable—perhaps revolutionary—shift in American culture. It is perhaps a post-postmodernism based on hard political realities: if "truth" is whatever anyone wants to claim is "true," then we are inviting a pathological liar to seize political power.

4. We must remain sanely focused on these essential moral principles despite persistent lies, irrationality, grandiosity, and aggression. The Christian Left has been demonized by the Religious Right for generations, and so we offer this caution: irrational calumny and blithe indifference to reality can be profoundly disorienting. We must somehow keep our heads from exploding when faced with yet another outrageous lie. That's hard. It's hard because stunned outrage triggers a surge of adrenaline, and such surges are known to be addictive. We can all too easily become addicted to our own outrage.

That addiction is depressing. And it's exhausting. More dangerously yet, it's apt to provoke us into our own hostile rants. We can react like Pixar dogs spotting a squirrel or seagulls chasing a fish.

But rants are a mistake. We must not give way to such temptation Rants betray the principles we are trying to defend. They are immature self-indulgence.

Rants also alienate people who might otherwise listen to us. Rants will never convince reasonable Trump supporters that progressives offer an honorable and honest alternative to the GOP agenda of tax cuts for the rich rather than government committed to serving the common good. The new progressives have got to be consistent, honest, non-hysterical grownups in the room, openly advocating for the common-good policies that Trump merely pretended to support: living-wage jobs, affordable healthcare, infrastructure maintenance, and so forth. Above all, in our commitment to truth and truth-telling, the new progressives must advocate policies based on hard facts, rigorous logic, political pragmatism, wide consultation, and honest compromise among competing priorities.

The Christian Left knows what's next if Trump is not confronted repeatedly, because we have been through this before: democracy will be undermined just as Christianity has been undermined. The Religious Right has nearly destroyed the cultural and symbolic capital of Christian tradition. Now democratic traditions and institutions are equally at risk.

As I argue in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus, the question at hand, the incessant and inescapable question in human experience, is whether we are capable of rising from the dark despair and suffering that is the human condition. Can we sustain both compassion and community in the face of lies, abuse, and violence? The truth will make us free, we are told. But that's not a passive process. To be freed by the truth, we must stand up for the truth. We must stand up for the truth with quiet wit and discerning persistence, returning no man evil for evil.

Whether that succeed or whether it fail, it is the path of honor and integrity—a path that many honest Americans are desperately seeking.