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Just how ‘religious’ are Trump’s evangelicals?

Protesters against Trump's proposed Mexican wall and deportations (Credit: Erik McGregor)

Protesters against Trump's proposed Mexican wall and deportations (Credit: Erik McGregor)

March 1, 2018   5 mins

Notwithstanding all their many differences, the reason Trump and Brexit get lumped together as part of the same phenomenon is that they are both commonly understood to be local expressions of a much larger debate between nationalism and universalism. I say ‘debate’ deliberately, because the reason liberals and progressives find Trump and Brexit so hard to process intellectually is that they presume this was a debate that was over, done and dusted. And they think that universalism won, and won decisively. But they are quite wrong.

Back in December 2016, in one of those excellent Intelligence Squared debates, the brilliant social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tried to explain to a clearly baffled Nick Clegg why universalism contains the seeds of its own demise.


The globalist ethos is to tear down the borders, explains Haidt. His explanation of the globalist ethic continues thus:

“…nation-states are arbitrary, why should the government privilege the people who were born here rather than people elsewhere who are much poorer? You begin to get a denial of patriotism – the claim .. of anti-Trump protesters saying that “patriotism is racism”.

It is the John Lennon position: “Imagine there’s no countries. Its easy if you try. Nothing to kill and die for. And no religion too.”

The difference between globalists and nationalists is that globalists care for all people, and for people in general. And the nationalists care for particular people in a particular place, for ‘our’ people, as it were. The globalists think the nationalists are small minded and parochial. Racist even.

The nationalists think that there is no such thing as caring for others in the abstract. They think that to care for people in general – as the universalists say they do – is not really to care very much for anyone at all. It is more a philosophical principle than it is flesh and blood compassion. More the conclusion of a school debate, than a genuine love for neighbour.

Nationalists think that to care for people in general – as the universalists say they do – is not really to care very much for anyone at all
Likewise, universal human rights are all very well, but they are no substitute for the overlapping patterns of civility and care that characterise home and church and community. Safe in his New York penthouse, John Lennon can sing all he likes about tearing down the borders. But out in the flyover states, morality is not a worthy feature of an enlightened imagination – it is how people survive and look after each other. And that requires the preservation of some rich common ‘we’ as opposed to the pale but universal ‘I’ of human rights.

You can tell where my sympathies lie, by the way I have described it. The positions outlined above have become so over-rehearsed that it is difficult to gain any sort of fresh perspective on the debate between them. It feels more like ideological trench warfare than a genuine exchange of views. Which is why there can often be value in approaching this sort of debate from an altogether unexpected angle.

Which brings me to a book that I should have read years ago. And one that, now I have, I just cannot stop thinking about: the great Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1994). This reason this book pertains to the matter in hand is that it was St Paul who broke the connection between Jesus following and the Jewish religion – following the law, circumcision, worshipping in the Temple – so as to universalise Jesus following into what became the global phenomenon of Christianity.

Famously, Paul insists: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.1” In other words, particularities – including national particularities – are obliterated in the uniting and universal enterprise of the Christian religion. Arguably, St Paul was the first great ideologue of globalisation.

The trouble with Trump-supporting evangelicals is not that they are too religious, but that they are not religious enough
Of course, Paul is very careful not to say that nationalism is racism – as Jews, Jewish Jesus-followers are expected to uphold the law. But for gentiles, Jesus-following leads beyond the ethnic particularities of being Jewish. God’s promise does not have an ethnic limit. Which is why my own church in South London is probably the most racially diverse meeting place in the area. And within it, people from all over the world have the rather touching habit of calling each other ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’, even though they are not biologically related. In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, as it were.

Here, then, is the biggest trouble for Trump-supporting Christians. “Build that wall” is not compatible with Paul’s vision of the universal family of God. Mexican Christians on the other side of the wall are as much a part of their Christian family as their immediate neighbours. And the shameful fact is that, in the evangelical churches of the south especially, Sunday mornings are often highly segregated racially. In other words, the trouble with Trump supporting evangelicals is not that they are too religious, but that they are not religious enough – that is, they fail to appreciate the universal fellowship of Christ’s religion into which they have been called.

Eight prototype border wall sections in San Diego’s Otay Mesa. How ‘Christian’ is it to support Trump’s Mexican wall? (Credit Image: © John Gibbins/TNS via ZUMA Wire)

But there is a twist to all of this, especially from the perspective of Boyarin’s Paul. For Boyarin is a Jew. And as a Jew he is understandably and quite properly keen to defend the ethnic particularity from which Paul (another Jew, of course) seeks release. His argument is brilliant:

“The genius of Christianity is its concern for all the peoples of the world; the genius of Judaism is its ability to leave other people alone.”

The best thing about Christianity, Boyarin observes, is precisely the same as the worst thing about Christianity: that is, its universalism. For the shadow side of a “concern for all the peoples of the world” is the missionary zeal with which Christianity wants the world to think the same way that it does. “If particularism plus power tends towards fascism,” he said, “then universalism plus power produces imperialism and cultural annihilation.”

Universalism, thus potentially manifests its own variant of racism, seeking wholesale assimilation to “universal standards and values”, denying others their difference, denying the specificity and rootedness of the human experience. And this, even (or maybe, especially) when pursuing a so-called ethical foreign policy. The current debate about banning circumcision in the name of the universal rights of the child being a classic case in point.

Likewise, for Boyarin, the worst thing that can be claimed about a religion rooted in ethnicity is that it is separatist and indifferent to others. But that is also is its most attractive feature too. For there are no Jewish missionaries and Jews aren’t obsessed with travelling to earth’s furthest corners to make others think like them. Jews don’t seek empires.

Perhaps, then, this much can be concluded. Neither position, universalism or nationalism2, provides a guarantee of moral superiority. And neither position is protection against bigotry. What is scary, however, is that this mostly comes as news to both sides.

Listen to our audio documentary, Believers in Trump, to discover more about the President’s Evangelical supporters. 

  1. Galatians 3:28
  2. Walter Russel Read, ‘The flaws in both Universalism and Nationalism‘, Mosaic,  20 September 2016

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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