Righting America

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Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy: An Interview with Rodney Kennedy | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, is the focus of this interview. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

Book cover for Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy by Rodney Kennedy. Image via Cascade Books (2023).

1. Having just written and published The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump, what prompted you to write Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy?=

Stanley Hauerwas, in the preface to Working with Words, says, “The world probably does not need another book by me.” Those words made me ponder whether the world needs another book about Donald Trump. My answer, as this work makes obvious, was yes. My reasons for writing about Trump are many. Trump is still a danger, a menace to democracy. I am convinced that Trump remains an important subject for evaluation because he has created a certain spirit in our political environment, and I believe it is toxic. Most of all, I write because I am a dissident, a dissident in the description offered by Vaclav Havel: “You do not become a ”dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

2. Befitting your Ph.D. in rhetoric and your lifetime as a Baptist minister, in this book you make great use of current rhetorical scholarship as well as Plato, Proverbs, and the Psalms. Could you say a little about your research methodology?

I write more as a preacher than as a scholar because I have been writing sermons for sixty years. I find it impossible to write without incorporating biblical texts. When I read biblical narratives, I read them metaphorically. I am not locked into a reduced literalism. This enlivens my biblical imagination, a technique that I learned first from African American preachers like Gardner Taylor.

For example, the story of Paul preaching to the philosophers in Athens amazes me. On the one hand, there is the astounding boldness of St. Paul to take on the embedded wisdom of a long-standing pagan philosophical tradition. Then there is the analogical reality that we now find ourselves in the same place. We too are attempting to speak to a generation of “philosophers” who mock and deride the Christian faith. I find it fascinating to consider the epistemological possibilities that are presented to Christians preaching in a secular age. Here I combine the study of Charles Taylor, especially his A Secular Age, and the work of philosopher James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular. They raise the question of how we are to witness in a secular age, an age that considers all talk about God as “babbling.” In fact, I just preached a sermon on this very idea:

“The word seems a perfect fit for the old story of the tower of Babel. It’s a story explaining how people came to speak so many languages, but as a metaphor it rings true. We are babblers and the towers we have constructed; towers of grandness, wealth, and power are falling. We have not been the same since 9/11 when the Twin Towers – symbol of our financial wealth, were destroyed by war criminals. Now, we are scared that the economy will tank, and another Great Depression is around the corner. And, out of fear, we babble. That’s what some scared people do – they talk incessantly and with a serious dose of paranoia.

“Charles Taylor claims that our world is a world suspended between the enchantment of transcendence – a default setting of believing in God – and the malaise of immanence, a flat space where there is no God. If we don’t pay attention to the swelling numbers of the exclusive humanists, there is not going to be a church. Immanence is destroying transcendence. If some people in the house of God don’t sacrifice some time, some intellectual sweat, some thoughtful effort to communicate with this Age, this house is going to be destroyed. Some people are going to have to step up and say, ‘There is still God in this house.’ And the God in this house loves gays, transgenders, women, minorities, immigrants, and the whole world of human flesh. It’s that simple. That puts the ball in our court. In the minds, mouths, and lives of believers – which is exactly where it belongs.”

3. I found this statement particularly striking: “To describe Trump as a demagogue, a psycho, or a fascist retreats to a rhetorical safe zone. To assert as I do that Donald Trump is evil, the incarnation of evil, is to say something about the ethos of an actual human being” (87). What do you mean by “rhetorical safe zone,” why have scholars and other observers stayed in that safe zone, and what has caused you to leave the safe zone?

There has always been a sort of unwritten rule in rhetorical studies not to use the criticism of a person’s ethos as a critique of the “person.” In psychology this is called the “Goldwater Rule”: It is unprofessional and unethical to psychoanalyze public figures whom you have not analyzed personally. Rhetorical scholars have exercised a similar caution. In my research I discovered that rhetorical scholars were of one mind in asserting the dangers of Donald Trump. They have found him to be a demagogue, a charlatan, a bully, a deranged populist, a rhetorical pervert, a demolition machine. But then I realized that the rhetorical scholars had not gone as far as necessary. It dawned on me that Trump was the definition of embodied evil. He was too dangerous not to expose. Safety was ignored and I started writing Good and Evil out of a sense of necessity. The book became an example of the biblical concept of parrhesia – the fearless speaking of the truth to the powers, in the process taking personal and professional risks in order to do one’s duty. 

4. Speaking of escaping the rhetorical safe zone, you devote a chapter to comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. And while you repeatedly note that you are not claiming Trump equals Hitler, this is indeed a daring comparison. Why go there, and what do we learn from such a comparison?

I struggled with my conclusions surrounding Trump, but I was convinced that Kenneth Burke, in his brilliant “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” offered a challenge I could not avoid. The words startled me: “Let us try to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America.”

Even more convincing was Burke’s argument that Hitler’s appeals relied upon “a bastardization of fundamentally religious patterns of thought.” My head was spinning from my previous work on the “total identification” of Trump and the Evangelicals.

I was completely convinced that my line of thought was necessary when I read these words from Burke: “Our job is to find all the ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle.” 

For me the die was cast. Trump had to face the judgment that he is a “medicine man” selling a “fake salvation.”

There was, in retrospect, some deliberate rhetorical satire involved on my part. Trump’s favorite rhetorical trope is paralipsis: “I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.” Trump is a master at this rhetorical strategy. Using Trump’s brand of paralipsis: I’m not saying Trump is Hitler. I’m just saying that he talks like Hitler, thinks like Hitler, and uses Hitler’s rhetorical techniques in ways that make Burke’s warning about such a politician gaining power in America became very real.

5. Again and again in the book you make reference to a central question regarding the Trump phenomenon, i.e., how is it that so many Christians, particularly evangelicals, have given themselves over to this evil man? How do you answer this question, and what does this say about the state of Christianity in 21st century America?

My deepest heartbreak is the selling of the evangelical soul to Trump. I detest evangelical teachings on evolution, creation, the rapture, the end of the world, and the origin of America. I detest their anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-history, anti-global warming rants. But I find all of this relatively harmless when compared to accepting the political power offered by Donald Trump.

I am convinced that the evangelicals accepted the gifts of the Devil that Jesus rejected in the temptation narrative. Look at Luke’s words about the temptation of Jesus. “Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” 

Don’t you see? The devil tells Jesus that political power has been given to him and he can give it to anyone he pleases. I believe the Devil has given that power — that Jesus refused — to evangelicals. In return, they are worshiping him while claiming to worship Jesus. How else can people waving Jesus flags take part in the January 6 invasion of our nation’s capital?

In short, evangelicals have not so much given themselves over to Trump as they have surrendered everything to the Evil One. Trump is simply their instrument of gaining power and control over absolutely everything and everyone.

6. You conclude your book with two chapters, “The Rhetorical Good: Vaclev Havel” and “Singing for Democracy” (which focuses a lot on Walt Whitman), that suggest the possibility of a democratic, inclusive, and empathetic rhetoric. Could you elaborate a little on this, and are you hopeful that such a rhetoric could take the place of Trumpian rhetoric?

Thanks for asking this question. The concluding chapters are the heart of my argument. I have a deep respect for the work of Havel – the dissident poet. He is the political embodiment of St. Paul’s “rhetoric of folly.” I have written about this previously with my rhetorical colleague Kenneth Zagacki.

My trust in the gospel of Jesus remains rock solid. In my first book, The Creative Power of Metaphor, I offered a new rhetoric for preachers – inclusive, empathetic, and democratic. It is the heart of my own theology of preaching. In my research on Walt Whitman, I had the pleasure of reading In Walt We Trust by John Marsh. The subtitle of the book puts it exactly right for me: How A Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself. I am adamant that the church has no choice but to dissent vigorously from the anti-gay agenda of evangelicals. My hope is that we will have the boldness to preach the gospel of hospitality, the church as the place that makes a space for God and all the people God created to feel at home.

7. Hard on the heels of Good and Evil will soon appear yet another book: Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit. Could you tell us a little about this book, and how it connects with your previous books? And what is the projected publication date?

Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit is now in the editorial process. I think that the publication date will be December 2023. This book is my life’s work – a preaching book. Here I have attempted to be the generalist I have always been, and I appeal to preachers to read well and read deeply from the novelists, the poets, the philosophers, and the rhetoricians. I am convinced that the ancient line of poet/philosopher/rhetorical preachers — which originated with St. Paul – dominated the church until at least the 18th century. Today, it competes with a populist version of preaching that doesn’t have the same respect for the intellectual traditions of the church. Dancing with Metaphors attempts to give the preacher the necessary cross-disciplinary tools she needs to confront a secular world. 

8. Between books, articles for various outlets (including monthly posts for rightingamerica), and sermons – and I am sure I am leaving something out! – you seem to be writing constantly. How do you explain your incredible productivity? Do you ever have a day off?

I have been practicing the art of writing for more than 60 years. A sermon a week for 60 years equals about 3,000 sermons of 1700 words per sermon. That’s 85,000 words per year or the equivalent of a book a year for 60 years. That’s more than 5 million words.

I am not aware that I am that productive. I find myself feeling rather “slothful” at times. Writing is so hard, and it requires all my attention. My mind has been trained over all these decades to be prepared for any idea or subject that might cross my mind. There are mornings when I awake and there’s an article waiting for me. I sit at the computer and try to type fast enough to keep up with the words tumbling from my mind. I am grateful. Focus and passion and mental toughness, according to David L. Cook, are requirements for what I do. By the time I’m 140 I think I will have come close to perfecting these ideals.

At the moment, I have a number of possible book ideas floating around in my head. I plan to publish some of my previously published essays later this year. I think it is important to produce material from the left wing of the church. I played baseball for about 20 years of my life, and I was a left-handed pitcher. I write left-handed and I write from the progressive left-wing of the church. I love the arguments. People think I’m angry, but I’m not. I am delighted to be engaged in ongoing arguments.

In particular, I am preparing a book that takes on the evangelical attacks on American history/historians and scientists. I believe that progressive pastors need to say more about our fellow truth-seekers – the historians and scientists – and I intend to say it.

I am currently engaged in watching the sermons of the pastors of the 100 largest churches in America. It is a fascinating experience to observe the most successful preachers in the world using preaching techniques that bring into question everything I have thought to be true about preaching. I anticipate publishing the results of this research in two years. The book is tentatively called, On Preaching: Twenty-Five Lessons from the Last Twenty-Five Years. 

As I have reached the age when I am too old to serve as a full-time pastor, I have turned  to writing. I write to know what I think. Writing has become my therapist for feeling useless. I want to be involved in the future of the church because church matters and church has a future. And it may not be dominated by the evangelicals. As a sacramentalist, I think the Episcopalians, the Catholics, and the new United Methodist Church  (disencumbered by the moralistic conservatives who are rushing to join the Global (?) Methodist Church) will have a lot to say about the shape and vitality of the church.

I write furiously. I think that it may be my unconscious desire to think I can ward off the approach of death, but that discussion would require therapy. When I was young I   expressed my desire to die in the pulpit preaching a sermon. I now think no congregation should have to go through that in order for me to satisfy a selfish dream. So I will keep writing and concentrate on how I’m living.

Thank you for this opportunity.