Righting America

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Thank God This is Lent: Evangelicals and the Irony of Parrhesia | Righting America

By Rodney Kennedy  

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Donald Trump in front of a densely packed crowd of supporters who are smiling and taking his picture with their phones, with an ecstatic young mother in the front holding up her baby as Trump touches the baby's face.
Donald Trump greets supporters at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21, 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Among evangelicals of a certain type, there is no doctrine (and it has become doctrine) that has more importance than “freedom.” In the process, they seem to have been cut loose from truth itself.

That is to say, evangelicals seek the freedom of not being lectured, shamed, and told what to do by a collection of experts. “Who are you to tell me to wear a mask?” “Who do you think you are to tell me that QAnon is a conspiracy theory?” “How dare you and a bunch of elitist experts interfere in my right to pollute this planet?”

Perhaps the reason evangelicals are not put off by Trump’s lies is that they like how it feels to watch him get away with it, in the process proving that he is stronger and more powerful than the “fake” media, the Democrats, the liberals, the scientists, the academic elitists. As philosopher Rupert Read says, “There is an active despising of truth – the practices of truth-seeking and truth-telling. In other words, the evangelical sense of parrhesia has been badly disfigured” (“What Is New in Our Time: the Truth in ‘Post-Truth” A Response to Finlayson,” Nordic Wittgenstein Review, 2019). 

The ancient Greeks had a word for free speech – “parrhesia” (Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, 12). The word was used of people of virtue who spoke the truth. Trump’s followers claim they are being denied parrhesia; Trump claims to be a faithful producer of parrhesia. Both assertions are false and fake.

The supporters of Donald Trump claim they are being denied free speech and their voice has been silenced by political correctness and cancel culture. This claim rings false in the cacophony of their noisy protest from pulpits, conservative talk shows, news conferences, and magazines. What they actually fear is that they are losing the right to oppose the power of the liberal elites. This is 100% pure white pathos. The evangelical mind has devolved into an emotional black hole  – “feeling free and feeling good” (Lauren Berlant, “Trump, or Political Emotions,” The New Inquiry, August 5, 2016).

Evangelical feelings of persecution, exclusion, and exile has increased their sense of alienation, of being trapped and surrounded by a horde of vicious enemies, a feeling of being besieged by an invasion of illegal immigrants, Muslims, and other foreigners, a feeling of being ignored, and plain sick and tired of being pushed out, left out, and degraded as the butt of every elitist joke in the nation. Being a Trump supporter has to be exhausting because all of media culture and academic culture and progressive Christian culture rejects everything Trump says. All that emotion: “Emotions felt, emotions expressed, emotions denied” (Roderick P. Hart, Trump and Us: What He Says and Why People Listen, 17).

Hart says that Trump supporters feel ignored, trapped, besieged, and tired. In my estimation, this comes from their sense of exile. No wonder evangelicals looked to Second Isaiah and King Cyrus as a metaphor for “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump, who would lead them home again. The evangelical lament shares much with the Jewish exiles: “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-2).

Parrhesia first enters human vocabulary with Euripides. In his “The Phoenician Women,” he displays the pain of parrhesia denied in exile. The heart of the tragedy is a fight between Oedipus’ two sons: Eteocles and Polyneices. When Eteocles refuses to allow Polyneices to reign according to their agreement of alternating years of rule, Polyneices lives in exile. I contend that this is the exile felt by evangelicals. They believe they have been ejected from the corridors of power in government, in academia, and in the public. A deeply aggrieved sense of persecution dominates their feelings.

When Polyneices returns from exile with any army, Jocasta, the mother of the two sons, persuades the two to seek a truce. She asks Polyneices why exile is so hard. 

Jocasta: What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?  

Polyneices: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist. 

Jocasta: That’s a slave’s life – to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.

Polyneices: One has to endure the idiocy of those who rule.

Jocasta: To join fools in their foolishness – that makes one sick.

An evangelical bundle of nerves wraps around this bit of dialogue from Euripides: exile, loss of freedom of speech, and the conviction that the nation is being operated by heathens who are stupid idiots and fools. Count them by hundreds the times Trump has called people losers, stupid, idiots, sick, mentally ill. He’s playing the evangelical tune of exile. 

Any number of Trump twitter attacks on Democratic leaders may be inserted here, but attempting to avoid overkill, Trump’s favorite attack on Nancy Pelosi is that she is a very sick woman with mental problems. Whether by instinct or luck, Trump sensed the evangelical angst and promised to give them once again the jouissance of parrhesia. Evangelicals flocked to his vicious, violent rhetoric, his relentless attacks on “political correctness,” on the pedagogies of shame employed by liberals against evangelicals. Trump rallies took on the aura of worship where Trump and his devoted enjoyed one another participating in cruelty. Trump took away their shame and replaced it with a sense of pride. 

Herein lies the key coherence between Trump and the evangelicals. He promised them liberation from exile, he promised them redemption without repentance. They could be restored as the guardians of the nation’s moral standards and retain their emotionally satisfying themes of resentment, nativism, nationalism, triumphalism. And militarism and its mannerisms of outrageous statements, intolerance, harsh judgments, conspiracy mindedness, and overt display of religious, patriarchal patriotism. The evangelical economic angst, racism, religious bigotry, antifeminism, and hostility toward science could continue unabated, and in some cases, the oppressive rules of the liberals rolled back (among the favorite targets here – abortion, gay rights, immigrants, Muslims, religious liberty).

In other words, Trump knew his target audience. He gave them the facile promise of “Make America Great Again” as he merged his grievances with theirs to offer them redemption without repentance. From the pulpit evangelicals could keep roaring about how much their relationship with Jesus meant – and I am not disputing that their faith means a great deal to them – while living their lives as racists, homophobes, and the entire assortment of cultural maladies that afflict them. Better yet, they don’t have to offer any contrition or reparation. This is what I mean when I say that Donald Trump is the Rev. Dr. Donald Trump who preaches a gospel of redemption with no required repentance. In Trump’s gospel, the rich young ruler is a stand-in for American evangelicals to whom Trump says, “Keep your riches and your ways and come and follow me.” No repentance!

Trump’s preaching sounds as if it just exploded out of a Flannery O’Connor story as a preacher resembling Hazel Motes. Motes, one of O’Connor’s more tortured souls, was a preacher who proclaimed, “I preach a church without Jesus Christ crucified.” And when the fake blind man told Motes, “You still have a chance to save yourself if you repent,” Haze responded, “That’s what I’ve already done. Without the repenting.” Rev. Dr. Donald Trump has given evangelicals a redemption without repentance, and an atonement with the shedding of the blood of others – especially persons of color and immigrants and Muslims.

Trump leads his followers to a state of shamelessness, which is the opposite of true parrhesia. “We live in an increasingly saturated shame panopticon. This has led some of the former masters [evangelicals] to a state of shame-exhaustion, in which it becomes easier to repudiate shame altogether than respond to the moral demands placed on them” (Donovan O. Schaefer, “Whiteness and civilization: shame, race, and the rhetoric of Donald Trump,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2020). Throwing off the yoke of shame, they are free to be the exact opposite of parrhesia. As Foucault points out, “in parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy” (Foucault, 19 – 20).       

Trump’s blatant misuse of parrhesia turned the truth-telling trope into the elevation of lies. Trump trumpeted his alleged “free, fearless truth” to his followers, at rally after rally, even after he became president and the evangelicals had come in out of the cold. No one cared that the rhetoric was empty, tasteless, and over-cooked leftovers from previous populist uprisings. Evangelicals, like putting ketchup on a well-done steak, swallowed the “both-sides” logic of moral equivalency particular to Trump’s expressed worldview (Hart, 2).

On December 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Georgia, Trump, like a homeless person dragging a dried-out, browned Christmas tree with a few ornaments still clinging to its broken branches and insisting that it was still Christmas, started his speech with these words: 

Let me begin by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Remember the word. Remember. We started five years ago, and I said you’re going to be saying Christmas again. And we say it proudly again, although there’ll be trying to take that word again out of the vocabulary. We’re not going to let them do that.”

Here Trump’s famous reputation for telling it like it is, of being the faithful truth-teller crashes head-first into truth. The obvious truth is that “Merry Christmas” has never, at any time, been taken out of the national lexicon, or removed from the dictionary. No law has been passed to stop people from saying, “Merry Christmas.” This chimera of an argument, developed in evangelical circles, was one of the pathetic weapons of the so-called “War on Christmas.”

After the 2020 election, Trump tweeted that his supporters “will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” In his January 6, 2021 speech, Trump said, “these people are not going to take it any longer. They’re not going to take it any longer.” In the same speech he repeated: “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about.” We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen. Not going to let it happen.”   

A gospel of redemption without repentance and a parrhesia that is packed with lies are a dangerous combination, a rhetorical Molotov cocktail thrown at the citadel of democracy, truth, facts, and reality. The fake parrhesia and the fake cry of parrhesia denied merged to produce the Trump Super-Storm. The spell cannot be broken until the “Legion” is sitting there fully clothed and once again, in his “right mind” – aka metanoia. 

Only repentance can save us now. Thank God this is Lent.