Righting America

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The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump: 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. 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. 

Most important here, his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is forthcoming in the next few days from Wipf and Stock (Cascades). The Immaculate Mistake is a book very much worth reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Rod was willing to be interviewed about his book.

Book Cover of The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump, courtesy of Cascade Books.
  1. In my preface to your book – a preface I was honored to write – I noted that “the Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy is the quintessential example of a Protestant preacher who cannot be shoehorned into either the conservative or the liberal ‘party.’ Instead, Kennedy is (to quote from his introduction) the ex-fundamentalist ‘misfit who believes Jesus, who he was and is, what he taught and preached.’” Could you elaborate on this point, in the process explaining how you became the Jesus-believing ex-fundamentalist misfit?

My original impulse was my dissatisfaction with “biblical inerrancy,” which seemed to be more about the Bible than Jesus. The longer I actually read and dealt with biblical texts, the more I realized that our faith has no foundation other than Jesus. This put me in a distinct minority in my Southern Baptist tribe. Louisiana Baptist College, of all places, provided me with the intellectual framework to escape the strictures of my fundamentalism. My religious studies professors opened my mind to new possibilities. As laughable as it may sound, I changed sides forever when I realized that Cain found a wife, given that I had always been taught there was Adam and Eve and two sons and no other humans. This started me on a pilgrimage that led me to the far left bank of liberalism. After a few less than helpful years, I didn’t exactly move back to the middle. Instead, I reclaimed some of the icons of my youthful Christian experience. By that I mean that I reclaimed the Bible as the primary text for my faith, but not the Bible as read by fundamentalists. I was disenchanted by a liberal faith that basically dismissed the Bible as too patriarchal, classist, xenophobic, and bloodthirsty. Accepting that the Bible reflected all those cultural factors, I still knew the Bible was the book for me. The critical study of the Bible gave me the tools I needed to investigate this history of abuse and take the Bible seriously. This made me a “misfit” among liberals, and thus I was now suspect in both tribes. I applied Flannery O’Connor’s term, “misfit,” to my ministry without pressing her analogy too far. Later I also, after reading Cornel West, saw myself as an “outcast.” An outcast is someone not considered to be part of the normal world. I embrace this stance in my preaching and in my writing. 

  1. One of the fascinating things about your book is that you argue that “evangelicals have been misunderstood, mischaracterized, and maligned as a bunch of dummies, a multitude of misguided Christians easily conned.” Why do you make this point, and why does it matter?

I make this point because all Christians are “evangelicals” in the biblical sense and the historical sense, but not in the contemporary political sense. The media didn’t seem to have the theological/historical perception necessary to explain evangelicals, and this bothered me a great deal. In 2016 nothing came as a greater shock than the wholesale commitment by evangelicals to Donald Trump. At the same time, I found myself, as an evangelical (ABC USA). disgruntled by the media coverage of evangelicals. The template of evangelicals, forged in the steel-trap mind of M. L. Mencken, remained the go-to description now. Mencken had written, his tongue dipped in vitriol, that the South (a synonym for evangelical) consisted of a “cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake charmers, phony real estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.” A liberal media piled on the stereotypes, and added that evangelicals were mostly poor, uneducated, angry white working-class folk. 

As a Southerner and an evangelical, I found myself insulted as the indictment of my kinfolk unfolded in the media. The condescension was almost unbearable. The sneering, mocking, insulting barbs were made more painful by the undisguised glee that pundits displayed in attacking evangelicals. The result bordered on a sense of ressentiment – a group of like-minded persons (the media) enjoying one another enjoying being cruel to evangelicals. “We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them,” the conservative social scientist Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, told The New Yorker, “The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan.” Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain minced no words in his gumbo of contempt: “red-state, gun-country, working-class Americans as ridiculous and morons and rubes.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind Garth Brooks was wailing, “I got friends in low places.” I confess being injured by these attacks. In this moment of pathos, I decided to challenge the conclusions of the liberal media. The Immaculate Mistake’s originating idea was born in the heat of this hot-blooded moment. Not to mistake me as an evangelical defender, I attempt to make the case that evangelicals have been in the business of bringing to life, of giving birth, to Donald Trump for more than a century of resentment, mistrust, and anger. My defense of the stereotypes gives way to my own assessment of what I believe is the evangelical sellout.

  1. What do you mean by the title of your book, and on what basis do you claim that “evangelicals are the organ grinders” and “Trump is the monkey”?

    I believe that the appearance of Donald Trump was the culmination of almost a century of fundamentalist/evangelical attempts to be in charge, to force the rest of the nation into their template of faith. In my view, the moment the evangelicals walked out of the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, they returned to the woods and hammered out an alternate universe. They nurtured a deep resentment that I trace from the Scopes Trial to the election of Donald Trump. My thought was that evangelicals were the grandparents and parents of Donald Trump. I investigated numerous evangelical leaders and finally selected three representatives of this version of faith: Billy Sunday, J. Frank Norris, and Jerry Falwell. In my mind, the conservative evangelicals had been looking for a “strong man” to enable them to exact revenge for the loss they perceived happened to them in evolution. In fact, I believe that every anti-science stance the evangelicals take, including the refusal to wear a mask, is rooted in the originating anti-evolution stance. Ken Ham and Robert Jeffress frequently assail evolution as the root cause of every evil that has come down the pike in our culture. Evangelical dissatisfaction with President Jimmy Carter (they sold him out for Ronald Reagan), with Bush I and Bush II, with the conservative appointees to the Supreme Court who refused to do evangelical bidding, led them to seek a candidate who was, in the words of Robert Jeffress, “the meanest s. o. b.” in the country. What comes out here is the evangelical lust for winning at any costs and with any ally. They betray their own faith by using the weapons of the devil for what they deem good ends. In other words, faced with the temptation like those faced by Jesus in the wilderness, they accepted the devil’s deal. The devil didn’t just come down to Georgia; the devil came to the entire South and the entire evangelical nation formed by southern religion and offered them control and they said “yes, yes, yes!”  

My title is thus a bit of satire or sarcasm aimed at the self-righteousness of evangelicals who believe they possess a holiness that all other religious groups lack. The word “immaculate” seemed a perfect fit for a bunch of “inerrantists.” The idea that Trump was their baby led me to the trope that evangelicals were the organ grinder and Trump was their monkey. The liberal media was wrong, in my view, to think that the evangelicals were duped, deceived, and made fools of by Trump. Instead, the two were a perfect match of perfidy – each using the other for dubious means. Trump and the evangelicals engage in what rhetorical scholars dubbed “ressentiment” and “jouissance.” Trump and the evangelicals nurture and cultivate resentment and deep anger. Trump took out this resentment on the media, the liberals, and all other groups despised by evangelicals. At a Trump rally, you can witness the speaker and his audience enjoying Trump’s cruelty and doing it together – “jouissance.” 

  1. Given your knowledge and love of the Bible, I know it infuriates you that evangelicals have mangled the Bible in their defense of Trump. Could you give a couple of examples?

When Pentecostal journalist/preacher/evangelist Lance Wallnau suggested that Trump was the new Cyrus, I knew that the attempt to make Trump “God’s anointed” would be a full-blown campaign. Wallnau said that when he realized that Trump would be the 45th president of the United States, he was led by the Holy Spirit to read Isaiah 45. I have no idea why he didn’t read Psalm 45, Jeremiah 45, or Ezekiel 45. He read Isaiah 45 because it fit his notion that Trump, like Cyrus, was God’s anointed. No one seemed to notice that Trump was nothing like Cyrus. All that mattered was the sound bite: “Trump Is God’s Anointed.” From here, the full-orbed defense of Trump bellowed forth from the pulpit of First Baptist Church Dallas and the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress. Every mistake, every slip, every awful word, and every dreadful deed of Trump was defended and glossed over by Jeffress. In defending Trump’s payoff to a porn star, Jeffress even invented an 11th commandment “Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star,” and said that even if Trump had violated that commandment, what evangelicals supported were his wonderful policies. At the same time, evangelical preachers unleashed a veritable army of biblical tropes for Trump. Trump was lauded as King David. This shows a shallow reading of the story of David because David repented of his sexual abuse of “the wife of Uriah,” while Trump swore he didn’t need to repent. Trump was heralded as Samson and again the reading is shallow. Samson was deceived by a beautiful woman and then pulled down the temple of the Philistines on all of his enemies. This may, in light of January 6, be exactly the Trump trope that we should utilize.

  1. In your conclusion you suggest possible rhetorics that could be used against white evangelicals and their “secular preacher,” Donald Trump. Could you say a little about this? 

An important rhetorical strategy is “naming” the negative and destructive tropes of Trump. As a debater I am aware that an argument stands in the course of a debate until it is refuted. The false assertions and outright lies of Trump need to be refuted over and over again. A second strategy is to align Trump supporters with his racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Trump supporters are endorsing and celebrating a legacy of white supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny that we thought had passed from the scene. In the face of evangelical denials of these behaviors, the pedagogy of shame from civic virtue and progressive thought has to continue with full-orbed zeal. We must recognize the danger that Trump branding, braggadocio, and demolition rhetoric creates for democracy. This means that the most positive strategy is the rhetoric of real democracy. When Trump scapegoats, we name and shame. We offer fierce resistance to his hateful, hurtful rhetoric. By showing our nation the vitality and energy of real democracy, by engaging in empathy and compassion, we not only contrast with Trump’s rhetoric of hatred, we offer a viable alternative. Frank and honest speech is an important part of our democracy. By realizing this, perhaps more rhetors will be willing to engage in American democracy as truth tellers.

  1. Could you talk about your next book project?

When I finished The Immaculate Mistake, I realized that I had not gone far enough in my critique of evangelicals. What was even more pressing was a move beyond insisting – as rhetorical scholars had done — that Trump was a perverted populist, a demagogue, a serial liar, and a danger to democracy. In my newest project, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, I develop the argument that Trump is the personification of evil: Theologically, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically. He is the essence of what Sheldon Wolin labels, “inverted totalitarianism.” Trump is the Evil One incarnate. 

Thanks Rod for this interview, and for your new book!