Righting America

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Two Peas in a Pod: The Insecurities and Shame of Donald Trump and White Evangelicals | 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. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – will come out next year from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Picture of book cover of Trump's "Art of the Deal."
The Art of the Deal book cover.

Evangelicals have always fancied themselves as representing the scientific mindset. In the 19th century, captured by the “Common Sense” Scottish school of philosophy and the inductive scientific method of Francis Bacon, they insisted they were the true scientists – a conviction that they have never quite been able to surrender.

When in the early twentieth century evangelicals chose evolution as their primary enemy, they created a fracture in their relationship with science. The 1925 Scopes Trial – which brought evangelicals an avalanche of media ridicule – created a loss from which they have never recovered. In response to their national humiliation they retreated into an alternate universe, They created their own schools, their own organizations, their own visions of truth. They clung to an inerrant, literal Bible, and continued what they considered the true scientific approach to Scripture. But they were not able to escape the sense of shame created by the “fall” of their White Warrior – William Jennings Bryan. Even then, it was really about affect – rage, anger, disgust, insecurity, shame.

For almost one hundred years, the evangelicals have attempted to return to the mainstream – they have longed for acceptance, for credibility, for membership in the culture of accepted knowledge and wisdom. Like biblical children lost in a desolate wilderness, they have gone in circles attempting to enter the Promised Land of an establishment that they curse in one breath and idolize in the next. They have envied science and the elite academic institutions of higher learning, but they have felt denied, discarded, dismissed. In response, they embarked on prodigious attempts to convince the world that they, too, were real intellectuals and real scientists. But in spite of these efforts, as late as 1995, Mark Noll pronounced the same verdict on evangelicals that had prevailed since 1925: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). 

See, for example, the efforts to create a “science” to confirm a literal six-day creation of the universe, best exemplified by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG). A protégé of Henry Morris, Ham engages in the attempt to teach the Bible as literal truth, including when it speaks on science. But his “young Earth creationism” finds absolutely no support in the scientific community (Stephens & Giberson, The Anointed). In spite of all the investment, all the “research,” all the efforts, no evidence of “scientific creationism” has been produced – a point that is blindingly obvious at the Creation Museum (Trollinger and Trollinger, Righting America). 

Against mountains of evidence from geology, physics, biology, astronomy, and other sciences, Ham and his creationist band keep insisting that they are real scientists (Miller, Only a Theory). He has a Creation “Theme Park” Museum to help make his case. He employs a handful of “scientists” to make his case. He has debated the “science guy,” Bill Nye. And in conservative evangelical primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges, “creation science” is taught. In fact, at Cedarville University (a.k.a., AiG University) a student can major in creation science.

The theological/scientific dilemma turns Ham into a pretzel stick, with his tortured attempts to be the antievolution guy and the science guy at the same time, with his repeated cries for mainstream scientists and intellectuals to “Look, look at us here at AiG: we are scientists too!” 

But the scientific community rejects this claim, for the simple reason that, as science, “there’s just no there there.” The legal community rejects the claim as well. There have been at least ten major court cases attempting to get legal approval to declare intelligent design (the stalking horse for creation science) a real science and include its teachings in public school biology textbooks. The Cobb County (GA) Board of Education affixed a sticker to the inside of public school science textbooks: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Sounding more like a warning label on a package of cigarettes or a canister of poison, this three-sentence disclaimer was found by the court to be a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

In the scientific and legal communities, evangelicals are in the wilderness, still longing for the Promised Land of intellectual respectability, still trying so hard to be accepted. But in the arena of public opinion, evangelicals are having more success, with almost half of the population of the USA believing that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form only.” 

Popular support, however, is not the goal of evangelicals. They are weary of being a populist movement. They want to be part of the Ivy League. They want their theories taught in the public schools. They want to have the credentials of leading scientists like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins. 

And the current political environment forces creationists into an even more twisted pretzel-like exercise. By supporting President Trump’s anti-science rants, evangelicals are abandoning all their efforts to be seen and accepted as scientific. They are back where they started in denying evolution. Once again, science is the devil. Once again, evangelicals face the dismal prospects of being dismissed, mocked, and sent back to the woods for denying actual science. Being against an institution that you want to belong to is more than a rhetorical bind. 

Any attempt at understanding the Trump/evangelical mind requires attention to the dynamics of affect and shame. There is a coupling of Trump and evangelicals at precisely this emotional intersection. Rhetorical scholar Donovan Schaefer argues that the success of Trump’s rhetoric emerges in part through his mastery of a circuit of shame and dignity, in which supporters who feel ashamed find, in his verbal and visual style, a repudiation of that shame and so mobilize behind him (Schaefer, “Whiteness and civilization: shame, race, and the rhetoric of Donald Trump,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies). 

Evangelicals, feeling shame at the intellectual disdain in which they have for so long labored, are like Trump, and the resulting insecurity affects everything they say and do. As Lauren Berlant has proposed, “[t]he Trump Emotion Machine is delivering feeling ok, acting free.” (Berlant, “Trump, or Political Emotions,” New Inquiry).  Trump gives evangelicals the validation they are seeking, but he does it by embracing the anti-science movement, and this is not helpful to evangelical desires to be perceived as scientific. Trump was supposed to deliver evangelicals to the seat of power and glory. He was their strong man; he has turned out to be Goliath or Samson instead of David or Solomon. Evangelicals are back where they started – in the wilderness of shame and loss. They can’t abandon Trump even as he calls Dr. Fauci “an idiot.” 

Why does this matter? It matters because the evangelical experience was replicated in the early life of Donald Trump. Trump, in The Art of the Deal, shines a light on his personal insecurity, his need for acceptance. He writes (or his ghostwriter writes), “I believed, perhaps to an irrational degree, that Manhattan was always going to be the best place to live – the center of the world,” Trump wrote. He was desperate to expand his father’s huge but exclusively outer-borough real estate business into the hub of the city: “I gotta go into Manhattan. I gotta build those big buildings. I gotta do it, Dad. I’ve gotta do it,” Trump recalled telling his father, Fred Trump. 

Nothing was as important to Trump as being accepted by the New York elite – high society. He made numerous attempts to become a member of Le Club, a prestigious gathering place for socialites, actors, and sports stars. He wanted to make it in the city that never sleeps. But that has not happened, at least not in Manhattan. 

Communication scholar Joshua Gunn has worked out a theory of how Trump’s rhetoric marshals affect, but along a different axis—he emphasizes what he calls Trump’s political perversion. Gunn starts from psychoanalysis, and particularly Jacques Lacan’s typology of psychoticneurotic, and perverse psychic formations—all of which are present in all of us in varying degrees. Gunn suggests that Trump’s perversion—his contagious obsession with flouting conventions and transgressing taboos—is the motor that drives his rhetorical success (Gunn, “On Political Perversion,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly ). Trump wants the very establishment he joined as president to feel his pain. 

In other words, it is all about affect. Affect theory scholars have documented the emotional power of the Trump movement. It is one he totally shares with the evangelicals.

Religion and politics, when submerged in a spoiled sea of emotions (shame, resentment, revenge), are always affectively organized. Evangelicals identify with Trump’s anger and outrage, his insecurity and desire, and so they have fallen for him, hook, line, and sinker. They are “two peas in a pod”: desperate to be accepted, desperate to be allowed membership in the exclusive club, and yet rejected. Perhaps it is hard to imagine that an entire presidential election comes down to feelings, a triumph of pathos over logos, to put it in traditional Aristotelian terms, but it’s all about feelings (here feelings and affect are used interchangeably). 

So we have evangelicals, wanting to be part of the scientific establishment, and yet at the same time belittling science. So we have Trump, wanting to be part of the political establishment, and yet at the same time attacking, denigrating, and demolishing the anchor institutions of democracy. 

Evangelicals and Trump remind me of two gay characters in an old Saturday Night skit, peering at the audience with deep longing in their eyes and opining, “We just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?”