The 2016 election is history, and several things are clearer to us now than they were before. It turns out that vast swaths of Americans are comfortable voting for a presidential candidate who has said vile and hate-filled things about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, women, and the disabled. They are willing to stake their future on an ideologically fuzzy candidate deemed dangerous by an overwhelming number of widely respected liberal and conservative commentators, major newspaper editorial boards, former U.S. presidents, foreign policy experts, and more. A majority of college-educated, affluent whites apparently have no problem voting for such a person if they see him as better for the economy and their own place in it, or for the religious freedom of their own group in an ostensibly hostile world. Strikingly, 53 percent of white women are willing to vote for a man who is a serial groper by admission and allegation. White Christian voters overwhelmingly supported the least religious presidential candidate in recent history.
Few non-white Americans have expressed much surprise at these results. Many believe from their own experience and from daily news cycles that their own lives seem to matter less in this nation than white lives; they knew they were living in a society still steeped in desires for white supremacy. This point was made even clearer with the presidential-elect’s selection of Steve Bannon for a White House post: Bannon and his Breitbart website traffic in anti-Semitism and white nationalism. And large numbers of religious voters knew that’s what they were voting for when they cast a vote for Donald Trump. Many have sincerely professed that their reasons for voting this way do not stem from racism or other isms, and that may well be true. But it’s a moot point, really, since those isms are now heading into the White House. Now any man or woman, especially if claiming to be Christian, must reckon deeply with how the Christian faith is today being used and abused as a weapon of hate, fraud, and destruction. And all of us have to reckon with the distortion of our political ideals.
Scholars who study the history of religion and its role in U.S. politics need to speak out and say: This is not normal, and it is most certainly not okay. We who have spent years educating ourselves, our students, and our readers about the long and complex history of American religion—the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there’s plenty of each—ought to speak about the lessons learned over time: the awfulness of attacks on religious and ethnic minorities and the people of principle and integrity, including the religious, who have worked to improve conditions for the wider population. Teaching these stories is not an idle luxury; it’s essential to building the future of our pluralistic democracy. This goes for scholars in other fields too: Those who have devoted long hours to understanding the contentious creation of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s arc of legal and judicial decisions concerning religion, race, and citizenship must impart the lessons of that history. Our country’s ideals have always faced challenges and have been imperfectly embodied in every era, but commitment to these ideals—freedom and equality, life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness and justice for all—demands that we communicate them judiciously, insist upon them as our heritage, and live up to them ourselves.
Let’s be clear: Based on our own nation’s stated ideals, it is not acceptable to tolerate religious prejudice, racism, misogyny, or other identity-based loathing. Nor is it acceptable to lambaste one’s fellow citizens who protest against such hate. Critics should stop blasting those who gather publicly to proclaim that “Love Trumps Hate” as sore losers, whiners, or special snowflakes who need to grow up, shake it off, and come together without complaint for the sake of a fictitiously unified nation. This isn’t the election of a Mitt Romney or a John McCain. And it is not acceptable to allow greed and brazen misappropriations of the religion of Jesus to lull those of us who are white into a complacent retreat back to our own safe personal lives, when so much seems to threaten the well-being of our broader, multi-ethnic citizenry. Calling for a higher embodiment of both religious and political ideals is not merely appropriate right now; it is an urgent task for the common good.
Scholars need spaces, physical and online spaces alike, to discuss and debate what to do about the potential threats facing the country and how to educate the students who are emerging into adulthood, students whom we cherish and often grow to admire. We need to find our voices, develop the words that will console, strengthen, empower, and inspire. We need venues in which we remind each other of our values and bear each other up with practical solutions when those values appear to be under fire. In these times, a friend in Maine wrote to me this week, “I hope, really hope, that people open their homes, hearts, purses, and do whatever is necessary.” We need spaces to figure all of that out.
The John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics is such a space. It stands as a nonpartisan center where diverse views across the political and religious spectrum are engaged and where we—our faculty and fellows, each of us committed to teaching, scholarship, and broad public engagement—attempt to provide venues for students, scholars, and citizens to understand views that may differ from their own. For days, I have been thinking a lot about the potential of this Center and the work we can do in the wake of an imminent Trump presidency, indebted as we are to the modern university’s commitment to academic freedom that enables the free and open exchange of ideas. It is vital that we use the means at our disposal—courses, classrooms, lecture halls, small and large group discussions, published articles and books, this very Religion & Politics journal, and on and on—to support students, academics, religious leaders, journalists, and the broader public. Now more than ever, the Center’s resources and the skills of our scholars need to meet the pressing needs of our time.
Our commitment to diverse views does not mean we are boundlessly accepting of every loose-cannon idea or ideology. You might expect the liberals among us to be knee-jerk in their politics—you’re entitled to think so, though I disagree—but the conservatives among us have also been clear in condemning many of the platforms Trump articulated as a candidate: One of our most dedicated National Advisory Board members, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, called Trump “sickeningly cruel, boorish, bonkers, subversive, conspiratorial, obsessive, authoritarian, and reckless with the reputation of American democracy.” The day after the election, he described Trump’s victory as “a disaster for the country,” and he most recently said, “If he governs as he campaigned, Trump will smash the unity of our country into a thousand shards of bitterness.”
Other conservative Center board members agree. David Brooks of The New York Times excoriated Trump’s “bigotry, dishonesty, and promise-breaking” and called the election’s result “horrific.” The Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor in Florida, is a founder of “Public Faith,” a Christian group offering a vision very different from that of the evangelicals who supported Trump in the election. None of these men loved the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but they weren’t making false equivalencies between the two candidates. Those in the alt-right may not see much difference between these conservatives and the more liberal among us at the Center, but I promise you the political differences are real (as are our opinions of Clinton); that we are united in our aversion to xenophobia, sexual assault, racism, and dishonesty could not be clearer, and that’s a stance we cannot compromise.
It will be years before we can understand the magnitude of what just happened in the 2016 election. In the meantime, we will not normalize the hate that has received an epically consequential public platform. Roll up your sleeves, friends; there is work for all of us to do.