Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Donovan Schaefer

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

Ideology Becomes an Addiction

by Donovan Schaefer

There’s a sense in which nothing has changed for the scholar of religion in the age of Trump. Trump is a symptom of an urgent set of underlying problems that have been our core concerns for at least two decades: the permanent entanglement of religion with politics, nation, sex, and race.

The wave of Islamophobic hatred that surged through Trump’s campaign wasn’t created by Trump. He electrified a swamp that was already there. He didn’t lay down the wires.

Trump didn’t cause white evangelical Christians to flock to conservative politics as a vehicle for shielding white supremacy and repelling white shame. Far from it. If anything, they made him.

The mouldy alliance between right-wing crooked capitalism and white evangelical Christians continues to bear fruit, with 81% of white evangelical voters swinging for Trump. They were happy to back a greedy, thrice-married philanderer as long as he was their greedy, thrice-married, philanderer. Leaders of the new religious right like Franklin Graham even composed a new mythology around Trump, fictionalizing him as a new “imperfect vessel” being used to do the Lord’s work, like King David.

Trump is an effect of what William Connolly in 1999 called the evangelical-capitalist “resonance machine.” (Connolly’s only oversight: failing to name the resonance machine’s deeply racial logic—it’s a resonance machine under a white sheet.) Trump didn’t politicize religion. Religion has always been political. Even the most ardent renunciation of politics by people wrapping themselves in religion is a move made against a political backdrop, created and accelerated by political concerns.

And this is not news for scholars of religion. Since at least the 1970s, the religious studies academy has been on course to steadily improve our understanding of how power, history, materiality, and economics flow through religion, giving it its substance.

In his 1978 book Map Is Not Territory, Jonathan Z. Smith, pushing back on the “History of Religions” school’s paradoxically ahistorical method, wrote that religion “is a distinctive mode of human creativity, a creativity which both discovers limits and creates limits for humane existence…. What we study when we study religion is the variety of attempts to map, construct and inhabit such positions of power through the use of myths, rituals and experiences of transformation.” (291)

In his 1996 essay “Theses on Method” (an allusion to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” which also sought to relocate religious concerns in the domain of the material), Bruce Lincoln wrote “[t]o practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.” (225)

Religious studies has been charting how religion is located on a continuum with other formations of power for almost half a century. Trump offers no shocking new data, changes nothing in the core method of the field. Religion (like secularism) is still an expression of values, identities, and material interests tailored to individual bodies and groups embedded within historical moments. Same as it ever was.

What also hasn’t changed is the landscape of communication. But our awareness of it has. The crisis of religious studies is the crisis of the academic world generally. From the historians and Jewish studies scholars who traced the parallels between Trump’s campaign and the rise of fascism to the cross-disciplinary coalition of earth scientists who have been sounding the alarm about increasing unpredictability caused by global climate change, academics have been effectively outflanked and walled off by a right-wing media carnival that tells people what they want to hear rather than the truth. Using a classic con artist trick, the conservative shriek factory has made it standard to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of “bias” or of promoting “fake news.”

(As if an accusation of bias were a sufficient criterion for dismissing something. Everyone is biased inasmuch as everyone has a perspective with a distinct set of limitations and priorities. You have to show how the bias corrupted the evidence on offer if you want to repudiate it.)

What the academic world didn’t see coming was the way that not just politics, but the landscape of information itself, has been converted into a WWE match. Truth wasn’t so much pushed to the side as it was pumped full of hormones until it became a deranged hallucination of itself.

Ideology in conventional academic understandings has been understood as an illusion—a spell woven by circumstance to keep people in the dark. What this perspective misses is the way ideology becomes an addiction. When fake news becomes your favorite show, you fight—hard—to keep the channel going. And when the media enfolds you from all directions, wrapping you up in crisscrossing livestreams of fantasy, the channels become reality itself. People like voting for people from their favorite shows.

Academic communication isn’t set up to deal with this kind of thing. The history of formalized research, especially in the sciences, was built on the template of gentlemanly conversation. Admitting that you made a mistake was seen as noble; deference to the truth rather than to your personal interests was the better part of valor. This became the groundplan for academic communication that we’re still using.

Research doesn’t pretend to be flashy. It isn’t cooking up a plan to rush out of the wings holding a folding metal chair. But the problem is precisely that our appetite for knowledge has been reconfigured. The academic conversation about how to communicate patience, complexity, and consensus on this transformed landscape has already started. Everything should be on the table. Standing aside and moralizing is a recipe for getting body-slammed.

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