Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.

Conclusion

My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?

 

[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

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24 comments

  1. Man, you write some indepth and good stuff with a lot of footnotes. Do you do any guest posting? I’m looking for reformed bloggers to flesh out a new project of mine when it launches. Like do you have a rate, etc?

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  2. I think you are right on the money Bobby but I hope that Trumpist fascism wont stage a Reichstag coup in due course which will find the dear US of A in a more parlous state than what McCarthyism ever did. In fact we in Australia pray to that end as we too are boggled about the supposed biblically observant ‘evangelicals’ going bellyup waiting for a rekindled plate of broth (meant pejoratively here)- Oh thou foolish Galatians.

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  3. Hi Paul, thanks. I have guest posted in the past at different blogs. What’s the project you’re referring to? I don’t have a rate, what do you think would be fair?

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  4. I don’t really think Trump is intentionally fascist, if anything resembling that I’d say that might only be incidental. But yeah, I remain shocked at the evangelical support of Donald Trump.

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  5. Attempting a theology that informs politics is a treacherous road given that anthropology will always inform fallen humanity. Generally, I am challenged by your theology as revelation. However, I disagree with your recent post in the practical, admitting that God isn’t “practical” and that the Kingdom of God is indeed upside down. Yet, public policy must deal with a practical, sinful world. As individuals, we also live in a practical, sinful world.

    For all those who oppose the President’s temporary immigration policy (over 300,000 individuals were admitted into the US and only about 100 were detained for further vetting), I would guess that a majority of them have an alarm system on their house or at least lock their doors at night. Is that being unchristian? It seems to me a little hypocritical. Even Jesus warned that there are individuals who will trample upon us and suggested that wisdom teaches us not to even cast the pearls of the Kingdom their way. Many times he instructed his disciples to “beware!”

    For me, your post ignores the implications of living in a fallen world and how wisdom (revelation) might inform our Christian witness.

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  6. That’s ironic Bob, because if you understood my post it’s all about the impact of being fallen. What part of my post doesn’t engage directly with the impact of fallenness and how revelation is the only thing that Christians have for discerning right from wrong? It’s as if you completely ignored what I wrote. Not only that the heft of my post goes deeper than simply critiquing Trump on immigration it gets at what I think is informing the evangelical mind in general. It is a critique of natural theology in favor of revealed theology and how that ought to impact the evangelical mind. It almost seems like you didn’t really read my post, or didn’t grasp it or what’s at stake here. Why don’t you engage with what I actually wrote and explain to me how fallenness and revelation are not central or key components to my whole post, then we can talk more seriously about Trump, immigration, and evangelicals.

    By the way, the lock door analogy does not work; it’s a terrible false parallel and thus a non starter. Also, ethically I’m neither a consequentialist nor utilitarian, as you seem to be. That’s what’s most ironic about your comment, because what I wrote requires that we walk by faith trusting God’s Self revelation, which is deontological and divine command theory oriented. This makes your response to me more than ironic then. If anyone here is not taking fallenness seriously it’s you as illustrated by your comment.

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  7. Yes I don’t think Hitler did or Trump here does set out to be fascist with their nationalistic obsessions; but it may be well where Trump ends up. We already see a callous indifference to human plight occasioned by Trump’s edicts and while not this time round anti-Semitic no empathy shown due to overreach in canceling granted visas.
    Analogy a la Barth needs to be applied for good or ill to discern the Lord’s will for us today and not be reduced to a legalistic biblical liberalism ( as per your excellent analysis).

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  8. Sorry Bobby you just lost me. The corporal …. sophisticated? ?? The guy was pathological and a cunning and murdering psycho. I will concede there might be an antithetic parallelism in play between then and now. I will pray for Americans but don’t cope very well with a current pentecostal trust in some obscure prophecy 7 years ago thereabouts that sees Trump as the God appointed messenger for an impending triumphant Millenialism. The mind boggles with the triteness of it all. Faith can be simple and childlike but need not encroach on stupidity by not recognising evil when it shows its face. “Sell a cloak and buy a sword ” (Luke 22).

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  9. Don’t know what you’re talking about at this point, Rein. You said there might be some parallels between Trump and Hitler, and I don’t really agree. Hitler had an intentionality and sophistication about him that Trump comes nowhere close to possessing.

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  10. Rein, you do realize Hitler was quite the genius, and charismatic speaker? You mean you don’t think Satan is brilliant? Being those things and pathological and murderous are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. Not sure I’m following your logic there at all. Hitler had a stated and articulated ideology, Trump doesn’t other than Mammon. They aren’t the same.

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  11. Bobby, in reading your response, it appears more of an “attack” than a dialogue. I’m offended and believe you to be better than that. Often your writings are “high” and takes some digesting, so perhaps a little more grace and understanding are in order here and from what you state, I may have totally misread what your post was attempting to inform.

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  12. Bob, I find it ironic, sometimes. Your whole original comment is very quick and presumptuous. So maybe you could’ve shown some of the same in your original response. I tire of people presuming things, and then “accusing” me of saying something that I didn’t even say. My whole post was about fallenness (i.e. idolatry) and the role of revealed theology. You also seem to be suggesting to me that it is treacherous to try and do theology and politics together with the implication that I failed; and this based upon your presumptuous misreading. So yeah, I was thoroughly offended by your comment. Not only that I totally disagree with your apparent political pragmatism.

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  13. Sorry Bobby my parents went through the Nazi occupation in Holland and I remember the hunger winter there in 1944. Our Jewish friends were murdered, beaten up, disparaged and humiliated. Don’t lecture people on what a sophisticate Satan’s henchman Hitler was; and if the parallels don’t seem clear to you stick to re- reformed theology as you are quite profound on that angle. Read Reza Banakar, Miroslav Volf, or even Giorgio Agamben on the postmodern European psyche which most Americans have little understanding of. Even your great Franklin Roosevelt became only reluctantly involved in WWII. Thank God he did. But I agree with you on the Trump slump. We empathize here on the other side of the Pacific we truly do!

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  14. Rein, I’m saying that Hitler had an ideology and was intentional about it, Trump doesn’t. Don’t comment on my blog or tell me what to say or not ON MY BLOG. If you don’t like what I have to say, or disagree then don’t read here. I’m not open for anyone holding me to any level of accountability or rebuke on my blog; that’s not why I do this. I’ll write about or say whatever I want to say whenever the hell I want to say it. Make one more comment like you just did and you’ll be banned from my blog for good!

    I have no problem receiving material push back relative to points I’ve made in whatever post I’ve written. But when guys like you and Bob come on my blog and basically tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about or that I should write certain things, and this based on not really engaging with what I ACTUALLY wrote, that’s when I say you can hit the road; and I don’t care who you are.

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  15. Rev. Grow
    I just came across your website and have been reading your ‘blogs/articles/opinions’ and responses to same. For the most part , what I’ve read is interesting – though I must say I’m not completely in agreement with. I even entertained following your blogging, however, after your last response to Rein & Bob (above) I was shocked..
    To say it’s YOUR BLOG and you’ll say whatever the H you chose and don’t care “who” you offend speaks volumes of your ‘thin skin’ e.g. know it all attitude.

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  16. Graystone,

    I’m no Rev.

    Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Bob wrote a whole comment critiquing me of something that, ironically, my whole post was about; i.e. critiquing me for my lack of engagement with the role of “fallenness” and “revealed theology?” These the very premises of my whole post. What came across loud and clear is that Bob simply does not agree with my “politics”, which the latter part of his first comment makes loud and clear.

    As far as Rein, he just got done excoriating me for something I didn’t do; i.e. elevate Hitler. He told me I should quit writing about such things, and this based on his inability to comprehend, apparently, the idea that Hitler and Trump are most certainly different animals.

    No, it’s really not thin skin, nor know it all, it’s just that I want people to engage with me fairly. When they critique what I’ve written I want them to actually critique what I’ve written, and not what they think I should’ve written.

    As far as your comment you wouldn’t be welcomed here anyway. Pax.

    PS. One more thing: I didn’t say anything about caring who I offended or not, I said that this is my blog and I’ll write on and whatever I want whenever I want; that’s true (i.e. that’s not the same of intending on being intentionally offensive, that’s not usually in my hands, and I’m not going to worry about that that much). Interestingly, I found Bob’s original comment highly offensive, if that’s how we want to frame this. One more point, I also don’t typically “cuss”, I only do that when I’m genuinely ticked.

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  17. @Bob and Rein,

    I do apologize for the tone of some of my response to you both above, but I really do want to limit engagement to what I’ve actually written.

    Bob, you seemed to launch right into a critique of what I wrote, but the irony, again, is that what you were critiquing wasn’t there; I actually addressed the themes you thought should’ve been addressed throughout the whole of my post. To me what comes across in your comment is that you don’t agree with how I applied fallenness and revealed theology to politics. If you had said that, that would’ve been different.

    Rein, you seem to think that I’m saying Hitler was a relative pussy-cat, and I’m saying just the opposite. I’m saying he was more calculated, intentional, and yes more intellectual present than Trump; I don’t think that’s a stretch to say. And I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ordeal in the holocaust! I’ve read some of the authors you suggest, particularly Volf. I don’t like Volf’s stuff, not at all. In fact he and I have “debated” on Facebook about some things in the past.

    Bob, maybe if you had asked me to clarify up front, before you offered your critique, things could have gone differently. And admittedly, I popped off in response to you in a way I shouldn’t have.

    Rein, please do refrain from telling me what you think I should or shouldn’t write on. I really really don’t like that kind of feedback, it does somewhat set me off (I’ll try to do better with that, in the way I handle that in the future — I’ve been under some stress and personal conflict lately).

    Pax Christi

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  18. At this point I can’t offer much substantial. I’m more looking to fill my Rolodex in a new market for me (I blog 4×4 trucks). Anyways, I’m looking to get a multi-author hub going with semi-academic level Christian post, maybe get some “teams” for different sides going.

    Mostly gauging interest at this point, I’m a social media guy and blogs are a tad out of style but useful.

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  19. Paul,

    Alright. I agree, blogs at this point are out of style. I started blogging back in 2005, and I’ve seen major shifts away from blogs and blogging. But I still do it for some reason 🙂 . I’m pretty busy nowadays, but let me know what direction you take in the days to come, and maybe I could be available, I don’t know.

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  20. Hi Bobby
    Thanks for the rebuke about my presumption. You are quite right I needn’t have gone that far. However on the whole I agree with much of your take on Barth and the relevance often still for foundational Christian theology. I also commended you on your blog (s) and my regard for your theological acumen.
    I just got riled with your term.of Hitler as a “sophisticate” and his nationalist “ideology”. That doesn’t sit easy with me.
    I will continue to read your blog but won’t contribute comments of any kind in future. If you want to remove me from your forum feel free. I had hoped that discussion wouldn’t boil over into acrimony. Bit flummoxed really. After all is said and done we serve the same Lord and Saviour.

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  21. Rein,

    Yes, I apologize for how I handled this with you and Bob. I understand why you got riled about Hitler, it is almost like giving him an honorific when I say he was sophisticated. Maybe I should’ve said, no more sophisticated than the devil himself. The Devil is indeed sophisticated, brilliant, and an angel of light. This is the sense I meant Hitler was sophisticated.

    Feel free to continue to comment. But yeah, most people don’t comment nowadays anyway. Blogs aren’t what they used to be when I started.

    pax.

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