In a nation as steeped in civil religion as ours, inevitably the top administration has an operative if not explicit court theology, perhaps even a specific court theologian.
Many analysts of the Obama administration noted, for example, that Obama was in many ways his own theologian, and deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr in particular. Although Obama departed from Niebuhrian Christian realism in practice at times, there is deep continuity between Obama’s overall approach to governance and Niebuhr’s thought. Obama was also accused of being influenced by the firebrand Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. This seems less likely, even if some of Obama’s rhetoric is colored with Wrightian prophetic eloquence.
Christian realism acknowledges that the extent of human injustice on this earth requires compromise. Casting a vision for the kingdom of God is too idealistic in the face of reality… so Christian realism reigns it in towards more pragmatic and realistic considerations. Niebuhr still maintained a strong social justice focus, but tempered it in comparison to, say, the Social Gospel movement. Many presidents in the United States, not to mention prominent politicians, have been influenced by Niebuhr, including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Hilary Clinton.
Interestingly, Christian realism as a religious perspective has had greater influence among prominent Christian politicians than among theologians and churches themselves. The Social Gospel movement, by contrast, has had a much greater influence on ecumenism, Civil Rights, and so on. Also interestingly, although Niebuhr did in fact highlight many important social justice concerns, one he overlooked, along with all the Anglo-theologians of his era, were the clear racial implications of the dominant theology. James Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that for all his perspicuity, Niebuhr never noticed a connection between the cross of Christ and the horrible lynchings happening in the United States throughout his career.
Such Christian realism was the court theology of the previous administration, but rumbling around in the wider culture, and gathering influence all across our nation, was another theological vision, exemplified by such prominent Christians now in seats of power like Betsy DeVos, and most influentially, Steve Bannon.
So what is this theology, and how does it differ from Christian realism? On the one hand, we can’t really say there is just one theology of the Trump administration. For example, Betsy DeVos has been waging a holy war for quite some time, but it’s a holy war by “believers,” that is, super-rich evangelicals who believe it is their destiny to transform the culture through their wealth and influence, and with “a single, unified message merging social conservatism, free-market capitalism and American exceptionalism: the belief that the rights and freedoms spelled out in the U.S. Constitution were mandated by God.”
The result of this messaging is a merger of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism so dramatic as to be incommensurable if compared to any form of truly biblical Christianity. It is an exclusive form of Christianity convinced it is right when it is neither Christian nor right.
However, although this is an ambitious religiously motivated strategy to transform culture via a direct attack on the so-called “secular” institutions of our democracy, it is not yet the core theological vision of the Trump administration. This is more of an ambitious “reformation.” To get to the heart of the theological vision of the Trump administration, you need to look at Steve Bannon.
Bannon is a Roman Catholic, but of the ultra-conservative and creepy variety. The man behind Trump’s throne (at least at the beginning) regularly cites a novel about an invasion of Europe by feces eating deviants as the basis for his worldview. In the summer of 2014, he gave a presentation at the Vatican that lays out his apocolyptic theological vision.
Essentially, Bannon’s apocalypticism sees Western civilization under threat, and himself (together with his alt-right media behemoth Breitbart) and Donald Trump, and all the other white supremacists he can muster, as those trying to save such civilization (which they imagine is homogenous and white and healthy because of it) from the invasion of the “other” (by which they mean black and brown bodies).
This is to say, in spite of the evidence (notice, he served in the highest seat of power, together with a ton of other Christians who believe things similar to him), Steve Bannon and his tribe believe they are discriminated against and under threat from the hoards of immigrants just hoping to cross over the border and immediately vote illegally in the next president election (never mind that it looks like it was Steve Bannon himself who committed voter fraud).
It might not be too far off to simply say that Steve Bannon’s theology is Madmax: Fury Road, but without any of the feminism.
In Bannon’s speech at the Vatican, he claims that the 21st century is in crisis… he calls it “a crisis of our church, a crisis faith, a crisis of the West, and a crisis of capitalism.” In this, he is a close ally of DeVos, who also believes capitalism and Christianity are twins.
But the more dangerous aspect of Bannon’s theology, and why it’s worth knowing, is it’s blood. Like all fascists, Bannon is particular fascinated by the blood. Here I mean blood in a few senses: first, blood as race or ethnicity. He thinks there is some pure blood of Western civilization, a genetic code, that is under threat by the invasion of other blood types. But also he imagines, perhaps even hopes for, a blood bath. He’s scared that ISIS will create “rivers of blood” in the United States. He anticipates a clash of cultures between the West and Islam.
It’s hard to tell the extent to which Steve Bannon holds to the neo-pagan “religion of the blood” which was the hallmark of the Third Reich. But given his close ties to the alt-right (which is safe space for white supremacy), it’s worth noting the theology of this religion. Hitler and the Third Reich “saw blood, particularly in a religious sense, as the determining factor. In other words, a church had to be a church of the blood, rather than a church of faith or a church of belief. The blood tied together the Nordic races. So for Rosenberg, the blood, racial stock, racial identity, became the keynotes of this new ideology” (Mark Weitzman).
Clearly, Bannon’s tying together of Western civilization with his specific form of Christianity (especially as an anti-dote to supposed liberal secularization) has these racial overtones. That the Trump administration led with the executive order of a travel ban and shut-down of refugee resettlement gives further credence to what most of us theologians are observing: Bannon was Trump’s court theologian (replaced now by Trump’s “herald” Sarah Huckabee Sanders), and his theology is an apocalyptic theology of blood and capitalism posing as Roman Catholic safeguarding of a “Christian” empire.
Finally, we should keep in mind that although Bannon believes himself to be a Roman Catholic, and Betsy DeVos believes herself to be a Christian, and Trump recently has been claiming to be a Presbyterian, the actual agenda of fascism has typically been not nearly as friendly to authentic Christian faith as it first appears.
The agenda typically goes: take over the churches from within, maybe convincing the majority Christians that they are a persecuted minority. Use the manipulations of party sympathizers. Later, discredit, jail or kill Christian leaders. Finally, re-indoctrinate the lay people and give them a new faith. In Germany, this was faith in the Third Reich. In the United States, it’s faith in America the Great.
Race is omnipresent in this theological history. Although white theologians in particular seem to overlook it (remember Niebuhr’s blindness), race is always a crucial factor in the drift of Christianity from it’s core values. It’s no wonder that a central aspect of the New Testament is its reflection on the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles in the new Christian community being formed in the first century.
The apocalyptic is then a close second, with fear-mongering the typical tool to manipulate a path into or through the apocalypse (build the wall!) rather than making space for the real apocalypse to reveal itself… that is, visions of the peace-able kingdom of God.
As a pastor and theologian, I’m committed to remaining as clear-eyed as possible in this moment, hoping against hope that our democracy will be more resilient than it appears, not prone to populism, undaunted by the power maneuverings of the super-wealthy, willing to confront its own racism and misogyny in order to live freely in the authentic revelation of fully humanity in God.
Perhaps, strangely, what we are seeing in spite of all the protests and sputtering, is the end of white America as we know it… it’s violent, contorted, last gasping breaths. The vision on the other side of this trap, the trap of assuming Christianity is tied to blood, and specifically, white European blood, is of many people’s gathered around the throne and the lamb, a lamb who says, when reminded of his “blood” brothers and sisters, “Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of the one who sent me are my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 12:48-49).
We have far more brothers and sisters than we will ever know, and the real apocalypse, the real “seeing,” is the opening of our eyes to encounter them for who they really are–God’s coming kingdom and greatest gift.