Reformation and Affirmation of Being (Part 1)


I’ve seen a lot of articles in the past week trying to explain why people voted for Trump. Specifically, why the white working class overwhelmingly voted for Trump. And although I don’t feel like I have the expertise to engage these analyses, I wanted to share my thoughts a week after waking up to a president-elect Trump.

As someone who comes from a white, working class family, I can understand the drive behind these articles. Having family members who voted for Trump, I too would like to figure out why – without resorting to personal attacks or scapegoating. And to this end, I sympathize with those many articles trying to explain how Trump won.

However, I cannot leave it there, for a number of reasons. First, any attempt to understand or explain last week’s results is at best speculation. If there is one thing I’ve taken away having spent the past month reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, it is that the story of how we got to where we are is much more complicated and nuanced than we are willing to admit. To be able to give an account of how Trump won requires a lot more explanation than most people are able to give or receive. This leads to the second reason: all of these so-called explanations of the election usually end up either demonizing a whole group of people, or letting everyone off the hook. Because of the complicated nature of the situation it isn’t possible to blame solely one group over another.

Which leads to the third reason I cannot settle for the account these articles give: while there isn’t one group on which we can squarely place the blame, that doesn’t mean that the actions taken (on either side) are justified or justifiable. No matter how well I think I understand why the white working class (including some of my family) voted for Trump, it will never justify their doing so. This puts me in a bit of a predicament. On the one hand I do want to understand why people similar to my family voted for Trump, because on some level I believe that understanding them will help them to feel heard, validated, and help me to actually hear and validate them. On the other hand, no amount of understanding will change the fact that I not only disagree with their decision, but believe it is morally reprehensible.

This predicament is familiar, I’m sure, to many people in my situation. While there are those who refuse to acknowledge the humanity of people who voted for Trump (and I can sympathize with that impulse) ultimately I think that will only exacerbate the problem. But for those of us who are willing to try to look at the situation as honestly as we can, that is, without compromising our sense of morality in regards to those who voted for Trump and our disdain for that decision, this predicament does not have an easy solution. Nor do I want to offer one. But I would like to offer some of my thoughts. Hopefully this will help, though in what way I am still unsure.

This will be in two parts. Part one is an attempt to name one part of the problem I feel has been overlooked, and part two will be an attempt to find a model for responding to this problem.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor weaves multiple narratives together to try and explain how we got to our current cultural situation, namely, how it came to pass that not only is it possible to not believe in God (whereas 500 years ago it was almost impossible not to) but unbelief has become a viable option, indeed, one which is considered to be the default for most of the West.

Essential to this story is the Reformation in particular, and the drive to reform in general. Even before the Reformation the drive to reform the laity, ordinary folk, was well underway.

Religious Reform… was inhabited by a demand, felt with increasing power during the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, that not just an elite, but as far as possible all the faithful live up to the demands of the Gospel.

This drive to reform has had resounding effects throughout the West, and still continues to shape our world today. One important aspect of this reform was the collapsing of hierarchies. In the pre-modern period, the world, creation, was imagined hierarchically, so that everything and everyone had their proper place in the order because that is how God had ordered it. So the monks and priests had a special call to a life of religious devotion because of their special place within the order of creation. It was their “job” because that is how God ordered things. Likewise, the laity were not responsible for adhering to the same set of expectations as the monks because that was not their place.

But, as I mentioned, one lasting effect of this drive to reform was the collapsing or flattening of this created order.

…there was an in principle denial of any hierarchy of vocations. Everyone was called on to live their faith to the full. And this meant that the lives and practices of ordinary people couldn’t just be left as they were.

This was not a smooth process.

Why were these elite hell-bent on reforming the ordinary people? As Taylor says, “lots of elite in history have had a sense of the superiority of their way of life, and have been content to build it on the control and/or exploitation of lower orders whom they never dream of seeing as potential participants in this way of life.” So what made this time different? It is a complex story, but let me draw out three reasons.

First, there was fear on the part of the elite that the “disordered” or “uncivilized” way of life of the masses would threaten their way of life. Interestingly, some of the measures taken in the sixteenth century are still being used today: poor laws, strictly restricting or outright outlawing begging or homelessness.

Second, reform of the masses becomes essential to the creation and continuation of state power, “…not just to maintain order, and prevent riots, but to participate in the ever-higher stakes of the balance of military power in Europe.”

Lastly, related to the first and second, is that if people were seen to be exhibiting especially uncivilized conduct it would make it harder for the state to establish and maintain order among the others. In other words, the religious drive to reform and the discipline required for state order were merged. Both served the goals of the other.

“Attempts to discipline a population, and reduce it to order, almost always had a religious component, requiring people to hear sermons, or learn catechism, for example; and how could it be otherwise in a civilization where good conduct was inseparable from religion? At the same time, religious reforms had a public order component; and this seemed inescapable, since the fruits of religious conversion were supposed to included an ordered life, and this involved conforming to a certain social order as well.”

Clearly, the struggle between the (educated, religious, etc.) elite and the ordinary people has deep roots.

One consequence of this collapse of the old, hierarchical cosmic order, which doesn’t reveal itself immediately but manifests slowly over time, is that we lose our connection to the transcendent, and subsequently to any affirmation of being. Whereas previously we, by nature of being part of the created order, had a place in the world and had no need to have our very existence affirmed. Our existence was affirmed by the very fact that we existed.

Now, however, this is not the case. And this is, I think, one of the missing components in any discussion surrounding the election, the ongoing culture wars, or the continued and increasing polarization between groups in this country.

Voting for Trump in some way was a response to feeling validated or affirmed, to feeling heard and seen. This type of affirmation or validation is only needed when we lose our connection to something higher, something transcendent. Further, the feeling that ordinary folks are, “…badgered, bullied, pushed, preached at, drilled, and organized to abandon their lax and disordered folkways and conform to one or another feature of civil behaviour,” only exacerbates this problem.

However, this sense of needing to be affirmed, or validated, does not justify voting for Trump. Nor does it justify the response many ordinary folks have had to calls for reform from the “elite.” That is, voting for Trump and continuing to defend him, his positions, his policies, is unacceptable. Especially in light of the violence occurring as a result. Merely understanding or even validating the other side is not enough. It cannot end there.

As a Christian, I cannot take the side of the oppressor, even if they cannot see that they are the oppressor. I have heard this a lot in the past week: “not all Trump supporters are racist.” However, while I don’t think all people who voted for Trump are racist, I do think that a lot, if not all, of the people who voted for Trump participate in racist beliefs and practices without even realizing it.

I cannot support voting for Trump, no matter the reasons. I am not going to mince words: I don’t care if someone, as a white working class American, voted for Trump because they felt that their voice was not valued in our society, precisely because I am, as a Christian, called to side with the poor and the oppressed, not the seemingly poor and oppressed.

However, this still doesn’t help with the predicament I mentioned at the beginning: what do I do knowing that the people I care about, who voted for a racist, sexist, xenophobic president, did so because they, on some level, felt like they have been devalued as people? Let me be clear – I value my family and loved ones, even if they voted for Trump. But it cannot stop there. Despite how the drive to reform has only strengthened the division between the elite and the ordinary, I do believe that change needs to happen – for both sides.

The question is, how?

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