One of the smarter critiques of today’s American liberalism is that it’s actually mainline Protestantism shorn of its explicitly Christian content. Former First Things editor Jody Bottum makes this critique in his book An Anxious Age but others have made similar arguments elsewhere.
Typically the point of making this observation is to highlight points of overlap between mainline Protestantism and today’s liberalism. But in light of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment from late last week, it seems worthwhile to note where precisely today’s liberalism is deeply at odds with Christianity and how this discontinuity with liberal Christianity figures to be far more important than liberalism’s many continuities with that dying branch of American Christianity.
In one sense, the controversy about Clinton’s remarks can, to borrow a phrase from our British friends, seem like a tempest in a teapot. Politicians speaking in harsh, ungracious terms about their opponent’s base isn’t new. In 2008 Barack Obama made his infamous “guns and religion” remarks at a campaign event. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s equally infamous 47% comment was caught on film when the candidate was speaking at a private fund-raising event. And let’s not even bother trying to list the reprehensible things that Donald Trump has said about various members of the Democratic base. By the standards of the past eight years, Clinton’s remarks are unexceptional. By the standard of her opponent, they might even be civil.
What’s more, it’s not that hard to argue that her description of Trump’s base is, well, defensible. Indeed, it’s odd that she has caught so much flack from the media for saying more or less the same thing so many of them have been saying for over a year now in their coverage of the Trump campaign. What is different about Clinton’s remarks is not the fact that she has insulted her opponent’s base. That’s quite common these days. Nor is it the fact that she said Trump’s base is racist. That’s… well… kinda obvious. (To be sure, it’s worth noting that Clinton’s definition of “homophobic” and quite probably “xenophobic” deserve close criticism along the lines of what Dreher has been doing on his blog. But that is not my chief concern here.) What’s notable is that she described these people as “irredeemable.” And here we return to the discontinuity between contemporary liberalism and older forms of mainline Protestantism.
Christianity, of course, teaches us that no living person is beyond the reach of divine grace. The Gospels tell us the story of the thief on the cross who met God in his dying moments. He is far from being Scripture’s only example of an unlikely convert. In the Old Testament a murderer leads God’s people out of Egypt. A pagan prostitute saves God’s people at Jericho. An adulterous murderer is the greatest king Israel would ever have. In the New Testament, a murderous Jewish religious leader named Saul would become St Paul, missionary to the Gentiles. From beginning to end, Christianity is the story of unlikely conversions and improbable resurrections. It is one of the most common themes in Scripture: No person is hopeless.
This concept translated into the political sphere has led many of our leaders to aspire toward unifying our nation. Presidents Roosevelt and Reagan both enjoyed remarkable trans-partisan popularity at their peaks and many others, President Clinton and Bush among them, showed a real talent for forming large, diverse coalitions.
Even President Obama, who has had plenty of rude things to say about the GOP base at times, has often spoken of the necessity of a pluralistic public square. One can almost picture Obama, in his more charitable moments, saying, with Aaron Sorkin’s fictional President Bartlett, that “I’m the President of the United States of America, not the president of the people who agree with me.” A large part of Obama’s commitment to pluralism comes from a belief that both persuasion and personal transformation are possible.
Though the disdain that exists between the two parties has been evident for some time, prior to the 2016 election there was a belief on both sides that their base could be expanded to include those who typically vote for the opposite party. Neither party saw a significant chunk of the opposition’s support as being evil; indeed they believe that they might even be won over to the cause with the right messaging and strategy. In the 90s, President Clinton brought fiscal conservatives over via his work on welfare reform. In the early 2000s President Bush drew religious conservatives, libertarians, and foreign policy hawks together to form the coalition that would elect him twice.
More recently, the GOP went through seemingly a half dozen strategies for Latino outreach before deciding that it was better (!!) to nominate a guy who called them rapists. The Democrats made many efforts to reach out to working-class white voters, their traditional base, before deciding this year to nominate a candidate who would call them “deplorable” and “irredeemable.” (You might hear the sound of nails being driven into a coffin as you hear both Clinton and Trump speak about opposition voters.)
What the fact of both Clinton and Trump’s nomination suggests to us is that both parties have given up on persuading their opposites. Sure, Trump has made some typically incoherent remarks about expanding the base of the GOP. Clinton, meanwhile, has co-opted many traditional GOP talking points as the status quo candidate defending the integrity and already-realized greatness of America.
But Trump’s comments will never be more than that, as most every poll makes plain, and Clinton’s pivoting has more to do with the transformation of her party’s base into the new mainstream of American politics and culture. In other words, both candidates can give the appearance of being unifiers, but only if one carefully ignores essential facts about their campaigns and their primary voting bases.
Thus we come to a crossroads in the American republic: The founders envisioned a United nation. Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and many others knew from the start that our nation must be unified if we are to survive and if our republic is not to fail and fall into a functional monarchy, anarchy, or oligarchy. (Little did they know that in the days of our failing we would manage to combine elements of all three corrupted systems into a single remarkably dysfunctional political order.)
We obviously have ceased to be united in the way that the founders thought would be necessary if our experiment in self-government is to endure. We are, thus, entering uncharted waters. Even as we are living it, 2016 has had something of an epochal feel to it, a sense that 25 years from now we will look back and remember it as a pivotal year in world history.
If we do remember this year in the future, it is likely because it is the year that Americans learned to see their political opposites as “irredeemable,” as the year that our republic began (continued?) to fail, collapsing under the weight of a myriad of incompatible belief systems fighting and clawing at one another.