I’m pleased to publish this guest post from new Mere O contributor Brian Mesimer.
I was recently at a church conference where one of the plenary addresses focused on the role of the Christian in the public square. The speaker, a Christian philosophy professor, said all the right things a Christian professor should say in that kind of lecture. And yet nothing he said made me feel remotely comfortable about the place of evangelicals in the public sphere. I suppose that part of that feeling came from my concern about the coming collapse of evangelical politics after Trump’s inevitable loss. My therapist’s imagination, however, wouldn’t let me stop there. I couldn’t help but think that our strategic planning for 2020 or our concern over whether or not the Benedict Option is viable is a bit premature.
As I sat in that plenary session, I began to wonder if maybe what we need to do as an evangelical voting bloc before anything else is to grieve the loss of what we once had before Trump: considerable power, influence, and integrity. Grieving, a journey all too common in life, is defined as the act of detaching from a lost object, whether big or small. One can hardly talk about grief these days without mentioning Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Although seemingly disconnected from politics, these stages appear to provide a useful taxonomy of evangelical voters in their encounter with Trumpismo. Presented for your consideration are the five stages of evangelical grief.
We all know what this looks like in Christian politics. It often presents itself as a rally to put God back in government or a church conference emphasizing America’s Christian heritage. Or perhaps your friend’s intractable conviction that Ted Cruz was a nationally viable candidate. These kinds of things are not bad in and of themselves, but they share in common the tendency to recreate a reality that no longer exists. Denial works like this. It tells us that things aren’t really the way they are. Breaking through denial is a necessary step in the grieving process, one on which many get stilted. Our first step as Christians should be to name and acknowledge our loss. We are no longer what we once were in the public square.
SEEN IN: Ted Cruz’s 2020 campaign
In this way it is often the case that the truth gives way to anger. We are already angry because we are forced to come to terms with an unpleasant reality. This anger is multiplied because we want so badly to find a culprit for our loss. I think many people were disturbed by the terribly irate tone of the Republican convention. The whole event had an intensity about it which caught many off guard. Viewed in terms of the grieving process, however, it makes perfect sense. Evangelicals have lost their place in society, and the vast left wing conspiracy is to blame.
This kind of thinking can get whipped into a frenzy in large events, which explains every Trump rally ever. But this kind of anger can also be quiet. I’ve noticed in my own heart a tendency towards undirected rage and frustration at the powers that be and an unexplainable urge to plaster the imprecatory Psalms all over my bathroom mirror. Perhaps this has more to do with political displacement than with grief, but then again that’s precisely the point.
SEEN IN: 2016 GOP Convention, Trump bumper stickers, and my bathroom mirror
There have been many attempts to explain the bewildering evangelical support of Trump by most evangelicals. There’s the protectorate theory in which Trump is the strongman protecting the weak religious right. There’s also the sociological theory in which Trump is the defender of the disenfranchised middle class. What if the explanation is simpler: What if we’re simply bargaining?
It’s obvious that Christians have lost ground in the public square. Demographics and cultural trends indicate that more ground will soon be lost. If Europe is any indication, Christianity could have little influence in America in 50 years. Our own movements and our own politicians have failed to hold the line and in many cases have been the cause of our decline. Trump is not the ideal candidate for Christians by a long shot, and this should be blindingly obvious to anyone. But many of us appear willing to make a bargain with Trump to ensure our continued political survival. This is the point that most people miss when trying to understand this phenomenon. This is not about Trump. This is about survival. Does such a bargain entail a loss of integrity? Certainly. But we have to understand such a deal in its context: It is a natural part of letting go of what we once had.
SEEN IN: Baby Boomer evangelical leaders’ unwavering support of Trump, which spawns a separate grief reaction in millennial evangelicals at the loss of the integrity of vaunted heroes
Except when something is really gone, nothing can bring it back. Trump will inevitably flop in November. Christian reactions will vary, but a corporate sense of political depression will likely pervade our circles on November 9th. The coronation of Hillary Clinton will be a tough pill for many evangelicals to swallow.
The current treatment of choice for depression is a type of therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. This is a type of intervention that emphasizes how changed thoughts and behaviors can lead to changed feelings and actions. While problematic in some ways, changing the way we think can often be helpful in dealing with depression. It is no different for the Christian in the public square. The speaker at my conference made this point well. We often think that history is beyond repair in our own times. But history certainly shows that it is not. Roman Christians under the Diocletian persecution would have never expected the Edict of Milan given their current situation. Nor would the Cluniacs have ever expected the Reformation. Nor John Cleese the Spanish Inquisition. The point is simple: Times may be bad now, but God holds time. We should lament our situation, but a lot can happen in 50 (or 1,000) years.
SEEN IN: Jeb Bush voters, millennial evangelicals, Paul Ryan’s PR team
Acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. It is a coming to terms with the reality of the situation. And it is not easy to achieve. What it looks like generally varies from person to person, but its application to the Christian political situation is a bit clearer: we’ve lost cultural ground, and that’s OK. It’s OK because the Christian hopes not in solely political process but in the active working of God. It’s OK because, to quote a famous poem, we are not the masters of our own fate, nor is Donald Trump the captain of our souls.
Acceptance of the new political landscape post-Trump will not be easy for many evangelicals to achieve. The reason for this will likely be our continued denial of our lost ground and power. Other more theologically inclined evangelicals may despair of the state of the whole mess we are in. But hope is not to be lost. If Trump represents the bargaining stage, then it’s very possible that we are actually progressing through the stages like we should. Further work on our part may lead to greater progress. After all, the night is darkest just before the dawn.
Brian Mesimer is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Columbia International University, and currently studies theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. His interests include practical theology, current events, and the relationship between psychology and theology. He and his wife live in Columbia, SC, where he works as a counselor.