Pride in the Name of Power
Overall, I thought this Washington Post article looking at southern white evangelicals who still support Trump, was pretty good. It’s respectful to the church-goers at First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, and tries to understand them without making them anthropological exhibits. (Some Alabamians feel differently. I’m the same way when national reporters come to my neighborhood to interview the ice fishermen.)
There are legitimate concerns about whether this particular congregation is representative of Christians at large, even conservative Christians, or if it was cherry-picked to prove the author’s views on Trump supporters. But I found it a step up from the usual “Yup, Trump dead-enders are still with Trump” pieces, because it tries to answer one very important and vexing question: WTF, evangelicals, you’re going with that sinner? In that it focuses on the particular slice of American Christians who would answer “yes,” the piece is a success.
It takes the question head-on: it’s framed around the story of a preacher who’s very nervous about preaching on adultery in the age of Trump! (He chickens out.)
This passage has popped more than a few eyes:
Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.
“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”
Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”
Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”
“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,'” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”
It’s easy enough to look at that and wonder what in the living aitch-ee-double-toothpicks people are thinking. How can a professed Christian be so dumb, so scripturally ignorant?
I confess I’m not very interested in that question—it’s kind of judgmental, after all. But why someone would choose to read the Bible like this, now, that’s interesting.
The answer to that question is not ignorance, it’s pride. Sheila knows perfectly well that Americans are never mentioned in the gospel. If pushed, she would perhaps grudgingly admit that “legal immigration” is another category that doesn’t really apply in scripture. She’s making a point, an interpretation based on a particular prideful conviction.
I don’t mean arrogance, but something almost altogether different. Here it seems helpful to go back to Reinhold Niebuhr (originator of the Serenity prayer, every politician’s favorite theologian, famously on the cover of Time magazine), who thought pride was the original sin, a pretty conventional view.
But Niebuhr’s definition of pride was anything but conventional. Yes, there’s being stupid and willful, he said, but more important, humans have a tendency to refuse to acknowledge that they have limited insight into their earthly and moral positions. We vastly overestimate our smarts and our goodness. This comes about because, Niebuhr says, what we know is largely contingent on who we know. Our social connections condition both how much we know, and how we interpret that knowledge.
It’s no surprise then to hear the grandmas in this piece spout insane conspiracy theories. (Christians are on the brink of annihilation in the U.S.; Obama carried a Koran around with him, “and it was not for literary purposes.”) They live in a very small world, with more than likely only a very small list of news outlets they pay attention to.
It’s not that they’re incapable of seeing a larger world. You’d be surprised how intelligent some ignoramuses can be. But “their people” see the world through a particular lens, and they choose to do so as well. That’s the Fox News bubble we all hear about. It is not brainwashing; it is reinforcing what their in-group wants to hear. And what this particular in-group wants to hear is that it is under attack.
Or more precisely, what that in-group wants to hear is that they’re under attack, but with a brave new leader to protect them. One of the fundamental human conditions is to live with anxiety, Niebuhr says. We are insecure in our place in the world and in our place before God. Our unjust social arrangements only make that condition worse. When confronted with this existential anxiety, humans generally make one of two choices: Some people throw themselves in trust on the mercy of the living God. Others look around for the nearest strong man.
So again, it’s no accident that the ghosts of the civil rights era pop up in this piece. The shriveled, diseased heart of American pride is made up of the refusal to surrender places of privilege, and the anxiety that refusal provokes.
And, oh, is there privilege. White privilege, cis-het privilege, middle-class privilege, Christian privilege, you name it. Trump has convinced many, many people that they finally have a president who’s on their side.
Their pride is their inability to critique that conviction.
You can see the folks in the article struggle with the cognitive dissonance this creates. They talk about Trump getting framed by liberals, they talk about Satan the father of lies. They recognize their own rationalizations. But they still stick with Trump. Why? Because the group and its worldview is more important than their doubts.
If you put personal knowledge up against the ideology of a social group, the personal knowledge will lose. Every stinking time. Tribe is far more important to humans than reason. What will happen is exactly what’s on display in this article: people will blithely skip over the contradictions, or they’ll acknowledge them but excuse them in the name of a greater cause, or they’ll find some other way to wave them away as irrelevant. (That Satan is a liar is admittedly not a very common strategy these days.)
But this is pride, according to Niebuhr: the inability to interrogate our own moral stances because we’re too committed to ideology. Pride has everything to do with power, because the ideologies we commit ourselves to belong to the tribes that we count on to protect, defend, and advance us. Perhaps the most radical thing Jesus ever did in his society was to ditch his family and leave Nazareth. The man had no back-up.
To be very clear, the lesson to be drawn from all of this is not that human knowledge (or lack of) shapes how we use power. To a disconcerting extent, it’s just the opposite. How we use power shapes how we choose to know.
To make things worse, Niebuhr says, humans have a capacity for “partial self-transcendence.” That is, we’re able to see how we can make things better, and tempted to think that means we can make them perfect. In other words, humans know just enough to fool them into thinking they’re not dumb. Big mistake. We do just enough of the right thing to convince themselves that they are good. Bigger mistake.
There’s another strand here too, which is that our pride blinds us to the consequences of our actions, and so it’s important to gather as many perspectives as we can in making moral decisions. We have to think outside the tribe, as it were.
That’s the piece of Niebuhr beloved by Obama, David Brooks, Hillary Clinton, and many others. But it’s incomplete. It’s not just that elites have to ask a lot of questions. It’s that (and here I’m extrapolating from Niebuhr) if humanity is ever going to “approximate justice,” multiple perspectives will have to penetrate one another.
I’m not sure Niebuhr would have been a big fan of post-modernity, but in a way, his ethics necessitates it. Think about the classic post-colonialist question: how can you do justice for the indigenous if you don’t bother to talk to them?
Or to put things another way, American democracy can’t survive if a bunch of people decide they’d rather be ignoramuses than consider things from somebody else’s point of view.
Or if they decide the ideology of their tribe is more important than hearing that they and their forebearers may have sinned.
Again: no accident that we hear the rehearsal of racial grievances from the white perspective. Part of the issue is that some folks don’t want to wrestle with the idea that their parents were racist. Some people don’t want to wrestle with the idea that they are racist.
Part of Trump’s appeal to the pride of white voters, then, is to preserve their self-deceptions about who they are, and where they come from. White moral privilege is power, is pride.
Before we get into the question of “What can be done about this?”, allow me to give the reader a word of caution: if you think you’re immune to the sin of pride, you’ve just committed it.
Pride is part of the human condition. We all are vulnerable to self-deception. We all are conditioned in our knowledge by the perspective of our social peers. We all think we’re smarter than we are. If your takeaway from this piece is “Heh. Look at those idiots,” take out your mirror and hold it up in front of your face. Thou art the man. (If, on the other hand, your reaction is “The Washington Post spends too much time interviewing Trump supporters,” well, you’ve got a point.)
None of this is bad, exactly. Niebuhr didn’t think humans were wicked so much as he thought we were incomplete. I give this word of caution because of course liberals and progressives can get their heads stuck up their own you-know-whats.
But I also warn because counteracting pride seems essential to me. I have grown very cynical about the prospect for change in American politics in recent years, because I’ve become sharply aware of the limits tribalism imposes.
As long as we’re divided up into little pockets of Red and Blue, not much is going to change. As long as there are places like Luverne, Alabama, there will be Trump supporters. But by the same token, as long as there are places like Berkeley or Madison or any of the big cities, there will be liberal Trump opponents. Division is also part of the human condition.
How then does change come about? There are two options. One is that the tribe flips its perspective. It’s uncommon, but it does happen. It is work people have to do for themselves, though. Imposing it from outside doesn’t do much. The only way this kind of flip can happen in our society is to break up those insular cultural pockets, which is why anything that smacks of multiculturalism is anathema to some conservatives.
On the other hand, American society continues to become more diverse every day, which is exactly why places like Luverne are so on edge. “We are in mortal danger,” as one of the grandmothers says. White Christian privilege is slipping away, and everybody knows it.
It’s tempting to think of this as ignorant people being forced to see the light, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: changing the way people see the world is an act of power. If the people of First Baptist Church of Luverne, Alabama, know differently, they have to act differently. They have to use their power differently. And in that their knowing differently will almost certainly involve giving up some of their privilege, it will require them to give up a non-trivial amount of power. As Niebuhr knew, that’s not something most people do happily.
Forget the battle to take the House, or even the Senate. This is a fight for hegemony over America’s collective psyche. It won’t be easy.
The way it happens, I think, is that the older white tribe gets sidelined. As white Christians become an ever-smaller piece of the pie, their power will shrink, taking their pride with it.
Eventually, assuming the GOP doesn’t go full-on apartheid, and the Democrats figure out how to get their voters to the polls, a new, more diverse American ideology will take control.
It will be imperfect. It will be anxious. It will be prideful. It will seek to maximize and maintain its power. It will be beautiful, and brown, and much, much better than MAGA.