How has it become acceptable to verbally attack a Starbucks barista and yell “I voted for Trump” as justification?
How is it okay to display the Confederate flag with impunity in central Pennsylvania? (A phenomenon which I noticed since the beginning of Trump’s ascendancy in 2015.)
|Confederate flag in Dillsburg, PA. Photo by the author.|
|Confederate flag in Milton, PA. Photo by the author.|
Why is a gathering of white supremacists led by Richard Spencer sieg-heiling Trump in Washington D.C. and declaring the coming restoration of white power?
How is it socially acceptable for Texas A&M University to host an alt-right gathering whose leader says that “sometimes being a bigot is wise”?
How does Trump justify considering the nomination of ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a man whose company lied about climate change for decades and who has dangerous ties to Russia?
If you’re seeing all this happening and feel like you’re in some kind of alternate universe, or a nightmare you can’t wake up from, you’re not alone. But it is real, and it is important that we use all of our tools of critical thinking to understand what has happened in our society. This post is part of a series to aid in that task of understanding. And in this installment, we’re going to explore the phenomenon of taboos, gain insight into how and why Trumpism has upended so many of them, and understand what the church’s role is in restoring some sense of sanity.
The 2016 Academy of Homiletics (the academic guild for those who teach preaching) began with a panel discussion with four distinguished homileticians discussing the topic of preaching about taboos – those topics no one wants to discuss, especially in the pulpit. Ted Smith, Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, reminded us of the work of social anthropologist Mary Douglas who wrote the book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London and New York: Rutledge, 1966). Her study of tribal religions led her to theorize that every society constructs itself around the distinction between dirt and order, clean and unclean, pollution and purity. She notes that such ideas are useful because they “force one another into good citizenship” and help to preserve social order (3). Granted, such ideas can be harmful when they are used to label certain people as “unclean,” such as those of darker skin tones, those of non-dominant sexual orientations and expressions, women, people who are of a different religion, etc. But in its most basic form, “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience,”(4).
Smith pointed out that the phenomenon of Trumpism has completely upended and erased the boundaries of propriety and taboo in America. In Trump’s world and, consequently, in the minds of his disciples, the rules which had previously governed civil discourse, our social interactions, and our treatment of others have been completely obliterated. Such a blow-up was celebrated by many who cheered when this man “spoke the things that I think.” He modeled how one can cross the lines and emerge unscathed. “I could shoot somebody . . . and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said during the campaign. And, in fact, he proved that this was true. He violated every taboo of those things you just don’t say or do in public, and went on to win the Electoral College vote (but not the popular vote, mind you) for the presidency.
“Burn the whole thing down,” had been the gleeful attitude of Trump supporters who believed he was anti-Establishment. This indicates a deep nihilism at work that has brought down more than just the Washington Establishment. It has brought down what was established as socially unacceptable for a presidential candidate – being a bigot, compulsory lying, hate speech, and bragging about sexual violence, to name just a few taboos.
Mary Douglas explained that certain taboos are necessary, otherwise the very foundation of a society begins to crumble. Indeed, right before our very eyes, our house has been moved from solid ground to shifting sand (Matthew 7:24 – 27). The way in which Trump violated taboos does more than just sully the public discourse. It has dissolved the foundations of discourse itself (which is an indication that we are now beyond postmodernism and into a new era of what I call #disintegrationism, something I discuss here.)
Because, as Smith pointed out, the nature of the taboo reveals the nature of the classifications that are in place in a particular community. Taboos are not just the things we reason about, they are the actual ground of reason, they are a given. We keep these shared taboos because they order our thinking and help to shore up our identity as a people, as a community, as a nation. When a taboo is broken, something is revealed. And the domino-effect of collapsing taboos in the wake of Trumpism has revealed an evil – yes, evil (use the word) – the likes of which this country has not seen out in the open for a generation. Examples include hundreds of acts of intimidation and hate crimes since the election.
This is what happens when a taboo switches to being acceptable. Trump’s rhetoric against every entity who was not white, male, straight and able-bodied should have derailed his candidacy at every turn. But with every violation, the phenomenon actually gained energy, fed by an id of unbridled vile behavior. People voted for Trump precisely because he broke taboos.
But why? Why would you vote for someone who breaks taboos against common decency that are supposedly dear to our nation? Why would Evangelical Christians who have professed “family values” embrace someone who violates every taboo they have striven to enforce? Why would women vote for a man who bragged about committing sexual violence? Why would politicians-with-daughters who had decried Trump for saying these things now embrace him?
The answer has to do with the ever-shifting rhetoric of Trump that has eroded every semblance of reality. As I said in my previous post, lies become truth, and truth becomes irrelevant. Trump has so hollowed out his integrity that he has become a cipher. This enables his supporters to project onto his blank screen whatever they wish. And what did they wish to see?
Smith stated, and I concur, that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan answered an implicit question: “Do you feel like you (whites) have been classified as dirt? Your not being dirt depends on other people being dirt instead of you (blacks, Muslims, women, LGBTQI, disabled, the list goes on). These people have had the audacity to say they are not dirt, which makes you feel like dirt. So we need to put these groups back into their place – in the dirt – to Make America Great Again.” It is this kind of reasoning that perpetuates the myth of “white victimhood” and justifies the kinds of acts I cited at the beginning of this post.
Even if a member of one of those non-white groups actually voted for Trump for other reasons (and some did), their inability to distinguish or refuse to disavow themselves from this underlying rhetoric indicates the level to which obfuscation has risen and the depths to which disintegration of core values has sunk in this country.
So what should be the Church’s response to all of this? When a person such as Trump ascends to the highest office in the world, the Church has some hard decisions to make and serious work to do. Ted Smith suggested that we need to shore up the taboos that are worth keeping. I agree and would add that it’s the preacher’s job, and indeed the job of every Christian who strives to honor the One they profess to serve, to bring back the taboos against indecency again, call out those who transgress them, and shame those who violate them. We need to teach and affirm the Ten Commandments and point out every violation of those commandments by any and every member of the Trump Administration, and especially Trump himself. We need to re-assert the Golden Rule. We need to use the words and tactics of the prophets of old to speak truth to this evil power. We need to exercise as much compassion toward our fellow human beings as possible and follow Micah 6:8 like a mantra (“act with justice, practice kindness, and walk humbly with God”). And we need to take up the prophetic calling of the Baptizer who did not hesitate to point out corruption in his government’s leaders. Jesus had this to say about John the Baptist:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:7-9).
Are we as Christians and as preachers going to be like reeds shaken by the wind? Or will we stand firm in our prophetic calling to name evil for what it is? Will we wear the soft robes given to us by the royal palaces? Or will we don the scratchy garments of camel’s hair and join our voices with John the Baptist calling out corruption and unabashedly engaging in public theology? In other words:
"Are you a chaplain to the empire or a prophet of the resistance?"**
In my next post, I’ll help us explore the notion of evil more fully so that we can put our theological language to good use to help us resist it with all our power. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to confront the threat that these violated taboos present. Name it and shame it. Do not accept it as the “new normal.” Because it’s not normal. And it’s not right. Other people of good will need to see your courage, because this will encourage them to do the same. And together we can begin to shore up the foundations, protect those most vulnerable, and restore some sense of sanity. Remember the words of James Baldwin: “Great [people] have done great things here and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” (Did you catch that? Not “make America great again,” but “make America what America must become.”)
You are one of those great people, and your task – our task – is a great one indeed.
**(The phrase “chaplains of empire or prophets of resistance” has been attributed to both Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, director of clergy organizing for PICO National Network, a faith-based network of more than 1,200 conregations engaged in community organizing in more than 200 cities in the U.S.; and Troy Jackson, Director of the AMOS Project, a faith-based effort that organizes congregations to work for racial and economic justice in Cincinnati.)
Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The views expressed in this blog are her own and do not necessarily represent the institutions she serves.