Doing Theology in the Age of Trump

A Critical Report on Christian Nationalism

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Editor(s): 
Jeffrey W. Robbins, Clayton Crockett
Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , November
     2018.
     174 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532608865.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Several years in, the phenomenon of Trumpism remains an ongoing, traumatic concern for scholars of religion in the United States. In the midst of the daily pace of news, it can be easy to lose sight of key questions: Is Trumpism a Christian apostasy or a purest expression of white evangelicalism? Is it an aberration or a result of a long-term project? Can the terms “nationalism” and “populism” denote a clear political project? What must be the response of the scholar of religion—and the professor in the classroom—in the vortex of Trumpism? In Doing Theology in the Age of Trump: A Critical Report on Christian Nationalism, Jeffrey W. Robbins and Clayton Crockett assemble a timely collection of essays from scholars watching these developments closely.

This book is organized into two sections, the first of which examines history, race, and Christian nationalism. Robin Meyer opens with the question of whether god is a Christian nationalist, and explores the role of archetypal images projected by those who are “rotten with perfection” (5). Taking D.L. Moody as a case study, Alan Richard recounts the explosion of evangelism in reaction to labor rights and immigration, and Karen Bray expresses a solemn need for “grave attending,” a call to “sit with our humiliation,” and consider the inheritance of whiteness. The editors examine the history that lead us to this point, and step into the quagmire of delineating “nationalism” and “patriotism,” a recurrent theme throughout the book. The most powerful essay of the first half must be that of James Howard Hill Jr., who focuses on the black scholar as exorcist, as healer, and as herald of futurity. He indicts the academy when, after recounting the familiar horrors of the Trump administration, asks “[a]re we really going to sit here and pretend like Trump’s presidential cabinet does not look like most liberal faculty directories?” (32). 

The second half focuses on American exceptionalism, evangelicalism, and Trumpism. John D. Caputo critiques the blasphemous simulacrum of nationalism with the demand, following Martin Luther King, Jr., for an America that will be made great—which first requires us, of course, to acknowledge it never was. Catherine Keller uses the term “Foxvangelical,” and invokes the threat of “aspirational fascism” countered by agonistic respect, amorous agonism, and solidarity among the undercommons. For its shear number of creative concepts—and their sources in Hannah Arendt and William E. Connolly—this chapter was a favorite of the second half. Later, Jordan E. Miller and Hollis Phelps tackle the most risible of mistakes made by the miscalculating liberal, namely that “the problem with hypocrisy as a charge is that it assumes that statements take the form of good faith; it is assumed in advance that statements correspond with material actions” (115). The book concludes with a deeply poignant chapter by Noëlle Vahanian, who speaks of radical materialism and history as a work of fiction: “[a]nd you all wonder how Trump was elected? When history is fiction, that’s how. And if being is changing, then there is no knowing of it anyway, and its recollecting … points to the limits of knowing oneself, one’s history, one’s culture” (141).

Doing Theology in the Age of Trump has a number of recurrent themes: the question of whether Trump is an aberration, or an inevitable conclusion of a certain mode of evangelicalism or conservatism, the meaning of “nationalism” and “populism,” the role of the academy, and, of course, the familiar axiom of Carl Schmitt’s—that all of our political concepts of state are secularized theology. The chapters do not agree or settle on a single approach on any of these recurrent themes, so the book’s strength is the way in which theoretical divergences are maintained. I have only briefly summarized half of the scholars represented—my apologies to those missed—and, as a reader, I appreciated the diversity. 

What I enjoyed most about the book was, perhaps, unintentional: the timing and the consequent urgency. This book was published in late 2018, and though the daily novelty of scandal now wears down our capacity for surprise, these chapters were written at a slightly earlier time when that shock was still fresh. The authors convey a sense of purpose, for to study and educate in this period—and after this administration as well, since much of our epistemic and moral damage will be permanent—requires a sense of urgency. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tad DeLay is Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Against: What Does the White Evangelical Want? (Cascade Books, 2019).

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey W. Robbins is a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College.

Clayton Crockett is Associate Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas.

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