I read a book recently that does not mention the specific details of the 2016 election but reflects our current political and cultural environment very well. It’s called “The End of White Christian America” by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He defines White Christian America (WCA) as white Protestantism, and argues that what was once the dominant national culture and ethic is effectively dead – fractured between mainline and evangelical whites, with both groups in decline and in various stages of mourning. Jones writes with a deep respect for WCA’s positive contributions to American institutions and identity, while equally critical of WCA’s complicity in slavery and segregation and its inability to build substantive bridges with other faiths, races, and ethnicities.
I’ve never been a member of WCA. I’m the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, and was brought up Armenian Apostolic, only to reject it as a teenager. Nonetheless, WCA is an essential part of my political and cultural inheritance. I try to put myself in the shoes of people who feel like they’re losing their country and that their past was better than their present and future. Whether or not I succeed is debatable, but when I read about the anger driving many Republicans, who have taken up WCA’s mantle, I do try to listen and understand. (I found sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s brilliant article on the five years she spent with Trump supporters to be invaluable in that regard.)
But I’m starting to hit my limit. WCA could not have chosen an uglier person to carry its banner. His latest revelation, the Access Hollywood tape where he bragged about sexually assaulting women (and yes “grab ‘em by the pussy” is sexual assault) makes me further embarrassed and ashamed that my fellow citizens would elevate him. For those supporters dismissing it as a joke, two women have just come forward saying he sexually assaulted them.
Trump depresses me for so many reasons, but most of all, because he encourages the people I love to be crueler, less trusting, and more afraid. When he says Mexicans are “rapists,” mocks the disabled, insults women, says we should ban Muslims, especially Syrian refugees, exaggerates crime statistics and amplifies immigrant homicides while ignoring that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and start businesses at higher ones, he does incalculable damage to the country and to his own supporters.
When asked about his behavior at the debate, Trump quickly pivoted to ISIS: “You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.” This is a common theme of his campaign: respecting non-whites and women is a waste of precious time we could be using to punish our enemies; if you aren’t a white male, you’re useful only so far as you condemn the crimes of your peers and never complain about being mistreated.
It’s why Trump dismisses bragging about unwanted sexual contact as “locker room talk” without any consideration of the abuses women face every day.
It’s why, when the uncommitted Muslim voter asked the candidates how they would address Islamophobia, Trump responded that Muslims needed to start cooperating with law enforcement, which they already do.
Respect and compassion are not luxuries. They are necessary for any society to prosper. To hate is easy but futile and exhausting; to listen and love takes work but is invigorating. WCA understood that once. White Christians helped build a country that welcomed my great-grandmother, a teenage orphan who fled the Armenian Genocide, and my Italian and Jewish ancestors. America didn’t need to let them in; the nations they came from were violent and filled with crime. But America let them in and is better for it.
The end of white Christianity as the dominant national group will require a renewed commitment to expanding the circle of concern to all Americans and a more inclusive notion of American identity.
It means taking institutional racism seriously – in education, criminal justice, employment, and housing, and resisting the urge to think “well, I’m not racist, so it’s not my problem.” It is your problem.
It means taking women’s problems seriously regardless of their relationship to men and accepting that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be.
It means talking about immigrants and refugees as doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, taxpayers, and potential citizens – not moochers and rapists.
It means protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination and violence, while treating ignorance as an opportunity to educate, not name-call.
It means opposing any effort by any party or political figure to make you crueler, less trusting, and more afraid.
Above all, it means treating all people as worthy of dignity and respect. There will always be excuses to treat people as subhuman, and they will always be bullshit.