Race powerfully shapes the American experience. Race will shape our lives and our sense of self whether or not we have the expertise to recognize and to question its influence. I'm a cultural historian: I study pressures like that.

As a cultural historian, I don't particularly care who was president, or what wars he started. I'm curious about how—and why—people make the difficult moral choices we all have to make in life. These are the choices that define our lives. These are the choices that both shape and reveal our identity. But in making these decisions, we have to cope with cultural pressure from the world around us. I study what those pressures are, where they came from, and how they have changed over time.

At the moment, many white Americans are feeling baffled. At some level we cannot fathom how this nation could have reached the point where an officer of the law could so casually and deliberately suffocate a man over eight minutes, in the presence of witnesses, on a sunny street in a state famous for its local culture of "nice." I'm here today at Women's Exchange to explain how this is possible—to offer, if you will, the kind of background briefing that elected officials get all the time to help them make informed decisions. I'm here today to help you make more informed decisions on where you stand, and where you might want to stand, on the great issues that are now roiling this nation yet again.

 The cultural history of racism in America goes far beyond the facts of slavery. Today I want to explain how that came to be the case. And here's the major claim I'll be making:  belief in the inferiority of black people gets built into Western culture by appropriating wholesale existing beliefs about the inferiority of women.

Here's how that happened. Columbus sails the oceans blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two. Right? We all learned that ditty. 1492 is the last gasp of the high Middle Ages. It's the beginning of what comes to be called "The Age of Discovery" or the "Age of Exploration." Over the next century, famous men sail all around the world staking the claims that will become the European colonial empires. Hernando Cortez, Francisco Pizarro, Vasco da Gama. Henry Hudson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Meanwhile, what was going on back home? Europe was nearly committing suicide, which Europe does from time to time. From 1520 to 1660, Europe was consumed by what came to be called the Wars of Religion.

By 1660, major cities all over Europe lay in ruins. In central Europe, a third of population had died. In one thirty-year span toward the end of these wars, a higher percentage of Europeans would die than later died in World War I and World War II put together. More than twice as many, in fact.

From the ruins, two things changed. First, politics changed: medieval monarchies began to give way to what would become the democratic self-governing nation-state. Second, the economy changed. Agricultural feudalism gave way to urban, mercantile capitalism. Both changes matter, because that combination leads directly to what came to be called "scientific racism."      

Here's how that happens. Racism gets built into the new economy of the West because European capitalism becomes structurally dependent upon colonialism. The domestic European economy was in shambles, but there was serious money to be made mining silver in Peru, or stealing gold from the Mexicans, or kidnapping Africans to sell as slaves. Colonialism made Europe fabulously rich and thus fabulously powerful. And it all derived from exploiting other people globally and from expropriating the natural resources of their land.

The African slave trade was the epitome of that exploitation. And enslaved Africans were also crucial to the most spectacularly profitable businesses—the international trade in sugar, cotton, and to a lesser extent tobacco. It's a story of brutal and unrelenting carnage. So if you haven't learned anything much about slavery as an institution since high school, and especially if you were told that slaves were not really treated all that badly, you need to catch up. A good place to start is the book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis. Or Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: Four Great Migrations.

As the colonial empires grew, reports of violence against people of color filtered back to Europe. Such violence contradicted the great—and growing—Western cultural allegiance to human rights and moral equality among all people. Abolitionism really gets going in the late 1700s, right alongside the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution, 1789. Controversy builds in the 19th century: there were violently suppressed pro-democracy movements all over Europe in 1848, and then the American Civil War, 1861-1865. People in the West—at least some people—are up in arms demanding human rights.  

After the American Civil War, there's a major authoritarian backlash against all this pro-democracy human-rights nonsense. Beginning in the 1870s or so, there is a major re-assertion of absolute authority and social hierarchy in a variety of cultural domains. In politics, the backlash creates the cultural and conceptual foundations of twentieth century totalitarianism. By the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, many people are actively questioning whether democracy is politically viable in the first place. Hitler and Stalin are in the history's green room, waiting for their moments on stage. In religion, and as I explain in my book about religious absolutism, papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy emerge side by side—two remarkable teachings that flatly contradicted two thousand years of prior Christian tradition. Another major aspect of the backlash is what comes to be called "scientific racism."

Scientific racism was an influential intellectual movement spanning the period roughly from 1860 to 1960. From all of that history, I want to highlight four men you need to know about. And here's my major claim about these four men: together they fund the circular logic of racism. That is, the poverty of black people proves their inferiority, and their inferiority justifies their ongoing economic exploitation and political exclusion by white people. Racism involves a catch-22 of epic proportions.

Scientific Racism: Four Famous Men

The first two men on my list are Edward Tylor, the "father" of anthropology, and James Frazer, the "father" of sociology. Each of them assembled supposedly "scientific evidence" that non-European cultures are across-the-board inferior to European culture. That superiority justifies European colonial domination of other people all around the globe.

Today we'd call such claims pseudo-science. But it wasn't pseudo-science at the time. Not at all. It was authoritative science. It was science-science. Given their academic positions and influence, Tylor and Fraser saw to it that for most of the next century, social scientists both taught and believed that white supremacy is a self-evident scientific fact just as the inferiority of women is a self-evident, scientifically valid fact.

Let me repeat what I just said. If you remember nothing else that I say today, remember this: racism derives from sexism. Sexism is the use of power in ways that selectively disadvantage women. Yes? We all know that. In the West, sexism goes all the way back to the oldest written texts that we have. At Women's Exchange, we have read about this heritage and talked about it for decades. We read Gerda Lerner, and when she published her autobiography at least thirty of us trooped down into Andersonville, crowding into a little feminist bookstore on Clark Street to hear her speak.

Well, ladies, racism is just like sexism. It's any use of power in ways that cause disproportional harm to people who have darker skin than northern Europeans do. But by comparison with sexism, scientific racism was remarkably new. Prior to Tylor and Frazer, "race" had been a very amorphous, poorly defined concept. Europeans exploited Africans and indigenous Americans and people in India and elsewhere because Europeans had the military and technological superiority to do so. That's all there was to it. They could get away with it. So they did.         

But scientific racism succeeded as an ideascientific racism had immediate cultural credibility, because racism borrowed wholesale from pre-existing, unquestionable Western assertions about the inferiority of women. Black people are just like women—but worse, because some black people are men. And that means black men are really dangerous. I think white fear of "black violence," especially black male violence, is classic psychological projection. Its foundation, I suspect, is white fear of black male rage over the reality that white men were raping black women all the time. Take a look, if you will, at an editorial in today's New York Times by the poet Caroline Randall Williams, "You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument."

Scientific racism emerges right alongside what we might call "scientific sexism." Scientific sexism was a reactionary response to demands by women for civil rights equal to those of men. Those demands were part of the whole pro-democracy movement that triggered revolutions in France in in America. Consider these dates: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. Cady Stanton meets Lucretia Mott in 1840, and Susan B. Anthony in 1851. Demands for the proper education of women were growing all through the nineteenth century. And so, scientific racism involved warnings that if you educate a young woman she will stop ovulating. And become a lesbian! Or that women who rebelled against the place of women in society had overtaxed our delicate brains by reading too many books and by trading letters with too many other women and so we needed to be locked in our rooms without books or pen and paper. Or institutionalized and heavily sedated. The only women who were biologically "natural" or "normal" were deferent, submissive, obedient women. Uppity women were biologically defective. We were perverse. And we were a threat to "family values" and to the entire social order.

For years now, I've taken all that history into account in writing about various aspects of Western cultural history. When the #metoo movement broke into national consciousness around Christine Blasey Ford's accusations, I dug out my old notes and wrote up a couple of blog entries repeating my basic analysis about the role of sexism in what has been called "the spiritual grammar of the West." Those blog posts are still up on my website if you want the whole story as I see it. For now, let's just focus on one simple, familiar list: the moral failures traditionally attributed to women.

Take a look. Women are by nature profoundly and inescapably characterized by this list of moral failings:






                                             Self-indulgent, undisciplined


                                             Deceptive, deceitful, dishonest, devious



Every woman here recognizes these accusations. These failings have always justified the social, political, and economic oppression of women.

I want to make a painfully obvious point: we bristle when men make demeaning accusations like these about women. And that it happens all the time. It's the rare man who really gets what's going on—the rare man who feels any personal responsibility for changing the status quo. We sigh wearily or roll our eyes when a man assures us that he respects women and he is not a sexist and so none of this is his problem. And because he doesn't have a sexist bone in his body, he has no obligation to do anything. Yeah, right.

We also understand that even good men, men we love and trust, commonly fail to recognize the automatic advantage they have over women, the built-in advantage they have, whenever they walk into an interview, or get up to speak in a meeting, or argue with somebody in authority. We know, we have seen, that our husbands and brothers and sons have worked very hard for everything they have achieved. But we also know, and we have also seen, that a woman with the same talents and the same work-ethic has been far less likely to get as far unless she is very very lucky. And unless she has powerful men as her mentors. We all know that one of the first questions we ask ourselves in meeting some new man is "which side is he on? Does he take me seriously? Can this guy be trusted?"

But white feminists have a very bad track record of believing black people when they say me too. Us too. For hundreds and hundreds of years, us too. White feminists need to recognize that racism is just sexism on steroids. Racism is sexism expanded into a murderous, genocidal, globe-spanning set of toxic lies. It is a moral pandemic that has infected all of us. And there is no safe social distance.

The only available treatment are these difficult, complicated conversations. The only antidote is a painful, ongoing resolve: we will recognize the toxins we have internalized whenever they show up in our head. And we will stop and think.  

And if that's disconcerting, consider this: we all been told too many times that women are at fault for the fact that women are paid less than men doing equivalent work. Women are at fault for the lack of women in leadership positions. Or as I was told repeatedly, because I asked repeatedly, literature courses almost never teach women writers because women have not written anything worth reading.

Ladies, we recognize that nonsense for what it is. We need to recognize the exact same nonsense when it's laid out against people of color.

So that's Tylor and Frazer. My third big man here is Herbert Spencer. He was a popular writer who tried to synthesize a lot of what was going on in the last third of the 19th century. He was not a particularly original thinker, but he was phenomenally influential nonetheless. For instance, Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," not Darwin. It was he, not Darwin, who argued that evolution moves from simple to complex life-forms—such that  people of European heritage, for instance, could claim to be more highly "evolved" than the "primitive" peoples from Africa or the Americas.

Spencer's misappropriation of Darwinian evolution gives rise to both social darwinism and eugenics. Which is to say, we have no obligation whatsoever to the common good. We have no obligation whatsoever to the poor or to the vulnerable among us. In fact, worrying about social justice is simply perverse. It's stealing from the makers to provide handouts to the worthless takers. Such nonsense, they say,  stands in the way of Western cultural, economic, and moral progress. Nietzsche said it well: "The weak and the poor shall perish: the first principle of our philanthropy. And they shall be given every assistance." The Nazis would later turn Spenser's claims into government policy.      

There's a fourth white guy you need to know, man you have probably have never heard: Madison Grant. You have probably never heard of him because after World War II there was a concerted effort to erase historical evidence of his influence. But there's a fabulous new biography by Jonathan Spiro: Defending the Master Race. Put it on your must-read list.

Madison Grant was born in 1865, the year the Civil War ended. He was a eugenicist in the tradition of Spenser's social darwinism. He was an anthropologist in the tradition of Edward Tylor. Above all, he was an extraordinary organizer and activist who was horrified by late-Victorian the waves of immigration into the US from southern and eastern Europe. 

As Madison Grant saw it, the Irish were not white. Neither were the Italians or the Greeks, nor the Poles or the Lithuanians. And the Jews? Grant had a particular horror of Jews, especially Polish Jews. For Grant, "white" meant what we came to call WASP: white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The German word was Aryan. In American segregation laws and racist policies, the preferred term was "Caucasian."

In 1916, Madison Grant published what would prove to be a remarkably influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, lamenting the terrible threats that white people faced from the rapidly expanding brood of inferior races. Hitler called Grant's book "my Bible." After reading Grant, Hitler sent men to the United States to study Jim Crow laws as a model for how white supremacy ought to be organized. In the 1930s, there were numerous exchanges between Grant's people and Hitler's.        

From roughly 1890 to his death in 1937, Grant worked tirelessly to ensure that both power and property remained an exclusively "white" privilege. He was something like the Koch brothers—his interlocked organizations and his fundraising prowess was everywhere, and yet he managed to deflect a lot of attention away from himself personally. And like the Koch brothers, he was incredibly successful. His influence stands behind Jim Crow laws, the Klu Klux Klan, and monuments to Confederate heroes all across this country. He enjoyed lively, visible support from major national political leaders and from the social elite generally. Madison Grant made white supremacy socially respectable—and not just "respectable." He made white supremacy look morally responsible, culturally necessary, and scientifically valid.

I can't emphasize that enough. White supremacy is not just a belief system found among disaffected young men lurking in the darkest corners of the internet. Nor is it found only in rural red-state America. White supremacy is a respectably mainstream American concept, and it has been a respectably mainstream America concept for generations. That's why it is built in to so many of our cultural commonplaces and major institutions at such a profound level. As proper urban liberals in Chicago, we may not believe that. We may not want to believe that.

But the evidence is plain: the heritage of white supremacy permeates the American legal system, which includes law enforcement. The comfortable white illusion is that legislation in the 60s put an end to all such legal discrimination against black people.  Some discrimination ended, yes. But much of it persisted. And over time, new legal strategies were devised that inflicted disproportionate harm on black communities.

Much has been written about this of late. Legal issues are, of course, notoriously complex—and I don't have the legal training to grapple in any detail with what has happened legally and what continues to happen legally. All I can say is this: from what I have read, and from the conversations with relevant experts that I've had, the law continues to be used against black people in sweeping and fundamental ways. I have been stunned to learn all this, so I realize you may have trouble believing me here. Please believe me. If you are not an attorney working on civil rights issues, or if you are not reading the books these attorneys say we should read, you may not have a clue. I sure didn't. But I'm learning.

From what I've read so far, I've picked out four little sets of facts that made me stop, reach for a bookmark, and go fix myself a cup of tea. Some things are just mind-boggling. I've been boggled. I have been severely boggled.

Racial Law in America

Point #1. Prior to the Civil War, opposing slavery did not mean advocating for the social and political equality of black people. Many abolitionists imagined that black people would remain segregated in a permanent second-class status, sort of like an American version of South African apartheid. Even in the North, for instance, it was commonly illegal to sell property to a black person. Successful black businesses were regularly burned down by white mobs. Law enforcement stood back, silent, just as law enforcement stood back, silent, during lynchings.          

Point #2. I knew in superficial ways that what the North called "Reconstruction" collapsed very quickly after the Civil War. I was amazed to learn how swiftly something very close to slavery was re-imposed upon the black community. The markets for buying and selling black people were shut down, but the abuse and exploitation of black people continued because there was no legal way to stop it. The only way the North could have protected black people and established their civil rights would have been by stationing troops and occupying the South for generations. And the North had no stomach for occupying the South.

And so black schools were repeatedly burned down. Black people teaching the skilled trades to other black people were apt to be lynched. Black businesses were repeatedly torched. Let me repeat: there were no legal protections for black people, because law enforcement and government authority remained in white hands. And the white community, which was of course outnumbered by former slaves, was determined to keep the black community subjugated.

When black people fled to the North, as of course they did, they found no legal protections here either. Even in the North, black people were not equal in the eyes of the law. Even in the North, the law enshrined white supremacy because scientific racism was unquestioned until after the Holocaust demonstrated where such thinking leads. And by that point, after almost a century of such nonsense and the slick maneuverings of Madison Grant and his pals, popular culture simply assumed that scientific racism is true. That white supremacy and black inferiority are simply facts of life, and those dangerous liberals arguing otherwise have to be stopped before they destroy the nation.

I found an excellent, very readable, very richly documented history of "race" as a weird and dangerous idea woven deeply into American history: Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America. She's a MacArthur genius and the winner of the Bancroft prize in America history. Read her. Jones sets into a larger context the story told by Isabel Wilkerson in her classic book The Warmth of Other Suns.

Point #3: the New Deal and other progressive legislation of the 1930s and 1940s. The New Deal included all kinds of labor reforms: minimum wages, the 40-hour work-week, working conditions, workplace safety, the right to unionize, and so forth. The New Deal also provided training programs to equip workers with relevant job skills.

This progressive legislation would never have passed without the support of white Southern Democrats. They supported these bills because they were happy to impose costly new regulations upon Northern industry. The South was a low-wage low-skill agrarian region, and they still hated the North. But these Southern senators made sure that the whole array of New Deal programs and protections excluded black people.

Later, these same senators excluded black people from the GI Bill—because, they said, black people would not benefit from education.  Later still, to remedy the acute housing shortage after World War II, the government set up mortgage markets and mechanisms to make home ownership more widely available. The Federal Housing Authority was one of many different agencies. But Southern senators made sure that black people would be excluded from the mortgage market. They even made sure that black people would not be able to rent apartments in newly constructed buildings.

Not only were black individuals excluded. Integrated neighborhoods were also excluded from the mortgage market. That's why property values fell if a black family moved in: anyone else trying to sell a house was hampered by the fact that now potential buyers could not get a mortgage. These new federal policies also required real estate developers to impose whites-only restrictions on whatever  they built in order to qualify for development loans.

In this way, federal policy quite successfully imposed patterns of Southern racial segregation upon the entire nation. These residential patterns continued even after successful legal challenges emerged over time, because white American culture as a whole had been taught to feel that there's something wrong with having a black family living on your block. Racism had indeed become both morally appropriate and socially respectable on a national scale.

Here's a story you might remember. A few years ago, maybe in the late 1980s or early 90s, the new Wilmette village automobile sticker showed a cartoon image of children of four different colors all holding hands. There was an uproar. At least some of good citizens of Wilmette were hysterical at the suggestion that people of color might live in Wilmette. Madison Grant would have been proud of them: segregationist have always been terrified of letting white children socialize with "their inferiors." Do you remember that song from South Pacific? "You have to be taught to hate."

For more on how systemic racial segregation was imposed through the legal system, read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. I got about a third of the way into The Color of Law and I had to stop for a few months because the story he tells is so appalling—and so incredibly well documented. It was published in 2017, but it's on the most recent New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. I was pleased to see that.

Point #4, and one that has been much in the news lately: racist disparities in policing. That includes everything from police killing unarmed black people to the mass incarceration of black people, especially black men. The United States is on track to imprisoning one-third of black Americans. A lot has been written about this lately, and for good reason, so I'm not going to go into details here. But the book to read on this topic, the book, is Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.     

She begins by admitting that when she began her research she never ever would have believed what she later discovered was happening—happening legally—in the United State of America. I wouldn't have believed it either. But like Rothstein in The Color of Law, Michelle Alexander marshals evidence that is careful, thorough, and beautifully documented. She explains how political initiatives like the "war on drugs" and the "war on crime" and the whole "law and order" movement was a systematic attempt to roll back the what the Civil Rights Movement had achieved. These new law-enforcement initiatives imprisoned black men on trivial charges, often for long sentences, and often in prisons where they were paid pennies an hour working for state-licensed industries. And then, of course, the government made sure that anyone with a "criminal record" will be permanently unemployable. And by the way, did you know that on Wall Street, the value of stock in private prisons doubled in after Trump's election? Ladies, Michelle Alexander is another woman you need to read.

Books like The Color of Law and The New Jim Crow are as irrefutable as that video of a cop slowly suffocating a man to death on the streets of Minneapolis. The history of racism and white supremacy in American culture and in European culture is just as irrefutable.

Which Side Are You On?  

Bottom line? The true measure of human evil is daunting. I understand—we all need to understand—our own reluctance to face the true measure of human evil. As privileged white women, of course we'd rather not think about the systemic evil of racism. Of course we don't want to read about it. We don't want to talk about it either. Neither do any of us want to read about death rates from Covid-19, much less how unspeakably awful it is to die slowly of suffocation with a tube down your throat. Or, um, a cop's knee on your neck. No, thank you, I think I'd rather knit.

We can, and we must, admit that reluctance and get over it. That's why you are here today. You are here today because you understand that people all around us are suffering from systemic racism day after day after day, and that has been the experience of their families for generations. For centuries. And now, maybe, things are beginning to change.

Things are beginning to change because a lot of white people have recognized that either we face the systemic evil of racism and we engage it and we speak up against it and we vote against it, or we else are responsible for the fact that racism continues to permeate our society. 

Those are the options here. Those are the only options. As I said at the beginning, we are the stories we tell, and the stories we tell are defined by the choices we make in life. I have come to see—I have come to feel—that my own moral integrity and my own deepest identity have been called into question by what I have learned about race in Western culture. What am I doing to confront and combat the pervasive evil that is racism in America? Me, here, one small, grey-haired lady who could be a stand-in for Mrs. Santa Claus. What am I doing? Which side am I on? 

Santayana said that those who refuse to study history are condemned to repeat it. That famous line has a corollary: knowing our heritage, no matter how painful that knowledge, can help us to contribute to a very different future. I hope I've helped you today to see just a bit more clearly the cultural pressures shaping your own choices and decisions on this extraordinarily difficult and complicated topic.

We can't solve a problem we don't see. We can't solve a problem we are afraid to face. Above all, we can't be the people we want to be, living the lives we want to live, if we fail to take our own moral responsibilities seriously. Which side are we on?

I want to end here by inviting you to watch a two-minute lyric video from a newly- released CD by my brother, the eminent musician and composer Michael Miles. It's called "Enough," and it's the final cut of a larger work, "Which Side Are You On." Here's the link 

(My thanks to Women's Exchange for hosting this talk on June 26, 2020.)


The survival of American democracy may depend upon defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Many highly qualified women are running for the Democratic nomination. That's unprecedented, and it raises a loaded question: do the Democrats risk too much if they nominate a woman—any woman—to run against Trump? 

       I don't have the answers. But I do know this much: the GOP has traded in sexism for generations, just as they have traded in racism. We need to wake up to that too. Given the success of Trump's open appeals to white supremacy, we can expect openly male-supremacist attacks on women running for president. The sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton may pale in comparison. In this blog post, I want to unpack a cultural-history backstory that will help us to recognize, to confront, and to deflate Republican #sexistridicule.

       To do that successfully, we need to understand three deep cultural structures upon which sexism relies. The first is gender stereotypes—what cultural historians call the "gender complementarity model." This Western cultural paradigm attributes one set of characteristic virtues to men, and a different but parallel set of virtues to women: the "good man" and the "good woman" have distinctly different virtues and abilities.

        And heaven help any woman who displays a stereotypically "masculine" trait. She is in for it. That's my second cultural structure: there are remarkably predictable double-bind attacks on women who defy the stereotypes imposed by the gender complementarity model. We need to  see these attacks coming before they explode around us.  

       Finally, underlying all of this gender nonsense is an intellectual habit found deep in the source-code of Western culture: we divide everything into two parts, and then we define these two parts in a zero-sum way, as cosmic contradictions of each other. In this deep source-code, femininity is firmly associated with deficiency, fraudulence, and moral disorder. The inescapable inferiority of women is the bedrock upon which American racism in all its varieties was later constructed: black people were like women, but more so.

       This cultural backstory may be baffling to anyone young enough to have grown up assuming gender equality. Gender equality, like racial equality, has become a central American value. But it is not yet the American reality. We can more easily achieve these ideals if we know exactly what we are up against and how that opposition permeates ordinary daily experience.

        That's important for more than the next election cycle

          The Gender Complementarity Model

       In fall of 2018, prior to the midterm elections, PRRI conducted one of its periodic American Values surveys. In this survey, they asked whether electing more women will makes things better in this country. That's a loaded question too: better in what way? They didn't specify. But the answers give us a hint about what people assumed "more women" would achieve. Seventy-two percent of Democrats agreed. Only twenty-six percent of Republicans agreed.  

       Unfortunately, there's a long troubled cultural history behind the belief that women across the board—all women, simply because we are women—are inherently better than men at some tasks and inherently apt to endorse a certain set of political values. Let's begin there.

       Given what we have seen from Trump, his administration, and Republicans in Congress, it doesn't surprise me that many people feel that we need a few good strong women to come in and clean up the mess Trump has created. After all, women have been cleaning up after men for thousands of years. Our nation can be understood as something like a household writ large, and right now our house is a mess. One obvious reaction is feeling that we need to elect good women to restore order.

      The cultural pressures behind such thinking may be entirely unconscious. The feeling that "we need more women here"—more women, any women—ignores the fact that anatomy does not dictate a woman's political allegiance. After all, there are plenty of women at Trump rallies. According to the best, most rigorous data, thirty-nine percent of women voted for him, including forty-seven percent of white women. (By comparison, Clinton won ninety-eight percent of black women's votes, and sixty-seven percent of Hispanic women's votes.)

      Politically naive faith in a universal feminine politics reflects what's called the "gender complementarity" model. John Gray made a fortune peddling gender complementarity in his best-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992)Unfortunately, research by the Gottman Institute demonstrated that the more fervently a married couple believes in the classic gender stereotypes peddled by the gender complementarity model, the more likely their marriage is to fail. 

      By the time Gray's book appeared, Carol Gilligan had already made a big name for herself with In Another Voice (1982)where she argued that the moral reasoning of women differs in characteristic ways from the moral reasoning of men. Men emphasize rules, she said; women focus on relationships. Men prioritize logic; women prioritize feelings. Unfortunately, Gilligan repeatedly refused to publish the research data from which she drew these conclusions. Millions of women embraced her work nonetheless. They felt affirmed by her defense of traits that Western gender stereotypes label as "feminine."

      Here's the problem: the gender-complementarity model attributes authority and leadership to men. Power is intrinsically masculine. A powerful woman, then, is a contradiction in terms. The immense, often unconscious validity of how we engender political power underlies our fears and doubts about whether a woman, any woman, can defeat Donald Trump. We think it's reasonable to expect that a critical mass of voters will vote against any woman simply because she is a woman. (Needless to say, many people held the same negative expectation about Barack Obama too: no black man could ever be elected president in this country.)       

      The gender complementarity model looks like the following chart. Here are the exceedingly ancient, deeply authoritative stereotypes shaping the Western construction of gender as a social reality—and quite possibly shaping our self-perceptions as well.


men should be    

women should be



tough & assertive

flexible & receptive





rational, logical




heroic leaders

supportive followers




At its best or most functional, the gender complementarity model tries to maintain social harmony on a separate-but-equal basis that segregates women into valued but entirely subservient roles. Men and women belong in "separate spheres," he managing public affairs and she managing private life and the domestic household. This model underlies male-only leadership among Roman Catholics and most evangelicals.  "He for God," as Milton explains; "she for God in him."

       The gender complementarity model is deeply flawed at the conceptual level, whether or not it accurately reflects the gender differences claimed by people like John Gray, Carol Gilligan, and a host of other thinkers for whom anatomy is destiny in this peculiarly dualist way. Here's the key problem as I see it: both mental health and moral virtue demand that we integrate supposedly "masculine" traits with supposedly "feminine" traits. A effective, morally mature leader is both intelligent and compassionate, both tough and flexible, both ambitious and committed to the common good. We don't achieve moral maturity if we limit ourselves to one column or the other. 

        As Germaine Greer pointed out almost fifty years ago in her book The Female Eunuch, "good women" are not being virtuous if we are generous because we can't say "no," or if we are forgiving because we can't stand up for ourselves.  That's not being virtuous. It's being exploited. Women have to be strong, tough, courageous, and powerful before we can be authentically gentle, flexible, self-sacrificing, and forgiving. Otherwise we are doormats.

        In a parallel way, a man who is merely tough and aggressive is in fact rigid and abusive. In personal relationships, he's a bully. In politics, he's a tyrant. That's no good either. That's why Trump is such a parody—such a pathetic parody—of mature masculinity: he lies compulsively because he is terrified by the least little threat to his fragile image of himself as the all-dominant Emperor of Everything.

         And that's not all: we need to recognize what happens rhetorically under the gender complementarity model when a woman does stand up for herself. What happens when a woman dares in any way to claim social and political equality with men? What happens when a woman displays any of the characteristic virtues attributed to masculinity? Worse yet: what happens to a woman who actively seeks leadership by running for President of the United States? Stop a minute here to reflect upon your own experience. Or remember Republican attacks on women like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or Elizabeth Warren. What do people say when a woman asserts the virtues, abilities, and social roles that the West genders as masculine?

         That's the dark side of the gender complementarity table.  It's my second deep cultural structure.

The Double Binds Constraining Powerful Women

         If good women are by nature submissive and subservient, then any woman who is not submissive is not a good woman. Powerful women are bad people. Women who seek or assert authority are bad people. The rhetoric—the characteristic language—used in condemning such women  maps out point by point within the classic Western gender complementarity model we have already examined. A woman who displays a supposedly "masculine" trait will be attacked for failures drawn from the corresponding set of "bad woman" qualities. Here's what that looks like.                                                            

         defiant women 

     good men

        good women 

 weak,  dangerous



 inconsistent, dishonest

 tough & assertive

 flexible & receptive

 cowardly, threatening



 dumb, wrong, clueless


 compassionate, caring

 irrational, "emotional"

 rational, logical


 silly, naive, insubstantial



 abrasive, bitchy, shrill

 heroic, ambitious

 supportive, self-sacrificing

 The characteristics listed under "bad women" are something like the musical key in which sexist dog-whistles are composed. They are the rhetoric of sexist ridicule. We know we are up against sexist ridicule when traits like these are attributed to women automatically, without evidence, or when women face such criticism but men doing all the same things are not criticized. A woman who speaks up may be condemned as abrasive, for instance, but a man saying the exact same thing will be praised as ambitious and a go-getter, 

         Here's a more specific example: A woman who claims the strength to be president will be denounced as an apriori threat to national security because she is too weak to stand up to our adversaries. Our enemies will never respect her. Our military, security, and diplomatic corps will never submit to a woman's leadership, because powerful men by definition do not defer to women. Other nations—Germany, for instance—have done perfectly well under the leadership of a powerful woman. But these nations do not suffer as we do from a highly politicized, theologically corrupt Christian fundamentalism with its attendant deep-seated ideological misogyny. 

         Consider, for instance, what has been said about Elizabeth Warren. Republican attacks on her credibility would be a lovely case-study in the rhetoric of sexist put-downs. I have heard Warren repeatedly dismissed as unelectable because she is "controversial" or because she is "divisive." A man who came out with proposals like hers would be praised as "original" and "incisive." He would be praised as "brilliant" and "a leader." People might attack such a man as wrong or as dangerous, but they would not dismiss him out of hand for being "controversial" or "divisive." Was Paul Ryan dismissed out of hand because his economic program made him personally controversial or personally divisive? Of course not. Warren is being attacked on these specifically sexist grounds because women are supposed to be loving and universally lovable—not smart, confrontational, outspoken, and incisive.

         Warren is also criticized as "shrill" because her style of delivery is forceful and passionate. Despite his far greater on-stage intensity, Bernie Sanders is not dismissed out of hand for being "shrill." Or as countless people pointed out at the time, if Christine Blassey Ford had carried on as emotionally as Bret Kavanaugh did, she would have been written off as an "hysterical woman."

         You don't have to run for president to run into all this: sexist critiques are aimed at "dangerous" women at any level. Look at what has been said about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is a year older than Paul Ryan was when he was first elected. He was hailed as a wiz-kid, as "up-and-coming," as the brilliant young leader of a whole new generation. Nobody called him a "little boy." But Ocasio-Cortez has been dismissed as a "little girl," as "flighty," as "light-weight," as "in over her head."

         That's how this chart works. A woman who steps out of place is attacked as personally illegitimate. She is false or fake. She is deceptive and devious and transparently incompetent. A woman can know she is up against the gender complementarity model when she is attacked as fraudulent. "Lying Hillary" suffered such attacks for decades before Trump—of all people—took up the accusation. 

         In her book Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership (1995)Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, described these sexist attacks as an array of catch-22s that shape the lives of all women, not just those seeking office. Her deep array of particular examples are dated by now, but her general analysis remains invaluable. If you speak up, she explains, you will be mocked, shamed, ignored, or denounced. If you don't speak up, you will be ignored and perhaps later condemned for your silence. If you take a stand, you are a bitch and a liar. If you don't take a stand, people will try to walk all over you. If you are young, beautiful, or traditionally feminine in appearance, you will be dismissed as incompetent. If you are undeniably competent, you will be ridiculed as sexless, frumpy, or a hag.

         I can add to Jamieson's list. I bet you can too.  If you work well with others, you lack leadership. But if you exert leadership, you are not a team player. If anybody anywhere is unhappy with you in the least, you are illegitimate because you are divisive and controversial. But if you never say anything disruptive or challenging, then you have nothing to offer. If you specialize, you are narrow. But if you address broad issues, you lack expertise. If you are original, you are wrong. But if you are not original, you are trivial and derivative. If you have children, you are not serious about your career. But if you do not have children, you are frustrated, angry, and sexually deficient. If you recognize that this is happening and call it out, you are being hostile, defensive, and irrational. If you don't call it out, you are surrendering your authority to hostile, defensive, irrational men.

         Here's the bottom line of all such attacks.  Men who question our legitimacy are in effect saying, "we don't want you here, you make us feel uncomfortable, you threaten our authority, and we will grasp at any straw to legitimate our psychological distress." That's gender panic. That's sexually insecure men revealing their insecurity. It's men who feel sexually shamed (consciously or unconsciously) by a woman in any position of power, influence, or authority. It's men who cannot refute our ideas in any substantive way and so they resort to silly, desperate, sexist claims.

         If we fail to recognize this ancient dynamic, we are apt to be silenced by it. We can be silenced if we are frustrated and blindsided by the irrationality of it all. We can be silenced if we are intimidated by the intensity of male gender panic. But if we recognize what's going on—if we recognize the large and ancient cultural paradigms in play—then we can confront the sexist dynamic directly. We can confront it just as women are ever more forcefully and directly confronting sexual harassment and sexual assault. If a man grabbed you and kissed you against your will in an office hallway, you'd know what was going on. You'd know what choices to make. We need to recognize these put-downs just as instantaneously. 

         We can do this. We know we can do this.       

Evil Is a Woman

         The gender complementarity model draws its remarkable power from one of the deepest conceptual structures shaping Western culture. In the dynamic of this structure, evil itself is gendered feminine. That's a story you need to know. They didn't teach us this stuff in school, at least not directly. It was there, as the evidence of systemic racism was there; but it was kept hidden in plain sight. We need to wake up to it. It's not just our cultural past. It's our present. And it's our future unless we do something about it, which we are beginning to do.

         Here's the scoop. We think about gender in these crazy ways because the West has a deep-set cultural habit of analyzing everything into pairs of simple either-or logical opposites. That's why we think we have mapped the political terrain when we have divided everything into liberals versus conservatives, or progressives versus libertarians, or urban versus rural, or Democrats versus Republicans. This is how the West works. This dualism is my third and final conceptual structure underlying classic attacks on women in Western culture. 

         After we have divided reality into what we define as two mutually exclusive parts, then we argue endlessly about how to make these mutually-exclusive opposites hold together and work together. We crack Humpty Dumpty in two and then set about trying to reassemble him, trying in fact to reconcile what we have already defined as inescapably cosmic contradictions. In The Measure of Reality, cultural historian Alfred W. Crosby explains that the West has been doing this for thousands of years. In The Plain Sense of Things, James C. Edwards explores both its philosophical implications and its enduring influence on what he calls the "normal nihilism" of consumerist culture.

         Here's my point: in the West, the differences between men and women have been assimilated wholesale into the simple binary oppositions shaping our culture. In the West, leadership is gendered male because virtue itself is gendered male. The very word "virtue" is gendered: vir is the Latin word for "man," as in "virile." To be virtuous is to be masculine. To be feminine is to be evil and—if you refuse to remain submissive— a dangerous threat to common good.

         The association between women and sin goes back to the Adam and Eve story, or at least to how this story has been used as weapon against women. "Church fathers" explained that Eve's sin was listening to Satan. Adam's sin, on the other hand, was listening to his wife. That's why the "good woman" is both silent and obedient—especially in public. That's why the "good woman" was held legally subordinate to her father and to then her husband. That's why she could not vote, sign a contract, own property in her own name, or testify in court. That's why women still cannot be trusted to make morally-appropriate decisions about our own pregnancies. Women are immoral by definition, and women who challenge male supremacy are unspeakably vile.

         Outspoken women are not simply challenging male supremacy. Capable, powerful women are defying the moral structure of the universe. We are whores, which legitimates sexual assault against us. We are the personification of everything that is corrupt, evil, and dangerous. (Hence the passionate energy of that chant, Lock Her Up!)

         Here's a short list of the relevant gender-laden synonyms for good and evil as these are traditionally understood in Western cultural discourse.                                                                                                                            

The Good

The Evil































Every sin listed the right-hand column gets attributed wholesale to women and to people of color even in the absence of supporting evidence : we are morally defective because white men constitute the moral norm—and we have failed to be white men. Worse yet, any one moral failure on the list resonates to and evokes every other moral failure. To be guilty of anything on the list is to be presumed guilty of all the rest. (And note, if you will, that in these classic Western terms, Trump's moral failures are spectacularly gender-laden. Make of that what you will—).

         Looking squarely at the rhetoric of male supremacy can be very depressing, just as it's depressing to look squarely at the rhetoric and the heritage of white supremacy. But seeing these cultural structures clearly can also be empowering: if we recognize it instantly, if we see in the blink of an eye what's going on—and if we are not afraid of it—we can turn the tables adeptly on anyone making unfair and irrational complaints against us. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a master of this.

         Here are some examples. To discredit her Green New Deal, pundits  accused AOC of hypocrisy given the size of her own carbon footprint. Her response pointed out the illogic of her critics. Here's what she said: "I have to admit something to you all. Frankly, I don't know how my environmental reputation can recover. Today I wrote in a book made out of paper. Apparently using present technology means I can't fight for new jobs, investing in infrastructure, and renewable energy."

         Look at the double bind. If I use existing technology, I can't advocate for environmental responsibility. If I can't use existing technology, I can't advocate for anything. Such attacks are not focused on her ideas. They portray her as illegitimate—as a fraud. As I said before, when people try to discredit us personally rather than engaging with our ideas, be suspicious.

         Or this: a conservative writer called for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies because seventy-two percent of Democratic women in the Senate and sixty percent of Democratic women in the House were once Girl Scouts—including Ocasio-Cortez herself. By contrast, only one Republican woman in Congress had once been a Girl Scout. Here's what Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: "Boycotting cookies that teach little girls leadership skills...Nice job. I'll take 10." She names the fact that the writer calling for this boycott was simply opposed to women in leadership. 

         Note what she didn't do. She did not reply with statistics about Girl Scout membership in red states or among Republican households. She did not argue that Girl Scouts are non-partisan. She did not defend Girl Scouts or her membership in Girl Scouts in the least, because the issue here really wasn't Scouting at all. The issue was a broad attack on Democratic women in Congress—at the expense, mind you, of programming for little girls. And Ocasio-Cortez has been ridiculed as a "little girl." So her comeback cut to the heart of the matter: my critic opposes teaching leadership skills to little girls. I support such instruction; I buy Girl Scout cookies.

         She leaves a major claim implicit, as if it's so self-evident it doesn't need to be said. If women with leadership skills run for office as Democrats, maybe that's because Democrats advocate for women's rights—which the GOP has steadfastly opposed for the last sixty years.

         There is a method to her come-backs, a method any of us can master. She does not counter-assert her legitimacy. Instead she looks critically and confidently at the logic and the key assumptions being made by her critics. She unveils their assumptions and their intent. She points out their sleazy logic. She laughs at all of it. She shrugs it off. In doing so, she makes her critics looks weak, pathetic, and ridiculous.

         Responding adeptly to attacks demands cool self-possession. You have to know who you are. You have to value who you are. You can't be afraid of attacks, and you can't be afraid of the people who attack you. You need to see their attacks coming; you can't flinch in the face of assault. You can't doubt your own legitimacy.

         But that's not enough. You also need to know who they are. You need to know exactly who they are, how they think, and what they are assuming that is complete and utter nonsense. That is, you need to know the ancient rhetoric of sexist ridicule. You need to recognize the array of double-binds that are classically deployed against capable women.

         So how we learn to do this? How do we gain and keep that unflappable, quick-witted confidence?

         I think we learn by sharing our stories. Look what we did for one another by sharing our #metoo stories. We all have even more stories about sexist put-downs. I have one story—one!—about a moment where I had a good comeback to a transparently sexist put-down. But I have more stories than I want to admit about times when I was blind-sided, times when I did not respond effectively to transparently sexist attack. Maybe now, thirty or even forty years later, I know what I should have said. But y'know, that's okay. Better late than never. And the more clearly I understand what I should have said back then, the more likely it is that I'll have a good comeback in the future.

         Crafting comebacks is not the only reason we need to hear one another's stories. Sometimes we just plain need one another's sympathy and support. Sometimes these memories are so painful that we still can't think straight. Maybe even now we don't see what we might have said. We still feel trapped, humiliated, helpless—and morally wrong. Guilty. At fault. Fraudulent. In situations like this, we need our friends to construct a come-back for us—and to affirm that we are not crazy. We are not hostile and paranoid. Shit like this happens.  

         And so, review that dreadful list of negative qualities attributed to women. Remember a moment when someone attacked you on that basis. Or go back to the good women/ bad women chart, and remember some moment when you or a woman you know were trapped in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" conundrum. Share that story with a couple of friends. What did you say? What might you have said? Share a sharp, revealing come-back. Invent one now. It is never too late to reclaim our dignity.

         Above all, we need to laugh together. We need relish our smart-alek comebacks. We need to celebrate the fact that our lives are immeasurably freer than the lives of our grandmothers—much less the lives of women in Milton's day. Or Thomas Jefferson's day. We must do this to defend our daughters and our grand-daughters. We must see it to that every girl grows up with the moral maturity and moral self-possession necessary to her own self-defense.

         Above all, in the months ahead, we must defend all of the women running for president. When they are attacked with #sexistridicule, all women are being ridiculed.            



Ralph Northam's failure to resign offers yet further proof that he should do so: he doesn't get it. He does not recognize what his yearbook photo says about him. His lame, day-later assertion that the photo was an editorial mistake—not his intention at all—makes me wonder why, if that were the case, no one at the time challenged him or at least warned him of this devastating slur upon his moral character. The "good ole' boy" image must have fit. Worse yet, in many ways, it must have fit into the moral culture of his medical school and his university. After all, many hands are involved in preparing any yearbook for publication. None of them picked up a phone to call him out on this. White-male privilege indeed.  

            Senator Warner, Senator Kaine, the Virginia Democratic Party, and Speaker Pelosi have demanded Northam's resignation. Where would we be today if Republicans of similar stature had responded with such unanimity against Donald Trump? That might have happened as early as his unprofessional conduct during primary debates. Or if not then, certainly after the "Access Hollywood" tapes, or at whatever point of scandalous dishonesty you might prefer. They feared Trump's "base," we say—which is to say, they were willing to become the Party of Liars and Bigots if that was the cost of winning the White House. They were transparently unwilling to gamble that a majority of Republican voters—the 60 percent who did not vote for Trump—are honest and decent Americans who recognize immorality when it appears on the national stage. Their failure has been akin to the failure of those who allowed Northam's yearbook page to stand. It is, on the whole, the larger failure because it attests to widespread, institutional moral corruption.

          In calling for Northam's resignation, the Democrats have held to a higher standard. The Democrats are willing to offend all of the good-ole-boy voters in Virginia and elsewhere who claim that Northam's yearbook page was just a joke.

            Look where Republican moral cowardice has gotten us. Having failed to draw the line years ago, they are now complicit in all the havoc this impulsive and ignorant man has wreaked upon this nation, our alliances, and our stature in the eyes of the world. They have also steadfastly turned away from honest appraisal of Trump's morally dubious entanglements with Russians, which is to say they are now complicit in his treason too. This feels like a Shakespeare tragedy unfolding through an interminable second act.

            Americans will have the government we deserve—and nothing better. If we have moral standards, then from time to time we will have to prove that we take those standards seriously. Yes, Northam should resign. But so should Trump.

            If Republican leaders want to redeem themselves and their party, if they want to prove their higher loyalty to the well-being of this nation, they will pick up the phone and tell him that.


Despite white-Christian support for Donald Trump's wall, authentic Christian tradition remains an inescapably central resource for progressives. Authentic Christian tradition can help progressives to stop America's slide toward a Christianist fascism under Donald Trump—or, for that matter, under Michael Pence or Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan. Progressives have at our disposal thousands of years of eloquent writing by smart people whose values align with ours. It's crazy to turn our backs on that heritage because we are appalled by the fundamentalist corruption of Christianity.

         Pragmatically speaking, our political success may in fact depend upon our willingness to use these resources to reassert the moral foundation of American democratic norms. Shrill denunciations won't make a difference: that's preaching to one another. And most of us are weary of these empty rants. We need to persuade Trump's voters, especially those who are or who have become ambivalent about their choice. Authentic Christian tradition offers both sharp arguments and soaring language that progressives can use—if, of course, we are not allergic to anything that hints of "religion."

         And that's not all we need. We need to recognize the specific religious anxieties that underlie the cultural and economic anxieties of Trump's base. As Arlie Hochschild has documented, they feel like "strangers in their own land." As I want to explain, feeling like "strangers"—feeling like outcasts and "losers"—is hard-wired into evangelical fears of damnation.  

         It's an odd story. But progressives need to know it, because Trump consoles this anxiety when he promises his supporters that they will win until they are tired of winning. To erode Trump's support within his base,  progressives and Democratic candidates need to understand why his message worked—and thus how to craft an equally successful message of our own. I want to offer a short, sharp backstory­–briefing to help any of us to craft such a message, even in ordinary personal conversations with friends or family who support Trump.  

         Let's begin with the Western moral foundation for human rights, including the rights of refugees on our borders and immigrants who are already living and working in this country. Assuming you read at college-level speeds, that will take two minutes. An analysis of white-evangelical anxieties will take three minutes or so. I conclude with two minutes of practical facts and examples.

         Given how much is at stake, I hope that's not too much time to ask. After 9/11, I spent fifteen years in close, multi-disciplinary, scholarly study of what has gone wrong with Christianity in America and how, systemically speaking, such pernicious attitudes over time insinuated themselves into American culture and politics. I wrote seven books about what I discovered, the last of which was published the day Trump was elected. I had feared for years that the election of someone like him was nearly inevitable.

         It is not inevitable that we will defeat him. But it certainly is possible. To win, we need to recognize and to navigate the powerful cultural currents that brought us to this crisis.

         That's what I want to explain. I will be as brief as humanly possible. I will provide links to some of my most important sources. For more detail, see my books Confronting Religious Violence and Confronting Religious Judgmentalism, published by Wipf & Stock.

Part 1: A Cultural History of Hospitality

         Let me begin with the obvious: hatred, fear, and abuse of the culturally different are not what Jesus taught. It's not what Jewish tradition before Jesus taught. It's not what "pagan" classical tradition believed. Those of us fending off despair about where America is headed under Donald Trump need to know that the positions and beliefs we struggle to defend have this rich, deep cultural history in the West.

         And so, first and foremost, those of us advocating for diversity and for decent human compassion for refugees are not advocating anything new. We are not trying to overturn some monolithic cultural norm of radically homogenous, essentially xenophobic human communities turning their collective backs on everyone else. We are defending moral norms that transcend specific religious identities and allegiances, moral norms that go back thousands of years      

         Here's the deal. How we deal with "foreigners" in our midst is an ancient moral issue. The cultural "purity" celebrated by ethno-nationalists does not in fact have any basis in human culture: "others" have always lived among "us" as a result of trade, diplomacy, employment, intermarriage, and migration (whether coerced, freely chosen, or compelled by circumstances). Human communities have always been mosaics—more or less diverse mosaics, granted, but mosaics nonetheless. And so, we inherent a long cultural conversation about our moral obligations to the culturally "other" dwelling in our midst.  

         The conversation begins with how we name the people involved. Are they "illegal aliens"—denizens of Mars, perhaps? As Irish philosopher and literary critic Richard Kearney eloquently explains in Anatheism: Returning to God after God­, the words "hostile" and "hospitality" share a word-root, a root meaning "stranger" or "foreigner." Faced with something or someone that is foreign to us—someone or something that is essentially different­ from our prior experiencewe have to decide how to react. We can reject (hostility) or welcome (hospitality).

         Myth, folklore, sacred texts, and secular literature are all replete with tales of encounters with strangers. Hospitality to strangers was just about the only moral obligation to other people that the ancient Greek gods cared about one way or another. Folklore abounds with strangers offering unexpected gifts and disconcerting wisdom. Paul's epistle to Hebrews echoes an ancient cultural commonplace: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."  

         Set that up against the Trump administration policy of kidnapping children and using them as hostages in the hopes that such devastating cruelty to children will deter further migration by desperate families. It has recently become public that the Trump administration has thousands more children lost in its maze of prison camps than had been previously reported.  "Angels unaware" indeed.

         Ancient Jewish tradition took an extraordinarily strong position on the hostile/ hospitable issue. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, emeritus Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains in The Dignity of Difference that Jewish scripture only once demands that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), but thirty-six times it commands kindness to the stranger. The Jews are to protect and care for immigrants because their ancestors were immigrants in Egypt—and badly treated as a result. (Most Americans might feel similarly obligated to welcome immigrants because we too are descended from immigrants.) In Jewish thought, Sacks explains, the primary spiritual challenge is not to develop a private relationship with God but rather to come to see God within those who are strangers to us, within foreigners and those who are different in any regard. Kindness to friends-and-family is not morally sufficient, Jewish sages insist. We are called to care for those outside the intimate circle of kith and kin.

         The historical Jesus of Nazareth took this familiar "care for the stranger" demand and raised it a step, demanding that his followers love their enemies.

         That command, which is central to his originality as a religious thinker, needs a little context. Christians scriptures were written in Greek, and the Greek word used for "love" in these passages did not command the warm-fuzzy affection we feel for friends and family. Greek has separate words for naming the feelings morally appropriate to various categories of relationships, a set of distinctions that disappear when quite different Greek concepts are all translated into the single catch-all term "love." In most contexts, feeling warm personal affection for our enemies would be morally obscene. That's not what Jesus was commanding.

         What Jesus did require was this: we must always respect the humanity of our enemies. We must always remain within the moral limits imposed upon our behavior by the fact that our enemies are fellow human beings and cherished members of somebody else's family. We are not to demonize our enemies. We are not to dehumanize our enemies. We are not to resort to violence as a way of forcing others to obey us: killing other people—or causing irreparable psychological harm to their children—is never a "policy option." Nor is the pre-emptive "war of choice," much less the pre-emptive, first-strike use of nuclear weapons. Nor are we to claim it is morally legitimate for us to do to them what they have done to us or to others with whom we are allied: atrocities do not legitimate atrocities in revenge. We are always to remember that every person everywhere is a child of God and bearer of God's sacred light.

         God smites no one, Jesus insisted. And so we cannot claim religious justification for smiting one another. Quite the contrary, in fact: thou shalt not kill has been commanded from the very beginning.

         This moral heritage does not by itself constitute policy solutions to the problems we face: climate change, affordable housing, income disparity, healthcare costs, etc. But it does offer a set of standards by which any policy—and any politician—might be evaluated.

 Part Two: The Roots of Christian Xenophobia

         In violation of rudimentary Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian moral norms, Trump abuses other people as incessantly and compulsively as he lies. He appeals to parallel vices in his base—racism and xenophobia—in order to sustain their support amidst the threats posed by a Democratic Congress, the Mueller investigation, and growing public outrage over his border policies. If we want to stop him, we must first understand why he has succeeded as he has among white Christians whose religion should have precluded their support. 

         The prominence of reactionary, harshly judgmental Christians within Trump's base is theologically complex but logically quite simple. They flatly reject classical biblical teachings calling for hospitality toward outsiders and refraining from violence against enemies. They reject classic biblical teachings that all people carry the image of God, and so we have inescapable moral obligations toward all people. As a result, they reject contemporary secular doctrines, derived from these ancient biblical teachings, that all people possess human rights that can neither be surrendered nor taken away. (Note, perhaps, that there is no basis in Greek or Roman philosophy for this radical claim about essential human equality.)

         Trump's evangelical supporters don't buy universal human rights because in the 1500s Martin Luther and John Calvin repudiated its theological foundation: for Luther and Calvin, the "image of God" in us was destroyed by Adam and Eve.  Only "the Saved" functionally regain the inward "image of God." The Damned are not, in this regard, fully human. The Damned must be controlled—as coercively as necessary—by the community of the Saved. That's why Christian radicals think it's appropriate for them to impose their religious practices on the rest of us, for instance by denying insurance coverage for birth control or refusing civil rights and public accommodations to gay couples.

         Anxiety and hostility toward "outsiders" are hard-wired into these beliefs: there's no way for any of us to prove we count among the Saved. Fervent piety, scrupulously correct doctrinal allegiance, and upstanding moral virtue are all necessary for Salvation, but they are never sufficient. Even the best and holiest among us fail to earn the approval of Calvin's remote and vindictive deity. Calvin's God condemns everyone to his eternal torture. But He selects a few—the tiniest slice of humanity—to be Saved. Even they are Saved for no humanly discernable reason: as far as we can see, God's choice is entirely capricious.

         As a result, our ultimate fate is not in our own hands. No matter how hard we try, we cannot earn God's approval. We are helpless in the face of his eternal violence—a state of affairs that easily elicits a primal rage. Such rage need not be conscious to influence our behavior—especially our behavior in groups.     

         The only hope believers can have is what came to be called "inner assurance" of their status in God's eyes: sheer personal confidence that they are Saved. But the flip side of "inward assurance" is chronic anxiety and then increasingly rigid commitment to the rigid demands of doctrinal orthodoxy, religious observance, and proper behavior. Needless to say, such anxious rigidity is easily transformed into remarkable hostility toward outsiders—who are, by definition, the Damned.

         Calvin and Luther didn't buy the universality of an essentially sacred human moral dignity because in the 800s the emperor Charlemagne didn't buy it. And why not? Because Charlemagne needed theological cover for his savage campaigns against the Saxons, a non-Christian Germanic tribe.

         Charlemagne got what he wanted by using his political power to impose liturgical changes. These changes emphasized both the savage violence of God and God's implacable hatred for the Damned.

         Here's how that worked. The church altar had evolved from a literal to a symbolic pot-luck dinner table celebrating God's hospitality and our hospitality in obedience to God: all are welcome and none leave hungry. Under Charlemagne, the altar became a memorial to God's implacable hostility. It was symbolically transformed from dinner table to butcher block, a locus for ritual remembrance of the death of Jesus. Jesus' brutal murder was radically re-defined as a human sacrifice desired by God to assuage God's wrath and mollify God's offended honor. This human sacrifice was necessary to enable God to exempt a very few people from his eternal torture in the afterlife. The eternal violence of God thus provides a moral example of how to treat enemies—an example that Charlemagne pursued against the Saxons.

         This fraught division of humanity into Saved and Damned in effect sacralizes the militarism, racism, and xenophobia that Trump advocates: God himself hates and will someday torment eternally all of "them," whomever the targeted population might be at a given moment. Scholars have delineated how Charlemagne's liturgical changes, combined with belief in the pathological violence of a savage deity, built a conceptual structure that provided pseudo-religious justification for crusades, inquisitions, colonialism, and the African slave trade.

         This cultural history helps to explain the red-state paranoia and rage that Trump has exploited so successfully. Here's how his electoral map developed: in the 18th and 19th centuries, repeated waves of "Great Awakenings" spread this corrupted version of Christianity all across the rural American South.  The Great Awakenings featured religious-revival meetings intended to bring unbelievers to Christ by spreading the fear of Damnation. The revivals also sought to rouse up in the faithful both the rigor and the fervor of America's first Puritans.

         In Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, historian Christine Leigh Heyrman recounts the sweepingly negative social consequences of the acute anxiety these revivals provoked. As she explains, "Many southern whites, both humble and great, believed that evangelicals, by this unsparing emphasis on mankind's sinfulness, hell's torments, and Satan's wiles, estranged men and women from the strong and decent parts of their personalities and plunged them into fathomless inner darkness. From that fall there could be no easy recovery, for . . . self-alienation snuffed out social identity and ruptured communal bonds. All that leavened the isolation of such anguished souls was the company of demons 'black as coal' who abided within and sometimes walked the earth." Some of these men and women committed suicide. Others rejected members of their own families who refused to "come to Jesus." The social fabric of rural communities was devastated by radical religious partisanship.

         Therein lies the cultural matrix that Donald Trump has exploited: he offers a parody of Salvation. He hasn't a clue about this cultural backstory of the Saved and the Damned and the violence of Charlemagne's parody of God. But he clearly recognizes and manipulates the hardwired insecurity and defensiveness that the Saved/ Damned dichotomy has for centuries now elicited within white-evangelical circles. In fact, he shares that insecurity and defensiveness himself: his division of the world into Winners and Losers is a direct secular descendent of Calvin's claim that prosperity and social status are evidence of God's favor and thus an indirect marker of Salvation. (Being rich doesn't prove you are Saved, but being poor certainly suggests you are Damned.)

         Supporting Trump supposedly confers secure membership in the community of Winners; when he promises to attack Losers with all the force that the federal government can muster, he offers an outlet for the rage felt by anyone who feels both socially and economically "inferior."

         That's a uniquely American-Christian-fundamentalist form of fascism. It's also a batshit crazy inversion of everything Jesus taught. But through the Puritans, this inversion is powerfully encoded both theologically and culturally within American discourse. As I explained years ago in Selling Ourselves Shortin America, if you are not rich it's your own fault. You are a sinner. You're Damned. And if you are a desperate refugee, you are undoubtedly Damned.

         Add to this toxic heritage the following psychological pressures: the attacks of 9/11; our failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the rise of random mass-murders by alienated white American males; and the financial collapse of 2008. Anxiety this awful will always seek an outlet, most commonly in rage. In sum, the election of someone like Trump looks almost inevitable. We may be lucky, historically speaking, that he happens to be such an erratic buffoon. Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan might have posed a far greater danger because they understands far better than Trump does how to manipulate white-evangelical religious anxiety.

         The liberal-progressive Christian Left is the largest group out here that fully understands the theologically complex matrix Trump has exploited, a matrix that remains available to his successors. Progressive Christians have a rich conceptual heritage and ample rhetorical resources for reclaiming the proper functioning of American moral values and civic ideals. We understand how to persuade Trump supporters to re-align with what Jesus actually taught: address their hard-wired religious insecurity with what Jesus actually said about God. Offer them a secure moral identity as Americans. Insist upon American patriotic ideals transparently derived from what Jesus said—and insist that government in fact live up to those ideals.

         Many evangelicals—many Trump supporters—are good people who have been lied to and slickly manipulated ever since the first well-funded "prayer breakfasts" to convince local clergy that the New Deal was "godless Communism." A decade later, Republicans sought to block progressive economic policies by allying themselves with white-supremacist Southerners opposed to civil rights and integration. This alliance is on a par with Charlemagne's corruption of the liturgy. Christians on the Left understand all of this. We have been fighting it for generations. And for generations we have watched the Democratic party establishment flounder around, tone-deaf and clueless on religion, flatly unable to counter this corrupt alliance among neo-con militaristsradical libertarians, and Southern evangelical clergy.

         Christian progressives know how to tell a resonant new story about American identity. And that's what we need. Here's what that might look like, and why it might work.

 Part Three: Defeating Christian Fundamentalist Fascism

        Trump might be toppled from his base as quickly as he rose, because white-evangelical metaphysical anxiety is inherently unstable. God is inscrutable. Trump is clearly a "notorious sinner." Scripture is replete with condemnations of politicians like him, just as it is replete with demands that the faithful care for the poor, the outcast, the hungry, and workers deprived of just wages. None of that squares with the radical libertarian crony-capitalism of elites like the Koch network, just as none of it squares with the refusal to address climate change or stop corporate damage to the natural environment.

         Furthermore, white-evangelical churches are facing a catastrophic exodus of members, especially among those younger than fifty. Large and growing organizations on the evangelical Left are actively courting these white-evangelical dissidents, providing vital communities for those who insist upon the social-justice agenda of the classic biblical prophetic tradition. For generations now, the Catholic Left and the mainline Protestant Left have exerted similar pressure upon their denominations, all of which face an equally dire exodus of good people disgusted by what "Christianity" has come to stand for in this country.

         In short, reactionary white Christians are not the dangerous monolith that secular liberals imagine, just as the immigrant caravans are not the looming threat imagined by Fox News. Reactionary and fundamentalist Christianity is on the brink of collapse. Their political alliance with radical neo-cons and libertarian oligarchs may shift—it may have to shift—if their congregations are going to survive demographically.

         And so red-state Christians may to respond to political messages that resonate to the moral values, the concepts, and the poetry of the authentic Western moral tradition I sketched at the outset. They need to come to Jesus, so to speak—to what the man actually taught, not to what this corrupt merger of church-and-oligarchy has turned Christianity into. (This alliance has, if nothing else, proved devastating for them economically, a fact well-documented by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas.)

         The new generation of unapologetically progressive Democrats have an extraordinary opportunity here to rise above that secular-liberal hostility to all religion. They recognize that not all Christians are fundamentalists, and not all of Christian tradition is pernicious. This new generation seems to care more about what people do—how we act, what issues we support—than about the conceptual origins of our motives. By that measure, the Christian Left are worthy allies. Authentic cultural pluralism makes space for Christians like me and the potent cultural resources we bring with us.

         That bodes well. To reweave the national fabric, we need a new story about America's founding ideals, including its vision of universal human rights and government that serves the common good not the one percent. We need to tell a new story about who we are as Americans, a tale that creates and affirms a secure communal moral identity. We need—we have always had—an alternative to the radical consumerist individualism of free-market capitalism, with all of the besieged, anxious loneliness and alienation that consumerism entails. Younger Americans in particular increasingly question the dictum I Am What I Own. They are comfortable with the claim that there's more to life than earning the most money possible—the classic secular version of Calvinist Salvation.

         Here's an example of what that might sound like: There is more to being an American than being a Winner in Trump's sense of that word. To be an American is to believe that there is moral dignity in offering compassion and respect to all people, period. There is moral dignity in refusing to exploit or abuse others. There is moral dignity in being good neighbors and responsible citizens who follow the rules and do their part in maintaining the common good (that includes paying a fair share of taxes). There is moral dignity in personal integrity, honest collaboration, hard work, and the refusal to boast.

         In behaving with dignity, we affirm the dignity of others. That's the deal. There is no other. If you want to feel respected and valued, you have to offer respect and honor to others. If you want a life that has meaning, you have to see meaning in the lives of everyone around you—no matter what their ethnicity or income or citizenship.

         "American" is a standard of behavior towards others. This needs to be said. It needs to be said repeatedly and forcefully. "American" is not a birthright ethnicity like "French" or "Chinese." "American" is moral ideal—a moral ideal richly rooted in Western moral teachings about hospitality and respect for others. America is a nation committed to the belief that all of us are equal and so all of us are equally obligated to one another's well-being.

         America has failed repeatedly in the past to live up to its own ideals. We all know that. That doesn't for a moment change what our beliefs are. If we stop celebrating these moral norms, if we stop teaching these beliefs, if we stop demanding them of our elected officials, then America has ceased to be America. We're just a polyglot collection of people who are profoundly suspicious of one another, savagely competing to control the wealth of our land. That's why so many people joke about moving to Canada: it is reasonable to want to belong to a civilized nation.

         We can't defeat Trump unless we have something solid to offer in his place. Without a vision, scripture warns, the people perish. If we can work together to reclaim America's vision, we may in fact survive Trump's presidency


Christians are supposed to pray for our enemies, so I've been praying for Donald Trump. I have not been praying that he gets what he wants. Nor have I been advocating with God for Trump's agenda.That's not what prayer is or how prayer functions. Neither have I been been praying that Trump will miraculously awaken one day as a new and honorable man. As I see it, all the prayers in the world won't change Donald Trump.

         Prayer does not alter the causal structure of the cosmos. Literal-minded fundamentalism may worship Causality Deified, but that's not what the rest of Christian tradition is talking about. God is not some bearded old guy sitting at a celestial keyboard, poised to enter "command-control-smite" or "command-control-cure" in response to our fervent pleading. Or as an orthodox Jewish friend of mine said once, curtly, "God is not a vending machine."

         In praying for Trump, I am trying to see him as God sees him, so to speak—which is say with compassion and mercy. As I see it, relationship with the Sacred would help to heal Trump and thus to change his behavior. As drunks can't get sober without first recognizing that they are drunks, Trump can't change without recognizing the need for change: moral judgment comes into play inescapably. But it does so through the logic of natural consequences. Nobody needs to worry about the threat of eternal torture by a pathologically vindictive and controlling God. The God of theologically sophisticated Christian tradition is not some inflated version of the brutally murderous totalitarian dictator.

         No matter what, praying for someone demands humility from the person who prays. It demands that I outgrow my tendency to focus on my own needs, fears, and assumptions about the fabric of someone else's experience. Praying for friends in crisis helps to equip me to show up at their side with my heart open and my mouth closed, ready to do whatever they need with less likelihood of projecting my own needs and fears all over them and their situation. In praying for them, I have already worked through those temptations and those anxieties. I won't show up hysterical, demanding consolation, adding to the burden they face. I am also far less likely to see them as helpless and overwhelmed and needing someone—surely ME!—to swoop in and take control.      

         In parallel fashion, praying for my enemies requires that I set aside for a moment my hostility toward them in order to make a good-faith effort to share their suffering, their fears, their needs, and so forth. To do so, I must combat my own tendency to dehumanize them, to objectify them, to over-simplify the conflict between us in ways that portray me as purely good and them as purely evil. 

         Bit by bit, over many months, my inconsistent and fleeting efforts to pray for Donald Trump have made a remarkable difference—for me, not for him. Three things have changed.

         First, I am much less afraid that Trump poses a profound threat to democracy.  I see him now as remarkably weak: as insecure, impulsive, transparently dishonest, and visibly haunted by the need for external approval. He would be a most unreliable partner in any nefarious plot to destroy democracy. Furthermore, eliciting our panic and hysterical partisanship is part of the Russian plot against America: we need to stop feeding those trolls. I'm not saying we can ignore Trump or write him off as just a buffoon. Given the power of his office, the man is genuinely dangerous. He has done a lot of irreparable damage. The threat of nuclear war with Korea remains: millions, perhaps billions of lives hang in the balance. What's happening to refugee children and their parents is obscene. The rollback of environmental regulations is catastrophic. And so forth: you know the litany as well as I do. But Trump himself is in thrall to major self-destructive impulses. Sooner or later he will in fact destroy himself.

         That process is already underway: it is slowly becoming public knowledge that his real estate empire is probably a house of cards fabulously indebted to Russian oligarchs, and furthermore a global money-laundering front for organized crime in Russia and elsewhere. His carrying-on about "no collusion" now feels to me closely akin to that scene in the Wizard of Oz where the great wizard keeps shouting, "pay no attention to the man behind that curtain." You don't have to be Shakespeare or a Greek tragedian to recognize where this story is headed. The only open question is how much devastation we will face once he is gone—and how much popular pressure now can limit that loss.

         Second, because I am less afraid of Trump, I am also feeling far less isolated. I am genuinely comforted by how quickly grass-roots democracy roused from its slumbers and roared back at him. We have a lot more work to do, granted. But the new civic engagement testifies vividly to the strength of key American traditions.

          Finally, praying for Trump has cleared my head and steadied my nerves. I am far better focused these days. I can track what I need to track about what's going on in Washington without coming away distraught. Like anyone else, I am more likely to do something useful if I can keep my wits about me: panic and planning are inversely proportional. Furthermore, prayer has stopped me from spreading the hate-mongering and hysteria-mongering that alienates potential allies.

         Hate-mongering and hysteria-mongering have strategic consequences that have been very well mapped. Research into nonviolence resistance has demonstrated over and over again that the success of resistance movements depends primarily upon drawing in allies, especially allies who are themselves reasonably safe-and-secure, which is to say in control of financial resources and cultural authority that the most threatened groups (for instance, kidnapped toddlers and their deported parents) cannot directly access. The moral issues involved in hate-mongering are no less clear. In the November 12, 2018 New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lapore quotes Martin Luther King Jr on that fact. King said, "We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can't reach good ends through evil means, because the means represents the seed and the end represents the tree." Hating our enemies is evil. Rousing other to hatred is evil.

     Praying for our enemies help to stop that evil from spreading. Our opposition will be wiser, more sustainable, and less likely to backfire tragically if we do not mimic Trump's strategy of stirring up dark fears and primitive hostilities. Prayer is an antidote to such hysteria, because praying for our enemies keeps them in human scale. Prayer keeps us from inhumane excess. Prayer keeps us from imitating our enemies in the effort to outdo them. Prayer keeps creating common ground between us despite the contrary pressures of our fears and our own egotism.

         It's like this. A friend of mind once had a squirrel fall down her chimney into her cold fireplace. Alas, they had just moved into the house a day or two before. She had a brand-new baby. And so the last thing on her mind had been putting away all of the wedding-gift wineglasses that the movers have left lined up on her dining room table when they unpacked. One morning she heard a crash, went down to investigate, and saw this squirrel running across the tops of her stemware. Little grey pawprints ran all across the top her white sofa.

         Because she was postpartum, she reacted with an adrenaline surge worthy of attack by a saber-toothed tiger. But really, it was just a panicky squirrel blinded by soot.

         So also, Trump has subsided in my mind from saber-toothed-tiger status to panicky-squirrel status. As anyone knows, a panicky squirrel can do a lot of expensive damage. But it's still just a squirrel. We have the wherewithal to cope with squirrels. And American democracy has the wherewithal to cope with Trump. When we inflate the danger he poses, we are buying into the illusion he tries to project. We have to stop doing that.

          In prayer, or through prayer, my understanding of Trump has gained nuance, nuance that might wisely inform our ongoing resistance. Consider this, for instance. Just consider it for a moment: At his best, and especially in the eyes of his supporters, Trump might have genuinely wanted to be the transformative leader he claimed to be, the bold outsider, disgusted by the role of money in politics, who would forge an entirely new and more economically just consensus in American politics by forcing the Republican party to serve the working classes it had so shamelessly exploited for generations. He might, in fact, have wanted to redeem a lifetime of his own sleazy dealings and exploitation. He would not have been the first rich and ruthless white guy who moved toward public service as he aged. But in the end, Trump could not escape the habits and the needs forged by a lifetime of choices. As Dante might have predicted, he was trapped by the weight of his own prior choices—by the man he had repeatedly chosen to become.

         I'm guessing, obviously. I'm not saying there's external evidence for any of this: praying for someone is an imaginative exercise, an exercise in empathy. It's not investigative journalism. Prayer also suggested another possibility, one you may have seen described elsewhere: perhaps Trump entered the campaign on a lark, because he was  bored, because he enjoyed mocking other candidates, and he thought his barbs during presidential debates would enhance his "brand" with millions of potential customers who were also disgusted by what politics had become. He wanted to play the buffoon for a while, that's all: the showman, the political equivalent of class clown. 

         But then the audiences at his rallies intoxicated him. He began playing to them, and they to him, and his campaign swirled down into the darkest recesses of totalitarianism and white supremacy. And he won the election. And then he found himself faced with briefing papers he could not begin to comprehend, and responsibilities he could not fathom, and hundreds of thousands of angry women all over the nation marching in the streets, mocking his exceedingly insecure sexuality in forthrightly vulgar, witty terms.

         Laughter is a weapon of mass disruption: there's no way to outflank thousands and thousands of women wearing handmade pink hats with cat ears, the kind of hat ordinarily worn only by toddlers—mocking the new Toddler in Chief who had bragged about grabbing women by the "pussy." It was a movement sprung up almost overnight on social media.

         Here was a very different mass audience from those at his campaign rallies. And meanwhile, his Russian connections were coming to light. His ad-hoc and amateurish campaign had not a clue how to transition into actual governance except by filling offices with other grifters and cronies, a process that began to backfire almost immediately. The walls started closing in on him. It's a tale worthy of Sophocles, tragic chorus and all.    

         This is a very different imaginative account of Trump's experience. It's no less conjectural than my first version. But in praying for him, I have come to think that some such tragic story, almost mythic in its proportions, may be the truth of the matter. Like umpteen characters in both myth and folklore, he yearned for something (attention), he got what he yearned for, and getting what he wanted is slowly destroying him—as the nation and the world watch, horrified.

         Whatever the truth about Donald Trump—one of my imagined tales, or whatever fact-checking historians will eventually assemble—praying for Donald Trump has left me reasonably confident that in the long run America will simply clean up whatever mess he leaves behind, rebuild or replace what needs replacing, and carry on. We are weary and disgusted, yes; but we have ample resources for coping with him and plenty of compatriots equally determined to engage these resources. There are plenty of new grass-roots organizations coordinating our efforts, and lots of established non-profits with deep expertise in this kind of work.

          If God said anything to me as I tried to pray—so it speak—it was something like, Really, girl, get a grip. I think that's good spiritual advice, so I'm passing it along: we need to be calm, relentless, organized and strategic in our opposition to the Trump agenda. Our efforts will be wiser, more sustainable, and less likely to backfire tragically if we do not wildly exaggerate the threat posed by Donald Trump. Praying for our enemies keeps them in human scale. It stops us from justifying atrocious behavior against them. It keeps creating common ground between us despite the contrary pressures of our own egotism and insecurity.

         Praying for Trump led me inexorably to pray for Trump's supporters too. This has been even more complicated. In prayer I have been reminded repeatedly that I voted twice for Bill Clinton despite recognizing that he was sleazy jerk. But I thought he would mostly pursue policies I liked, and appoint judges that I liked. I thought his Republican opponents would be immeasurably worse.

         This recognition was not a welcome spiritual insight. I've had to sit for a long time pondering the fact that many people who voted for Trump may have done so from the same politics of expediency that led me to vote for Bill Clinton.    

         The more I struggled against my own reluctance to pray for Trump supporters, the more I felt forced to recognize that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigned on many of the same issues. And that's not all. Extraordinarily legislative intransigence in Washington during the Obama administration did call for a bold deal-maker who can challenge some precedents—like the Hastert rule—and get things done that the vast majority of Americans want to see happen. Trump did promise affordable healthcare for everyone. He did promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. He did promise to keep America safe, which would not, ahem, mean starting trade wars, attacking security agencies, ignoring intelligence reports, and dismantling major alliances. Some of his supporters no doubt honestly believed that he was who he claimed to be—as if he were something like a classic mid-century Republican progressive, that otherwise extinct species of politician.

         But what about Trump's racism, his hate-mongering, his incitements to violence? I don't know. There's a lot I will probably never understand about how anyone voted for the man. Nonetheless, praying for the people who did vote for him has opened me to seeing—to feeling—that many of the issues that worry them also worry me. Common ground between us will be rapidly eroded if I focus only on how we differ—and on my own feelings of contempt and condemnation around these differences.

         Common ground is morally expensive real estate. Outrage is getting cheaper all the time. At first, praying for Trump supporters left me feeling stranded as if on a small wet rock amidst the torrents of angry partisanship flowing past me on all sides. Cripes. What would it take to delineate honest common ground in compelling and effective ways? I'm not sure. More PR acumen and policy expertise than I'll ever have, I suspect. But as I continued to pray, that one small wet rock began to feel like a much bigger place, like an island maybe, like a place where other people could land and seek shelter.

         All the PR experts and policy wonks in the world won't re-establish national unity and singleness of heart until the rest of us recognize that hating one another is politically toxic because it is morally toxic. We can't condemn Trump's white-supremacist racism, his hate-mongering, and his xenophobia while indulging in the very same sweeping hostility toward his supporters. That doesn't work. We have to learn to love the people we think of as our enemies because that's the necessary first step to transforming enemies into friends and allies—or at least into decent human beings with whom we can have truly civil and collaborative relationships toward reaching common goals. Because we have common goals. That's what praying for Trump supporters forced me to face, whether I wanted to or not. 

         Praying for enemies is not fun. It is exceedingly messy. It demands a generosity of spirit that I find very difficult to sustain for any length of time. And it comes with no guarantee that anything will change: the God who is not a vending machine offers no assurances of success or even influence over outcomes. My praying for enemies may not change anything or anyone but me, by calming me down and minimizing the toxicity flowing through my heart.

         But maybe that's okay. The friend who insisted that God is not a vending machine also told me that we are not morally required to change the world. We are required to be a healing influence in whatever small corner we occupy, one small resilient part of a vaster healing that may never be completed and whose results we may never see face-to-face.  

         That begins, that must begin, with the healing of our own souls.

          Let us pray.

Copyright © 2024, Catherine Wallace. All Rights Reserved.