Donald Trump challenges belief that religion matters in politics

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I was whizzing through the latest book by British psychoanalyst-author Adam Phillips -- he's prolific and I only manage to read every third book or so that he writes -- when I tripped on this line:

"If religion and its structures of moral authority were to be no longer objects of desire -- and towards the end of the 19th century, unlike today, this seemed like a distinct possibility ... "

Whoa. He's right to say that, in the late 1800s, when Freud began his run at ending the reign of traditional religion and the rigid Victorian morality accompanying it, many people felt a new secular culture was inevitable. Those people included, Phillips writes, Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche, along with Freud. They were sure humans would soon be liberated from the dead hand of religion and its chilling, divinely mandated moralism. Freud's own mission was explaining (away) how those weird ideas about God and the duty to obey Him first arose.

For a long time their expectation was borne out. By the 1960s, U.S. Christianity itself included a "Death of God" movement -- based on Nietzsche's jibe: not just that God doesn't exist, but he's gone and died. Theologians wrote books like The Secular City. Then, in the late 1900s, came an unexpected turn: old-time religion bounced back. Evangelical Christianity morphed into a mighty spiritual force -- and a political one. The religious right more or less took over the Republican Party; every candidate had to court it. Even Democrats like Obama, Carter and the Clintons postured showily about their conversions and faith.

That's the new (or new new) reality Phillips acknowledged by saying that today, secularism no longer seems "a distinct possibility," as it had in Freud's time. Religion has unexpectedly restaked its claim. Phillips' book, assuming this restoration of religion to a prestigious place, just appeared last week. And yet, I give you as counter-evidence, the rise of Donald Trump.

Trump doesn't so much reject religion's importance as laugh in its face. No candidate has done this in decades, maybe ever. Early in his run he claimed to be Christian, but with his telltale salesman's leer. He called the Bible his favourite book and the number one bestseller ever, though just ahead of The Art of the Deal. He couldn't recall his favourite verse, then buffoonishly tossed out "an eye for an eye." When it became clear he didn't require this item to snare "Christian" votes, he simply dropped it from his spiel. When did he last make one of those vaudeville gestures in the direction of Christianity?

So thanks, Trump, for revealing yet another political reality of our time that everyone else was wrong about. I too had assumed that religion had re-emerged as a mighty force against all expectations. And yes, Trump voters will probably still call themselves Christians. But it clearly doesn't count among their motives compared to other, more urgent impulses -- like economic angst or racial resentment -- since they're determined to stick with him despite the clear fact that he's nobody's idea of a faithful believer.

Stately right-wing theorists like David Frum and Bill Kristol built their notions of the American right's identity on two pillars: evangelical Christianity and "conservatism." Trump has vandalized both pillars and gone unscathed.

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi has written on the latter. These Republican voters, he says, were never true conservatives; they were basically angry, scared people. Strip away those ornamental pillars and you'll see what really moves them. It turns out Nietzsche, with his analysis of "resentment" among fearful, browbeaten human beings, probably has more to tell you about recent right-wing voting patterns than either Jesus Christ or Ayn Rand. Or try reading the Freudian Wilhelm Reich, in his book on Nazi-era German politics: Listen, Little Man.

One other association, since somebody mentioned Freud. What about religion's role in the Muslim world, especially since 9/11. Is it truly central? There's been some investigation, anecdotally, about 9/11 bombers who went to Vegas shortly before, or British jihadis who ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies on their way to Syria. And more soberly, about the trained and qualified but displaced and resentful Muslims in Europe, who sign on. They might all testify to being fervent believers but if an equivalent to Trump showed up, would they absent themselves for religious reasons, or carry on anyway?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr

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