The full horror of last week’s presidential election became evident a few days after the result had been called. That was when the first campaign promises were sadly broken: Various ghastly “celebrities” who had pledged to emigrate if Trump were elected now indicated that they would, after all, be staying in the U.S.A. What can one say? Canada’s gain is our loss? No pundit has thus far investigated whether the thought of Miley Cyrus and company leaving the country might have tipped the election the Donald’s way, but it must be worth considering. Were I fortunate enough to be able to combine representation with my very real taxation, the prospect of their departure would certainly have made the Republican candidate a tad more attractive to me.
But the days after the election have confirmed two views of mine, which I have articulated at First Things before. First, there is my view that the nation-state is in a very precarious condition. The proliferation of socially and psychologically constructed identities now seems to take priority over any sense of national identity. The analogy of Brexit with the rise of Trump is not limited to their being unexpected popular reactions against the liberal order. Their aftermaths, too, are similar. There is the refusal of the losers to accept the result. There is the losers' simplistic deployment of the rhetoric of racism and phobias to demonize the winners. And there is the childishness of those who now claim to feel “unsafe” and who resort to infantile activities such as coloring and leaving post-it notes on therapeutic walls to alleviate their angst. Combine these antics with the criminal rioting, and it is arguable that the things on which a functioning democratic nation-state depends—a shared understanding of the common good, a respect for those with whom one disagrees, and a robust confidence in the rule of law—are perilously tenuous at this moment. Will the nation-state survive, or will it transform (peacefully or violently) into something else? At this juncture it is surely impossible to tell.
My second view relates to how I ended election week. I had the privilege of preaching at the ordination of a friend to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the small Protestant denomination to which I belong. I preached on a text from 2 Timothy, my friend took vows to care for the people in his church, and life then carried on as normal. My friend will preach Christ week by week, he will baptize infants, administer the Lord’s Supper, perform weddings, visit the sick, prepare the living for death, comfort the mourning, and bury the dead. This is because the Christian ministry continues the same as ever in its basic elements, regardless of the wider political context. Sometimes the culture is more friendly, sometimes more hostile, to us. But what we do does not change, nor do the basic needs of the people to whom we minister. It does not matter in any ultimate sense who controls the House or the Senate, who sits in the White House, or what confected micro-identity votes en masse for which candidate. The gospel does not change, nor does the task of the minister who is charged with its proclamation.
The extreme reactions of Christians on both sides of the presidential race has been interesting. Some have claimed that Christians backing Trump have damaged Christianity’s credibility in the wider culture. Well, I think that orthodox Christianity has had precious little cultural credibility for many years, and so there is probably no need to panic on that score. And anyway, the Bible nowhere makes lack of cultural credibility a legitimate excuse for unbelief. Others have greeted Trump as some kind of hero figure. Well, the best I can say at the moment is that the president-elect, in addition to his recent conversion to the pro-life cause, does not appear to care one way or the other about religious liberty. Therefore, there might be a respite in the slow and steady contraction of the scope of the First Amendment which the Obama years have witnessed. But that hardly makes Trump a leader of messianic proportions. When hoping for no more incursions into First-Amendment rights is the height of our ambition, we live in a day of small things, methinks.
So last week was a week in which everything changed and nothing changed. For all the hysteria on both sides, Christianity has no more and no less cultural credibility than it had before. But Christian life goes on. It would have done so if the election had gone the other way. It is time for Christians to put not their trust in princes—and return to business as usual.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.