The now infamous second presidential debate was a spectacle that few decent Americans want to witness again. It was also a spectacular one-act recapitulation of the four-hundred-year-long drama of sex and sin in Protestant America.
The irony should not be lost on us. One of President Obama’s campaign slogans was “Change,” a rather open-ended term denoting that we would escape the Current State of Things. A second slogan, “Hope,” indicated what might be necessary in the human heart to animate such “Change.” In all, the promise was this: We Americans need not be bound by the burden of history; we can repudiate it, if we have enough “Hope.” The world can be made new, hence a third campaign slogan, “Forward”—a term so encompassing as to allow us to conceive of casting off the burden not just of a few specific sins, but of sin itself. Lighter with each step, we will walk toward a purified world, wholly without stain. After the unsuccessful labor that is American history, we stand on the threshold of being a nation that has been cleansed—hence the adoption of “clean” energy and the repudiation of “dirty” oil, and hence the need to go to the Middle East to admit the sins of America, so that a “restart” might occur in that weary, war-torn region. And then there is the deepest and most sublime aspect of Obama’s presidency, the intimation that President Obama himself—half-black, half-white—might serve as a mediator between an innocent black race that has endured two centuries of cruelty, and the blood-stained hands of the white race, so that the deepest wound in America might be healed and we might, finally, become one nation.
But on what foundation does the call for “Change” rest? Here lies the irony. The tropes and the imagery are Biblical, and yet they serve the purpose of drawing our attention away from our long, stained, religious legacy (do they not “cling to their guns and their religion”?) and toward a future that is unburdened by it.
“A world made new”: Can this have anything more than a superficial meaning if it is not understood in light of Revelations 21:5 (“Behold, I make all things new”)? The idea that we stand on the threshold of a new age: What meaning can this have without the divine resonance provided by the account of the long-suffering Hebrews and their darkened wanderings through the desert, followed by the teary-eyed hope offered to Moses in Deuteronomy 34:1, who finally sees the Promised Land? Finally, the racial mediation that white citizens needed to find in President Obama, so that through him they might atone for the defilement that is slavery: What is this if not a pale reiteration of the grandest of all claims of the New Testament, namely, the Good News that through the mediation of the Son of God (1 Timothy 2:5), the sins of the sons of man shall be covered over, and their remorse be no more?
By virtue of being raised, in part, in the black churches, President Obama knows these religious tropes by heart. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is the finest example of the use of these tropes in the twentieth century. If you do not now weep while watching it, you are lost; and America is lost as well. Yet after President Obama’s two terms in office, one thing is clear: The world has not been made new. We have not had “Change.” “Hope” has been nearly extinguished. We have not moved “Forward.” Perhaps Martin Luther King was the wiser, for he marched through the parched desert faithfully. President Obama thought he could lead His People into the land of milk and honey (Exodus 33:3) triumphantly.
President Obama wanted to “fundamentally transform” America. The religious tropes of America cannot be used in this way—to repudiate the America that gave rise to those tropes.
What if nations cannot be unburdened from their legacies? What if they are forever bound by them? Religiously speaking, what if the first Puritans are with us today, not so much in the form of doctrine and creedal statements, but rather as “habits of mind,” as Alexis de Tocqueville called them? The Puritan beginning is also the American destiny, he wrote in Volume I of Democracy in America. How might this be so?
Let us turn to the infamous second presidential debate of October 9, which has rightly sickened so many Americans. I will give an account of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a moment; first I must say a few things about the third figure in the room, Bill Clinton. I want to do so, not to air and catalog claims about his sexual exploits outside of his marriage, but with a view to the question: How does he understand sin?
Bill and Hillary Clinton may share political ambitions, and they seem to be a unified team; but they are very different sorts of religious creatures. In the October 5, 1998 issue of the The New Yorker, Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton our First Black President. Might he be our First Black President in that his understanding of sin accords with that of the black Protestant churches? Yes, of course there are denominational distinctions. What the black churches share, and what they have in common with a huge swath of white Protestant churches, is an understanding that one never quite receives enough of God’s grace to be assured of salvation. Sin, manifested as sexual temptation out of wedlock, is an ever-present danger. A man might get it together on one day, then fall into temptation the next. This understanding has been held by Protestants in the Arminian tradition, both black and white. Only by divine intervention, by the grace of God, can sexual temptation be overcome. Yet because man is broken, he may also lose the grace that has been mercifully given. Here we have the Anxious Christian, brought low by sin, raised up by grace, and brought to his knees again by remorse and guilt over the sin he next commits. The most widely broadcast example of this sort of sinner is the famous Jimmy Swaggart “I Have Sinned” sermon of 1988. Bill Clinton is the Anxious Christian.
This understanding of sin stands in stark contrast to the Puritan understanding. In America, we talk about our “elections,” and usually think of them in rather mundane terms. But the etymology of the term points to something more hallowed and reverential. “Election” is traced to the Latin eligere, which means “to pick out” and “to separate.” The word “vote,” too, has sacred overtones; it derives from the Latin vovere, which means “to vow.” I am not alone in sensing, as I close the curtain behind me on Election Day, that something deeply mysterious and important happens when I pull the lever. Election Day is a day picked out from the rest, distinguished from all others, which are mundane. What, then, do we make of the Puritan settlers of New England four hundred years ago, who spoke not as Anxious Christians, but as the Christian Elect? They, too, were picked out, and distinguished by the demarcation separating those purified by God and those irredeemably stained.
In the political vernacular of the 2016 election cycle, we might speak of those who are irredeemably stained as, say, a “basket of deplorables.” The Christian Elect, on the other hand, are the covenantal community picked out by God from before all time, to do His work in the world of time. The damned, in turn, self-destruct on their way to perdition. Those on the wrong side of God’s providential plan need not be argued with, because their irredeemable souls will soon pass away, as His providential plan luminously unfolds. In the political vernacular of the 2016, we might label them, say, “phobic”—homo-phobic, Islamo-phobic, women-hating, racists, and so on. In the mind of the Puritan, there is no middle ground. Those who actively oppose the Christian Elect and, more insidiously, those who might have the smallest doubt (read: the problem of “micro-aggressions”) about their own salvation or God’s providential plan, are lumped together among the stained. The Anxious Christian, having no assurance of salvation, is no more pure than the Godless heathen. Let us memorize this: There is only purity and stain.
The habits of mind of the Puritans are alive and well in the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton. Two generations ago, the Democratic Party had a middle ground on any number of issues. Loyal and reasonable members of the party could disagree. This is no longer the case. Put in American religious terms, when Arminian Protestants prevailed in the Democratic Party, their habits of mind allowed for a middle ground. The ascension of the New Puritan Christian Elect after the Vietnam War left the current Democratic Party with no alternative than to label all opposition to its pure and unwavering positions “phobic.”
We hear that Christianity is withering in America. In the mainline churches, it is. But in proportion as the mainline Churches have withered, the Puritan religious habit of mind has moved with remarkable energy into the Democratic Party. Hence the developing crisis within it, which came into view during the Barack Obama presidency, and promises to develop in a much uglier form during a Hillary Clinton presidency. She is white—so must she not double down and “speak to white people” about racism, so that she may be without blemish (Ephesians 5: 27) in the eyes of blacks? And so on, with every “identity group” that is not white. This will not turn out well.
The 2016 national election is a challenge to the Progressive Christian Elect. It is a religious crisis of the first order, in which sex is the proxy for sin, and the fateful question is which understanding of sin—that of the Anxious Christian or that of the Christian Elect—will prevail. Within the Elect community, there is incredulity that Trump-the-irredeemably-damned has even appeared on the scene, and a faith that the stained man who comes from darkness is destined to return to it, along with the movement he foments. He cannot win, on Puritan theological grounds. Hence Chuck Todd’s October 8 NBC News proclamation that “the presidential race is over,” after the October 7 video revelation of Trump’s comments about what he would like to do to a woman’s private parts. Watch it and cringe.
Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that there are “two distinct forms of humanity.” His use differs from mine, but I invoke it to indicate the cosmic divide that separates the Anxious Christian from the Christian Elect. Their differences vastly exceed the differences we witness between man and woman, or between black or white—which are mere “identity” categories. The two kinds of Christian differ on their relationship to the God who is All in All. “Identity” categories are human inventions, not inscribed into the nature of things. Religion runs deeper, and cuts across them.
With that background in mind, let us turn to the second debate. There sits Hillary Clinton on stage, resplendent, calm, and serene, enshrouded—can it be!—in what appears to be a Puritan dress, of the sort Elect women would wear. It is black and shapeless, so as not to reveal the female form, with a white shift around her neck that drapes down and enframes her pure and spotless heart. She does not wear a white bonnet, it is true; but her hair never moves, so let us count that as her bonnet. Hillary, assured of herself as only the Elect can be; her Arminian Protestant husband, Bill, in the audience, with anxiety incarnated in his facial expressions and comportment. Donald Trump’s surprise press conference, held immediately before the debate, is fresh in his mind. In it, Trump has publicly brought forth, for the first time, the alleged victims of Bill’s sexual exploitations. This confirms, yet again, that Bill is the Anxious Christian, for whom sin is inescapable. Yes, he was President of the United States; but his fault haunts both him and the body public, which until an hour ago dared not bring up the matter and reveal it in the light of day. Yes, Hillary Clinton endured injury by the husband who betrayed her. But she has not been stained. Bill’s infidelity and Hillary’s fidelity are the proxy for something deeper—that they are different kinds of Protestant Christians, the one always falling from grace, the other assured that she will never lose it. Sex is not sex; it is the electric representation of sin itself.
To this observation, let us add another. The term “Anxious Christian” is singular, whereas the term “Christian Elect” is plural. The Anxious Christian stands naked and alone before God, whereas the Christian Elect are a community assured of their salvation and called collectively to do God’s work. The motto of the latter, one might imagine, would be, say, “It takes a village.” And so, the setting of the entire drama: Bill Clinton, alone in a sea of anonymous humanity, only partly lit because he is but a passing spectator on a cosmic stage now cleared for the New Elect to ascend; Hillary, alone and near the center of the stage, bright lights illuminating her, in the company of saints who will never abandon her, in the covenant that is America. They need not even prosecute Bill’s crime, for it has not tarnished her heart, which remains pure. And she need not really fear Donald Trump, for through her speaks America itself. She is chilly and determined. The New Elect do not care whether they are liked; they care that they are recognized as the Elect. Our own good fortune, as citizens, is that we, too, may become a part of the Elect if we renounce the forces of darkness and declare the campaign slogan that allows us to join the communion of the saints: “I’m With Her.”
Let us turn to Donald Trump, and to the looming obliteration of the Republican Party. What comes after the election on November 8 no one can say. I have written elsewhere that the Republican Party is not a one, it is a many. William F. Buckley, Jr. and others invented the cultural-conservatism portion of the party in the 1950s, with a turn to the traditionalism of Edmund Burke; another portion of the party adheres to the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. The third portion, added during the Reagan years, includes evangelical Christians, and Roman Catholics of the sort who were still unsure of the implications of Vatican II. To Burke and Hayek, then, add the names John Calvin and Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who really reads these figures knows that the tension between them is palpable.
Democrats are embarrassed to admit that Donald Trump has been, for many years of his life, a member of the Democratic Party. But in his shift to the Republican Party, by virtue of being an avowed Presbyterian, he does slot nicely in the Evangelical Christian portion. But that has brought about genuine perplexity among Establishment Republicans. Here is a man who says he has not asked for God’s forgiveness, and yet Evangelicals fawn over him as if he were the new King David. How could this be?
Does Donald Trump not believe that he is a sinner, who needs God’s forgiveness? Not really. In New York City, Trump’s pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, whose 1952 blockbuster The Power of Positive Thinking was a palliative against the haunting presence of sin for the Anxious Christian, as well as against the dark psychological view of the human condition offered by Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (which by the early 1950s had invaded America as not even German Armament during World War II could). Karl Marx, it is said, captivated Europe—because the central category for the one-thousand-year period of feudalism had been class. Freud, by contrast, captivated America—because the central category for the four hundred years since the Pilgrims had been inner perspicuity, that incessant search within for evidence that one is saved or damned. For postwar Americans, Freud offered surcease from the burden of a doctrinal Christianity that churchgoers increasingly did not understand. At the same time—and this is deliciously cruel—Freud allowed Americans to continue festering over the dark forces within, now understood not as sin but as the subconscious, as the Id. Christianity became a channel for the therapeutic search for immortality.
But not in the case of Donald Trump. He cleaved neither to a Christian understanding of sin nor to Freudian introspection. Besides, Freud’s work was through-and-through a critique of “bourgeois man”—precisely the creature The Power of Positive Thinking lifted up.
So we are back to our question: How is it possible for Evangelical Christians (largely the Anxious type) to support Donald Trump—and deprive Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the Evangelicals’ ostensible champions, of their votes? This can only happen in America! I hinted at the answer a moment ago when I said that many Evangelicals see in Donald Trump a new King David. Recall that King David and his mighty warriors (2 Samuel 23:8) reunited the Kingdom of Israel. So, too, will Donald Trump reunite America, understood here as the New Israel, and protect the religious institutions that undergird it, too. What of Donald’s Trump’s refusal to ask God’s forgiveness, which is surely evidence of the sin of pride, from which even the mighty fall? Here the Hebrew Bible, in which King David’s chronicles are laid out, gives us the answer: God sometimes use unholy men for Holy purposes. And that unholy man is Donald Trump. That is why many Evangelical Christians will vote for him.
The Anxious Christian is haunted by the divine decree that sex out of wedlock is sin. Here are Jimmy Swaggart and Bill Clinton—and Newt Gingrich, among countless others. A man like Trump who never asks for God’s forgiveness can never know the Anxious Christian’s agony and remorse. Trump is an essentially untroubled man, for whom sex is not sin; it is error, bad judgment, a mistake. It is not sin, it is mere “locker room talk,” for which one may apologize and summarily be done with it. What’s the big deal, Trump wonders.
To this flippant brush-off, the Christian Elect respond as if the laws of the God’s creation had themselves been violated. How could God even allow Satan’s-pawn-on-Earth to exist? And if he does exist, at least he ought to have the Christian decency to recognize his own sinfulness. Chuck Todd goes apoplectic, and then with religious certainty announces to the congregation over which NBC News presides that we will soon return to our normal (political) programming because Donald Trump will disappear from the scene. What does Trump do? He chuckles. He does this because he does not believe a single word that comes out of the mouth of the Christian Elect. From the largest questions to the smallest, Trump sees an ugly world inhabited by “winners and losers,” not by the sanctified and the damned.
Anxious Christians see this a bit differently than do the Christian Elect. “Donald Trump thinks he is not a sinner,” they say in their hearts, “but we Anxious Christians, who know that sin is both temptation and self-deception, recognize in Trump a man not unlike ourselves. We will therefore count him a sinner and forgive him, even if he cannot yet admit the gravity of his commission. We will bring him around.”
The really interesting question is what we should make of that strange fact that many women, horror of horrors, have actually have come to support Trump even more than they did prior to the October 7 videotape revelation. A Marxist would say they suffer from false consciousness. A therapist would say that have Stockholm syndrome. Is there a better explanation, which does not rely on veiled charges that these poor women are displaying the very attribute that American feminism has sought to eradicate from our vocabulary—namely, that they have lost all good sense and reason and are hysterical?
There is indeed a better account, unknown or rejected by Progressives, which gives women credit in the face of Trump’s “locker room talk”—and even elevates them, paradoxically, in proportion as his talk becomes more barbaric. The American variant of this account can be traced first to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, and it suffuses Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, written some seventy-five years later. By virtue of that imprimatur, it has penetrated into conservative thought.
Let us put the matter bluntly: Men left alone to their wilder instincts will be animals until they are tamed, more or less, by women. “Locker room talk”—dare we say it—is the natural condition of men. Women make men less odious. That is all. The crisis of Progressivism, on this view, is that its congregants pretend that men are not barbarians. Hence the “contradiction” at the heart of the movement: In proportion as women become “equal” to men, they lose the wiles and charms by which their once-attentive little barbarians can be made less dangerous. Republican women know their men must be yanked back from the precipice before they become complete monsters. Democratic women believe their men are naturally tame, or that they can be gently socialized into captivity with social pressure or by the power of the state. Misunderstanding the real problem and where it must be addressed, their men then become worse monsters than they already are—and Democratic women wonder how this could be. Amidst the church-bell call to the liturgy of equality, horrible monstrosity emerges, known through pain, but never discussed. And because there is no possible conceptual scheme by which Progressives can speak to this very real problem, they silence it. And some of their men become greater monsters still.
If Donald Trump had said to Hillary Clinton during the second debate, “Yes, I am a crass man, and I thank God that my wife, Melania Trump—who is stronger than I in her entrancing weakness—has at least partially domesticated me,” he would have said the words that millions of conservative women would have recognized as a tribute to their enduring importance in society. They recognize something Progressive women could never admit: The man over which they themselves carefully watch is a Donald Trump, too—perhaps charming on a good day, but a smug SOB on another.
Men can be tamed by God and by women, and often, Tocqueville reminds us, men can only be brought to God through women. There is no third path to the inner workings of a man’s souls. Donald has his Melania. To our collective benefit, that fact redounds. That is what many conservative women will conclude. And they will then unflinchingly cast their vote, for Trump, in the 2016 election. They do so, indeed, with more than a little disgust for men in whom the fire was smothered long ago, men who have been tamed completely. These are the men in the Democratic Party who refuse to admit, even to themselves, that they engage in “locker room talk” every now and then; and the men of the Republican Establishment who talk a good game every two and four years, then cower before the Progressive Christian Elect. Not even a Republican war hero passes the test. After the initial shock of Trump’s remarks wore off, many conservative women have discovered that they are thankful that Trump has reminded them what a man will always be; and that by being so reminded, they may begin to reclaim what has been stolen from them by Progressives—namely, the understanding of what a woman must be in order for society to exist at all. To be clear, this does not mean that lewd behavior, or worse, is acceptable. To the contrary, Donald Trump demonstrates that the problem is so grave that no machinations of the federal bureaucracy—say, Title IX—are going to be able to tame the Donald-Trump-Mini-Mes out there, with laws about “consent.” What goes on in politics can, at best, supplement what goes on in society. Absent the meal that society provides, the vitamin-supplement of law is of little use. And it is women who provide that meal.
Yes, I know: You who are Progressives are repulsed by what I have just written. I have given an account of what cannot even exist in your world. You underestimate what I have described at your peril. Yet I suspect that in your bones, you Progressive women know of the impending carnage. That is why you first want to try to resolve your differences with your enemy in the ephemeral world of politics, where you may spar, but not yet have to resort to the Terrible Fight.
Tocqueville tells us that it is women who shape the mores of society. Men will scream and shout, and at the end of the day nothing will be accomplished. The world will lose its hue, and society will slowly wither. All “sound and fury,” Shakespeare writes. Wars between nations will come and go. The real battle for the future, however, is not for men to wage. The conservative women I have just described, and left-leaning Progressive women, will work this out in an arena of war—the society women have with one another—of which men are oblivious, and to which they could contribute no armaments even if they were sharp-witted enough to find the clearing the forest where that arena lies.
Having gone some way, I hope, in clarifying the nature of the chasm that separates Protestant Americans into church groups that are seemingly incapable of understanding each other during this 2016 presidential race, I conclude with a synoptic observation: The 2016 political election is, in fact, a religious crisis that challenges the New Puritan Christian Elect who today triumphantly wave the banner of Progressivism. Godless though these new Puritans may or may not be at first blush, the predatory acts of one man, and the uncivilized remarks of another man, point us first to the fact of sex, and then immediately away to the deeper question of sin. To this, the Christian Elect and the Anxious Christian provide different answers. Hillary Clinton personifies the one; and Donald Trump, the Presbyterian who has not sought the forgiveness of God, is the Unholy King David who personifies the other. Only in America. Over the answers that these distinct types of humanity offer, American politics in 2016 is being fought.
The winner of the election, I dare say, will resolve nothing. Politics dances over the surface of society but is seldom able to reach into it. The resolution will come in society, when the two warring parties of women—and the many women who are at war within themselves—settle their dispute, in the invisible hand-to-hand mortal combat that only they know. Men, who go to battle with mere gunpowder and lead, will be waiting with awe and trepidation to hear word, from the distant clearing in the forest they can never find, of what has come of the Terrible Fight.
Joshua Mitchell teaches history of Western political thought at Georgetown University.