By Alan Bean
In Texas, it isn’t enough to be a Republican. As the yard signs sprouting around polling locations make clear, you can’t get elected unless you’re a “conservative Republican”. In fact, you can drop the “Republican” altogether and just call yourself “conservative.”
If your opponent also advertises herself as conservative you can introduce qualifiers like “lifelong conservative”, “heroic conservative” or a “combat veteran” conservative.
But the 2016 election season is forcing us to reassess what we mean by “conservative”.
Traditionally, Southerners have glorified conservatism in all its forms: cultural, theological, economic and political. But Donald Trump isn’t “conservative” in any commonly accepted sense of the term, so why is he such a hit in the conservative South?
Southerners have long embraced political and theological conservatism because, in an age of political correctness, no one wanted to admit, particularly to themselves, that their worldview was shaped by tribal loyalty and racial resentment.
In the early 1960s, southern whites put all their chips on white supremacy, spun the wheel, and lost big. But the folks with all the votes, all the money and all the churches can’t be allowed to lose.
Enter the rhetoric of conservatism.
Political conservatives make two primary assertions. First, any attempt to help poor people (especially non-white poor people) will make them hopelessly dependent on the nanny state. Second, the only real way to raise the long-term prospects of the poor is to minimize the tax and regulatory burdens that keep wealthy people from creating jobs.
To help the poor, in other words, we must be kind to the wealthy.
The doctrines of political conservatism deflected attention from the racial resentment roiling the South. We don’t want to keep the black folks down, southern conservatives said, we just want to save them from well-intentioned-but-misguided liberals.
Donald Trump’s naked appeal to racial resentment is a free floating tribalism that eschews explanation or justification. White people want their tribe to win for the same reason residents of Pittsburgh pull for the Steelers. It’s the home team; who else ya gonna pull for? You’re wired that way; don’t fight it.
Donald Trump knows wealthy people don’t demand tax cuts and regulatory relief so they can create jobs; they are out for personal advantage. Period. Trump worked the pay-to-play system his entire career, so he should know. It’s a broken system, he admits, but he offers no alternative. Nor does he use conservative political theory to justify the white supremacy. White people have money and history on their side, he says, so they should make the most of it.
For decades, political conservatives have argued that their beliefs were consistent with the ideals of fairness, equality and inclusion. Trump sneers in disgust.
When Megyn Kelly took the real estate developer to task for making misogynistic remarks his response was simple: We shouldn’t be so concerned about political correctness.
To paraphrase: “I don’t have to explain to you why my past statements are consistent with fairness, equality and inclusion. Those have never been my values.”
Political conservatives are loosing their minds over this kind of talk. When the politics of racial resentment come untethered from high-minded principle the spell is broken.
Religious conservatives aren’t sure what to make of the Donald, either. Russell Moore, the moral voice of the Southern Baptist Convention, is appalled by Trump and the wanna-be evangelicals who support him. Obviously, Moore says, these people were never committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the first place.
But then we have Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, who thinks Donald J. Trump is simply marvelous.
Since Moore and Jeffress are both Southern Baptists, their disagreement cries out for an explanation.
Like his political hero, Rev. Jeffress has parted ways with the politically correct language of fairness, equality and inclusion. The god of Robert Jeffress is politically incorrect. Radically so. This god takes sides; he isn’t fair. America was founded as Christian nation. Therefore, only Christians are true Americans. Therefore, non-Christians are strangers to the American dream. Therefore, any American who appeals to fairness, equality and inclusion doesn’t like god.
A crude characterization, perhaps, but that’s pretty much how Jeffress and his kin view the world.
Dr. Moore begs to differ. God may have chosen America, he says, but the promise will be revoked if we sever our commitment to biblical justice. Moore doesn’t apply God’s justice to homosexuals or, in any full sense, to women, but he extols the virtues of fairness, equality and inclusion, especially as they relate to racial justice.
Moore wants to make racial justice a central tenet of theological conservatism. Jeffress does not.
But this isn’t primarily a fight between Baptist preachers. The big takeaway of the primary season, thus far at least, is that a large percentage of white southerners prefer to take their white supremacy straight, undiluted by political or theological theory.
Every Southern Baptist who ever cracked a Bible knows what Jesus pushed the biblical rhetoric of fairness, equality and inclusion to its logical conclusion. They know the God of Jesus plays no favorites. They understand that the God of Jesus Christ rejects our love if we refuse to love one another in the radical fashion Jesus espoused.
Southern “conservative” theology is best understood as an ingenious attempt to silence an inconvenient Jesus. Nothing against the Saviour, mind you, but when the faithful are sizzling with racial resentment accommodations must be made. Jesus saves, but he doesn’t teach.
The Donald doesn’t care about theology, conservative or otherwise. “We live in Pittsburgh, people,” he says, “so we cheer for the Steelers, right? We’re white, we’re rich and we’re the majority, so the rest of the world can (expletive deleted) on it.”
“We’re gonna build a wall.” That’s Trump in a nutshell. But the wall between Mexico and the United States is purely optional. It’s the wall separating our tribe from the restraints of political (or theological) correctness that appeals to them.
Trump is giving the middle finger to the strained justifications of political or theological conservatism and his followers love him for it. They don’t want to explain how their self-centered tribal loyalties are consistent with the political and theological virtues of fairness, equality and inclusion. They’re from Pittsburgh. That’s all that matters.