On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

Trump, Jerry Springer, and the Destruction of Our Cultural Institutions

In a recent interview, Jerry Springer opined that the public’s dislike of Washington has been brewing for so long that it was inevitable that an outsider would be chosen to shake things up.  Springer smartly observed that such a person would have to be famous, and the main ways of getting famous are through sports and through entertainment celebrity.  So we were bound to one day have an athlete or another type of celebrity with zero political experience make a serious run for the White House.  Springer has endorsed Hillary and is adamantly opposed to Trump’s candidacy.

jerry springer

Springer was asked of course about his violent and trashy tv show, and whether he had more in common with Trump than he was willing to admit.  His defense was that on his show, everyone is a complete unknown.  He said he would not involve famous people in his show because that would harm our society.  It would harm our society because when famous people act badly, people pay attention and copy what famous people do.  If famous people quickly resort to violence, then the rest of society will follow suit.

I think Springer is probably right on everything except in his belief that his hands are clean.  (But who cares about him?)  As much as we hate to admit the we are all influenced by others, especially our close circle of friends and family, and the famous people our close circle of friends and family talk about.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the right thing, I’m a little more motivated to do the right thing.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the wrong thing, I’m a little more inclined to do the wrong thing.  Examples matter.  The power of suggestion is real.

This isn’t to say that a famous person can do anything he or she wants and people will imitate him or her.  The rules that we have internalized about right and wrong over the long course of our lives limit what we can be influenced to think, to feel, and to do.  But this is where cultural institutions matter.  Institutions are sets of rules that have acquired an air of authority.  There are institutions shaping the family, shaping religion, shaping national pride.  Parents should take care of their children, God is good and rewards the faithful, the American flag should not touch the ground.  Why do we believe these things?  Because we recognize them as authoritative, rooted in tradition and popular agreement.  We often have little need to question them.

But institutions are on the decline in our culture.  Everything is being challenged and re-thought.  The traditional family, religion, national pride — these things are criticized by us more and more, not respected at all as authoritative.  Why we challenge them is a complicated question we need not answer right away.  What can be observed is that these sources of authority are what compete with the influence of famous people over our lives.  It is no surprise, then, that famous people so often undermine the authority of these institutions. Once they are completely discredited, a new authority — the authority of their own popularity — can emerge.

The reason so many blue collar whites are supporting Trump may not be first of all their economic anxiety, but the slow erosion over time of their respect for the family, religion, the laws, and the Constitution.  They may lack the internal rule set offered by these institutions to resist the external temptations of a flashy, brash-y, celebrity.  They may be hungering for order, for purpose, for meaning, for trust, and for hope.  And they may want to enjoy all of these things while they last, because the alternative they had just been experiencing is a vast internal emptiness.

Trump and the Wall

Trump’s Wall is similar to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon.  It is big, it is ambitious, and it is declared in the face of tremendous skepticism.  It promises a great sense of accomplishment for our nation, a great act of self-assertion.  Gingrich last time around tried something like this in proposing to start a colony on the moon.  It was ambitious, but there wasn’t any appetite for it.  A great nation project can’t just be big, it has to match the taste of the nation.  Romney called Gingrich “zany” for proposing it, as I recall, and it hurt his campaign.

The Wall has sustained Trump’s campaign and shows that it does match the current taste of the nation.  Why is that?

china_great_wall_from_a_distance_

It serves a variety of purposes.  One, the Wall is the cornerstone of any Republican plan to fix illegal immigration.  This is the lesson of history from Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants — the border wasn’t secure and the problem returned.  The problem matters to blue collar Americans because it is hard enough to make a living while competing with those here legally.  Employers will hire illegal immigrants because they will work for cheaper wages.

The Wall appeals to our national pride and the desperation of many to find a good job, to get a better car, to pay down some debt.  We’ve had 9/11, the recession, and a transforming global economy.  The Wall isn’t just functional.  It’s symbolic of a country than can do anything it puts its mind to and is willing to take care of its own.

So why does Trump take so much heat?  The answer is simple: he used the idea of the Wall to go hard after a big slice of the white vote.  He depicted Mexico as the great villain.  Mexicans coming into the country illegally were called rapists and drug dealers.  The drug epidemic in places like New Hampshire is said to be the work of Mexicans.  Many of the jobs leaving the country are said to be going to Mexico.

He made Mexicans into villains in order to justify tough anti-Mexican policies.  Mexico will pay for the Wall or suffer a trade war. Mexican illegal immigrants, along with all other illegal immigrants, are going to be deported.  Even the children of illegal immigrants born here will be deported.  The precedent he cited for this government action was Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.”  He threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, got in a public dust up with Telemundo, later said he doesn’t trust anything Univision says.

There have been no olive branches extended by Trump or his campaign to Mexico, to the Mexican-American community, or to the Latino community, beyond saying that “the good ones can come back in.”  He proudly accuses everyone else running for president as being “weak on immigration.”

There are a lot of good reasons why we probably should build some sort of Wall on the southern border.  Trump acknowledges some of them.  But he goes way beyond that because he clearly doesn’t believe that a great national project matching the taste of the nation will win him the election.  He therefore self-consciously juices his sales pitch by appealing to white Americans in a racist way.  This embarrasses his supporters, and they often admit to feeling the heat, because 1. they are seen as biting on a racially infused message, and 2. we all see them cheering as much or more at his anti-Mexican applause lines and confrontational theatrics as they do at his calls for jobs, national pride, and taking care of our own.

It’s too bad Trump estimated America’s current greatness as non-existent.  He might have calculated differently, that a respectable campaign would be the key to victory.  He might have worried about the harm such a campaign would cause.  Instead, he’s motivated by a dog-eat-dog attitude, and he doesn’t care.