OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The Devil’s Horns and Cloven Feet: Christian Citizenship after Charlottesville

John Senior
Wake Forest University School of Divinity

18 August 2017

Charlottesville shows that racism, white nationalism and supremacism, xenophobia, homo- and transphobia, misogyny, and other forms of public hate are now authorized as the normal “terms and conditions” of American political discourse and practice. What is new – though of course not novel in American life – is the warrant that authorizes these terms and conditions. That warrant is provided in large measure by Donald Trump and the “Alt-right” administration he has created and movement he has energized.

As many have noted, Charlottesville is a wake-up call to white Americans, Christians among them, who must take responsibility for the racism and racist structures that they have created. This of course involves opposing public expressions of racism. But more fundamentally, white Americans like me must dismantle the inveterate racist formations that have made us who we are in the deepest expressions of our identity. In his equivocal condemnation of racism and white nationalism after Charlottesville, Trump has shown himself incapable of leading that effort.

I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s colorful critique of Karl Barth in his essay “We Are Men and Not God.” Niebuhr criticizes Barthian “crisis theology” for undermining the church’s responsibility for engaging moral ambiguity in political life. Niebuhr complains that Barth’s “realized eschatology” emphasizes divine at the expense of human agency. Niebuhr asks rhetorically: “But does not [Barthianism] also save [human beings] from their own perplexities?” Barth’s strong view of divine agency, Niebuhr argues, releases human beings from the responsibility of owning the consequences of their own sin. In pitting the church against the world, Barth’s theology, Niebuhr goes on to say, “is constructed too much for the great crises of history. It seems to have no guidance for a Christian statesman for our day. It can fight the devil if he shows both horns and both cloven feet. But it refuses to make discriminating judgments about good and evil if the evil shows only one horn or the half of a cloven foot.” 

We are in a moment, it seems to me, in which the devil is showing both horns and both cloven feet. On Niebuhr’s own analysis, we might conclude that it is time to adopt Barthian countermeasures to best challenge obvious evils in political space. But despite his problematic track record on race, Niebuhr’s critique of Barth is helpful here. In order to exercise political agency responsibly, human beings must recognize and accept divine judgment. To do that, human beings need to wrestle with their own “perplexities,” repenting of prideful assertions of power. Genuine repentance is the precondition of responsible political action.

Less helpful is Niebuhr’s analysis of how the devil operates in political life. Niebuhr had a tendency to analyze groups and “group egotism” homogeneously, as though there is no meaningful difference between, for example, leaders and followers, elites and adherents, and the moral agency they exercise in group settings.

Trump’s relationship to white nationalism and “alt right” politics is interesting in this regard: Trump has clearly normalized and authorized the politics of hate – he’s opened the door to the devil – though he’s unwilling explicitly to champion the cause of neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies in public. Indeed, it is not clear that Trump really understands what he’s done. Niebuhr’s work doesn’t offer an analysis of how that happens – i.e., of the complex inner-workings of groups in ways that would make theological sense of how they operate, and thus how the devil moves from partial to full disclosure in political life.

This moment offers an opportunity to re-examine Niebuhr’s assumptions about and deepen his analysis of “group egostism.” By doing so, we will be better prepared to wrestle with the “perplexities” of white racism in institutional settings.

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