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Nominalism, Christianity, and Donald Trump

November 10, 2016


With the election of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of discussion on who has been living in a bubble. The surprise of so many Democrats has resulted in so many thinkpieces contending that coastal, city-dwelling Democrats are just elites that are out of touch with the real America. (Interestingly, I have also seen posts to argue that it’s just the opposite — predominantly white midwestern rural communities are out of touch, which could fuel their otherization of minority concerns.)

There have been thinkpieces discussing the role of social media in this. Isn’t it well known that Facebook tends to show you what it thinks you’ll engage with (with your attention, likes, and shares)? And, even if Facebook didn’t do this (but protip: it definitely does), it’s easier to block someone or unfriend someone if they keep posting stuff you don’t like than it is to customize one’s offline relationships.

I do not unfriend or block people on Facebook. Yet, I know because of my chosen circles (such as fringe Mormon and disaffected Mormon communities), I self-select to more liberal crowds. But…I also grew up in Oklahoma. I went to school to Texas A&M. I still try to read blogs of conservative Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, and so on. These are not bastions of liberalism.

So, I thought that when I read the thoughtful lamentations of conservative, evangelical friends about the state of politics that I was getting something “real” from “the other side”. These were people who couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton or the Democrats — but who also couldn’t abide Trump, because to them, he did not match their Christian or even conservative values.

I gained a greater respect for these Christians — Evangelicals, Orthodox, Catholic, even Mormon — for whom their religion did not allow them to walk in lock-step with Trump even though he was the Republican nominee.

This was very different than what a lot of the stereotypes of the religious right have been. These people are principled — and I don’t agree with them on a great many issues — but they aren’t cruel. They may not support gay marriage, but I recognize (even if many liberals think it impossible) this isn’t the gross meanness of homophobia. (That being said, I understand how loaded my use of terms like “thoughtful” or “principled” are.)

I began to think that maybe the stereotypes of conservative Christianity were overblown. I mean…there was even talk that Mormons in Utah would be so opposed to Trump that it might swing to the 3rd party candidate Evan McMullin!


But then I saw that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump.

I suppose that even my bubble with thoughtful conservative evangelicals, Mormons, white Catholics, and so on, is still a bubble.

However, ultimately, this gets to something that bugs me about Christianity in general — Christians just doesn’t seem to produce political views I would want to promote.

I’m not saying that Christians have to be liberal Democrats — and while I think that a theological legitimate Christianity probably shouldn’t conform to either of the modern American political parties, I am in fact increasingly starting to suspect that theologically, Christianity cannot abide same-sex relationships (even though I would prefer it, I just feel that liberal denominations are making theologically illegitimate steps there). But I do see a difference between a theologically rigorous approach and a…not-so-rigorous approach. And even more importantly, I think that such theology should also condemn so much of Donald Trump’s approach (as it does for many of my thoughtful conservative Christian friends.)

…but here’s the thing: 80% still voted for Trump.

Now, there’s always the possibility that all, most, or some were just holding their noses — that for them, Trump was the lesser of two evils, as it were.

But I suspect something worse — that for many of these Christians, there’s nothing problematic about Trump from their theology and worldview. That for many of these Christians, there’s nothing inconsistent with the gospel there. Their religion doesn’t inculcate the sense that there is something very amiss going on there, and in fact, their religion may in fact give them the sense that there is truth and value there.


I saw an exchange on Twitter (click for full size). And I feel this really captures this. I have no idea what Phil Christman’s politics are or what his denomination’s politics are — he could be mainline or liberal or whatever…but he could also be like one of the thoughtful, compassionate conservative Christians I know.

But you also have Barry Love who sincerely thinks that there is nothing inconsistent with his view and Christianity.

Nominalism, or, “But they aren’t real Christians!”

I hadn’t thought a lot about the term “nominalism” until I found a post and comment section from Edward Feser criticising the liberal tolerance of Islam. I’m not sure if I agree with this post (because, surprise, I also know thoughtful Muslims…although perhaps it is the case that I don’t know enough about Islam to suspect, as I do for liberal Christianity and as Feser does for Islam, that progressive Muslims are making theologically illegitimate moves), but the main idea I got was that liberals mistakenly (per Feser) view religions nominally — thinking that religions don’t have essential natures, but are simply what their adherents want them to be. From there, Feser argues that liberals mistakenly argue that religions (like Islam and Christianity) can and should just adopt liberal principles to participate in a pluralistic world (or that Islamic thought is fungible with Christian thought, the latter of which is more easily harmonized [or distorted] to liberal thought.)

Feser thinks this approach is doomed because religions actually do have natures. And while one can certainly reject that ISIS represents the fundamental nature of Islam, Feser would say that liberals are wrong to think that any theologically legitimate Islam is fundamentally liberal.

Reading this article and the comments section made me realize that, to an extent, I do see a lot of nominalism in discussing religion. The progressive Mormon project is based on the idea that Mormon teachings can be reshaped and molded to support liberal progressive causes.

The rejection of nominalism looks like the establishment of close boundaries or a small tent: same-sex marriage is apostasy, progressive Mormons must grapple on the 2nd anniversary of the November 5th exclusion policy.

Or, in the case of Trump, one could say in rejection of nominalism that many items of Trump’s agenda just aren’t compatible with Christianity, no matter how many Christians voted for him. (There are a lot of thoughts in both Mormon and Christian context that many who say they are believers really aren’t. Even the very elect could be deceived by a false prophet.)

To me, this isn’t comforting. The “No true Christian” approach doesn’t resonate. I still feel nominalist — I still feel that Christianity is as it does, and there’s something to be said that 80% supported Trump. That I can reliably find people who will say that there is no need to take a nightstick for Muslims, because those followers of that “satanic ideology” are not our neighbors.

My thoughtful Christian friends want to say that is inconsistent with their religion, but I have nothing to really say that their religion is more Christian than anything else. In fact, what I increasingly suspect…what I increasingly fear…is that the popularity of that style is indicative that that really is more Christian than other alternatives.

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  1. I would agree with you that Post-Reformation Christianity is nominalist, but I would contend that mainstream pre-Reformation Christianity is not. Post-Reformation Christianity became nominalist when it put forth the notion that it’s for each individual Christian to read the scriptures and decide what they mean. Mormonism (IMHO) more-or-less hopped on that train with it’s notion of confirming the truth or falsehood of Mormonism based on the subjective experience of the burning in the bosom, and the assertion that the Prophet is not infallible, but that it’s up to the Mormon faithful to confirm his teachings with their own individual witness of the Holy Spirit; at least, this is what I gather from reading and speaking with Mormons.

    Liberal Catholics want to make Catholicism into this image, which is the basic mission of the modernist strand of theology. But I think that Catholicism (and Orthodoxy as well) is fundamentally resistant to it, due to its insistence that all new teachings be consistent with prior teachings, which in turn is based on the doctrine of infallibility: That infallible teachings can’t contradict each other.

    As far as why Christians voted for Trump, I can’t speak for very many of them, due to living within my own bubble : ) , but one possibility is the abortion issue. As terrible as the idea of deporting immigrants may seem to some Christians, the idea of de-restricting abortion is far worse; there’s just no contest. I didn’t vote for Trump myself, but I know some thoughtful Christians who did, based on that issue alone. They couldn’t bear the idea of Hillary getting to appoint another pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court.

  2. Camille permalink

    Having discussed some of these issues with actual theologians, I would suggest that those conservative Christians are not so much Christian as Old Testament-arians.

    The Bible is full of contradictions, especially the OT, and the OT vs the NT, but one message comes across quite clearly–love and forgiveness of all, especially the stranger. MOST ESPECIALLY THE STRANGER. We are told that it is easy to love those who are like us, but God enjoins us to love those unlike us.

    The irony, of course, is that to love you need to welcome in and seek to understand–then they are no longer a stranger. Jesus–that sly, clever teacher.

    • It just strikes me that from the Jews I know, I don’t see that sort of preoccupation, yet they don’t have the NT to give them different ideas

      • Agellius permalink

        Both were true simultaneously for the Jews: That they were the Chosen People, and people of other nations were unclean, yet that they were commanded to be kind to aliens. I’m not sure why this is an issue as far as Trump is concerned. He’s never said we should halt immigration and hate all immigrants, only that uncontrolled, *illegal* immigration needs to stop. To listen to some people, you would have to draw the conclusion that they think anyone in the world has as much right to live in this country, and receive government benefits and education, as any native-born, taxpaying American citizen.

        • Some Christians I know want to personally have their church communities sponsor refugees.

          Others think we should totally close our borders off to refugees because they are poisonous mushrooms (oh wait, no, that was the Germans talking about the Jews…for this election cycle, the analogy was poisoned skittles)

          EDIT: the basic issue here is not accepting anyone and everyone. It’s rather a denial that our refugee acceptance process — which already includes a high level of vetting and thus accepts far fewer folks than what other countries are dealing with) — is actually vetting at all.

          • james permalink

            if a believer accepts armageddon, then how does god direct or get to the armies who are involved, and destroyed?

  3. Agellius permalink

    Godwin’s Law, I win. ; )

    People who take the latter position may not be taking it qua Christians. It’s certainly not a position that is required by any mainstream strain of Christianity that I’m aware of. It would be fallacious to attribute any position a Christian might take, as being due to or following upon his faith. Surely there are non-faithful Christians and non-Christians who also would like to strictly limit Muslim immigration.

    Further, I know that some of those who would refuse entry to Muslim refugees don’t necessarily want to refuse all help, they just want to help them elsewhere. This may be irrational but I’m not sure why it’s un-Christian.

    Regarding EDIT: As I understand it — bearing in mind that I’m someone who has been deliberately ignoring the news for several months now — the position taken by Trump and some conservative commentators was not that vetting was not taking place at all, but that satisfactory vetting was not even possible due to inadequate recordkeeping and/or records that are lost or unavailable in their home countries. I don’t know how valid that argument is.

    But admittedly the larger and perhaps unspoken point was the influence that large numbers of Muslim immigrants tend to have on their host countries. The more Muslims you allow into your country, the more Muslim extremists you’re likely to get, and that scares people. Again this may or may not be rational but I’m not sure what it has to do with whether or not someone is a Christian. Should true Christians necessarily believe that allowing more Muslims in does *not* increase the odds of letting in extremists?

    Going back to the OP, you write, “The surprise of so many Democrats has resulted in so many thinkpieces contending that coastal, city-dwelling Democrats are just elites that are out of touch with the real America.”

    I don’t think the issue is city-dwelling Democrats being out of touch with the “real” America — of which they are obviously a part — but I think they’re definitely out of touch with conservative America. Part of it is that anti-conservative rhetoric has gotten so severe, and the mainstream media and academia have become so predominantly liberal, that conservatives are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being labeled racist, sexist and homophobic, and possibly risking their jobs; again maybe an irrational fear but there you have it nonetheless. (You may find this hard to believe living in Texas, but believe me it’s true in places like California.)

    So between liberals being concentrated on the coasts and the big cities, and conservatives elsewhere; and conservatives in the big cities being afraid to speak their minds freely, I think big-city liberals probably have been out of touch with the true extent of conservative sentiment. Heck, I’VE been out of touch with the true extent of conservative sentiment. : ) The election result was as much of a surprise to me as to anyone.

    And of course the same phenomenon took place in Britain before the Brexit vote: The vote was a big shock to everyone — probably not excepting British conservatives — because Yes voters were afraid to speak their minds due to the harsh rhetoric coming at them from all sides.

    This really does no one any good.

    You write, “(Interestingly, I have also seen posts to argue that it’s just the opposite — predominantly white midwestern rural communities are out of touch, which could fuel their otherization of minority concerns.)”

    But that would not explain the fact that there are still conservatives in the big cities, albeit greatly outnumbered and largely silent, who are in touch with minority and immigrant groups on a daily basis yet remain conservative. (You might even say that they adopt and maintain conservative views on immigration *because* of being in touch with such large numbers of immigrants.)

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