Sheila and Tipsy have recent posts that perhaps oddly seemed to mesh in my mind as having a theme in mind. Tipsy’s post touched on the role of Hell in Evangelical cosmology. This part stood out:
In fact, despite my own Calvinist background, just about the only people in these debates about hell who totally creep me out are those who seem to feel some deep emotional need for hell to exist and for most people to go there. This classic statement from Section VII of Article III of the Westminster Confession (which Confession I loved and which statement I accepted, albeit with little enthusiasm) captures something of that feeling:
The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”
(Emphasis added) Maybe I’m reading it anachronistically, but that bolded phrase now gives me the willies. Eternal wrath and “glorious justice” seem difficult to reconcile in a way that would permit a decent human being, at least in our current state of seeing as through a glass, darkly, to exult in anyone’s eternal torment.
Meanwhile, Sheila quoted from Michael Gerson, former speech writer for George W. Bush, and discussed the struggle, perhaps the impossibility, of reconciling principled conservatism with Trumpian Republicanism. Principled conservatism has something to say about the desirability of tariffs and regulating immigration. But Trump isn’t coming at this from an angle that has anything to do with considered policy positions. She quotes Gerson as saying:
Trump’s policy proposals — the details of which Trump himself seems unconcerned and uninformed about — are symbolic expressions of a certain approach to politics. The stated purpose of Trump’s border wall is to keep out a contagion of Mexican rapists and murderers. His argument is not taken from Heritage Foundation policy papers. He makes it by quoting the racist poem “The Snake,” which compares migrants to dangerous vermin. Trump proposes to ban migration from some Muslim-majority countries because Muslim refugees, as he sees it, are a Trojan-horse threat of terrorism. Trump’s policy ideas are incidental to his message of dehumanization.
Both of these put me in mind of history books I’ve read which talk about the back and forth in Western European Christianity between the intellectual doctrine guiding Church leaders versus the more emotion-based narratives that motivated the rank & file. (I’m fairly certain I’ve read of similar dynamics for other religions, but Western European history is more home turf for me.) While scholars attempt to divine God’s will through carefully approved texts, the rank & file might be more appreciative of adventure stories featuring Saints. While intellectuals grapple with what it all means, the common person was more likely looking for something to help with the random horrors of day-to-day life. There often seemed to be a back-and-forth as the Church went up and down the spectrum from intellectual rigor to satisfying the emotional needs of adherents.
For those who value their faith more as an emotional balm than as an intellectual exercise, Hell often seems not to be incidental to God’s glorious justice. For too many people, punishing those who broke the rules and the smug satisfaction it brings to those who chose correctly is practically the whole point of the exercise.
I believe similar tension exists between principled conservatives and those who think a Trump Presidency is a good idea. Intellectually, tariffs and stronger immigration policy might have their place in the conservative toolbox but only where analytically necessary. For Trump, the positions seem no more rigorous than Gollum’s opinion of hobbits:
They’re thieves. They’re thieves, they’re filthy little thieves. Where is it? Where is it? They stole it from us. My Precious. Curse them, we hates them! It’s ours it is, and we wants it.
. . .
We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little Hobbitses. Wicked. Tricksy. False.
And this has appeal to many Trump supporters in a way that Heritage Foundation papers don’t. They feel that the world has wronged them and seek a vent to this rage. Whether that vent is productive or intellectually coherent is quite beside the point. Perhaps any organization based on ideology is going to bounce between id and superego.
(The more I think of it, the more the Gollum analogy holds up better than it should. Gollum had a legitimate beef about Bilbo’s “what I have I got in my pocket?” question during the riddle game. Total b.s. as a riddle. But, looking at the larger picture, Gollum only had the ring because he murdered Déagol to get it, and his efforts to reclaim it were antisocial and counterproductive. Hopefully the Trump Presidency is merely the finger we have to sacrifice on the road to wise leadership and a more just future. If that’s going to happen in 2020, we’re still waiting for Aragorn to emerge from the wastelands.)