Most of the great worldviews have something going for them, but the key question is: where do they lead? When followed, where do we ultimately end up? You may not think of Donald Trump as the expression of secular liberalism, but I think he is where liberalism leads us. Surely not, you say. He’s a Republican (allegedly), apparently elected by the religious right, and he defeated Hillary, the high priestess of liberalism. How can he be the outworking of secular liberalism? Yet the more you think about it, he is the logical absurdity you arrive at if you buy into the worldview that denies the existence of God, idolises democracy and puts self at the top of the pile. Think about these key tenets of Trumpism and ponder where they come from.
I am amazing. Trump is an exhibitionist, from the bling of Trump Tower, to his TV career, his resort empire, and his trophy wives. His long nomination campaign was geared to promoting himself. Policy mattered very little at all, if it ever featured. It was all about The Donald and everything about him, we were told, is amazing. If you take God out of the picture and deny that he exists, then you are top of the pile. Secular liberalism has enthroned mankind in the place of God, and replaced divine revealed wisdom with human reason. Of course, Trump made great play of possessing his mother’s Bible, and would not claim to be an atheist, but does God really matter to him? When your universe revolves around planet you, God is practically irrelevant, or tame at best. If he exists, he is there to give us nice things (the essence of both the American Dream and the ‘prosperity gospel’) and he does our bidding. God is good but I am amazing. I am what really matters, and religion serves my own interests. God is in my pocket. This attitude is expressed most powerfully in Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Rousseau barely gives God a mention. He is remote and unknowable, if he truly exists. ‘Man’s first law is to watch over his own preservation; his first care he owes to himself; and as soon as he reaches the age of reason, he becomes the only judge of the best means to preserve himself; he becomes his own master.’
Give the people what they want. The Trump campaign saw a gap in the market and filled it. American politics on the right has been angry with Washington for a long time. It was so in the Bill Clinton era, and that anger resurrected itself in the tea party movement when Obama came to power. Trump tapped into that, and portrayed himself as the great outsider, the deal maker. This played well with an electorate distrustful of politicians. But there is no big narrative with Trump, no principled political vision based on a developed political philosophy. His campaign was all about finding a few issues with popular appeal (like the border wall or protecting American jobs) and making the people think he would give them what they wanted. This is modern political science: gather a focus group, work out what they want, and give it to them. Never pause to ask what the consequences are, or whether people are motivated by self-interest and should have bigger concerns on their mind. Never ask what is morally right or wrong, or how it should be shaped by the larger biblical concerns of righteousness and justice. The logic of Rousseau’s Social Contract is that the body politic, the people, exercises the general will, and that is always sovereign. There is no greater power than the general will. Therefore the logical conclusion is that what the people want is always best. This is the idolisation of democracy, and assumes that what the people want will always be for the best. It is a philosophy based on a totally optimistic understanding of human nature and the power of human reason. The problem is that human reason without God will always fail, and lead into truly absurd situations. Human nature is a blend of dignity and depravity, because we are made in God’s image and we have rebelled against our maker – the ‘mirror cracked from side to side’. Basing the big decisions of state only and entirely on what the public demand is therefore always going to end up somewhere logically absurd. Democracy must be guided by a moral code that undergirds society, the law of God that is the basis of human flourishing within his creation, combined with a proper understanding of the flaws of human nature. Going into politics just to give the people what they want is terribly dangerous.
Power above service. Lots of people have said they like Trump because he is the deal maker who can fix the system and get the economy moving. That is the reputation he has built up as the star of The Apprentice. Hire the best people, buy tough, sell well, make a good margin and get a great deal. If it means firing some people, so be it. Life is tough. Think about the bottom line. The successful people are powerful people. That’s why he should be a great President, apparently. Really? What happened to the spirit of service that shaped a previous generation? People came into politics to change things, to reform, to rule well, but as servants under God, and much in need of his wisdom and strength. They valued integrity, humility, modesty, honesty, and working for righteousness and justice for the oppressed and marginalised. The values expressed by King David in Psalm 101 as he speaks of those who are his ministers should be the values that shape every government. (Psalm 101 is the perfect Bible reading for an Inauguration Day.) How sadly those values of service seem to be missing, because when we serve ourselves, as ultimately we must do in a secular society dedicated to my own freedom, real service of others gradually fades from memory.
Image over substance. Politics has long been about image, but never has image been more significant than in this election. As Trump has changed his positions on so many issues to answer his critics, and shouted loud but said not very much on podium after podium, the most abiding impression of him is the way he looks, and how his plane draws up to the hanger, and how he deports himself on a platform along with his glamorous wife. It is all an image, an act, and we don’t really know what he stands for, because there is no detailed substance. In the TV debates he made more of an impression on the public by walking behind Hillary and pulling faces and making snide remarks about her going to jail. Whatever happened to the high principles that drove men like Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Carter or Reagan? But that is the logical absurdity of secular liberalism. There are no absolute values in a secular world, because it all revolves around my opinions and what pleases me. In that climate the image makers will throw principles to the wind and come up with someone very crass.
The sexual revolution – reaping what you sow. As Francis Schaeffer demonstrated, the secular enlightenment replaced God and his grace as the controlling power in the ‘upstairs’ of our thinking, and replaced it with freedom. Human freedom must be given its full expression. Never more was this the case than in the sexual revolution that exploded in the 1960s and 70s, when the Trumps and the Clintons were young adults. Traditional moral values must not be allowed to limit personal freedom in the realm of sexuality. But where does that lead? It leads to a world where men desire to dominate women for their own ends and women are exploited as sex objects, where marriages are expendable, where the toleration of flirtatious sexual promiscuity becomes an excuse for sexual assault, while breaking new sexual boundaries is a means of arousal, a fire that spreads further and further, causing more and more damage as it goes. So we now have the inauguration of a President who has been open on TV about his sexual misadventures, and who survived the most lurid revelations during his campaign. The sexual revolution was the logical outworking of secular liberalism, indeed the most potent expression of it. It is now showing itself for what it is as the crimes of the past are brought to court in the UK, and sex offenders face the full weight of the law. But the growth of sex offenders reflects the disaster of the sexual revolution. Donald Trump’s public admissions about his love life and recordings of ‘locker room talk’ are but the expression of where secular liberalism leads you.
What can we learn from the Trump phenomenon? We need to rethink our public theology as Christians, and to take on the secular liberalism that has ruled our public life for at least two generations. If this is a new area of thought to you, let me commend Oliver and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan’s brilliant book The Bonds of imperfection, particularly her chapter on ‘Nation, State and Civil Society in the Western Biblical Tradition.’ She demonstrates that when government is entirely by and for the people, it becomes ‘a self-seeking, lawless and idolatrous community.’ Those who rule should recognise that they bear the image of God as judge, ruling over their subjects who are all created in his image (See Romans 13:1-7). This is the heart of good government. Rulers rule under God. Without it government becomes entirely self-seeking. It should not be the will of the people that is the source of sovereignty, but rather that those who govern, however they receive their legitimate title, serve under God and receive their ultimate sovereignty from him, thereby constituting the nation as a reality under God.
On Inauguration Day, that is what we should hunger for above all.
And we should learn some solemn lessons from the election of President Trump.