As you might have seen recently in the news, James Dobson, noted evangelical leader and founder of the Focus on the Family empire, has made the public claim that Donald Trump, the Presidential candidate to whom he has lent quasi-official support, is a born-again Christian. This statement was made largely in an attempt to explain how Trump’s string of unsavory comments and crude vocabulary need not offput the “values voters” who Dobson represents and whose support Trump so desperately needs. Rather, Dobson located the reason for Trump’s language and attitudes in the fact that he is a “baby Christian,” or very recent convert. In other words, Dobson has argued, Trump should be given a pass in the matter of his foul language and otherwise distasteful comments since he was not raised in an evangelical environment, and is just learning the cultural ropes, so to speak.
It will surprise no one that a wave of anti-Trump folks responded to the “baby Christian” comment by claiming that Trump’s ethics are so bankrupt that this news couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. Yet as Russell McCutcheon himself recently argued, the progressive clamor over whether Trump’s religiosity is “genuine” — that is, reflective of some inward personal shift — is actually a conservative move in the sense that it presumes the existence of some sort of authentic religious experience that is deemed authoritative and positive precisely because it is presumed apolitical. McCutcheon’s analysis points to the fact that since every religious act is designed to have some impact on the power relationships shared by people, every such act is political in one way or another. So while Trump may be among the more colorful candidates to invoke religion while on the campaign trail, there’s nothing particularly unique in how he’s doing it.
If we take McCutcheon’s observations even further, might we imagine this descriptor “baby Christian” (or even just “Christian”) as less a neutral label and more a rhetorical device doing specific social work? What would be at stake if, instead of discussing how Trump does or does not measure up to certain ethical or theological standards, we instead focused on what ends are achieved through such a labeling system?
I am intrigued by these questions because I tend to think that our time might be better spent in asking whether the “baby Christian” label means virtually nothing at all. For those of us trained to overanalyze and search out even the most mundane details, this is a rather unsettling conclusion. But I think there might be something very helpful in the recognition that it is often our expectations of what religion should be that guides how we study it, and not so much its more concrete social functions.
Specifically, I am interested in thinking through the “baby Christian” label not as a theological statement, nor as a neutral descriptor, but as a logo that more easily facilitates the persuasive work that Trump needs to perform. I call this characterization of Trump a logo because its social function is quite simple: its job is to sell his brand by synthesizing a series of symbols that cast him as a member of a desirable group (“Christian”). The modifier “baby” is required to mitigate the fact that, on many levels, he fails to meet the broad stereotypes often associated with that group, and yet it also allows him to retain full membership.
But we should not take the need for the modifier “baby” too seriously here, for, after all, there are millions of racist, sexist, cussing melagomaniacs who identify as Christians. In other words, Trump is not a rare breed. Dobson’s words are thus not about the necessity of a certain type of moral code to be called a Christian, however much they may appear to be; instead, Dobson is a large cog in a branding campaign the success of which is not measured in gauging things called “penitence” or “spiritual insights,” but in winning votes by persuading millions of otherwise very diverse people to get behind a vaguely positive symbol.
There is, of course, an irony here, for despite the hundreds of hours that will be lost as commentators hash through the details of Trump’s theological insights, those of us who study the work of powerful cultural symbols know that they must remain vague to be effective. How else can one person appeal to an audience of millions unless they are symbolically allied to generalized positive feelings that can be transformed into whatever the viewer wishes to see? Almost by definition, then, claims that Trump is a Christian cannot actually mean anything specific if they are to be effective in the political sphere. Trump’s Christianity serves the same function as the Nike Swoosh or the Target Bullseye: its job is to convey a series of vague feelings and little more.
photo credit: little-disciples.com