This Unholy Trinity: Whiteness, Patriarchy, Christianity
As the sheer cruelty of Trump’s administration charges forward, it behooves us to keep remembering that his actions are to appeal to his base. And, notably, his base is largely made up of white Christians.
As we witness to the continued attacks on women, LGBTQ, immigrants, refugees, those with disabilities, those who need access to health care, the poor, people of color, the earth itself, and anyone who does not pass as a Bible-toting Christian — we need to keep asking how it is that white Christians have sanctioned this political and social violence.
The question does not have facile answers, but instead speaks to long and complex histories of empire, gender, race, U.S. nation-building, and Christianity. Trump’s administration, while brazen, could be read as exposing these histories of violence, rather than some kind of new phenomena.
We are living a compulsive repetition of past traumas, and we will continue to live these cycles until collectively we can name how systemic abuse and control works. And, any serious interruption of these cycles of historical violence will need to reckon with how and why white Christians provided the votes for this current enactment of cruelty.
While the violence Trump endorses is not new, we have entered a period of utter shamelessness, where the more cruel he can be, the more he appeals to his base of white Christians. So, there is a pressing question: What does the phenomena of Trump’s rise to power reveal about an unholy trinity — that of whiteness, Christianity, and patriarchy?
When I was doing my MA in U.S. religious history back in 2009, I was obsessed with a particular phenomenon underway: a white, bombastic, foul-mouthed, misogynist, homophobic preacher — Mark Driscoll in Seattle, WA, of the former Mars Hill Church — who was building a mini Christian empire, and in a supposedly progressive city. How could this happen, I wanted to know?
Driscoll’s spiritual empire has since been exposed for what it was — a cult-like system of control and abuse — but at the time, he had considerable influence within U.S. white evangelicalism. His entire system did crash down, harming many, many people in profound ways. But, the point is that despite his obviously abusive tactics, he was held up by many white Christians as an anointed leader.
However, it is also important to know that from beginning of his cult-like reign, many women had spoken up, calling out the harm, and they were systematically silenced, declared outside the fold, and accused of having Eve-like sinful ways. If you don’t know about Eve’s great sin, it’s important evangelical context to the election of Trump and defeat of Hillary Clinton. Eve failed to submit to the “natural” Biblical order of male headship, and with dire consequences: for in that garden long ago, her sin led to the fall of humanity. Mark’s theology orbited these God-given hierarchies of gender and sexuality. All the while, he used social media masterfully to build his adoring base.
Mark’s worldview was not necessarily based on unusual theology, but there was a brazenness, a shamelessness to how he inhabited his power, that gave you shudders. He reminded his followers often that you were either in, or you were out. You were either embedded in unholy secular Americanized culture, or you were among the saints. His Jesus had a sword riding into battle to defeat all the immoral people, like the unrepentant effeminate gays and the feminists who defied the gendered order of things. Men’s “leadership” of women was foundational to his theology and cosmology of control. It goes without saying that “loyalty” was demanded and those who asked questions were “divisive,” their very place among the chosen suspect.
Committed Christians leaders were, to be sure, often embarrassed by the explicit and sexualized nature of Mark’s rhetoric. But, still, conservative male leaders also did not rise to denounce him. For many years, he got a pass after pass, whatever trash came out of his mouth, because he was interpreted as being put in place by God, to do God’s work, to do battle. Surely, he could be forgiven for the embarrassing things he sometimes said. After all, Christians were persecuted and beleaguered by secular America, and God put men like Mark Driscoll in power to defeat evil, perhaps to even help with Jesus’ second coming.
Watching his rise to power, I often felt terrified that whatever ignorance and naiveté and masculinist power structure I was seeing in white Christianity post 9/11 in the US would be exploited by a politician — and with much larger stakes of harm, potentially even much greater harm than Bush enacted, also a darling of many white Christians.
Now watching Trump’s rise to power, I still want to know: What is it about white Christians in the U.S. that so many are capable of endorsing shameless abuse? I have known a lot of white conservative Christians, some of whom voted for Trump, and they are not generally cruel people. Quite the opposite. But, they are people who live inside a system so saturated with abusive masculinist power, that they are socialized to go along with that cruel power. Too many have long learned to both internalize and endorse that power, as though their very salvation depends upon it. And those who question — especially if you are a woman who questions — well, you might just lose everything if you don’t let your questions go and fall in line with God’s plan, as narrated by men.
Every day, as we live this horror of these news cycles, we will need to reckon with how it is that white Christians put this administration in office. There isn’t one answer, and the answers are complex, but we need to persist in asking this question — for it tells us a great deal about the long, abusive histories of western empire we live inside of.
To be sure, I am less interested in scapegoating any group of people, then finding words to name the intersecting systems of power we are living inside of. For, I too, live in the heart of empire, and I, too, benefit from systems that oppress many others. I have typed this article on a computer built from the extraction of raw minerals fueling horrific wars in neo-colonial arrangements of power.
I can critique Trump, but my life is embedded in this violence of empire that Trump now leads. We are collectively embedded in the violence of empire, trying to find our way out of cycles of trauma, cycles that in western history have long routed through patriarchy, whiteness, and abusive forms of Christianity.
But, it remains true that while we are embedded together in empire, navigating different identities and thus responsibilities within longer histories of systemic violence, most people knew that Trump was an abuser and should not be anywhere near the White House. Except too many white Christians saw him as anointed, not as an abuser masterfully manipulating their votes and their hopes.
Some white Christian women leaders tried to call it out — but it was too little, too late, within a system that marginalizes women’s voices and knowledge. And, of course, women of color preachers and spiritual leaders had long been speaking out. Read Yolanda Pierce’s brilliant and heartbreaking post after the election, as she watched 81% of white evangelicals vote for Trump.
We cannot hope to dismantle this violence we all now watch daily, this violence that many now are trying to survive daily, without naming the abuses of a form of Christianity in bed with white power, male power, and empire. I wait and watch each day, wondering when more white Christians will begin to name these historical facts of dominant forms of Christianity in western and U.S. history. And, I wonder how much more harm needs to happen until white Christians in the U.S. face how their Gospel becomes co-opted by male abusers, again and again.