Like 84 million other Americans, I watched the presidential debate Monday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And I struggled to articulate the implications of some of Trump's annoying and, frankly, unbelievable responses.
I was especially pained by his answer to Clinton's criticism of him for profiting from the the housing crash in the recent Great Recession: “That’s called business, by the way,” he said. And when she called him a tax-dodger who didn't pay his fair share of federal income taxes, his answer was: “That makes me smart.”
In both instances, it is hard to imagine a more direct challenge to the teachings of the world's great religions that we are to care for one another and that we are to work for the common good, not just our own individual success.
As I was thinking about all of that as the week wore on, I ran across this Atlantic piece, which I think nails what I was trying to put into words:
Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at the publication, wrote this:
"Civil religion died on Monday night.
"For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.
"Hillary Clinton may have offered little sense of humility, of obligation, of responsibility in Hempstead, but it was Donald Trump who directly rejected those virtues, reframing them instead as vices. He painted altruism as a sucker’s game, and left sacrifice for the losers. It was a performance that made clear one broader meaning of his candidacy—the eclipse of the values that long defined America."
I understand and accept that I live in a time when Protestants have moved from being a vast majority of our population to no majority at all. I grasp the concept that this is a post-Christian age. And, with Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas, I'm not terribly unhappy about that because it gives us Christians a chance not to be responsible for running everything. Now we can more properly assume our role of speaking with prophetic voices about what's going wrong and about how to fix it.
But I never thought I would encounter a presidential candidate who was not in some way steeped in the common values that our civil religion (mostly based on teachings from the Abrahamic faith traditions) promotes.
And yet here is Trump, directly rejecting those virtues, as Appelbaum notes. And who was heard expressing pride in his leadership of the clearly racist birther movement against President Obama.
My guess is that if Trump ever releases his tax returns (don't hold your breath) they will prove that he also thinks charitable giving is a fool's game and that he takes almost no personal part in it.
Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist, is, like all presidential candidates before her, flawed. There are things about her past I wish I could change. But she is not advocating the destructive values that have put Trump in tension with some of the core values of America since its beginning.
What a sad time this is for the nation. And yet I have faith that the American people will survive even Trump -- and even if he wins.
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AMERICANS' VIEWS OF GOD ARE WIDE-RANGING
Speaking of Americans and religion -- whether civil or not -- a new study about the theology of Americans shows a huge variety of opinions about God and nearly every other theological subject. And yet despite so many different opinions, it's possible to locate the kind of common values that Donald Trump clearly rejected in some of his debate remarks this week.