Donald Trump is not a Christian, but he understands what white Protestants long for, says historian Matthew Bowman, author of Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, just out from Harvard University Press.
The book traces more than 150 years of American history to understand the way the word “Christian” has gotten tangled up with a particular view of civilization that places—you guessed it!—white Protestants at the pinnacle of civilization. — JKR
RNS: Why this book?
Bowman: The genesis was really 7 or 8 years ago when I read a news story about Anne Rice, the vampire novelist, who had announced that though she looked to Jesus for her salvation, she was no longer a Christian. She said,
“In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.”
She was doing something similar to a lot of people on the left who have more or less accepted that those on the Christian right are the arbiters of what is Christian and what is not.
And I wanted to investigate that, not only to think about the plentitude of Christianities there are in America, but also to explore the genealogy of her idea. How is it that the religious right came to be so powerful that even opponents of the religious right came to accept its definitions?
RNS: So they are setting the agenda and the language for how “Christian” is now defined?
Bowman: Not necessarily. Certainly the religious right is a powerful cultural voice that is offering its own definition of what it means to be Christian, but at the same time historically speaking, and even politically speaking, in America today, they are not the only voice. And indeed there are many people who call themselves Christians who don’t consider the religious right Christian.
So I was interested in documenting the multiplicity of voices, and demonstrating that “Christian” is a contested concept. But also I wanted to look at how it was the religious right became so powerful.
Bowman: The word “Christian” is essentially entangled with other concepts that we use to imagine what it means to be an American, concepts like race and civilization, and what it means to be civilized, and what it means to be free.
So as we seek to understand what “Christian” means, we have to look at Christianity as a tool that Americans have used to explain these other concepts. Arguments about what it means to be Christian are arguments about what it means to be democratic and what it means to be American, more broadly.
RNS: How far back are we talking?
Bowman: I start after the Civil War, and the book begins by looking at the ways the language of Christianity was being used by Americans who were trying to imagine what the country would be like now, after this trauma. The word “Christian” became especially bound to a concept of “western civilization”—what it meant to be western and what it meant to be civilized. Americans draw a lot from Christianity to help them formulate these definitions.
For white Protestants, what it meant to be western and what it meant to be free became very bound to Protestantism, so they focused on individual liberty, spiritual self-determination, and moral behavior.
Other groups, though, tried to revise that definition of western civilization—Roman Catholics defined freedom in different ways, and they rooted freedom’s origins not in the Protestant reformation, but in medieval Catholicism. And black Americans rejected the notion of western civilization entirely, arguing that Christianity was not bound to a particular definition from the West, but was tied to Africa. So we see the ways in which arguments about Christianity and what it meant to be a Christian are really entangled.
RNS: What’s going on with the definition of Christianity in America right now, in our crazy political climate?
Bowman: One thing I try to do in the introduction and the conclusion to the book is to show how thinking about debates over Christianity are useful to thinking about how Donald Trump got elected president.
It’s common among opponents of Trump, and those who see that 80% of evangelicals voted for him, to say those voters are un-Christian. But I think what Trump represented to them—in his opposition to immigration particularly—was a defense of western civilization as they imagined it. They wound notions of freedom and democracy into that heritage. Trump’s willingness to embrace nativism showed that he understood that
He was not someone who was personally a Christian, but he was someone who showed that he knew the power of calling America a Christian civilization.
RNS: You’re writing as a Mormon, a group that evangelicals have often positioned outside their definition of “Christian.” How does that influence your understanding of this history?
Bowman: My background as a Mormon, and my work on Mormonism that preceded this book, attuned me to these questions of definition, and made me willing to consider the term “Christian” as something without a settled definition, something that’s always contested by both groups: those in power and those not.
Also, these debates have made me more skeptical of assuming that there can be a consensus theological definition of what it means to be a Christian. The Christian tradition is too variegated and diverse for even self-professed Christians to ever come to an agreement about what the word means.