Hooker Meets Trumpism: A Diagnosis of Disgruntled Radicalism

The essay which follows is adapted from a presentation given last weekend to the Davenant Trust Toronto Regional Convivium at West Toronto Baptist Church. Thanks to Ian Clary and Justin Galotti for their hospitality.

The Anatomy of Trumpism

In this paper, I want to sketch Richard Hooker’s remarkably prescient diagnosis of Trumpism 423 years in advance. Trumpism, it should be noted, is simply the culmination of a disgruntled radicalism that has been brewing in the Republican Party since at least the election of Obama in 2008; it is the chickens coming home to roost for the Republican leadership, which has actively fomented an anti-intellectual anti-establishment anti-government message for the past seven years. What are some of the basic features of this tendency, and its dark apotheosis in Donald Trump (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and other leading Republican presidential candidates)?

Most obviously, the Movement is characterized by a profound distrust of authority—first and foremost, perhaps, governmental authorities in the positions of most centralized power (the White House, Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, and various federal bureaucracies above all, then the Senate, then the House of Representatives, and only then state governments), but then, not far behind, and closely connected, various forms of intellectual authorities—media, academic scholars and economists, and especially scientists. In place of these discredited authorities, the Movement embraces the wisdom of the common man and the neophyte. With the center clearly corrupted, one must look to the periphery for purity; experience is a liability, and inexperience an asset. The most trusted figures of all are those who, untainted by prior experience in government or credentialed expertise, can articulate in the most fearless and undiluted terms the common sense of the common man, heightening as much as possible its contrast with the voice of the Establishment. Around such trusted figures, promising to clean house and govern autocratically by their own individual vigor and insight, personality cults rapidly develop, fuelled by the invigorating language of liberty even while quietly evacutating it of much of its traditional meaning. The personal leadership of the demagogue, who speaks after all for the common man, is in many cases to replace the heavy-handed, inefficient, and compromise-ridden rule of law. Read More


Leithart, Wilson, and What is this “Church” Thing Anyway?

Yesterday, New Saint Andrews College played host to a little-advertised but intensely interesting informal debate between Peter Leithart and Doug Wilson on the topic “Ecumenism and the Marks of the Church.” Any time when you get to see these two erstwhile Muscovite co-belligerents square off is a treat, but this topic held particular interest for me. After all, last year around this time I was working on an article for Theology Today which could readily have been given the same title as this session (the published title was “Sectarianism and Visible Catholicity: Lessons from John Nevin and Richard Hooker”). And last year on the same very date, April 29—a coincidence that Leithart failed to remark on—I was helping run a big event down at Biola University, starring the same Peter Leithart and on roughly the same theme: “The Future of Protestantism: A Public Conversation.” Indeed, I would almost like to self-servingly think of the gentlemanly little exchange yesterday as “Future of Protestantism” 2.0, only of course much smaller, without the livestream, and more importantly, without the #Stache.

The precipitant for both events was various summonses to “Reformational catholicism” issued by Peter Leithart on First Things, and in both cases, his interlocutors quite naturally wanted to know how the brand of catholicity or ecumenism he was advocating did and didn’t relate to classical Protestant ecclesiology. Yesterday’s event, like last year’s, was much too short and much too gentlemanly to bring nearly as much clarity as many of us might’ve liked, but there were still a few revealing moments. Read More


The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More


A Hothouse of Mutual Admiration

I have been on a blogging sabbatical for pretty much the last three months, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t blame most regular readers if they’ve given up this blog for lost, especially as its last utterance was hardly a dazzling display of intellect.  But as the maelstrom of conferences and job applications is finally drawing to an end, I hope to resume some sustained blogging over the coming weeks and hopefully months.  However, the posts here are likely to be more personal, occasional, and aimed at my immediate community, as I devote my more public blogging energies to the various other fora in which I have been asked to write.  You will find monthly posts from me on current events at Capital Commentary, monthly essays on historical political theology at Political Theology Today, monthly book reviews at Reformation21, and hopefully regular contributions again at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International (as well as, Lord willing, essays at Humane Pursuits).

With all of that, I may not keep my promise of blogging here again for long, but I’ll at least make a start over Christmas break, with, among other things, a series of posts sharing delightful excerpts and insights from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I recently had the great pleasure of re-reading for the first time in several years.  Most posts will include some brief notes of application or elaboration, in addition to the quoted excerpt; in other cases, Lewis’s observations may serve as the occasion for more extended reflections of my own.  For now, one of the former, from the inimitable Letter #7, on pacifism and patriotism:

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.  Not always, of course, but at this period.  Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep.  Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.  Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.*  Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.  The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties of the Church of England.**”

*”thought to be impersonal”—what a sharp observation and rebuke.  For too long in our evangelical circles have we comforted ourselves with the mantra that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  Oh, it’s the sin of homosexuality that we hate, not homosexuals or gay rights activists.  It’s Darwinism we hate, not Darwinists.  Socialism and liberalism we hate, not socialists or liberals.  We forget that to truly hate a sin while loving the sinner is a work of grace, against which so much of our sinful nature militates.  In reality, what generally happens is that we so adamantly hate what we take to be sin that we tell ourselves that no sane person could love something so hateful.  Those outside our small coterie, who espouse this deplorable doctrine, are thus scarcely to be considered rational beings, but are virtually blind brutes, and thus are not worthy to be patiently listened to, patiently talked to, or treated with dignity and respect.  All of this, of course, at a very unconscious level; few would ever come out and admit to such feelings.  At the same time, we have so convinced ourselves that pride is an essentially personal sin (more on pride in a later post), that it is always about having too high a view of my own individual merits, that we never pause to consider whether we are in danger of succumbing to that far more insidious and destructive corporate pride which was what Christ and the Apostles so rebuked the Pharisees for.  To be sure, some of them suffered from individual self-righteousness as well, but far more pervasive was their national self-righteousness, their conviction that they were God’s favored people, and all those outside were under judgment.  This kind of pride can co-exist with the most self-flagellating personal humility, and often does in contemporary Reformed and evangelical circles.

**And, one might add, down to the various micro-denominations among the American Reformed, who seem to have perfected this kind of factionalism into an art form.