“You ready to peace out?” David nodded his head and said, “Let’s get the signs.” My roommate, David Ricksecker and I were listening to Donald Trump pander to students at our Alma mater, Liberty University. We decided the day before that we would protest the school’s decision to host Donald Trump on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Since we left the auditorium mid speech, we were able to avoid the administrative attempt to push all of the protesters out of sight. As students flooded out of the Vines Center, we held our signs in protest like a tiny island about to bear the front of a hurricane. As students began to notice us, I witnessed white males with red hats yell, “face it, Trump is going to win!” and “get a job!” A women aggressively pointed her finger at us and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” and that Trump “sounds like a man that loves America.”
When this is combined with his dangerously vague aspirations to restore America’s nationalistic presence abroad as well as Christian prominence in government, it communicates a radical agenda that is uncomfortably similar to ISIS.
There is a tendency to immediately reject any sort of association with radical groups like ISIS. We fear the notion that we share in the same humanity. What most people fail to realize, is that the propensity for radicalization is not exclusive to these fringe groups. The very trends that lead to xenophobia and acts of violence exist within the realm of Christendom and all of humanity. In our campaign against ISIS, we have a responsibility to address the radical trends that exist within our own social and political climate. We cannot let history record the triumph of evil over evil.
Our country is experiencing extreme polarization between the left and the right. Some analysts say that this country has not been so greatly polarized since the civil war. One of the results of polarization is oversimplification. We become less concerned about solving complex issues, and more invested in beating the other side. Critical thought is replaced with yelling, and dialog is traded for deafness. Donald Trump’s campaign is the perfect illustration of that fact. He throws very simple and inflammatory solutions at the problems that face this country. Instead of addressing the very complex issue of border control and military presence in the Middle East, he just says “build a wall” and “bomb them all to Hell”. When you are angry, you are less inclined to think rationally. This kind of rhetoric doesn’t appeal to an informed electorate, it satisfies a craving for vengeance. This vengeful lust coupled with an aggressive aspiration for American greatness bares a close similarity to the rampant vitriol of ISIS.
ISIS is a radical organization that capitalized on the marginalization of a culture and the instability of a civil war. Their rhetoric appeals to young Muslims that feel that their voice is not heard. The Week’s article, “The Road to Radicalism” provides great insight into this process. ISIS was able to gain legitimacy through appealing to people’s fear of the West. They used ethnic and religious pride to promote animosity against anything that wasn’t them. When people witness the destruction of their society, rational thought is easily replaced with a desperation to restore what was lost. ISIS was fully aware that they were capitalizing on these social conditions. They intentionally used fear and religious platitudes to garner support. While it is true that ISIS is very clearly defined by a strict theological ideology, its popularity stems from its ability to give voice to the marginalized. I believe that there is good evidence to suggest that the radical nature of ISIS does not stem from their ideology. The ideology is the product of a need to justify the innate desire to hate. If social conditions provide strong reasons for resentment and hatred, then a radicalized ideology acts as gasoline to a preexistent flame. This article from Think Progress articulates how the theological holes of ISIS reveal how the ideology has been reconstructed to satisfy a lust for vengeance.
Over the past 6 years, the Tea Party and other far right organizations have used similar tactics to garner support from the white Christian working class. Donald Trump has built his campaign off of this same strategy. They depict a leftist agenda that wants to strip religious liberties, take away guns, and steal from hard working Americans to give to the lazy and incompetent. Over the past decade, the far right has been conditioning this demographic to believe that they are becoming more and more marginalized. They use inflammatory rhetoric as an attempt to give voice to this marginalized sect in society. The danger of this rhetoric is that it rarely addresses specific issues and solutions. It only appeals to a generic frustration over the economy and government. People will see an angry politician spouting random outrage, and assume that he or she is angry over the same perceived slights. University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted an experiment on students that demonstrated how students primed with anger and fear based their voting behavior on emotions instead of relevant issues. This social experiment reveals how easy it is for masses of people to blindly place their support on a radical figure like Donald Trump.
In 2010, Sharron Angle (A Tea Party Politician) stated,
“I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?”
This is the very language that appeals to a marginalized and frustrated population. Notice that in Sharron’s comment, she did not address specific injustices committed by the federal government. She simply communicated that things are bad, and we should really keep our guns ready for when we need a violent overthrow of the government. Unfortunately this sentiment is appealing to more and more Americans. The recent violent standoff between local militias and Oregon State police is a perfect example of this issue. We are witnessing a pent up desire for violence unfold behind a reconstructed Christian and American ideology.
These conservative movements create this notion that the America of the past is slowly giving way to an evil liberal agenda. This is the same fear that motivated the backlash of the civil rights movement. During the Civil Rights movement Jerry Falwell Sr. stated,
“I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left wing associations.”
White America feared the loss of privilege and supremacy. This fear generated violent and hateful outbursts ultimately ending in the assignation of peace keepers like MLK. We even saw religious leaders using theology as a justification for these violent acts. In fact, the KKK was founded by William J. Simmons, an ordained clergyman.
Much of ISIS’s ambitions are motivated by a similar romanticized view of the past. They look to the glory days of when the Islamic caliphate was the envy of the world. This Islamic empire was seen as an instrument that would bring justice and liberation to the whole world. This is why there was such a strong push to expand globally. ISIS is motivated by this same vision. They want to both restore the Islamic world to the glory of the past, as well as bring the vision and goal of the caliphate to ultimate fruition. They are motivated by a distinctly Islamic form of manifest destiny.
When Trump combines an explicit distrust of immigrants and Muslims with the slogan, “Make America great again”, he is building off of an American manifest destiny. He wants to restore America to a romanticized view the past that is filtered through an ethnic and religious lens. This manifest destiny was an Anglo Saxon Christian justification that caused the near genocide of many Native American tribes, and the occupation of foreign land. In Tanya H. Lee’s article “The Native American Genocide and the Teaching of US History”, he addresses the manifest destiny and American exceptionalism that justified the genocidal attempts to remove Native American children from their biological parents. From an outsiders perspective this really doesn’t sound much different from the agenda of ISIS.
Take a second and place yourself in the shoes of a 12 year old boy fleeing the horror of war torn Syria. He just witnessed the brutal murder of his parents in an American “carpet bombing” of his city. His father was a doctor and his mother was a lawyer that advocated for women’s rights. He looks to the west for refuge, but instead finds “Christians” vehemently opposing the entrance of all Muslims into America. He see’s political figures and media elites completely disregard the suffering of his people when they call for more brutal carpet bombings. Who will this 12 year old boy see the enemy as? He will buy into the narrative that the Christian west is diametrically opposed to the Islamic east. He will be compelled to fight for his own ethnic and religious identity.
When America triumphs its government and western ideals as the instrument for justice and liberation, it justifies its influence in the same way that the caliphate did. This is seen in how we called the invasion of Iraq “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Both causes of American imperialism and Islamic theocracy are defended with the classic phrase, “God told me to do it”. President Bush is actually quoted in saying, “God told me to end the Tyranny in Iraq.” This liberating force did not result in justice or peace. It caused more animosity among the Sunni population and resulted in the deterioration of the state.
In a recent address to his students, Jerry Falwell Jr stated that students should arm themselves so that they “could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.” Jerry made a conscious decision to identify America’s enemy as Muslim. His decision to omit a distinction between all Muslims and radical extremists was a decision that he has publicly defended. This represents a push among conservative evangelicals to make the conflict in the Middle East a holy war against Islam. If your theology tells you to take up arms to defend and advance your religion, then you have fallen fate to the same radicalization of ISIS.
At his address to Liberty University students on MLK day, Trump stated,
“We have to protect. Bad things are happening….. And we don’t ban together. Maybe, other religions, frankly are banning together, they are using it…. When you look at this country, it has got to be 70 percent 75 percent some people say even more. The Power we have, somehow we have to unify, we have to ban together… Our country has to do that around Christianity.”
It is scary to see Trump elude to a unified Christian state as a powerful way to confront the threat from ISIS.
“Maybe, other religions, frankly are banning together”
Is Trump insinuating that we imitate the requiting efforts of ISIS?! Trump is making this remark within the context of national security and the growing threat of radical Islam. How could other religions possibly be in reference to anything other than Islam? Trump is obviously inflaming the notion that we are in a holy war with the entire religion of Islam. This is the exact same language that ISIS uses. They teach that the Christian west has an agenda to oppress and subjugate the Muslim East. In Donald Trump’s address to the student body of Liberty University, he communicated a strong pride in his Christian faith. Trump’s disgusting comments against Women, minorities and immigrants reveal an obvious misunderstanding of the Christian faith. This indicates that his pride is not tied to the selfless and sacrificial teachings of Jesus Christ. This evidence suggests that he views Christianity as merely a cultural and ethnic identity. This view tied with the call for a nation to ban together under Christianity is very dangerous. It will embolden marginalized evangelicals to take up arms against a perceived threat from Muslims and Liberals.
History shows that people are fully capable of using Christianity as a justification for violent oppression. We only have to look as far back as Jim Crowe, the treatment of Native Americans, and Slavery. When discussing national security, I consistently hear people echo the phrase, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.” This argument is so unbelievably short sided. It fails to recognize the very recent atrocities committed in the name Christianity. In fact, I believe that it is clear that these violent trends are reappearing in our society. If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that we should not be afraid to question movements like this. I pray that I am wrong. I pray that the humility and meekness of Jesus Christ becomes the aspiration of all Christian politicians. I pray that we surrender our need to be right for the ability to learn from one another. I also pray that we do not succumb to silence in the face of growing bigotry and violent rhetoric.