Sunday’s panel discussion “Banning Muslims, Wooing Evangelicals, Claiming Faith: Religion and the 2016 Election” brought together five scholars from different universities to discuss the contentious role of religion in the presidential race.
Kathryn Gin Lum, assistant professor of religious studies, moderated the panel, which took place at the Stanford Humanities Center in Levinthal Hall. Conversation topics ranged from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s campaigns to the role of Evangelicalism and Islamophobia in the elections to the potential for an atheist president in the future.
Mark Valeri, professor of politics and religion at Washington State, kicked off the discussion by likening Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson based on their “aggressive rhetoric” and lack of sympathy for minorities.
Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, connected Trump to 17th-century Bible teacher John Nelson Darby and his apocalyptic rhetoric. Darby portrayed the Bible as a special “code book”; Worthen argued that Darby, like Trump, named himself as a keeper of secret knowledge and advisor on, as Worthen put it, “regaining a sense of control over the world.”
Worthen was not surprised by Trump’s popularity with evangelicals.
“Evangelicals have become more adept at political fragmentism,” Worthen said. “There is a real fear among Evangelicals that [Clinton] will remake the Supreme Court so that it will be impossible to appeal decisions like Roe v. Wade, and we should take this fear very seriously.”
Putting forth the idea of “God as a divine Trump,” Worthen also said that Trump is tyrannous and violent in a similar way to how the God of the Hebrew Bible is portrayed. Ergo, she said, Trump appeals to some Evangelicals’ desires to make the United States a religiously and ethnically singular nation – to “make America great again” in Trump’s words. Worthen also entertained the idea of Evangelicals viewing Trump as one of God’s “unlikely messengers,” as God has chosen unexpected deliverers of his word in the past.
However, according to religion and politics professor Laurie Maffly-Kipp of Washington University in St. Louis, African-American and female Evangelicals deviate from the sect’s otherwise overwhelming support of the Republican candidate. Kipp brought up Trump’s recently leaked audio tape filled with lewd reference to women as a reason why Evangelical women would rather refrain from voting at this point than back either Trump or Clinton’s candidacies.
Moving the conversation to the role of Islamophobia in the 2016 election, the panel drew a parallel between the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the 1920s with the current climate of Islamophobia. Kate Moran, assistant professor of American studies at St. Louis University, noted an aesthetic and symbolic resemblance in the clothing of burqa-clad women in Islam and Catholic nuns.
However, Kipp insisted on dichotomizing the two on the ground that the Mormons were deemed an “internal threat” physically resembling the white American populace as opposed to the heavily externalized “Muslim threat” some Americans envision.
This anti-Islamic sentiment has found a place in increasingly nationalist sentiment, Kipp said, creating a sense of urgency among Americans that want to limit immigration and diversification of the country.
After discussing the role of theistic politics in the upcoming elections, the panelists turned their attention to atheism in American politics.
Valeri felt confident that the U.S. could have an openly atheist President within the next 20 years. He sees atheist groups gaining a noteworthy lobby in Washington through a“non-confrontational and integrationist approach” that seeks to collaborate with religious political leaders rather than denigrate religion. These groups are rapidly helping shatter the stereotypical correlation between atheism and immorality, Valeri said.
Audience reaction to the panel was mixed. One first-time voter in the audience felt that the debate was too Trump-centric to provide him with equal insight on both the candidates. Others, however, appreciated what they saw as a nuanced and complex articulation of broader themes like empathy and religion but also the pragmatic specificities of the elections at hand.
During a Q&A at the end of the discussion, a man from the audience expressed his frustration with how the panel had been conducted. Arguing that the panelists had been obstructed by “post-modern chatter,” he questioned the productivity of Sharia law and the legitimacy of the values of Islam, stating that “technological advancements” have not come from Islamic countries such as Turkey.
While panelists and audience members had varied reactions to this question, Worthen said the man’s question raised an important point.
“Modern secularism is forced to face its own contradictions,” Worthen said. “If your central ethos is toleration, what do you do when facing the intolerant is a question that is currently being faced in Europe. But the notion that morality should be based on one religious tradition is silly, because the foundation of morality is human compassion … which is not a theological claim.”
Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu and Surbhi Sachdeva at surbhi3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.