On Thursday, April 7, Rev. Dr. David Gushee gave a lecture titled “Election 2016: What in God’s Name is Going On?” in Golden Auditorium. The lecture was presented by Colgate’s Department of Religion and was part of the Arthur W. ’40 and Anne Hale Johnson “Religion and Ethics in America” lecture series. Gushee’s lecture discussed the intersection of faith and American politics.
In her introduction, Assistant Professor of Religion Jenna Reinbold praised Gushee’s professional accomplishments including his soon-to-be published book titled A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, which will be available fall 2016. Gushee thanked Reinbold for her kind remarks and elaborated on the meaning behind the lecture’s title, referring specifically to the anxiety he felt about the unorthodox nature of this year’s presidential election. Gushee pointed out that he has coincidentally published books in the last three election years–2008, 2012 and now in 2016–among the other 21 books he has authored and edited.
Gushee teaches as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and serves as the Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Prior to his time at Mercer, Gushee held teaching positions at Union University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Gushee has held countless leadership positions in civic, ministerial, academic and church organizations, and is the current President-Elect of the Society of Christian Ethics.
Gushee split his lecture into five sections. The first section was titled, “Old Script: The Christian GOP Right Versus the Secular Democratic Left.” In this section of his lecture, Gushee focused on the divide between the two parties on a religious basis and the context from which this divide originated. He noted the 1970s as the era when a fusion occurred between white evangelicals and the Republican Party. This was a mutually beneficial relationship, Gushee explained, as the conservative preachers were able to have a say in the type of candidate they wanted to represent the party, and the party was able to secure a large bloc of loyal voters. He referred to a Pew Research Center voting statistic to show how Christian evangelicals have demonstrated this full-fledged support of the GOP candidate in recent elections.
“In American politics, any voting bloc that you can get at 80 percent is extremely significant,” Gushee said.
Gushee explained how this alliance pushed the Democratic Party to move in the complete opposite direction, noting its commitment to being reliably liberal.
“Democrats’ religious talk is muted; it is not explicitly articulated until they are asked why they believe what they believe,” Gushee said.
Although there is a clear ideological distinction between the two parties, Gushee underlined how not all Democrats or Republicans align with their party’s chosen religious affiliations. He provided the example of Catholic Democrats as a group that operates within the Democratic Party, but does not share their party’s liberal stance on abortion.
Sophomore Ayobami Yoyin spoke to how she has viewed the relationship between the Democratic Party and Catholics.
“Being from Maryland, which is both predominantly Democratic and Catholic, it was interesting to hear Gushee talk about how White Catholicism is fading from the Democratic sphere. I have always seen these two groups as one and didn’t truly realize how important each is to the other,” Yoyin said.
Reinbold expanded on the idea that there exists a spectrum of religious ideologies within each political party.
“In truth, the American religious landscape is much more complicated and interesting than a simple formula of evangelicalism equals political conservatism, and Gushee has worked both personally and professionally to make this complexity clearer. As an increasing number of American Christians fight against a straightforward alliance with the Republican Party, it will be important for all Americans to be able to recognize and navigate this complexity,” Reinbold said.
Gushee titled the next section of his lecture “Donald Trump and That Old Time GOP Religion,” in which he explained how Trump does not fit the traditional mold for a Republican presidential candidate. He described how Trump appeals to a group referred to as “Trump-vangelicals,” Christian evangelicals who are less educated and attend church less frequently than the highly educated, very devout evangelicals. According to Gushee, Trump has created a new cleavage within the white evangelical constituency since the rise of the Christian right.
“With the emergence of this new division, the GOP may collapse if Trump is the candidate,” Gushee said.
In the third section of his lecture titled “What Donald Trump Reveals about Evangelicals,” Gushee focused on the particular qualities that make Trump seem familiar to evangelical Christians. He referred specifically to Trump’s personal branding, ability to entertain and promise of prosperity as techniques also used by conservative preachers. Gushee concluded this section by explaining how some congregations within the evangelical community have sought an authoritarian position from their preachers, which Trump has used to his benefit by using language like, “We don’t win anymore,” and expressing authoritarian rhetoric throughout his campaign.
First-year Raja Klein expressed her opinion about Gushee’s argument that religion plays a dominant role in the 2016 presidential election, especially in the rhetoric of the GOP candidates.
“While I agree with a lot of the points he made about how religion plays a large role in political parties, at times I think there are more factors at play than just religion,” Klein said.
In the final two sections of his lecture, Gushee expanded on the idea that religion must be used to strengthen the country, not divide it.