How painful would it be, to realize that the people you relied on for a sense of purpose are liars, philanderers, or child molesters?
When I cracked open the first textbook of the spring semester, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be learning about something called dramatism. The current state of politics and human relations are dramatic enough. Over the next few weeks, I waded through the kind of dense philosophy I hadn’t plunged into since undergrad until, like a lightning bolt, a realization hit me. Funny how “old” ideas can illuminate our political situation in new ways.
Dramatism, a theory introduced by philosopher Kenneth Burke in 1945, is a way of looking at human relations using concepts from traditional drama or theater. People are actors or agents, live in a scene, are instilled with the agency to do certain acts, and carry out these acts according to a motivation or purpose. I began to think about purpose in particular while learning about dramatism, probably because we seem to have lost sight of it. I thought of the base that Trump still has left, largely folks who profess to be religious but either excuse or diminish the objectively ungodly behavior of our president. It’s the great paradox of our time. But it’s one that I believe can be explained by looking at how evangelical Trump voters are simultaneously driven by and void of purpose.
Purpose, in its greatest sense, is “why are we here?” But though it’s a big question with weighty answers, purpose shouldn’t overwhelm other elements of your life. Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism advises us to achieve a balance in our lives, to make sure that our individuality, our environment, our actions, and our motivations are all working in harmony. Religion, of course, is supposed to offer us a greater purpose than ourselves. But what happens when that sense of purpose is out of balance with the rest of your life? If your sense of purpose is so overwhelming that it dwarfs your trust in humans, you may dismiss scientific consensus. And if the purpose in your life overwhelms your sense of place, you may have no qualms about polluting the environment. Too much purpose can lead us into fundamentalism, into the pursuit of a dogmatic agenda at the expense of everything and everyone else around us.
An opposite problem occurs when life has a lack of purpose. We can become too fixated on the immediate, pursing things that only make us happy for a short time. The latest smartphone will become obsolete, the latest fashions will give way to next season’s trends, and the money we accumulate will disappear as fast as we can spend it. This extreme leads to materialism, and it is typically something that religious ideologies warn against. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the evangelical Christian right in America.
To me, evangelical Christianity has always been full of drama. The first time I set foot in a fundamentalist church was in elementary school, accompanying my best friend to her Sunday service. Once the people in the congregation began to scream and throw themselves upon the altar, I thought that there was an emergency and looked around for the exits. Many years later, I landed a post-college job at the local evangelical school where my job was to market an institution I’d never dream of sending children of my own to. Here, things that would have never kicked up a fuss in a secular workplace were great cause for alarm. Employees were made to sign forms promising that we would not drink alcohol, smoke, or engage in premarital sex – purpose overruled these earthly practices. Employees were personally offended by phone calls from inquiring Muslim students – these other faiths were incompatible with the purpose of our institution. Children performed musical numbers in school assemblies about being “good Christian soldiers” – purpose dictated that other secular topics were off limits.
Purpose ruled everything. The English classes banned books that depicted real world turmoil, like adultery (sorry, The Scarlet Letter) or sexual assault (kiss the much-needed lessons of systemic racism in To Kill a Mockingbird goodbye). Our cafeteria food was Christian-sanctioned; our mass printing was done by a local Christian-owned shop. But paired with this inflated sense of purpose was a paradoxical emptiness, a love of materialism that was either excused or unnoticed by the evangelicals I knew. While the Unitarian Universalist church I attended was a modest white house in need of repair, the evangelical churches I traveled to for work were bigger, shinier, and newer with each visit. Inside similar megachurches across the country, pastors like Joel Osteen closed the doors to the throngs of people devastated and displaced by Hurricane Harvey. Ted Haggard, the religious advisor to President George W. Bush, famously condemned homosexuality while secretly buying meth from a gay prostitute. And former Moral Majority member Jim Bakker paid thousands of dollars to cover up accusations that he raped a female employee.
The conflict between what evangelical leaders say (fundamentalism) and what they do (materialism) is inherently unstable. It invites corruption and summons opportunists who use dogmatic ideology for personal or political gain.
Enter Donald Trump.
When he first appeared on the political horizon, Trump seemed to radiate everything that “family values” proponents would never tolerate: a string of divorces, a foul mouth, a history of assault allegations. Once candidate Trump became President Trump, his unapologetically brash and irreverent behavior intensified. After more sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against him, he attacked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand with a sexually suggestive tweet. He still insists on drafting executive orders that discriminate against certain groups, leading many of us to wonder if his predominantly Christian base would ever exchange chants of “Build the wall!” for “Love thy neighbor.”
So why not, as a Christian, expose Trump as a phony? During the years I worked at an evangelical school, I found that many adherents to this belief system arrived to it after traumatic experiences. I talked to men and women who had been “born again” after struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual assault, or an eating disorder. The charismatic feel of evangelical services gave them a similar rush of pleasure, and so the transition from an unhealthy habit to involvement in the church was easy. In this way, evangelical Christianity became substance to fill a void.
What if you successfully overcame an addiction, illness, or assault thanks to an institution that offered you unconditional support, and suddenly found that your leaders were not the people you thought they were? How painful would it be, to realize that the people you relied on for a sense of purpose are liars, philanderers, or child molesters? Would you be able to separate yourself from the corruption, or would you double down and make excuses? Would you justify fundamentalism and materialism, or purpose and lack of purpose, bound together as one?
Evangelical Americans who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election: It’s time for the tough talk. You’ve been groomed for someone like Trump for years. Your support of our current president and other politicians like him is the natural result of a religion that uses the smoke and mirrors of its rhetoric to camouflage misdeeds. But you can correct this horrible paradox by striving for balance in all aspects of your life. You can prioritize purpose in life – yes, your devotion to God – without compromising your sense of agency. And with that newfound sense of agency, you can go vote.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.