“God language,” fundamentalism and Trump

My take on the link between Christian fundamentalism and Donald Trump is different from both many of his most avid supporters as well his strongest opponents. In short, just like I think we do in discussing Islamic-attributed terror, we give too much credit to “religion” and not enough to “God language” itself, apart from religion.

Humans need to communicate. Our earliest vocalizations as humans likely had a lot of “God language,” in reference to supernatural forces, because there was no better explanation for the violence of nature that daily threatened the survival of our hunter-gatherer forebears. As disparate cultures and written languages emerged during the Bronze Age, this “God language” became formalized and deeply embedded in each culture. A couple of thousand years later, non-theological explanations for many of nature’s forces began to emerge, the beginnings of mathematics and science, but the “God language” remained. Important topics, such as ethics and morality, evolved two overlapping language tracks, one based on traditional “God language” and a parallel track based on the emerging philosophical languages of logic, truth and justice.

But the “God language” remains inseparable from the non-religious aspects of our culture to this day, from the blessing you give to your friend who is sneezing, and the “God’s name in vain” words you express after hitting your thumb with a hammer, all the way to your fumbled attempts at explaining why a loved one is dying of cancer. The latter has a name, rarely used these days, but coined by the 17th-century German mathematician/theologian/philosopher Gottfried LeibnizTheodicy, which literally means “the justice of God.” Why do bad things (and good things) happen? The dispassionate language of science, even when more tied to reality, often fails at the basic level of person-to-person communication, and we have yet to develop an acceptable palette or “non-God language” alternatives.

Even when we have the language of science at hand, the words are often insufficient to explain disease, war, and Donald Trump. And so, we still resort to the “God language” that we have in our shared books and traditions in order to communicate our views with one another. We start with some reality, say the foibles of President Trump when it comes to his troubles with factual truth and his sexual history. If we are a loyal supporter and nominally Christian or Jewish, then we must reach into our basket of words and stories to find the “God language” that supports our already well-cemented fealty.

At the same time, other religious people with different cultural priorities have found “God language” in their sacred books to beautifully communicate compassion for others, inclusion and acts of self-sacrifice, both great and small. In the chicken-or-egg argument of “religion vs. culture,” most people appear to believe that religion drives culture. I think it is often, and perhaps primarily, the other way around. Our religious language wraps around well-entrenched cultural traditions and tribal loyalties, both good and bad.

In the case of Donald Trump, supporters have to reach back to the stories of the Biblical King David to find justifying “God language.” David’s behavior continually shocked his subjects, for instance his adultery with Bathsheba (recognizing that it was only adultery because she was already the “property” of another man whom he sent off to die in battle) as well as dancing nearly naked in the street (II Samuel 11 and II Samuel 6:12-20). But David was the king during Israel’s “glory years,” so God must have favored him, right? Thus, we see the excusing of Trump’s most outlandish behavior by America’s fundamentalist and Evangelical “keepers of the faith,” their overt hypocrisy being the only “light on a hill” that they are shining, given their frequent from-the-pulpit criticisms of a former presidency devoid of scandal.

My point is that it is not the religion. Rather, it is the “God language” at work, because no other explanation suffices to reconcile the cognitive dissonance screaming in our ears.

And I make the same point about the spate of terrorism that appears to be related to Islam (although when American Christian far-right groups resort to terrorism, we don’t typically hear the association with religion). Islamic “God language” evolved through two primary, and many lesser, tracks which we see today in the rivalry between the Saudis and the Iranians. They, like us, have little recourse other than to use their “God language” to justify the radical elements of their societies’ most violent proclivities, because that is the only language they have to express them with. Like the Bible, the Koran has the flexibility of widely-variant interpretation.

I was the only American working in an office in Andover, England during the time of the September 11, 2001, terrorism, and I had been out to meetings in London on that day. But when I arrived at an early hour on the 12th, the only other person in the office was a very bright young Muslim computer programmer named Mohammed. He came into my office and, with tears in his eyes, expressed the personal sorrow he felt at the deaths of so many innocent people. In the Islam he had been taught, he said, “Jihad” was a personal, internal struggle against evil desires, not a war against other people. Mohammed personalized his own tradition’s “God language” of Jihad very well, as one of the most self-disciplined and upright young men I have ever met.

So, which viewpoint was “Muslim”? Which current viewpoint in U.S. politics is “Christian”? Is it the male Evangelical from Alabama or the female Episcopalian from Massachusetts? Odds are that they won’t agree on much that falls into the category of “religion.”

There is a view in neuroscience that much of what our conscious brain does is to form the mental images and verbal language needed to justify the actions that we were probably going to do anyway.  Does religion drive our behavior, good or bad, or do we instead more often use “God language” to justify our worst and best actions? These days, I am more likely to assume the latter.

See this more recent related and updated post on “The new religious Machiavellians”.

4 thoughts on ““God language,” fundamentalism and Trump

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