According to a recent New York Times article, those who hope that Donald Trump is a summertime flash-in-the-pan with no real foundation are deluding themselves. Recent polls indicate he has managed to build a coalition of support that is both broad and somewhat deep. True, there is a wall he will hit eventually as he is still disfavored by a significant percentage of Republican voters nationwide but for now, The Donald is not going anywhere.
But why? Trump is arguably offensive, arrogant, egotistical, and rude. He has made comments that would spell the end of Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Yet Trump survives excoriating John McCain, calling women “fat pigs,” and making unsubstantiated broadsides against Mexicans. Why? According to the Times article, the reason is because his supporters love the fact that he is not politically correct, and many of the people interviewed for the article said that Trump is saying what they feel. Trump is articulating what they wish they could say (or what they do say when it’s just the boys out for a beer or when fulminating against life in the privacy of one’s own living room).
When I read that, I thought, “Oh great! So much for looking for leaders who cast a vision to help us aspire to be more, to rise above our petty insularities. Now people are satisfied to hear their closet racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and American exceptionalism brought to speech.”
And then I remembered something I tell my preaching students. If you say the word “sermon” to the average person, he or she will tell you that what a sermon does is “tell people what they need to hear.” Preaching confronts, preaching tells people what to do and what not to do. Sermons tell people what they need to hear.
But then I tell my students that this is not the whole story. In fact, as Fred Craddock once wrote, at its best preaching does not tell people what they need to hear but rather a good sermon usually articulates what people wish they could SAY. The pastoral preacher will bring to speech the laments, the fears, the doubts, the questions that tremble in people’s hearts and that keep them awake at night. And by bringing this to speech in the pulpit, the preacher gives people permission to feel that way. It’s OK to ask this or that specific question. You can still be a believer and voice a lament of protest to God. It is a good thing when the person listening to the sermon can think to herself, “Yes! Yes, that is MY question the preacher just asked. That is MY deepest fear the preacher just mentioned. OK, preacher, you have my attention. I am invested in listening to you now, pastor, because you are talking about MY life.”
Preachers articulate what people wish they could say.
What, then, is the difference if a politician like Donald Trump does the same thing in the public sphere? Is it so surprising that people like to hear someone finally bring to speech what they themselves want to say (or what they DO say even though no one listens)? Is this phenomenon significantly different from what can and should happen when a preacher gives voice to people’s real-life concerns?
Two observations: First and somewhat obviously, it makes a great deal of difference what is being expressed on behalf of listeners. When a preacher or a politician expresses legitimate fears, honest questions, or genuine doubts on behalf of others, this does engage people by naming the issues they face.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address. But FDR then went on to name the specific fear that was then rampant in the United States in the cold grip of the Great Depression. People latched on to Roosevelt immediately—and re-elected him three more times—precisely because he was speaking for them.
But voicing noble and normal concerns is one thing. Giving voice to feelings people should not have in the first place legitimizes what ought to be critiqued. A certain governor named George Wallace once ran for the White House by voicing the resentment and racism of many residents of Alabama and elsewhere, but many then and many now do not laud him for giving public voice to things people should not have been feeling to begin with.
Second, however, preachers know that naming the fear, the doubt, the questions in a sermon is only step one. Only a poor preacher and a bad sermon would give voice to some of life’s hurts but then leave the matter there. Naming the pain or the concern just whets the appetite for the healing word of grace as embers of hope get fanned into flame when people realize that God can and will do something about their situations.
Probably some will tell me I am wrong about this but I have not detected a lot of sentiment this summer that people really like the solutions someone like Donald Trump is proposing. Maybe this is because, as most observers have noted, beyond building a wall against Mexico, The Donald has not trumpeted nearly as many constructive ideas as he has voiced voter anger and resentment. Granted, most politicians are better at naming problems than coming up with viable ways to address those problems so this is hardly breaking news.
But perhaps one reason that now upwards of 30% of people polled are favoring Trump is because they are satisfied with just hearing their darker resentments being voiced for them. As for the solutions . . . well, maybe some of those same people think they already know what ought to be done. But at least some of those ideas should not receive public validation, either.