Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.


How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion


Scholars have presented a variety of theories as to why religion persists in the current Western world. Classical theories of secularization underestimated the extent to which religiosity would prove salient in contemporary societies and political arrangements because, let’s face it, the Western world is still very religious. This seems to be a contentious fact given the current liberal-conservative schism that continues to take place in the Western world, as has been most poignantly demonstrated in the recent American election. This polarization of worldviews has resulted in what appears to be all sorts of fundamentalisms, both secular and religious.

One solution to this schism scholars have proposed is the notion of postsecularism, that bearers of both secular conceptions and religious worldviews would start taking each other’s contributions seriously through a process of complimentary learning. This concept implicitly rests on the presumption that both secular modernity and religious traditions are capable of self-reflexivity. Western modernity has always prided itself on being an ongoing process of self-critique and has juxtaposed this ethos of rational criticism with religion’s frozen and incontestable nature. I want to suggest that the reason a postsecular society seems like an improbable cognitive enterprise may actually have more to do with a general unwillingness from secular individuals to reform their worldviews than their religious counterparts. The pervading secular narrative consistently presents religiosity as an intellectually inferior and therefore regressive mode of thought, making religious worldviews incapable of penetrating and potentially aiding Western self-reflexivity. It seems that secular dispositions are only self-reflexive in so far as they continue to be critically evaluated based on internal presuppositions. In doing so, they limit religious paradigms of thought by defining religion (and its worldviews) as oppositional to the glory of Enlightenment ideals through systematic dispossession and subjugation (sounds a bit like intellectual colonialism, no?).















It seems to me that by disallowing religious worldviews from having a seat at the table of public discourse, Western secular ideologies make it increasingly difficult for a dialectical, complimentary learning process to occur. Is it possible that the secular epistemic disposition has become a form of secular authoritarian discourse purveying the ethos of a second wave Enlightenment where those with religious convictions can be educated out of their worldviews once they understand liberal convictions, and will thus, inevitably, disappear? It seems that religious individuals in the West do not make such claims about their secular counterparts. I guess the real question is—how ‘liberal’ is Western society really? Or rather, are Western societies liberal so long as those with dissenting views start playing by their rules to fit within a secular normative framework?

The Heart of the Matter

Russell T. McCutcheon
Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama
B.A. 1983, M.Div. 1986, Th.M 1987

UntitledThose following US politics may know about an exchange back in January, between Trump spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, concerning what some still interpret as Trump’s mocking of a handicapped reporter during last fall’s campaign. The episode came up again because of Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes, back in early January, in which she commented on how:

the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

All along Trump and his team have denied that he was mocking the man, of course, but what stood out for me in their recent efforts was the manner in which an inner, unseen world of intention has been invoked.

Give Conway’s reply to Cuomo a listen (from the 2:10 point if you want to get straight to the example I have in mind):

You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart…

Now, what I find interesting about this move is not that his spokesperson made it—after all, the distinction between inner and outer, unseen and seen, private and public, is a strategic “divide and conquer” move that social actors have long used. Think of the proverbial rebellious teenager retreating to her room and slamming the door (complete with a “Keep Out” sign on it?), and turning up her music, all in order to deal with disagreements with her parents or siblings—the faux privacy of the room providing an escape from public conflict. Or, again, think of the rise of the discourse on conscience in the 17th century, as a way to manage dissent—so long as one only disagrees inwardly, and behaves as required by the sovereign, then dissent is tolerated and you won’t be burned at the stake.

So it’s not the move that’s interesting but, instead, it’s the response to the move that should attract our attention. Consider this Washington Post article, for example:

UntitledFor the ease with which her distinction between words and intentions, or between public action and private meaning, was derided differs sharply, I’d argue, from how most of us respond to this distinction when others use it; after all, the foundation of the academic study of religion has much to do with the longstanding, and still widely shared, presumption that scholars have no choice but to study secondary, symbolic manifestations or expressions of some prior, unseen thing.

Almost no one sees that as laughable.

It’s the basis of the comparative method, in fact; as our 19th century predecessors thought, and many still do, we need to find cross-cultural similarities in narratives, behaviours, and institutions in order to infer the unseen universal.

So when we hear participants—or, for that matter, colleagues—talking about such things as faith, or belief, or experience, or feeling as if they are all intangible and actual inner states that are, in some subsequent step, projected outward into the world, in some coded fashion, few of us listen with the sort of critically-minded ears that Conway’s response seems to have elicited. Instead, many of us listen reverentially, take many of the people talking that way at their word, and then go so far as to try to understand such things as how those inner states determine action—e.g., it’s not tough to find the pollsters trying to figure out how religious faith impacts voting trends.

Moral of the story? What’s supposedly in some people’s hearts is therefore not just seen by most of us as real but also as deeply valuable, primary and causal; whereas when some others talk that way…? Well, we immediately hear their claims as a sly rhetorical move.

I think back to a colleague who once told me about a shift he made in his work on the Reformation, while completing his dissertation—when he came to understand that, regardless what they themselves may have thought, social actors from that period who were writing about faith could be read as using the term as a rhetorical devise, to create the impression of a privileged zone free of social influence and governance—not unlike the effect of that teenager’s closed bedroom door.

Free of judgment, contest, and consequence too.

So it’s not that I’m defending Conway’s usage—far from it. Instead, I’m asking how scholars know when to hear such claims as substantive and when to hear them as rhetorical? For few of us read John Wesley’s classic claims about his “strange warming of the heart” as a rhetorical move that a social actor, in a specific circumstance, used for practical effect. No—we mostly see it as a metaphoric attempt to put something real, that defied (maybe even pre-dated?) language, into language. But what if we did? How would the field be reshaped if we listened to all of the people we study—and not just those with whom we may disagree—as situated, strategic social actors, all trying to do things with words, rather than hearing just some as neutrally, even naively, reporting on self-evident matters of the heart?


Russell T. McCutcheon, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, works on issue of classification in the history of the study of religion. He also earned a B.A., M.Div., and Th.M. at Queen’s university in the 1980s, prior to going to the University of Toronto for an M.A. and Ph.D. in the academic study of religion.


Is Bernie Sanders “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

Galen Watts
Cultural Studies PhD Student, Queen’s University


Watching the current American election from Canada is like watching a hurricane from a seemingly safe distance, and hoping (perhaps even praying), that it doesn’t come any closer, and that it ends soon.

There have been many theories proposed by media pundits and scholars to make sense of what seems to be a growing polarization between camps in contemporary American (and more broadly, Western-European) politics: populist masses versus cultural elites, nationalism versus internationalism, cultural pluralism versus nativism, support for political correctness versus the allowance of unfettered freedom of speech, the breakdown of traditional ideological structures, Angry white people versus, well, everyone else. Let me say, I think there is some truth to most, if not all, of these proposals, however, I want to here focus on a set of factors (not entirely separate yet nevertheless distinct) that were mentioned quite often early on in the election—at least during the time when Sen. Bernie Sanders was still a possible (however unlikely) contender for the Democratic nomination—and which, I believe, hold interesting insights for scholars of religion. Those being: millennials versus boomers and spirituality versus religion. It’s true that these factors do not explain the polarization entirely—and some might argue they really only apply to divisions on the Left—but nevertheless, I think their further investigation might help us to make sense of an important shift in values and discourses that are taking place in North American culture.

Early in the race for the Democratic nomination, it was often touted that one of the greatest predictors of support for Bernie Sanders was if one was between the ages of 18-34. No doubt, Sanders’ appeal to the millennial generation has to do with a number of things. For instance, many young people in America (and Canada) are deeply frustrated because they find themselves saddled with historically unprecedented amounts of student debt while at the same time facing poor job prospects. Others feel the political establishment ultimately doesn’t serve the interests of the young, and are therefore happy to see a somewhat disgruntled and disheveled old man who self-identifies as a “socialist” railing against those whom they feel don’t really care about them. Moreover, university-educated young people are less likely to associate “socialism” with the Cold War in the way their parents might, and have been (rightly) taught by their Liberal professors that unfettered capitalism is not the social and political panacea that Reagan and Thatcher once suggested. Finally, research has shown that millennials value, above all else, authenticity (or at least what they perceive as “authenticity”). They view any kind of fakery, or skullduggery, as revealing a lack of integrity. They want a person who is true to themselves, not some polished politician who knows how to read a teleprompter well. Sanders seems to them the “real deal.”

Indeed the reasons are multiple and diverse, however, I want to reflect on a possible reason that has not garnered as much media attention as I think it deserves: could it be that Sanders is, despite his not actually articulating it, “spiritual but not religious”?

Research has shown that many millennials self-identify as more “spiritual” than “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” For my Master’s thesis, I conducted interviews with twenty Canadian millennials who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” in order to gain a better understanding of what contemporary spirituality is; that is, what kinds of beliefs and practices it entails, what moral logics (if any) it espouses, and ultimately what the social and political implications its recent popularity among millennials across North America might be. Of course, millennials in the U.S. and Canada differ in important ways, and therefore will likely hold differing understandings of what “spirituality” without “religion” is, but nevertheless, I would argue, as others have, there are more similarities than one might think. In any case, an interesting observation garnered through my interviews was that the vast majority of my interviewees preferred Sanders to the remaining Democratic and Republican candidates, and I think this is revealing. My argument is that, among other reasons, Sanders appeals to millennials because he speaks the language of “spirituality” and because he embodies, in certain ways, what it means to be “spiritual”—at least to my research participants.

When asked during a CNN interview what his “spirituality” was, Sanders replied, “we are all in this together.” Asked to elaborate, he responded, “Every great religion in the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—essentially comes down to ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’…. The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt … and when my kids hurt, you hurt…. I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand. It’s beyond intellect; it’s a spiritual, emotional thing.”

There are a number of ways in which Sanders echoes what many of my SBNR interviewees articulated. For one, he makes no reference to the existence of a God, or gods. His spirituality is thoroughly immanent—meaning, this-worldly. Nevertheless, he does not positively deny the existence of a higher power. Instead, his “spirituality” is left theologically open to speculation; he suggests that whatever “human nature is about”, is beyond human understanding and therefore cannot be comprehended simply by means of rational or scientific methods of analysis. Second, Sanders stresses that what is “spiritual” is also, in some sense, “emotional”; the truth of his conviction must be on some level felt. Similarly, my interviewees often spoke of how “spiritual” knowledge had to be attained through lived personal experience. Third, Sanders has no problem boiling the “great religions” down to one single principle—essentially, the Golden Rule. Many of my interviewees, although holding different metaphysical justifications for their view, similarly saw all world religions as ultimately teaching this basic idea. They also, in line with Sanders, saw this aligning them with predominantly Liberal, that is, Leftist public policies. Finally, Sanders seems to gesture towards an understanding of human beings as fundamentally interdependent. It’s difficult to know whether he was referring to a purely material interdependence—for instance, the way in which a Canadian’s large carbon footprint might negatively effect the life of a Fijian by means of climate change, or, say, the way in which the winner of the American election will effect the global order—or if he also meant the way in which we are interdependent on a more immaterial (perhaps “spiritual”) level (i.e. via energy levels or spiritual forces). Either way, it seems clear that Sanders’s view is certainly not what most would call “religious” today.

America has never had a president that did not self-identify as “Christian” or “not religious.” Perhaps Sanders’ appeal to those who prefer to be called “spiritual” is one more reason why his being elected would have been revolutionary (and was therefore unlikely). Nevertheless, his resounding appeal among the millennial generation in the U.S and Canada suggests that discourses on “spirituality” as distinct from “religion” are, although perhaps not yet in vogue, becoming more acceptable in American politics. And resultantly, they may come to shape future elections, and North American culture, in important and enduring ways.