LET’S BE HONEST, thus far the Trump era has been a nightmare for humanist values. Tolerance? Not a lot. Truth? Apparently that one’s subjective. Compassion? Sure, for the religious right and the fossil fuel industry. Science and reason? You must be joking. Grace? Not a shred. The question I find myself asking most is where is the justice for all, or even the many? And my question for the president is, “who loves you, baby?”
New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks our president suffers from “psychic wounds that seem to induce him into a state of perpetual war with enemies far and wide.” Brooks wishes Trump could learn the value of fraternity, which some might call humanism. “The fraternal person is seeking harmony and fair play between individuals,” Brooks wrote in his February 10 column. “He is trying to move the world from tension to harmony.” Clearly this is the antithesis of the new administration which, he concludes, is “at war with everyone but its base.”
When we talk about Trump’s base, these are the people who seem most susceptible to the “alternative facts” running rampant through our discourse. For example, the idea that bringing back coal industry jobs is better for those workers than retraining them to do something else. Or that suddenly, and without notice, barring immigrants, refugees, and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries makes the United States safer. It is the lie that diversity will be our undoing that Trumpism seizes on to avoid doing anything good for all, or even the many.
In writing this issue’s Humanist Profile on the great James Baldwin, I found myself hard-pressed to fit everything on one page. At his debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin had some insightful things to say about whites in the deep South that I think resonate:
They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be—and their lives have been quite terrible—and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black.
And today we would add at least they are not Muslim and maybe even that they are not gay. Baldwin continued, suggesting that the experience of a white sheriff who abuses a black person is worse than that of the victim. “Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast,” he said to the fixated and mostly white student audience (who overwhelmingly voted Baldwin the winner of the debate). “What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.”
In addition to calling a lie a lie, we must continue to champion those who tell such truths. Humanism can blow through the smoke of the so-called post-truth era and finally succeed in claiming the moral high ground. It can reach out to the truth-wary and the psychically wounded, tapping into what Christopher Hitchens called “that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion.” Hitch was discussing George Orwell’s humanity in the pages of Vanity Fair in 1992. “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, [Orwell] showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
Sometimes the combination of intellectual honesty and moral courage succeeds and other times it doesn’t. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling that denied Trump’s request to lift the temporary restriction on his travel ban is certainly a victory and provides some measure of relief that even if Republican legislators are too scared to stand up to Trump, the judiciary isn’t.
Secularists are particularly concerned with the Johnson Amendment, which President Trump promised to “totally destroy.” (SAD!) The law stipulates that if churches or any other nonprofit organization want to be exempt from paying federal and state taxes (and they do), they can’t get involved—directly or indirectly—in political campaigns, either on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office. This includes raising and donating money to campaigns, so destroying the Johnson Amendment would almost certainly create holy Super PACS. (SUPER SAD!)
The American Humanist Association is closely involved in monitoring this issue and advocating for the amendment’s preservation. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a Trumpy ride.