Held at Epping Uniting Church shortly before the symbolic first anniversary of Donald Trump’s shock election victory, Political Populism & A Theological Response had a lot to say about the US President’s populist rhetoric and how it led him to power.
The event’s speaker, Reverend Dr. John Flett, is a lecturer at Melbourne’s Pilgrim Theological College and the author of The Witness of God.
Flett told the conference that secularism has not removed theology from its central part in public discourse.
“While we often think that theology lacks [a] presence within secular societies—this is not the case,” he said.
“Theology is absolutely everywhere…and it is not so easy to divide the political from the theological.”
He defined populism as a rhetoric that cast a particular majority, ‘the people’ against a marginalised ‘other’.
Jesus “remade in our image”
Rev. Dr. Flett argued that Trump’s election had invoked an eschatological framework that Christians were being persecuted.
He also argued that American militarism had contributed to a particular understanding of the penal substitutional theory of the Atonement. This, he said, was accompanied by popular images of Jesus as a “frontier man” and a “warrior Christ”.
“We have remade Jesus in our image,” Rev. Dr. Flett said.
Event organiser and Macquarie University Chaplain Liam Miller told Insights that the event was “fascinating”.
“The church needs to be a community that reads the signs of the times. When we consider our times, many disturbing trends can be placed under the umbrella of populism,” Mr Miller said.
“It was great to have John Flett unpack the particular ways populism creates us/them dynamics. But more importantly, challenge us on our complicity. Both in the ways we ignored our own boundaries, our own bubbles and in our reluctance to develop and engage in robust, constructive theological dialogue in the public sphere.”
Stephen Mansfield is the author of Choosing Donald Trump, a book that explores why American evangelicals supported Trump. In an interview with NPR, he said that this support had affected evangelical Christianity’s public image.
“If you say the word evangelical to those outside of evangelicalism, they assume it’s a political movement, and that’s part of the problem,” Mansfield said.
“They don’t know that it’s more because that hasn’t been the public face of evangelicalism.”
John Flett’s book, The Witness of God, is available here
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ editor