Honor-Shame and Relativism: What Evangelicals Don’t Get about Donald Trump
Guest Dr. Stan Nussbaum is an independent mission coach, researcher, and author. His latest project is SYNC.
No culture is pure honor-shame, pure guilt-forgiveness, or pure power-fear. All are mixes and all change over time. American culture is a guilt-forgiveness culture in the process of drifting toward honor-shame.
American evangelicals typically perceive the cultural change as a drift into godless relativism, promoted by the political left. They therefore lean to the political right, intending to stand for absolute truth and to keep guilt-forgiveness as the dominant pattern in our culture. They welcome Trump’s position on abortion and gay rights, which seems to value God’s absolutes in Scripture.
They do not realize that Donald Trump has a much more accurate intuitive sense about the culture’s drift than they do. He sees that it is too late to fight this cultural tidal wave of honor-shame thinking, and he is surfing it like he was born to take advantage of it. He lives, campaigns, and leads as if America already is an honor-shame culture.
Consider the list of ten honor-shame characteristics (from Mischke’s Global Gospel), and how Trump manifests each one.
Love of honor
- The driving force in his own psyche (not money or power, which are only means to his goal—honor)
- The force he has correctly sensed in his political base—the people who feel ignored and shamed by the liberal media and the Washington establishment
- “Make America Great Again” is an honor slogan
Two sources of honor
- “Achieved honor”—winning the 2016 election against all odds, notoriety as an entrepreneur, TV success, trophy wife, Florida mansion
- “Ascribed honor”—scolding a reporter, “You are a lightweight. Don’t ever talk to the President of the United States that way.”
Image of limited good
- Everything is win-lose in his world, so “wise” tactics must promote polarization not collaboration, sharing, or negotiation
- “America First” is a competitive slogan; multi-national deals are highly suspect; other NATO countries have to “pay their share”
Challenge & riposte
- The barrage of court challenges to the election, plus the January 6th rally calling loyalists to challenge the legal process of making the election results official
- His tweets were challenges and his opponents did not have enough followers on Twitter to make an effective riposte
- Constant quick interruptions (ripostes) in first Biden debate
Concept of face
- To lose an election is to lose face, which is not acceptable
- Saving face and snubbing the new president by not attending the inauguration
- Name-calling and ridicule to reduce the “face” of any opponent, such as, “Lock her up!”
- Never apologizing and never laughing at himself
- Facial expressions of contempt and disdain
- Applauding the crowd that is applauding him
- Unquestioning loyalty of his political base because he honors them without questioning their beliefs (even QAnon and white supremacists)
- Vicious attacks on any staff members who cross him; pardons for some who broke the law to remain loyal
- Hinting to Supreme Court justices that they should “have courage” to do what is “right,” which is to repay your patron by favoring his election lawsuit
- Putting his name on buildings
- Regarding his name as his most valuable financial asset
- Putting family members in his inner circle of power holders, advisers, and agents
- The Wall needed to keep America pure from invasion by outsiders
- “Purity” is group purity defined by loyalty to the group leader; it has nothing to do with moral purity
- Refusal to accept the election results, which reverse him from a political winner to a political loser
- Dropping all other issues such as COVID, budget, and transition in order to promote dozens of lawsuits, raise money for his defense fund, and rally his loyalists in Congress
Donald Trump epitomizes the honor-shame approach to life. All we have to do is ask, “WWTD” (What Would Trump Do) and we understand how honor-shame works. If he were wrong about the cultural shift, he would not have had the successes he has had, climaxing in the 2016 election.
Are we then to resign to the shift toward relativism in our culture? Is there no godly hope for America any more if honor-shame dominates the political right just as much as the left?
There is hope, and we will discover it as soon as we stop equating honor-shame thinking with relativism and equating guilt-forgiveness thinking with godliness. As Scripture clearly shows, either cultural pattern can be godly or ungodly, depending how cultural insiders factor God into the pattern.
The current shift to honor-shame is dangerous because all we see in front of us is two ungodly versions of it, a leftist version and a Trump version. The biblical way to handle this is not to dig in our heels against the shift, trying to pull the culture back toward guilt-forgiveness. The solution is to discover in the Bible the godly version of honor-shame.
If we continue to assume that sinners need to be converted from an honor-shame outlook to a guilt-forgiveness outlook in order to convert from ungodly to godly, we muffle the gospel. We make the gospel look like a cultural throwback to the guilt-forgiveness framework of the 1950s. We make the same ethnocentric mistake that missionaries have made in other cultures for centuries, assuming that our cultural perspective is the only “right” one and that sinners in another culture must adopt it before they can comprehend and welcome the gospel.
The alternative is to do in our own culture what missionaries are learning to do elsewhere—contextualize. We look at the Bible again, discover what God put into the biblical story to connect with people of a different cultural perspective (such as honor-shame), and help them see Christ from that biblical angle instead of from the guilt-forgiveness angle that our churches prefer.
Unfortunately, the price we must pay to contextualize is very high. We have to accept what Trump knows is true—the culture has already shifted to honor-shame. That means that we are no longer the cultural owners who can treat honor-shame people as invaders or trespassers. We are the foreigners who have to learn the language of the local people.
Of course, that does not mean we become like them in their relativism, but we learn how to express the absolute truth of Jesus in honor-shame language. If we manage that, we could be a step ahead of the culture, welcoming it to an honor-shame future where Christ already is present.
Thank you for this analysis. I agree with you that we muffle the gospel if we try to persuade people with an honor-shame outlook to adopt a guilt-forgiveness outlook. This would do nothing to get at the heart of the matter, which is that when we yield to Christ we die to self.
The “civil Christianity” of conservative extremists demands rights (something Jesus calls us to lay down) and exalts liberty (which Jesus says we must voluntarily release for the sake of the common good.) The crisis of evangelical faith in the US is that it is not based upon the Biblical message that Jesus preached.
May your Sync narratives help us to reassess what we as American Evangelicals believe, and how we share those beliefs with others.
Well, this really made me sit back and think! Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate the honorshame.com posts. My mind/perspectives are continually expanded.
It is clear that the ‘left’s move towards group identity and virtue signaling/cancelling is a shift towards emphasizing honor-shame. An interesting take on DT doing the same, but in an hyper-alpha male mode. We need to promulgate a biblical notion of honor which acknowledges both strength and humility.
You say that Trump is a good window onto shame and honor culture. I’ll say two ideas and leave the rest to y’all. Dr. Nussbaum wrote “Purity” is group purity defined by loyalty to the group leader; it has nothing to do with moral purity. He says “Donald Trump epitomizes the honor-shame approach to life. All we have to do is ask, “WWTD” (What Would Trump Do) and we understand how honor-shame works.”
Don’t African cultures, Asian cultures, cultures we would readily label shame-honor cultures, have an ancient and pervasive sense of right, of purity, of honor, that even the leaders must respect and cannot merely manipulate?
I believe Dr. Nussbaum’s statement on purity nails it – for the dictatorially inclined, the unquestioning and power-hungry. But does Trump’s behavior offer a good way of understanding the cultures of our neighbors in the world? It gives a way to understand some things that are happening in America, but does it really connect well to shame-honor cultures?
I say this out of respect to what wisdom those cultures have (clouded, as ours, and a gift from God, as ours) – also to get a more useful understanding of how to be Christians in America and the world.
John, you are asking and writing with wisdom. I’d say Trumpism is a poor window to look through for understanding H/S world view. For one, It is still based far too much on individualism. H/S cultures function effectively where individualism isn’t primary.
This i am thinking about a lot and thank you!
“We make the same ethnocentric mistake that missionaries have made in other cultures for centuries, assuming that our cultural perspective is the only “right” one and that sinners in another culture must adopt it before they can comprehend and welcome the gospel.
The alternative is to do in our own culture what missionaries are learning to do elsewhere—contextualize. “
Wow! This is very thought-provoking. I had already noticed how the generational shift from a predominantly guilt-innocence framework to a predominantly shame-honor framework is impacting the way older vs. younger evangelicals respond to things like the Obergefell ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. (In that older evangelicals seem to me to evaluate this massive cultural shift in terms of how God will treat America, whereas younger evangelicals often intuitively view this in terms of whether minorities are included or excluded/marginalized from community.) Your post does a great job of viewing the political climate in this country through the lens of moral emotions. Thanks for posting it!
Wonderfully written, Dr Nussbaum. I was baptized by your father and am feeling refreshed and renewed by your thoughtful and insightful words here.
It’s interesting to see how Trump embraced and displayed some of the toxic aspects of H-S cultures, but I’m not sure if it was political savvy or plain old sin nature. It makes me a little uncomfortable to label his behavior as descriptive of those cultures. It’s the behavior of any despotic, narcissistic, person of power who is not restrained by a code of morality or honor, either internally or externally. The roots of all human cultures (guilt, shame, fear) are dead roots and our own pursuit of honor, rightness, and power only produces more evil and pain unless we pursue it in the righteous, honorable, powerful Son of God.
I agree that we are seeing a major shift in the cultural value system of the U.S. Although culture isn’t static, and is always changing, this has been a precipitous shift. I know many identify the trend toward H-S, but while I do see this young generation embracing some of the H-S values, I think they are even more individualistic than their grandparents were. Their sense of morality is highly individual (personal integrity, “my truth”). Can you truly have an Honor-Shame system without a broadly accepted honor code? And since honor flows through the community, based on loyalty to the community and conforming to the honor code (meeting expectations), can these highly individualistic Americans truly embrace H-S cultural values? In typical H-S cultures, people think of themselves collectively—“we” instead of “I”, and make decisions based on the honor of the whole group. I don’t see young Americans becoming that collectivistic.
I think we’re actually developing a hybrid culture of approval-disapproval. The inevitable disillusionment with past social-cultural structures coupled with decades of indoctrination in relativistic ideology has led the younger generation to abandon the moral law and honor codes that sustain Innocence-Guilt and Honor-Shame cultures. The problem is that the new hybrid paradigms (approval-disapproval or pleasure-pain) don’t have any kind of “glue” that can hold a larger society together (moral law, cohesive honor code). Therefore they’re not sustainable long term. They will soon descend into tribalism and chaos. At that point it becomes a raw power struggle.
Trump is a stark example, but the Honor/Shame context has become common place across the political spectrum. The tacit (and some times overt) goal of news stories is to shame some one or group. Our fellow Christians, as well as those to whom we evangelize, are inundated with the spectacle of constantly traded insults.
Thank you for this interesting article! I agree that Trump and his followers are no longer following guilt/innocence ways of thinking. But instead of being honor/shame, I see Trump operating in a power/fear mindset. Looking at the very examples you gave, many of them seem to clearly demonstrate a desire for power. And he seems to use fear to intimidate those who disagree with him, not necessarily shame.
If my idea is right, that could help explain why Trump is so popular even as our culture is still so individualistic. I think that power/fear dynamics can be at play in either individualistic or community-focused cultures.