This past election cycle brought a lot of America’s cultural and political tensions to the fore, ones that had previously managed to exist at least partly in the background. These tensions mostly revolved around what we in the discipline of sociology sometimes call “the big three”—race, class, and gender. But perhaps the strongest and most encompassing tension that emerged throughout 2016 is the one between populism and cosmopolitanism: two inclinations and mindsets that seem to animate increasingly divergent sectors of the U.S. populace.
Populism is one of the more amorphous of the –isms, but in the domains of culture and politics it basically boils down to appeals to “the common man” or “the people.” Crucially, it always involves the perception that standing in an antagonistic relation to the people are “the elites”—those in the media or the sciences or wherever who typically possess disproportionate shares of education, wealth, and power. In short, to be populist is to be anti-elitist.Jesus tends to embody paradoxes and hold binaries in tension: Grace and truth. Eternal life and dying to oneself. Inclusivity and exclusivity. God and man.
People who get swept up in populism are often observed by the elite as Les Deplorables—not merely less educated and less well-off but often hateful and ignorant. These are the people who in light of economic and cultural anxieties “cling to guns and religion,” as President Obama famously put it. They live in “the rust belt” or “flyover country.” Populism can manifest itself anywhere along the political spectrum, but right-leaning populism often comes along with strong currents of nationalism and resentment toward outsiders (e.g., immigrants), making populism not only anti-elitist but also anti-pluralist. It is associated with a level of blinkeredness and insularity.
Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, is a spirit of openness to—and familiarity with—different cultures, experiences, ideas, peoples, and so on. A cosmopolitan person is a “citizen of the world.” This means that, in stark contrast to the nationalism that often attaches itself to populism, cosmopolitanism has a strong tenor of inter-nationalism or globalism. George Packer describes cosmopolitan Americans as those “who are at home in the fluid world of transnational corporations, dual citizenship, blended identities, and multicultural education. Such people dominate our universities, tech companies, publishers, nonprofits, entertainment studios, and news media. They congregate in cities and on the coasts.” As Ross Douthat notes, cosmopolitans tend to be, in a word, WEIRD—that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
In our country’s current political and cultural setting, Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent the Republicans more generally) have come to represent populism while Hillary Clinton and the Democrats represent cosmopolitanism. Even before the election, Trump’s appeal among the white working class was framed as a populist revolt against the Washington elite, and especially against the liberal or progressive “globalists.”
In this light (and in light of how U.S. Evangelicals are currently entangled in various ways with the Trump administration), a clean-and-neat “running to one’s corners” would suggest that Christianity is—and rightly should be—most closely aligned with populism, while cosmopolitanism belongs to the “secular humanists.” Hopefully, this alignment immediately strikes some readers as an oversimplification, which is precisely the sense that I want to affirm here. But first, one major caveat: My argument isn’t that readers should come to see that Jesus is actually on the side of Hillary and the Democrats. The case I want to make is both more modest and more nuanced—namely: Jesus embodies aspects of both populism and cosmopolitanism, but He is more cosmopolitan than your typical Trump rally and many ordinary Americans seem to recognize.
In some ways, Jesus embodies the populist spirit. Of course, Jesus doesn’t fit with the worse elements of contemporary populism (which have come to imply resentment, xenophobia, nationalism, insularity, etc.). But broadly, the person and work of Christ have clear resonances with “appealing to the people.” For one, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, He incarnated not as a member of the ruling class but as the common man. If, as a young man, Jesus had worn a button-up shirt, it would have been blue-collar. In His early thirties, during His ministry on Earth, Jesus continually ruffled the feathers of the elite of His day—for example, by healing a man and woman on the Sabbath, by criticizing the Jewish leaders’ legalistic interpretations of the Old Testament, and by often refusing to give a straight answer to their questions and accusations.
Additionally, being a Christ follower doesn’t require any special credential or expertise; He always meets people where they are. The “Jesus movement” is an unprecedented movement of and for ordinary, everyday folk. This has been true from the very beginning, worked itself out historically in the early decades of the American republic, and remains the case even today. And in true populist form, Jesus is all too aware of the desperate plight of the people—all people—and boldly proclaims that only He can fix it. He rescues and delivers them from the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities. (While not quite populism, traditional Christian social philosophy teaches the principle of subsidiarity, which tells us that matters ought to be addressed by the lowest, most local level of governmental authority possible rather than by a centralized aristocratic elite or through government overreach.)
In other ways, however, Jesus embodies the contemporary cosmopolitan spirit. While citizens of Western democracies become increasingly suspicious or dismissive of all this peer-reviewed research tucked away (or so we hear) in academic journals, Jesus isn’t afraid of education, research, and expertise. As the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, He is inescapably connected to all the good and important work being done at world-class universities, including from the fingertips of non-Christian scholars. He understands and motivates the life of the mind. (I suspect Jesus might even like Yale or the University of Michigan at least as much as He likes Liberty University.) Jesus is pleased and glorified by well-crafted art, excellent film, beautiful music, timeless literature, that recent scholarly tome, quality wine, and good meals with good friends. He is not against the urbane, the classy, the sophisticated. The God of Creation has good taste.
Of course, as a long tradition of sociological research and theorizing has established, matters of cultural taste are never “purely” about taste but instead map onto socioeconomic status and class—and the social divisions that typically accompany them. In brief, populism and middle-brow cultural preferences are the wheelhouse of the working class while refined tastes and cosmopolitanism are the world of the college-educated upper-middle and upper classes. This fact unavoidably adds a layer of tension and potential animosity to any discussion of Jesus as being cosmopolitan and appreciative of high culture. After all, it is clear from scripture that Jesus has a special heart for the poor and that His followers should too. Caring for and doing what’s best for our downwardly mobile neighbors is a hallmark of traditional Christian social teaching.
At the same time, this “preferential option for the poor” doesn’t mean that Jesus has abandoned or scorned the cosmopolitan class due to their relative abundance and comforts. In contrast to some recent and influential U.S. Evangelical voices, there is nothing inherently more holy or sanctifying about living paycheck-to-paycheck, sending one’s children to failing public schools, or raising your family in a high-crime neighborhood. While fully wanting to avoid the trap of prosperity theology and idolizing wealth, we (or, U.S. church leaders) also shouldn’t be afraid to admit (along with good company ranging from Church Fathers to Dave Ramsey) that financial stability and material affluence is a good thing that tends to facilitate the flourishing of persons and of our communities. Jesus loves rich people and poor people alike.
He is cosmopolitan in a more fundamental way than merely appreciating upper-middle class tastes and having upper-middle class friends. Jesus is the true and better globalist, whose sovereign reign and reach encompasses the entire world and all of history. His rule is global—universal. People of every tongue, tribe, and nation even today worship Him and aim to glorify Him with their lives. His written revelation to us has now been translated into a beautiful, Earth-spanning array of languages and dialects; and prayers and songs of praise rise to Him, like incense, in just as many. U.S. political parties and debates, right and left, don’t and can’t envelope the scope of His Church, which is catholic. Above all kings, prime ministers, and presidents—He is King. Over every lord, Lord. He will welcome and embrace any person from any background with any story or struggle. Jesus has a rightful place in every culture. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. His and our everlasting home—the New Jerusalem—is an eclectic, multicultural, multiracial city, where the streets are paved with gold.
Jesus tends to embody paradoxes and hold binaries in tension: Grace and truth. Eternal life and dying to oneself. Inclusivity and exclusivity. God and man. And among these, I suggest, is also populism and cosmopolitanism. He embodies aspects of both while simultaneously rejecting the worst impulses and indecorums of both. Granted, there is always a real risk when importing and applying extra-biblical, present-day categories onto the Son of God, and so I will understand if some readers object. Still, in our fractured republic where we seem increasingly divided between these two cultural mindsets, hopefully there is some benefit in seeing that—as He tends to do—Jesus doesn’t fit neatly or entirely into either side. And especially in light of the tightly knotted package recently of President Trump, populism, the white working-class, and Evangelical America, it seems particularly important to highlight the fact that Jesus, the Christ, is more complex, more surprising, and more cosmopolitan than many of us make Him out to be.