The Christian Veneer: On Dabo Swinney and Donald Trump

The roots of my formative experiences with the Christian veneer go back to the early 1950s when my father was co-captain for the first state championship high school football team in my home town.

The coach of that team became larger than life, winning several more state titles and looming over the high school and the town well into the 1990s, including my time as a teacher and coach at the high school where I graduated.

Many people would think it exaggeration or just a regional stereotype not grounded in truth, but that coach wielded enormous power over students, athletes, and many adults while simultaneously playing the role of “teacher of young men,” beacon of great character (he loved the “altitude of your attitude” bromide), and good Christian man—despite his own many character flaws, including berating his players often in tirades of the worst possible profanity (some of which was broadcast over the PA system in the press box of the football stadium, echoing off the largest church in town just across the street).

Especially as a teacher, administrator, and coach, this man was fundamentally a terrible person, corrupted over years of disproportionate and unchecked power, and allowed to be so behind the twin veneers of winning football games and being a Christian.

As a consequence of my very close encounters with the coach and the fetid core behind the Christian veneer, I both loath and am deeply aware of the Christian veneer.

Two of the current masters of the Christian veneer probably seem quite unalike—Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s football coach, and Donald Trump, disturbing president of the U.S.

While Swinney is a classic master of the Christian veneer, Trump stands at the other end of the continuum as the clown prince of the Christian veneer.

Both white men who have reaped tremendous wealth off the sweat and sacrifice of others face no challenge for these facts: there is absolutely nothing Christian about college football or accumulating enormous wealth.

Both men also behave in ways that are not Christian and are allowed to do so because of the Christian veneer, something achieved almost entirely through rhetoric and ceremony (Swinney has mastered this by touting his team culture, including a coercive practice of taking players to be baptized).

Like Ronald Reagan as the Teflon president, Swinney and Trump represent the power of the Christian veneer; consider the following:

Swinney, like Trump, refuses to acknowledge the problems exposed by a video of questionable behavior by a player with a fan during an official team event (one would assume there is nothing very Christian about any of the video), but this incident is actually just a small example of the larger problem: the entire sham that is conflating a Christian culture and high-level college football.

The truth is that Christian values, team culture, and everything are secondary to the all-mighty winning, and the enormous wealth being accumulated by the often white coaches (and eventually a handful of the often black players churned through the meat grinder that is college athletics).

Winning at all costs is the fetid core behind the Christian veneer.

Here, despite the obvious differences between Swinney (strongly conforming to social norms of civility and “aw-shucks”-ness) and Trump (a crass, profane cartoon of a human), is the crux of how Swinney and Trump share the Christian veneer because Trump exists on the cushion of winning as well; Republicans want to remain in power, and winning, you know, is everything.

Trump as the unlikeliest of clowns succeeding because of the Christian veneer offers some important nuances about the distinction between faux Christianity and a genuine reading of the Christian ethic, expressed well in the full thread from Union Seminary, but highlighted in selected Tweets here:

In Trump Republicanism, as these Tweets detail, ideological commitments to policy trump “love thy neighbor” and such liberal claptrap.

The Christian veneer often serves white men in power, white privilege, as a way to continue a much different life than the one suggested by “Christian”—a life of the flesh and individual material prosperity.

The Christian veneer is a perversion of genuine Christian ethics, but it serves well fields such as coaching and politics while allowing very serious harm to be done to the weakest among us—certainly the grossest outcome of something labeled “Christian.”

Behind the veneer, coaches and politicians behave and live in ways that they use their authority to deny others.

And while my examples here, Swinney and Trump, are certainly not the same kinds of men either with their Christian veneer or behind it, they are rewarded mightily for their hypocrisy and play roles that allow them to benefit off others who do not reap similar rewards.

Ultimately, the Christian veneer as a perversion of Christian ethics is also the very worst extreme of adult hypocrisy, the inverted standards of those in power behaving in ways they demand others rise above.

Coaches and politicians, like any of us, must first model the lives and behaviors they believe everyone should follow. Words and ceremony mean nothing against the actions of anyone; public actions, yes, but the most revealing are behind the veneer:

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” (Matthew 23: 1-7)

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