North Window of St. George Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. Where Archbishop Tutu prayed for a non-violent revolution. The prayers worked.

I was flying over Libya from  South Africa when I watched the elections unfold last night.  KLM now has wifi that even reaches the African desert. The pilot shared the news to gasps. I am as heartsick and afraid to my bones as all the Trump folks would have been had the election turned out as predicted. This will take some digesting, but let me share a few thoughts as we head to a home I hardly recognize and maybe never knew.

Between TC and me we have four daughters and two grandsons. I am thinking of them and the wild uncertainties facing them as they will find their way in this unhinged world. They have been raised to respect faith and logic times art and science and the truth that emerges from all four. They have lived among people of difference in culture, race, language and nation, so watching a victory that looks like the opposite of all that is a deep shock.

We were in South Africa  meeting with the Fellows of the Leading Causes of Life, most of whom were formed in life, character and work by the horrors of apartheid and the traumatizing  uncertainties of resistance. TC and I went by St. George’s Cathedral where Archbishop Tutu galvanized the improbable non-violent movement of Spirit that surprised everyone with a peaceful transition to a new democracy. Amazing things happen sometimes. We lit a candle at the Shrine of the African Madonna for our fragile nation. I’d ask for our money back for the candle since the prayers didn’t work.  But  maybe the work is ahead.


TC lighting a candle for the fragile USA democracy at the Shrine of the African Madonna. Didn’t work out so great. So far.

Politics is not the entertainment channel. Different votes change the flow of power, money and legal authority to set the rules for love and marriage, work and free voice. It matters and will change more than many of the Trump folks understand. Politics is not about sending a message; it is about putting people in charge of governing. We just elected people who have shown not the slightest interest in the actual work of governing, so we have no idea at all what happens next. Nor do they.

I’ve been confused about how my country works ever since Reagan won so others will have to sort out the politics. I have long been especially saddened as a Christian, although there the South Africans give me a clue.  The radical  apartness of South African  rested on Christian language and logic, all in the service of the Boer people who saw themselves a special people in the world constantly reinforced by a theological and cultural backbone. When threatened and afraid, they prayed but not for understanding. In the end, it all collapsed as any tribal in-turning does on our round globe.. For many reasons Apartheid could not last, but one of them was the energy and intelligence of Christian resistance sustained through very dark years which offered little rational path forward against raw state power .It’s theological foundation was a sand castle exposed not by the secular intelligentsia, but by other Christians. This had many witnesses, but turned when a small group published the kairos document declaring Apartheid a sin and the failure to name it as such heresy. (Jim helped write it.)

Not all the blood lust  is aimed at the poor. In fact, I don’t think that Mr. Trump cares one way or another about poor people. I don’t think my side lost because we are for mercy and justice. A lot of anger  is aimed at those of us who claim to be helping the poor while benefiting ourselves. Bill and Hillary offered spectacular targets with an FBI bullseye as a last impression.


Image of the moon shot on my Iphone through a telescope on the Karoo. I like that it shines despite all the craters.

My simple point is to not reject the language of faith just because of the weirdly constant Evangelical support for anyone who fights against what they fear even if the candidate so clearly do not share the faith. I can sort of understand the alt-right folks with all the guns and unhinged conspiracy ideas. But I don’t understand  my Christians who have lent the cross to Mr. Trump.  I wonder who they’ll get to pray over it all and what they’ll say.

I know this is the time to speak  in the language of faith, but of the kind of faith that welcomes the stranger, sides with the poor and seeks mercy and justice. As in South Africa, such faith finds common cause with people of many other faiths.

Don’t give up the big words, ideas and durable truth. But put your body where it matters, too. Let me be explicit about Muslims and Hispanics, the two groups singled out for special fear. Mr Trump has telegraphed the punch. South Africa 101: make sure white Christians stand so close that we get hit, too.

I work in the broad field of health science, including hospitals and all the institutions relevant to the health of the public. Nobody has any idea what Mr. Trump’s election will mean for the policy frameworks of our work, because there has been no thought about it. There has never been any serious alternative proposal other than resistance to President Obama. I suspect there will be lots of change in language and show, but not much  fundamental changes in the basic policies. Obamacare is really just the inexorable advance of science shifting the balance from expensive treatment to long term management and prevention. It decenters the privileges of the hospital specialists  in favor of the simpler mundane things that make and keep people healthy. Much of the current problems result protecting the role of the insurance companies who have no interest or even curiosity about poor or working class people. Now that the Republicans—or whoever they are—go to governing, I will be surprised if they don’t reinvent Obamacare which was just reinventing Romnycare.



The Leading Causes of Life Fellows talking through the work of generation amid broken societies.

Academic Medical Centers are a whole different  negotiated set of compromises and protected privileges all built on the sanctity of science. Mr. Trump seems more inclined to go to Mars than invest in hard science relevant to health.  But who knows what exactly will be undone, redone and replaced? We’ll see.

This is true for nearly every single area of civic life—not just health policy–where government policy intersects with fluid culture and moving technology. Who knows? If Mr. Trump chooses some people who actually want to undo privilege on behalf of making things better, there could be some ground to work on once they get over whooping it up over The Obamas.

Before we go into hard core resistance mode, we should listen carefully to the fear and sense of loss that was strong enough to overlook the obvious lack of decency. While it is hard to overlook the hot froth whipped up around  race and gender we just don’t know how much was also about the loss of moral credibility of the privileged. We just elected one of the most weirdly privileged insiders of them all, but I know that’s most of his supporters were certainly not. We won’t get anywhere if we don’t listen.

I work for—have long worked for—agencies of great privilege and oddly complicit wealth. Emory floats on Coke, Wake Forest on tobacco and  Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare plantation cotton. I am among the privileged elite that the Trump movement has found so deeply unworthy of trust. I’ve long found financial support among Foundations that are even more privileged. All of these privileges rest on the moral claim  that the poor and the vulnerable benefit from the array of programs to advance public health and healing. This moral claim is part of what is rejected, along  science itself. Its not just evolution and climate change, but pretty much the whole idea of scientific ideas. But clearly, those of us with science at our side have not always used that science to pursue the needs of the poor. Large fractions of nearly all budgets end up flowing toward the professionals.


Schoenstatt retreat center near Cape Town where we met. It has been a Catholic training center back into the anti-apartheid days.

Part of modern health policy is an enhanced focus on Community Benefit, driven mostly by Senator Grassley. The point is to force non-profit hospitals to prove how we are fulfilling our social contract—and earn our tax privileges. Wake Forest Medical Center just last week approved a pretty good Community Benefit Plan. It is a legal document but also a moral one. By hospital standards it is progressive and almost bold. But it is hardly sacrificial. I suspect the average Trump supporter would find it less than compelling.

The point is that we—every privileged institution–will have to do be worthy of trust and continued support of a deeply untrusting body politic. The vote does shown they are willing to throw out any traditional allegiance they sense is part of the general betrayal they are feeling. Real work that provides real value to normal people at a fair cost is how trust grows. Obviously, this is exactly where the focus of Stakeholder Health, 100 Million Lives and FaithHealthNC are focused. In this fractured moment, we must do it, and not just say it.

I expect to spend more time in big public demonstrations  protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and stigmatized. But we also have to show up at the committee tables where the boring work of governance is figured out.

A little humility will go a long, long way in these days.

And bring all the scraps of faith you can find, too. Maybe we should have lit another couple candles to see the way.


Chapel at the Schoenstatt Retreat Center. I’m glad it is alarmed. I am, too.

About garygunderson

Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative
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1 Response to apart

  1. Thank you, Gary, for this thoughtful, prophetic word! You speak the truth with humility and courage, thereby lighting a candle of hope amid the darkness of these days.

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