Trump's "Sh*thole Countries" Remark is Nothing American Churches Haven't Said for GenerationsRoundup
tags: racism, religion, evangelicals, Donald Trump
Kathryn Gin Lum is a historian of religion and race in America and the author of Heathen: Religion and Race in American History and Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction.
In January 2018, the 45th president hit a new low in a closed-door meeting: “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?” he reportedly asked. He was referring to immigrants from African nations, Haiti, and El Salvador, and asked why the U.S. couldn’t get more immigrants from, say, Norway instead. Condemnation swiftly followed from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but the condemnation wasn’t universal. As one White House official explained, the comments “would resonate with Trump’s base,” playing to a sense of American greatness and exceptionalism.
The tactical supply shop and social media site Tactical Shit, which boasts a “community of over 2 million veterans, first responders & patriots,” sells a “Shithole World Map Poster.” It shows the entirety of the world, save most of the U.S. (minus the coasts and other Democrat-leaning areas) and Norway, as brown colored shitholes—whether of the “Jungle,” “Desert,” “Poor/Hungry,” “Commie,” or “iPhone Factory” variety. The “Shithole World Map” is clearly meant to be funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s parody. The map reflects an American-centric view of the world that the 45th president stoked.
Trump’s followers weren’t delighting in simply shocking and outraging “the libs”; they were reaching back to a longer tradition of how to see the world—one with deep roots in religion. Back before Trump had the brazenness to label countries he disdained “shitholes,” Americans called them something more socially acceptable but equally condescending. They called them “heathen.”
The “Shithole World Map” and others like it are reminiscent of maps from the nineteenth century that color-coded the world by religion. In these maps, created by missionaries and their supporters to spur interest in and donations for foreign missions, the “shithole countries” were “heathen” and, as in the Tactical Shit map, colored in the drab hues of gray or brown. Contemporary mission organizations have continued the project of mapping the world by religion. Instead of “heathen” they now use euphemisms like “unreached people groups” or “frontier peoples,” but the underlying worldview of a blessed “us” and a backward “them” remains.
The religious outlook on the majority of the world as “heathen” reflects an older mentality—as does usage of the word itself. But just because the concept is older doesn’t mean it’s no longer influential: the idea of the “heathen world” continues to inform white Christian American exceptionalism and to shape Trumpian views of the rest of the world as squalid and woebegone. Heathenness has never been about “wrong” belief alone; it’s also about the myriad ways that wrong belief is supposed to manifest on “heathen” lands and lives.