Donald Trump, Child of Darkness: Niebuhr and the Christian Realist Defense of Democracy 

Image for the American flag with a giant cross with the backdrop of a partly cloudy sky

R. Ward Holder
St. Anselm College

Date: March 20, 2024
Time: 12 - 1pm
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Conference Room

RSVP Required


Reinhold Niebuhr's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness presents a binary classification of political and moral action.  But the "children of darkness" classification has not been deeply analyzed. That left moralists and theologians unprepared for the Trump presidency. Further, the Christian Right's embrace of Trump represents a schism within American Christianity that has demonstrated a certain inability to present a robust defense of morality; or a significant religious defense of democracy. This study will examine Niebuhr’s binary, consider Trump’s exploitation of one side of it, and discuss Christian resources necessary to meet such a challenge. 

Ward Holder

R. Ward Holder is a historical and political theologian, and professor of theology and politics at Saint Anselm College, in Manchester, New Hampshire.  He is a graduate of Boston College.  Among his political theological efforts he has co-authored The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft, Ashgate, 2012; and Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century, Lexington, 2019. His essays have appeared in Christian Century, Church History, Politics and Religion, and Society.  His latest book is John Calvin and the Christian Tradition: Scripture, Memory, and the Western Mind, Cambridge, 2022.  Today, his talk is entitle, “Donald Trump, Child of Darkness: Niebuhr and the Christian Realist Defense of Democracy.”

Chen, Shang-Jen. “A Critical Appraisal of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness in the Debate of the Necessity of Democracy in Twenty-First-Century Mainland China.” Theology Today 77, no. 3 (2020): 285–97.

Harries, Richard, and Stephen Platten. Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics : God and Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Holder, R. Ward. Calvin and Luther : The Continuing Relationship. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

_____. Crisis and Renewal : The Era of the Reformations. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Josephson, Peter, and R. Ward Holder. Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.

Morris, Daniel A. Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defence. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1944.

A recent New Yorker article, "How Trump Captured Iowa’s Religious Right,” Wallace-Wells captures themes relevant to the topic of Holder’s luncheon colloquium. The article describes the current political climate in Iowa, and in particular, how concern for freedom of speech and Christian evangelicalism are interacting in ways that fuel the development of the religious right. The article discusses how while the Christian right is embracing Trump, many religious leaders such as Jon Dunwell seem to be standing on the other side of conflict. This aligns well with the complicated schism happening within American Christianity that Holder will be describing.

Ward holder

R. Ward Holder delivering his luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center.

Group listening to Holder in the Boisi Center's conference room.

Audience listening to Ward Holder in the Boisi Center's conference room.

Question from the audience.

Question from the audience.

R. Ward Holder, a historical and political theologian and professor of theology and politics at Saint Anselm College, presented his expertise on Niebuhr and the current political environment at the luncheon entitled “Donald Trump, Child of Darkness: Niebuhr and the Christian Realist Defense of Democracy.” Holder noted how often Niebuhr’s models of the children of light and the children of darkness — which are two ways of being in the world — are misconstrued. He used his presentation to elucidate the proper characteristics and applied them to a contemporary figure, Donald Trump. Children of darkness understand the power of self-interest, and they use it to reject external boundaries, gather wealth, enact revenge and sexual gratification, and portray invulnerability. Children of light underestimate the power of human self-interest, and thus, they may overlook the dangerous claims to power made by the children of darkness. Holder explained that extreme self-delusion, a trait of children of darkness, means that these leaders do not recognize actions as evil before or after they do them. There is no true moral framework for these leaders; everything is about their self-interested power. Many questions were raised in response to Holder about issues like political lies, individualism, and the operation of children of darkness in America’s political system. These questions led to a fruitful discussion about how Niebuhr’s observations may be at work in our current political system.