Tag Archives: Evangelical Christianity

Facing Up To The Evidence

There is a robust argument among pundits and scholars over the comparative contributions of economic insecurity and racial anxiety to Donald Trump’s election. It is an argument that rests on an ahistorical “either-or” approach to voter motivation (anyone who has studied German attitudes in the period after the first World War understands that economic fears fed the not-so-latent anti-Semitism.)

That said, we make a mistake–as I have argued previously–if we minimize the role racism played and continues to play in America’s electoral politics. One aspect of the uncomfortable discussion we need to have focuses on the history and persistence of racism in Evangelical Christianity.

It is a discussion that self-aware Evangelicals are now having. As Nancy Wadsworth recently wrote in Vox,

I spent the first 15 years of my career as a scholar studying American evangelicals and race, and in my view, the failure to consider motivations rooted in anxieties about race and gender as an explanation of evangelical Trump support represents a striking omission. The history of American evangelicalism is intensely racially charged. The persistent approval for Trump among white evangelicals ought to prompt far more critical self-reflection within the evangelical community than we’ve seen so far.

Evangelicals’ tenacious affection for Donald Trump is not a bug driven by expediency. Instead, it reflects defining features of American evangelicalism that become clearer when we examine the historical record. Doing so reveals that when white conservative evangelicals feel threatened by cultural change, the old demons of racism and misogyny, which lurk at the heart of the American evangelical tradition, return with a vengeance.

Wadsworth recounts–and dismisses–analyses by Evangelicals who find the support for Trump to be “transactional.” She also takes issue with aspects of Michael Gerson’s more nuanced and widely-read critique of Evangelical Trump supporters.

Michael Gerson lays out a particularly condemnatory, yet nuanced, version of the Christian anti-Trump lament in a lengthy, elegant essay in the April issue of the Atlantic. He frames Trump loyalty as “the last temptation” that could forfeit evangelicalism’s future and despoil a long legacy of positive contributions to American culture.

Cheerleading by second-generation Christian right figures like Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, Gerson writes, is “not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption.” Allowing hatred of their political enemies to “blind” them to Trump’s attacks on people of color and women is a tragic mistake, he suggests.

Gerson offers a 150-year summary of evangelicals’ positive work in the public sphere to make the case that, despite some missteps along the way, white evangelicals have mostly been on the right side of moral and social issues, historically. But his history is strikingly lopsided, reflecting a characteristic amnesia among evangelicalism’s boosters.

Wadsworth reminds readers that Europeans considered the indigenous people they encountered when they came to America to be uncivilized “heathens”–a belief anchored in a white Christian worldview employed to justify various forms of missionary conquest.

On the question of chattel slavery, evangelicals do not just appear as the abolitionists Gerson cites approvingly. The institution had millions of champions among conservative Christians who drew on Scripture and Curse of Ham theology to defend white supremacy and black subordination. Gerson fails to mention that every major evangelical denomination split along regional lines based on divisions over the slavery question. In fact, the vast bulk of Southern white evangelicals defended slavery, clung to the Lost Cause, fought Reconstruction, and designed and defended Jim Crow.

As the Kentucky General Baptist Association put it in 1860:

Among the white race in the Southern States there is no difference of opinion upon this subject: all are united in the opinion in reference to the political, intellectual, and social inequality between the colored people and the white races. And the people of our Commonwealth generally feel that the present condition of the colored race in this country accords both with the Word and the providence of God.

The entire article is eye-opening for those of us previously unaware of this history. Racism truly is America’s original sin. We will not eradicate it–from Evangelical Christianity or from any of the other constituencies in which it holds sway–until we confront the major role it has occupied, and continues to occupy, in our common life.

 

Our “Seamless Garment” Problem

When I was a very new academic, I loved attending conferences and listening to scholars from various institutions deliver papers that illuminated issues with which I’d struggled.

One of those issues was my puzzlement about why some religious folks seemed unable to “live and let live”–to understand the Bill of Rights as a list of things that government wasn’t supposed to decide. You go to XYZ church, I go to ABC–government shouldn’t be involved in those choices. I read such-and-such books, you consider them evil. Not government’s concern. Etc.

I certainly understood that people of good faith could disagree on where lines got drawn, but I lacked a description for those insisting that government use its power to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. Then I attended a conference presentation that gave those people and that insistence a label: the “seamless garment” folks.

Seamless garment folks are people who see government and religion as one inseparable authority; when government won’t legislate their beliefs, they experience that refusal as discrimination.

The frustration of the Seamless Garment folks is arguably what has led Evangelical Christians to support Donald Trump (and especially his Seamless Garment Vice President, Mike Pence.) Their insistence on using government to require others to act (or not) in accordance with their beliefs has now eclipsed their attention to such biblical admonitions as caring for the widow and orphan and adhering to the Golden Rule.

What have we seen from these folks during Trump’s first year? A writer for Vox supplies a list.

In my first year at Vox, I’ve covered a range of religion stories — from witches casting spells against Trump to controversial debates over the alt-right at the annual Southern Baptist Convention conference. In that time, I’ve noticed a few distinct, related patterns emerging. Most notably, Christian nationalism is getting stronger — even as that nationalism has both caused divisions within the evangelical community and led to wider politico-religious divisions in America, cleaving white evangelicals, from, well, everybody else.

The article lists five “take-aways”:

  • Religious minorities are experiencing a spike in discrimination. Muslim communities have been particularly hard-hit; anti-Islamic incidents have soared.   There’s been a 44 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 57 percent increase in Islamophobia overall. Anti-Semitism has increased as well.
  • Evangelical solidarity is showing fissures. Their demographics are changing and their communities are becoming more diverse; like other young people, young evangelicals have different priorities than seniors, and are significantly less anti-gay. Many of them are uneasy being tied to the Trump presidency– the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that represents nearly 40 percent of evangelical Protestants in America, passed a near-unanimous resolution condemning the alt-right.

And, of course, there was Roy Moore. His Alabama special election campaign, late in 2017, seemed to capture the religious zeitgeist, as evangelicals wrestled with the question of whether to support a man who had been accused of molesting teenage girls if it also meant supporting a pro-life, even theocratic candidate. The reasons for white evangelical support of Moore were varied, but the outcome of the election — which showed the growing influence of evangelicals of color — revealed that changing demographics, not changed minds, were responsible for Democrat Doug Jones’s victory.

  • Spiritual but not religious is becoming a significant voting bloc. The author noted that many of the people she interviewed said that the need for inclusive, LGBTQ-affirming spaces had alienated them from the religions they had grown up in or near, and left them in search of something different.
  • On the other hand, Christian Nationalism is on the rise. The prominent Evangelicals around Trump believe Christians should take over America, and run it in accordance with biblical law. (In fairness, many other evangelicals see them as charlatans.)

The article ended with speculation about the role Evangelicals will play in 2018. This  paragraph, especially, struck a chord:

The greatest trick Christian nationalists — or their more explicit cousins to the right, white nationalists — have up their sleeve is to claim they are being persecuted. Central to the narrative of Christian nationalism in the White House, no less than the explicitly white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, is the idea that the “liberal media” and “PC police” have banded together to silence the “true” speakers of truth — a dynamic that, in the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, turns into a full-on war between good and evil (just consider how Roy Moore’s defenders compared him to Jesus during the last days of his campaign).

Unfortunately for the Seamless Garment members of the Christian Taliban, the U.S. Constitution specifically rejects the “seamlessness” they seek, and leaves matters of religious belief and observance to our individual consciences.

Fortunately for the rest of us, His Trumpness can’t change that.

 

Where Fear and Hate Take Us

In the wake of the 2016 election, Michael Gerson has proved to be one of the more thoughtful observers of our depressing political scene. Gerson, as many of you will recall, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, but he is no partisan hack; although he looks at our contemporary scene through a decidedly conservative political lens, he is no apologist for today’s GOP.

In a column for the Washington Post written after the election in Virginia, Gerson considered the current fragmentation of both political parties.

We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics — which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics — a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that the United States has built and led for 70 years.

Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous — like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job-training programs?

What Gerson calls “ethnic politics” is, of course, virulent bigotry–mostly racism, but also homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a variety of other “isms.’ What he calls “identity politics” is class-based animus.

This fracturing of the American citizenry into tribal identities and various “us versus them” configurations is the ultimate challenge to the promise of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

It’s ironic that at a time when more and more Americans claim to be political independents, partisanship has become so toxic. A recent survey found a third of American parents would strenuously oppose their child’s marriage to someone who is a member of the other party. The Governor of Alabama was quoted as saying she’d vote for Roy Moore–even though she believed the allegations against him– rather than a Democrat, because keeping control of the Senate was more important than repudiating immoral behavior.

Extreme tribalism has also corrupted a significant number of evangelical Christians. Pious pronouncements about morality have proved no match for promises of power. Majorities of so-called “bible-believing’ evangelicals “forgave” Trump for his three wives, his boorish behaviors and his admitted (indeed, boasted about) sexual offenses in return for his promise to restore their theocratic version of Christianity and return its tribal adherents to the privileged position they once held–a privileged position now threatened by demographic change.

These deep-seated divisions aren’t the result of incommensurate philosophies. Political science research confirms that relatively few people vote on the basis of policy agreement or disagreement–instead, most voters choose their political affiliations based upon identity–upon a perception that “the people in this political party are like me,” and the comfort that comes with being among those who are like- minded.

Among the many unprecedented challenges we face–politically, economically, socially–the most important of all may be re-knitting the various racial, religious and social class threads into a single cloth, a fabric representing an inclusive American tribe.