Tag Archives: Evangelicals

The Politics Of Religion

What happens when politics–or racism–masquerades as religion?  Because that’s where America finds itself.

A guest essay in the New York Times put it, “Evangelical now means ‘Republican.'”The article noted that what is drawing people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is its identification with the Republican Party rather than theological affinity for Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, in 2019, fifty percent of the self-identified Evangelicals who never attended church said they were politically conservative. 

A recent column by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin amplified those findings, casting doubt on the conventional wisdom that abortion and gay rights motivated “devout” Evangelical voters.

Conservative commentator and evangelical Christian David A. French acknowledges in a piece for the Dispatch: “We know that opposition to abortion rights motivates white Evangelicals far less than their leaders’ rhetoric would suggest. Eastern Illinois University’s Ryan Burge, one of the nation’s leading statisticians of American religion, has noted, for example, that immigration drove Evangelical support for [Donald] Trump more than abortion.

”As for gay rights, the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual values survey shows a majority of White evangelical Christians still oppose gay marriage, but that “substantial majorities in every major religious group favor nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people, ranging from 59% among white evangelical Protestants to 92% among religiously unaffiliated Americans.” Moreover, even opposition to gay marriage is declining because of a massive generational divide on the issue between older evangelicals and more tolerant millennials and Generation Xers.

Rubin’s reading of the relevant research leads her to conclude that what Evangelicals want is not a government that produces legislative fixes to real-world problems but a government willing to engage their enemies on behalf of White Christianity.

Longtime devout Evangelicals have reached similar conclusions. Peter Wehner recently shared his pain in an article for The Atlantic, in which he described the Evangelical Church as “breaking up,” and argued for reclaiming Jesus from his church.

Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like Platt, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as “progressive Christian figures” who “commonly champion leftist ideology.” In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race.

In an effort to understand what was happening, Wehner reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, as well as a seminary president and people involved in campus ministry. What he found clearly pained him.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

How is it that evangelical Christianity has become, for too many of its adherents, a political religion? The historian George Marsden told me that political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religious like faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith. The United States has largely avoided the most virulent expressions of such political religions. None has succeeded for very long—at least, until now.

Wehner quoted one scholar who noted that Evangelicals “are quick to label their values ‘biblical. But how they interpret the scriptures, which parts they decide to emphasize and which parts they decide to ignore, all this is informed by their historical and cultural circumstances.”

More than most other Christians, however, conservative evangelicals insist that they are rejecting cultural influences,” she said, “when in fact their faith is profoundly shaped by cultural and political values, by their racial identity and their Christian nationalism.”

The lengthy Wehner article is wrenching; it testifies to the pain of truly religious Christians in the face of the politicization of their faith. 

The rest of us are faced with a different pain: the threat to America posed by a racist politics that its practitioners think is religion.

 

Good News

In Christianity, the gospel is sometimes called the “Good News.” The phrase evidently heralds the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. If you have landed on this page in hopes of a post exploring that concept, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t even recognize “Christianity” these days. (Granted, I’m not a Christian.)

In fact, when it comes to contemporary news, I’ve become used to seeing headlines like this one, on articles documenting the ways in which Evangelical “Christians” have become more and more indistinguishable from GOP cultists. 

A group that says its mission is “to halt and push back the forces of darkness” is holding a tactical event in southwest Missouri this weekend to train Christians in “hand-to-hand combat” and “fighting from your vehicle.”

I’m not Christian, but I really don’t think Jesus would approve…

Peter Wehner, a lifelong evangelical, recently wrote an article for the Atlantic about the internal conflicts being caused by the politicization of Christianity. I recommend it.

My “good news” is very different– an explicit rejection of that perversion of belief . There are evidently evangelical pastors who are genuinely religious–that is, concerned with concepts like brotherly love, ethical behavior and the golden rule. 

The Washington Post recently had the story.

Emotions ran high at the gathering of about 100 pastors at a church, about five miles from the University of Notre Dame. Many hugged. Some shed tears. One confessed she could not pray anymore.
 
Some had lost funding and others had been fired from their churches for adopting more liberal beliefs. All had left the evangelical tradition and had come to discuss their next steps as “post-evangelicals.”

Those  who planned the meeting–which took place in South Bend, Indiana–had expected 25 pastors. Word-of-mouth expanded it to over 100.  The appeal appears to be part of what the report calls a” larger reckoning” that has been triggered in individuals and congregations that are “grappling with their faith identity in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd.”

Many of the (formerly) evangelical leaders in attendance at the meeting had been deeply concerned when they learned that approximately 8 out of 10 White evangelicals had voted for Trump in both of his presidential runs–evidence, as they see it, that the evangelical movement has been co-opted by Republican politics.

As the pastors traded stories, they quickly found shared experiences. They lamented their conservative evangelical parents who watch Fox News, as well as their peers who had re-examined their beliefs so much that they lost their faith entirely. They skewed younger, many in their 30s with tattoos covering their arms.

Most of the leaders held some belief in Jesus and the idea that people gathering in churches is still a good idea. Many want their churches to be affirming, meaning that they would perform gay weddings and include LGBTQ people in leadership and membership. They preferred curiosity over certainty, inclusion over exclusion.

According to the article, all of the attendees agreed on two things: they opposed Trump and they opposed racism. (Some of us would suggest that Trumpism is racism, so maybe they only agreed on one thing…) 

One of the most positive signs of change came in a quote from Amy Mikal, who was once a pastor at the Chicago-based megachurch Willow Creek.

“The hardest part is that we were taught to take the Bible literally,” Mikal said. “We want to be a place that asks more questions than provides answers.”

I have previously shared my youngest son’s distinction between a good religion and a bad one: a good religion helps you wrestle with morally-fraught questions about life’s meaning and challenges; a bad religion gives you predetermined “correct” answers and demands that you live in unquestioning accordance with them. Mikal obviously reached a similar conclusion.

The article quoted a different participant, Brit Barron (who had worked for a megachurch in California before she began re-examining her beliefs) for a similar sentiment. Barron opined that “Our job is to create the conversation. If someone opens up and says, ‘I don’t know if any of this is real,’ then we’re doing our job.”

The participants in this meeting understood that the “job” of a pastor is to provide a safe space for questions and debates about morality and faith. That sets them apart from the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who increasingly seem to believe that their job is to program troops for the GOP while raking in lots of money.

The refusal of a growing number of pastors to participate in the con games of the Falwells and Grahams really is “good news.” 

 

 

The Data Keeps Coming…

Emerging data goes a long way toward explaining the increasing visibility–and acting out–of America’s White Christian Nationalists.

 As commenters to this blog frequently point out, the racial animosity so vividly on display these days is itself not a new phenomenon–far from it. But the visibility–the shamelessness– is new. The willingness to “come out”–to publicly flaunt beliefs and attitudes that had previously been soft-pedaled or hidden–and the virtually complete capture of a major American political party by people who believe that they are the only “real” Americans is a recent (and unwelcome) phenomenon.

Fear often makes people discard the veneer of civility, of course, and these folks are currently terrified. 

It’s bad enough when fear is “ginned up” by propagandists warning of immigrant caravans or computer chips hidden in vaccines, but it turns out that the White Christian Evangelical fear of being “replaced”–of becoming just another thread in a colorful American tapestry–is actually well-founded. 

I’ve recently read several media reports about a study conducted by PRRI , the Public Religion Research Institute. One, by Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times, characterizes PRRI’s findings as “startling.” Goldberg began her column by noting the major role played by the Christian Right in the election and administration of George W. Bush, and she notes that many of the leaders of that movement assumed they were on the cusp of even greater control.

The PRRI results–and others–suggest otherwise.

The evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, P.R.R.I. released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. P.R.R.I.’s 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, “white evangelicals” isn’t a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.

It isn’t just the shrinking numbers. White evangelicals were also the oldest religious group in the country, with a median age of 56.

“It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members,” Jones told me. As the group has become older and smaller, Jones said, “a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance” has set in.

White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.

In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake also reported on the “striking”  PRRI findings.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a detailed study Thursday on Americans’ religious affiliations. Perhaps the most striking finding is on White evangelical Christians.

While this group made up 23 percent of the population in 2006 — shortly after “values voters” were analyzed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection — that number is now down to 14.5 percent, according to the data.

Blake also notes the age disparity and the lack of youth replentishment. While 22 percent of Americans 65 and over are White evangelicals, the number is just 7 percent for those between 18 and 29 years of age.

Goldberg quotes Robert Jones, the Director of PRRI, who connects some bizarre dots.

From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.

QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.

These QAnon people are unwell. If I were Christian, I’d consider Trump taking the place of Jesus an unbelievable blasphemy…

Bottom line: the PRRI study, and several others with similar findings, is both good news and bad. The diminished power of a religious sect that has been dubbed (with some accuracy) the American Taliban is clearly very good news. The accompanying rage, resentment and paranoia–and the unrest those passions encourage– is not. 

But as I indicated earlier, it explains a lot.

 

That New Old-Time Religion

The recent behavior of thousands of members of the GOP sent me to Google to read up on collective delusions. One academic has explained such delusions, and differentiated them from mass hysteria. (Hysteria evidently involves physical symptoms.) Collective delusions are defined as the spontaneous spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a region, culture or country.

I found the term “temporarily” soothing…

What I certainly did not find soothing was an article by Andrew Sullivan, sent to me by a friend. I’ve always found Sullivan thoughtful, although I have philosophical disagreements with him. In this essay, he makes a very persuasive case for the marriage of Evangelical Christianity with Trumpism. I say “persuasive” because his theory offers an explanation for what is otherwise inexplicable: the belief that an election lost decisively in the Electoral College and by over seven million popular votes–an election overseen in many states by Republicans, an election in which down-ballot Republicans did well–was “rigged” against Trump.

In a post-election Marist poll, 60 percent of white evangelicals said they did not believe the 2020 election result was accurate, and 50 percent believed that Trump should not concede.

Sullivan has coined the term “Christianist” to describe the Evangelicals to whom he refers:

In a manner very hard to understand from the outside, American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse. They are not in denial about Trump’s personal iniquities, but they see them as perfectly consistent with God’s use of terribly flawed human beings, throughout the Old Testament and the New, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.

This belief is now held with the same, unwavering fundamentalist certainty as a Biblical text. And white evangelical Christianists are the most critical constituency in Republican politics. If you ask yourself how on earth so many people have become convinced that the 2020 election was rigged, with no solid evidence, and are now prepared to tear the country apart to overturn an election result, you’ve got to take this into account. This faction, fused with Trump, is the heart and soul of the GOP. You have no future in Republican politics if you cross them. That’s why 19 Republican attorneys general, Ted Cruz, and now 106 Congressional Republicans have backed a bonkers lawsuit to try to get the Supreme Court to overturn the result.

Sullivan says that these beliefs don’t simply characterize a few “fringe nutcases.” He offers examples of what he calls “the fusion of Trumpism with religious fundamentalism,” and Evangelicals’ ahistorical insistence that the United States was founded as a Christian, rather than a secular, nation.

As most Americans, religious or not, recognize, the word “faith” means a belief for which there is no empirical evidence.  Believers who reject science are threatened not simply by this or that scientific conclusion, but by the scientific method itself– by its approach to reality and insistence upon falsification. (They shouldn’t be, of course–many things we all believe in cannot be falsified: beauty, love…but they seem unable to grasp that distinction.)

I suppose if one has been raised in a religious culture that puts primacy on faith in the unknown and unknowable, a culture that insists on the superiority of one’s religion and skin color (because make no mistake, this particular version of “Christianity” incorporates white supremacy, along with male dominance), being forced to confront a reality that challenges those beliefs is intolerable.

I’d love to dismiss members of the cult that was once a political party as inconsequential, but I’ve read enough history to know how much war, devastation and human misery fundamentalisms have caused. (The nation’s founders read that history too–which is why they separated church from state..)

I sure hope this eruption of a “collective delusion” proves temporary.

 

 

A New (Moral) Moral Majority?

My first discussions about sex with my sons as they were entering their teenage years were complicated by my effort to balance arguments for delay and responsibility with an admonition that sexual activity is an aspect of an individual’s general moral behavior.

I wanted them to understand that moral people don’t “use” others for sexual or other gratification. Moral people don’t lie about their feelings or intentions to get something they want. Treating other people the way you want others to treat you is an imperative that includes but is not limited to your behaviors below the waist.

I thought about those conversations when I read an article from the Guardian about “pro-life” voters for Biden, because single-issue voters have always mystified me, in much the same way I’m mystified by people who define morality solely in terms of sexual purity.

Candidate A may be a rotten human being who vilifies his opponents, is intent upon using public office to line his pockets, and espouses numerous policies with which they disagree–but they’ll put all of those concerns aside if Candidate A is “with them” on just one issue. Maybe that issue is abortion, maybe it’s taxes–whatever it is, I’ve never understood narrowing the definition of morality to exclude all but that favored issue.

I was thus pleased to see that at least some “pro life” voters have also concluded that moral behavior–and thus the casting of a moral vote–encompasses more than a single issue. Christianity Today recently reported that Ohio’s Right to Life executive director resigned rather than support Trump in 2020, and the linked article was written by a clearly pious graduate of Liberty University.

What’s so pro-life about forced hysterectomies?” It’s an obvious follow-up question after the revelation that the Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trumpforced unwanted reproductive medical procedures on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detainees. And with some rank-and-file anti-abortion workers resigning rather than stomach supporting Trump, it lays open the question of whether the movement, even with its judicial success and the possibility of one more appointment to the supreme court, can survive the damage Trump has inflicted.

During the last election, the desire to overturn Roe v Wade had some holding their noses and voting for Trump. Four years later, the problems of standing with such a deeply immoral president, a string of horrific policy actions and a small but significant change in the voting patterns of religious conservatives all may be combining to hasten the diminishment of the movement even as it reaches a coveted milestone.

In 2008, the author of the article spent some 200 hours interviewing young evangelicals who were leaving the church. He found that the primary reason was the disconnect they saw between the teaching of scripture and the politics of the religious right–politics that bear little resemblance, in their view, to the issues Jesus cared about. What happened to those parts of scripture that demand justice for workers, people of all races and migrant  children at the border?

The essay makes it clear that these young evangelicals are still anti-abortion. But they have enlarged their definition of morality. As the author concludes:

We need to foster ways for faithful evangelicals to act faithfully, to reclaim the moral narrative and provide space to advocate for the election of leaders who reflect a full set of Christian values that will help our nation heal. This is why I am lending my voice to the New Moral Majority and participating in actions to reclaim our sacred story. In the past few weeks, frustrated by the reality that children are still being separated from their families and placed into detention, over 450 faith leaders called upon Trump to change course. To learn now that mothers of the separated children have been forced to have hysterectomies is news that sends shockwaves through communities of faith. It’s the type of government intervention in the family planning process that is not only fundamentally immoral, but against every freedom we claim to protect for all those made in the image of God.

I once asked a younger evangelical who grew up in a Republican and anti-abortion household why he has chosen a life of service among the urban poor. He said: “They blew it, man. Our parents and their generation. They cared more about power than people. We needed to do something new.” Indeed.

Those of us who believe that government should not have the power to compel a woman’s  reproductive choices can work with–and find common ground on other issues of life and death with– a genuinely moral “moral majority” that refuses to limit its definition of “morality” to a single issue.