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.