Students of early American history will recognize the term jeremiad, a favored form of sermon delivered by Puritan pastors of the time. Wikipedia tells us that a jeremiad is “a long literary work lamenting the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective.” The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.
I wouldn’t apply the term “invective” to the recent, lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, but I would definitely call it a jeremiad.
Gerson is best known as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and as a devout Evangelical Christian. Along with other intellectually-honest Republicans, he has been appalled by Donald Trump, and like other genuine Christians, disheartened by the embrace of Trump by those who claim the Evangelical label. He is especially distressed by the fact that “much of what considers itself Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism.”
Gerson’s essay is long, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. This post cannot do it justice. He begins by recognizing that many conservative religious people feel disrespected and defensive, and believe that their values are under assault by government, big business, media and academia.
Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics. This has included deadly mask and vaccine resistance, the discrediting of fair elections, baseless accusations of gay “grooming” in schools, the silencing of teaching about the United States’ history of racism, and (for some) a patently false belief that Godless conspiracies have taken hold of political institutions…
The political alignment with MAGA activists has given exposure and greater legitimacy to once-fringe ideas, including Confederate nostalgia, white nationalism, antisemitism, replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice by liberal politicians.
Gerson acknowledges the influence of population density and the rural/urban divide on patterns of belief– and the political reality that America’s electoral mechanisms skew in favor of geography over population. But his essay is mostly concerned with the damage MAGA Republicanism is doing to Christianity.
Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry…
Conservative Christians’ beliefs on the nature of politics, and the content of their cultural nightmares, are directly relevant to the future of our whole society, for a simple reason: The destinies of rural and urban America are inextricably connected. It matters greatly if evangelicals in the wide, scarlet spaces are desensitized to extremism, diminished in decency and badly distorting the meaning of Christianity itself — as I believe many are.
To grasp how, and why, it’s important to begin at the beginning.
Gerson follows that sentence with a lengthy history of Jesus’ background and teachings- his preaching against religious hypocrisy, his welcoming of “social outcasts,” and a “future age in which God’s sovereignty would be directly exercised on Earth.”
What brought me to consider these historical matters is a disturbing realization: In both public perception and evident reality, many White, conservative Christians find themselves on the wrong side of the most cutting indictments delivered by Jesus of Nazareth.
Christ’s revolt against the elites could hardly be more different from the one we see today. Conservative evangelicalism has, in many ways, become the kind of religious tradition against which followers of Jesus were initially called to rebel. And because of the pivotal role of conservative Christians in our politics, this irony is a matter of urgency.
He follows those paragraphs with an indictment of Christian Nationalism, concluding that
Evangelicals broadly confuse the Kingdom of God with a Christian America, preserved by thuggish politicians who promise to prefer their version of Christian rights and enforce Christian values. The political calculation of conservative Christians is simple, and simply wrong.
Gerson goes on to list numerous ways in which that calculation is wrong–and dangerous to democracy.
As I said at the outset of this post, this is a lengthy essay. It is also and obviously a product of considerable distress over the political grievances that have distorted and displaced authentic faith. As he concludes, “It is difficult for me to understand why so many believers have turned down a wedding feast to graze in political dumpsters.”
Gerson’s jeremiad puts him firmly within the camp of those of us who have been warning Americans about the dangers of Christian Nationalism–and reminding them that Christian Nationalism is very different from actual Christianity.
I admire Gerson’s attempt, but somehow I doubt the Christian Nationalists will listen.