Overview:

A recent analysis on CNN blames white Christian nationalism on so-called 'imposter' Christians. The problem is, those imposters think their tribalistic enemies are the imposters. And each camp has plenty of Bible verses to support their opinions. Will the real imposters please stand up?

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Quite literally speaking, gatekeeping is as old and as cherished a tradition for Christians as celebrating Communion. Back when I was evangelical, I saw this truth firsthand. Indeed, I encountered a truth about Christianity that deeply troubled me: the adherents of every flavor of the religion were completely certain that they Jesus-ed perfectly, while every other flavor’s adherents were mistaken (and thus probably hellbound). But those other flavors’ adherents thought exactly the same thing about my group. Neither group could ever persuade the other Christians that they were Jesus-ing wrong and didn’t even deserve to call themselves Christians at all, because everyone used the same irrational, skewed thinking processes to arrive at their own opinions.

A recent analysis piece over at CNN demonstrates this painful truth. Its writer, John Blake, accuses white nationalist Christians of being part of an ‘imposter Christianity.’ But those so-called imposters would call him the fake Christian, and they’d have just as many reasons as he does to think that way. He aches to deny his fellow Christians the very label of Christian, while they do exactly the same thing to their own ideological counterparts—and for the same reasons and in the same manner. Alas, all Blake’s doing is showing everyone witnessing his attempt that nothing objectively real supports any Christian claims⁠—while ignoring the very real problems that these white nationalist Christians represent to America and to the future of Christianity as a major world religion and dominant force in America.

When opinions differ about real-world facts

If two people, Prima and Second, have some different opinions about something that is objectively real, then there’s an easy way to figure out who is right and who is about to lose the current round of Bar Trivia Night. Yes, they can test their opinions. One should hold true after testing. Or perhaps both shall turn out to be incorrect.

Let’s say Prima thinks that the Baroque period came after the Middle Ages, but Second thinks it was centuries before. Both cannot be right. These two claims are mutually exclusive. To settle their argument, they can look up these two periods on their phones, compare the usual dates given to them, and verify the true answer. Hopefully, the incorrect person will amend their opinion afterward.

The entire scientific method itself came about as a way to test claims made about objectively-real things. If a claim found no support in real-world observations, if that claim simply didn’t explain what was being observed and measured, then researchers searched for claims that did. Gradually, discarding false claims led to a streamlining of ideas and research.

For example, nowadays most people know that infection comes from germs and viruses. We learn germ theory in school, and that guides us in life. But for many centuries, many people believed in miasma theory. Miasma theory claims that sickness passes through foul vapors. As germ theory gained adherents through constant affirmation in experiments, a germ theory denialism movement arose. However, germ theory denialists simply can’t demonstrate any real-world support for their claims, and so this pseudotheory can’t gain traction outside of pseudoscience-oriented communities. (Oh, and guess what? It is completely compatible with Creationism!)

When opinions differ about subjective claims

By contrast, let’s say Prima thinks that only cloyingly-sweet dishes containing chocolate are valid examples of the term dessert. However, Second allows for a much broader set of examples, like fruit toppings on less-sweet dishes.

The only support Prima has for this opinion is their own subjective experience and preferences. Likewise, Second argues from the exact same position. Neither recognizes any objective source of dessert labeling that might grant their respective opinions any greater authority.

Thus, no valid test of their opinions can be attempted. And thus, each person is unlikely to change their opinion—unless one or the other has some skill with emotional manipulation that might sway the other.

In this case, if Prima buys all the household groceries and does all the cooking, then Second might have to live with rather more Hot Fudge Pudding Cake than they might prefer. Or Second might cow Prima by hinting that preferences for nursery treats indicate a certain amount of immaturity and unsophistication of the palate, in which case Prima begrudgingly settles for cherry-topped cheesecake sometimes.

Barring manipulation attempts, though, they will likely need to accept that their respective opinions are based in pure subjective preference.

Gatekeeping in Christianity: How it works

In the case of Christianity, we have two groups of Christians who each believe that they are Jesus-ing the way Jesus himself would have demanded they Jesus, and they are handling evangelicals’ culture wars the way he’d have wanted, had he only deigned to explicitly describe it.

(Jesus also apparently somehow completely forgot to discuss his opinion of abortion, slavery, spousal abuse, homosexuality, not treating women like chattel in marriage, and germ theory. Strange!)

To bolster their respective opinions, each group of Christians draws upon sources they consider authoritative. Then, they declare their sources to be the only authoritative ones. Then, they attack their counterparts as fakey-fake fake Christians. Meanwhile, they present themselves as the only real and honest TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

It’s important to note that in these squabbles, sometimes one side’s sources really are actually credible and trustworthy. Sometimes, their sources really do hold broad consensus agreement among experts in those fields. They’re not always all whackadoo wingnuts, though it’s a lot funnier to watch if they are. What matters is that each side’s adherents consider whatever sources they’re using to be authoritative, while considering the other side’s sources suspicious, untrustworthy, and not credible.

Gatekeeping: White Christian nationalist edition

On the subject of America’s status as “a Christian nation,” more-liberal Christians point to the actual Founding Fathers (none being very close to today’s fundagelicals, that weird fusion of fundamentalists and evangelicals that arose in the 1990s), their own opinions, and the simple fact that the Constitution itself makes no references to Christianity.

(I’m calling them “more-liberal,” but many are quite conservative still. They’re just more liberal than white Christian nationalist culture warriors, which isn’t hard to be at all.)

These more-liberal Christians also deploy copious Bible verses to support their opinion that Jesus didn’t want a Republic of Gilead, that his followers chose death, ostracism, and powerlessness (rather than political or cultural power) by following him, and that he ordered his followers to defer to secular rulers rather than seizing power themselves. As far as I can tell, Jesus’ focus rested on what he called “the kingdom of God.” That kingdom was not any secular nation.

Culture-warrior Christians use the same basic tactics. Sure, their logic often sounds contorted and ridiculous to outsiders⁠—like when Wallbuilders decided that America is totally too a Christian nation because an 1807 letter from Thomas Jefferson contains the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ.” And sure, they have to reach really far with their Bible verses sometimes—like how the now-defunct group Vision Forum rationalized “patriarchy.” (They shut down in 2014. Why? Take a wild guess.)

A culture-warrior Christian’s version of Jesus is a tough, violent white guy who demands obedience and punishes the disobedient. Their Jesus is not—as Mark Driscoll infamously declareda “pansy or a pacifist”.

And to culture warriors, the ones Jesus-ing all wrong are their suspiciously-liberal brethren.

The utter pointlessness of gatekeeping Christianity

So, we have two sides to Christianity. Both sides can point to tons of resources that support their respective claims. Both sides claim their counterparts are Jesus-ing all wrong.

Their opinions about Jesus-ing cannot both be true. They are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. If one turns out to be true, the other must, perforce, be untrue.

Unfortunately, neither side respects any of the resources the other side brings to the squabble.

In John Blake’s impassioned CNN analysis, he declares white Christian nationalism “an ‘imposter Christianity.'” He writes:

The incongruity of people carrying “Jesus Saves” signs while joining a mob whose members are pummeling police officers leads to an obvious question: How can White Christian nationalists who claim to follow Jesus, the “Prince of Peace” who renounced violence in the Gospels, support a violent insurrection?

John Blake, CNN

Unsurprisingly, the Christians he’s labeling as fakers have similar thoughts regarding his side.

The shoe on the other foot (uses the same brand of shoelaces)

When culture warriors talk about why they support this or that platform in the culture wars, look for how they characterize that support. They might not come right out and call their counterparts fakey-fake fakers like Blake did up there, but the implications are right there. If supporting gun control and opposing feminism represent obedience to the Bible, then anybody who runs counter to those ideas is, obviously, dis-obedient.

  • In January 2022, Focus on the Family produced a series of videos arguing against critical race theory (CRT). They decided that CRT ran “contrary to the truth of God’s Word.” Supporting CRT, therefore, makes a Christian the enemy of the Bible.
  • A bunch of Calvinists insisted that gun control laws ran similarly contrary to the Bible. Yahweh loves “just laws,” and the Second Amendment counts as exactly that to them. Opposing such laws marks a Christian as opposing Yahweh’s will, therefore.
  • The Gospel Coalition, one of my favorite sources for oblivious evangelical wackadoodlery, insisted that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must not fight the culture wars. In the next breath in the same post, they immediately declared that their culture wars were mandatory-attendance for all TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They just don’t want to call it culture warring.
  • Someone on the conservative site First Things doesn’t like feminism. (And yes, I know they hate it when I classify them as conservative. They’re even written me about it. But jeez Louise, just look at their posts. Their “abortion” tag alone is a carnival of hilariously-overwrought culture-war conservatism.) In fact, she thinks that feminism, even “evangelical feminism,” takes evangelical women “for a ride.” No TRUE CHRISTIAN™ should ever subscribe to any kind of feminism. Nope. Nuh-uh. See, it denies “the authority of scripture.” So there. Obviously, anyone who subscribes to any kind of feminism does not respect “the authority of scripture.” And there’s only one penalty for that crime.

I could do this all day. (Technically, I guess I’ve kind of done it for almost ten years.) I’m not kidding when I say that gatekeeping is one of the most beloved Christian practices of all time. They just naturally align into tribalistic groups, then try gatekeeping everyone else out of the religion.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: TRUE CHRISTIANS™

TRUE CHRISTIANS™ fit this exact definition:

  1. They believe mostly the same package of nonsense that the judging Christian believes.
  2. They haven’t gotten caught doing anything the judging Christian thinks is totally off-limits.
  3. And they die in the traces, still believing and Jesus-ing the same.

The first plank neatly knocks out all Christians with different beliefs. For example, evangelicals don’t tend to think that mainline Christians or Catholics are going to Heaven. Meanwhile, the second knocks out all embarrassing scandal-causers. They just weren’t the real deal, don’t ya know. Obviously, they did something terrible. That’s why.

Obviously, that third plank knocks out all ex-Christians and exvangelicals. They were never TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all, even if they were positive they were at the time and even if they believed exactly what the judging Christian currently believes. However, it also knocks out all existing current Christians, since they aren’t dead yet. (Don’t tell them. It’ll spoil everything.)

The judging Christians themselves are their own ur-example of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Obviously, they believe all the right things, haven’t been caught committing any dealbreakers, and intend to die in the traces. Obviously, that’s why they haven’t left the religion yet: they found the one true flavor amid the millions of competing flavors.

Sometimes, judging Christians will refer to their definition as being “real Christians,” “genuine Christians,” or something like that. You get a lot of bonus points in ChristianSpotting (n.b.: not a real game) for catching one using the phrase that pays.

When I first encountered gatekeeping as a Christian, it really bothered me, but not for the reason you might imagine

I first encountered Christian gatekeeping when I was a wee teen Pentecostal lass. It didn’t take long for me to discover that other evangelical groups considered mine to be dangerously misguided and fanatical. Specifically, Southern Baptists thought that speaking in tongues (a mainstay practice in Pentecostalism) was actually demonic! And don’t get them started about Oneness Theology!

A pair of them tried hard to convince me that I was Jesus-ing all wrong. They had plenty of Bible verses to back up their opinion. Unfortunately for them, I had plenty to support mine.

In the end, neither side could convince the other that they were Jesus-ing all wrong.

Around then, I was having friendlier doctrinal disputes with other evangelicals at college. The topics varied enormously. However, the results were exactly what you’d expect: nobody ever persuaded anybody else of anything.

This whole situation bothered me enormously. As a Pentecostal, I believed that the Bible was literally true, inerrant, understandable, and authoritative. I believed, with all of my heart, that Jesus really and truly talked to his followers during prayer and through various signs.

My comrades believed all of this as well.

These beliefs, combined, meant that it should be very easy for any sincere Christian to ascertain Jesus’ opinion about anything. We were all sincere.

But unity in beliefs proved impossible to achieve.

This outcome should have been absolutely impossible.

And yet, here we were.

Assigning objective-truth status to opinions is a bad idea

Going back to Prima, Second, and their dessert argument:

Bear in mind, nobody is proposing to force any particular dessert definition on every person in the United States. Nobody has tried to overthrow the government over the question of whether cherry-topped cheesecake can legally be listed on dessert menus.

People holding opinions derived from religion beliefs can do both, and have, and recently at that. And they’d sure love to do both again.

Except this time, they want to succeed.

Amazingly, their god approves completely of these desires for dominion. This is, remember, the Alpha and Omega, the god of the entire universe, he who supposedly created unthinkably vast cosmic filament webs and quarks alike, who wrote Planck’s Constant in stone and decided to run humans’ sewer lines through a recreation center.

Surprisingly, this supposed omnimax god has some very definite ideas about who he wants running a remarkably-young country on one planet in this vast cosmos.

But dominion? That is a pronouncement from the chair, as one Christian, Mel Gibson, said in 2004 of his fervent wife’s hellbound status. Somehow, with herculean effort, this god’s favorite followers will swallow their disgust as they take control of all of our lives. It’ll be a struggle for such servant-minded sheep to crack down on every single intimate aspect of our lives. But with divine grace, they’ll manage.

For us.

For (redefined) love.

But first, they must deal with their worst tribal enemies: non-authoritarian Christians.

Gatekeeping is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Back when SimCity 2000 (SC2K) was a cultural phenomenon, players soon noticed something odd about its Sim-citizens. If they had nothing whatsoever to complain about, if the player had taken care of absolutely everything that might merit complaint, then those citizens would always default to complaining about traffic.

More recently, I’ve seen that other, newer players have a wealth of suggestions for fixing traffic complaints. But back in the mid-1990s, SC2K players knew that no matter how good a city build was, Sim-citizens would always complain about something. And that something would be traffic, in the absence of any real problems.

What we’re seeing here with Christian gatekeeping is the dead opposite of SC2K’s traffic complaints.

Christianity’s city is falling apart. Every kind of crime runs rampant. Whole residential districts are emptying. Natural disasters wreak havoc everywhere. Citizens riot in the streets over everything imaginable. The microwave-based power plant just torched an entire neighborhood. And a concerned Sim-citizen has just reported a huge Godzilla-like monster rising from the waters of the docks…

In response to all these problems, the Sim-citizens of Christianity are focusing completely on kicking out anyone they decide isn’t a proper Sim-citizen. Because obviously, those fake Sim-citizens are The Big Problem Here.

Once they’ve firmly established that only their definition of citizenship is the real one, then everything will be just fine.

But gatekeeping successfully requires both sides to accept the same coin

In his gatekeeping post, John Blake succeeds only in drawing more tightly Christianity’s lines of tribalistic membership, in reinforcing its factional warfare mentality. I’ve said the same thing about authoritarian culture-warriors for years.

In a way, of course, it’s nice to see more-liberal Christians speaking up and declaring that these culture-warriors do not belong in their religion. I’ve longed to see a good backlash against that overreach. So don’t get me wrong. I appreciate Blake’s effort.

Just I’d ask who he thinks his audience is, and who will be persuaded by his post.

The people reading that CNN post will be those who agree with it. Culture-warrior Christians long ago decided that CNN is a dangerously-liberal site that contains utterly untrustworthy information meant to destroy TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ at all costs. I hear them talk about it all the time. (You can too, here.)

And those CNN readers already agree with everything Blake is saying. He doesn’t need to change their minds. The gate he’s closing with his gatekeeping already surrounds them. The people he needs to heed his message are off posting on Fox News sites and watching Ethan Ralph videos. They don’t accept any of the sources he cites, nor recognize any of the authority-pulls he makes.

Just as he won’t accept their coin, they won’t accept his.

Gatekeeping won’t fix this problem, but then again, nothing will

Unfortunately, there’s not a fix for this problem. It requires one side or t’other (and here, I obviously have a vast preference about which) to suddenly decide that the other side’s sources and authority-pulls are more valid than their own.

Gatekeeping won’t even come close to fixing it.

On the individual level, gatekeeping may work sometimes for some Christians. But it won’t work at the institutional level, and it won’t work especially for the culture warriors involved in white Christian nationalism.

These Christians linked their overreach to divine approval years ago. Walking that back would require a lot of very embarrassing crow-eating.

And that will not happen, for a whole variety of unpleasant reasons.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...