Hi and welcome back! Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in evangelicals trying to save their tattered, tainted brand. With the election coming up in Freedom Land, they’re begging the tribe to stop being so excessively political. But their entreaties won’t work. In fact, they can’t. Today, I’ll show you why these excessive political leanings can’t stop and won’t stop, ever, until their tribe is well and truly defeated.
(Just as a reminder – any emphases in any quotes come from the original, unless I say otherwise. All quotation marks indicate actual quotes, not scare quotes. I learned a long time ago not to use scare quotes around Christians without alerting people — it’s Poe’s Law in action!)
The Needs of the Few.
Wayyyy back in the 1940s, evangelicals began noticing a big drop in their power after World War Two. And by power, I mean their control over American culture and society. People didn’t care quite as much what they thought anymore about much of anything. Their top leaders no longer counted as moral authorities to those outside the tribe. Their style of Jesus-ing no longer set the fashion.
In a (sort of) history book I’ve got, As We Were (printed in 1946), I could very clearly see this anger and frustration in the author, Bellamy Partridge. The book displayed both emotions constantly. The author clearly wished that everything in America could just go back to his idealized
Victorian antebellum era, when people worked on farms and yearned for country living, raised huge families, grew up healthy and hale and well-fed, and most of all considered their local churches the hub of their communities. Back then, he clearly felt, people gave white men the deference he thought (as a white man, natch) that they merited.
By 1946, he thought the whole world had gone topsy-turvy. He considered that failure to be a product of Americans’ growing lack of religiosity. In this book, he constantly laments what he saw as a dramatic drop in fervor.
I mean OMG, Victorians only made it to church on Sundays and didn’t even pray before meals on their knees anymore (p. 26)!
Sound the alarm bells! Clutch those pearls!
Missing the Point.
Knowing what I know of the 1850s, I was just astonished at almost every page by the stuff Partridge wrote about that era.
(In the interests of strict accuracy, two men created the book. However, I think the other guy only provided the illustrations.)
Bellamy Partridge was quite old already when he wrote this book. But he very clearly had never noticed the sexism, racism, and overall cruelty of those years he idolized. If he ever did, he likely chalked it up to everyone not Jesus-ing hard enough.
Worse, Bellamy Partridge couldn’t see how his tribe had only exacerbated those 1850 problems by 1946.
Evangelicals’ Response: A Thinly-Disguised Totalitarian Political Movement.
Billy Graham was a red-baiting, fear-mongering, anti-semitic, homophobic nationalist, corporatist, crony capitalist and war-monger. He was a friend to overt racists and an ally to wealthy corporatists.
Evangelicals’ top leaders panicked when they saw this drop in fervor. They moved to regain that power. However, they did not move through the channels they themselves had created. They did not seek to gain influence through persuading normies to listen to them — and from there, to care what they thought because well, they were worth heeding. (Maybe they failed because they, um, weren’t.) Instead, evangelical leaders sought temporal power — legal power, in a very real sense — through a series of political machinations aimed at re-enshrining themselves as the Kings of the World.
Chief among these political machinations: moral panics. Leaders like Billy Graham helped the American government foment a big huge scare about Communism in the 1950s and 1960s, about so-called “Reefer Madness,” about atheists, about OMG GAY PEOPLE LIVING AMONG US.
Later, their children would wring their hands about abortion and feminism and no-fault divorce for exactly the same reasons.
Very quickly, evangelicals persuaded themselves that their imaginary friend Jesus totally wanted them to dominate American culture and force Americans to live according to rules they couldn’t even obey themselves.
In short, those leaders created the current culture-war model of evangelicalism.
And it worked.
The Pyrrhic Victory.
Through this political maneuvering, they created a sort of cultural expectation of what it meant to be a good, patriotic American. That expectation created a need. And that need could only be fulfilled through consumption of the product they themselves sold: membership in their various groups.
But those evangelical leaders won a classically-Pyrrhic victory. Their success required constant pandering to the lowest common denominator: hamfisted appeals to terror and rage and xenophobia and dread and hatred and oh yes, endless and ceaseless cries of privilege distress.
Once that floodgate opens, it does not ever close again. It can’t.
You can’t tell such a highly-agitated tribe: Okay, y’all, we gotta pull back a little on this throttle. We’re getting out of hand here. Jesus didn’t want us to be this political or to seek this kind of power over others.
They won’t listen.
The Lesson Learned, and Learned Well.
Evangelicals have been taught to be on high alert 24/7 for exactly this message — and then to reject it. They’ve been taught Christianese like cultural Christian and watering down the gospel for exactly these occasions, and endured countless thundering sermons modeling the response their leaders wanted them to learn.
Now evangelicals reject any such plea in the strongest fashion possible.
Of course, evangelical leaders taught this response in order to keep the flocks from listening to saner heads while the political push surged.
But evangelical leaders never included a way to gain acceptance of this message. It never occurred to them that they might, one day, want to send such a message.
Ever since then, whenever any of them has even tried it, the tribe has responded in the way they’ve been taught: with condemnation, ostracism, denunciation, and no-holds-barred retaliation.
An Unholy Fusion.
In the mid-1980s, I joined evangelicalism. By then, the flocks weren’t yet 100% completely tied to the Republican Party. But the Ronald Reagan years completed that fusion. By the time Bill Clinton became President, my tribe was convinced that Democrats were in league with Satan.
(We also thought Donald Trump might be the Antichrist. Over time, the exact traits we criticized became exactly why evangelicals now adore him and see him as their Great Orange Savior. Evangelicals only change for the worse.)
By 1992, evangelicals had become completely, totally, and irrevocably tied to conservative politics. They identified overwhelmingly with one political party. In fact, they considered anything less than a straight-ticket Republican voting-ballot to be a sin against Baby Jesus himself. Even showing sympathy for their worst enemies in the culture wars merited their strongest retaliatory response, as I myself discovered one terrifying day.
And evangelicals have only grown more political since those days.
It blows my mind all the time to see how nakedly greedy they are for political power, how nakedly obvious it is that they pine for a theocratic totalitarian state they can rule, and how beyond-nakedly-evident it is that they will only feel safe once they have enslaved the whole world to their whims.
Pulling Back on the Political Throttle.
Donald Trump has been a huge stain on evangelicals’ brand ever since they swiveled around to worshiping him instead of demonizing him. His election alone cost them about 10% of their followers (it also cost mainline churches 18%, and Catholics 11%). Overall, about 14% of Christians left their churches. And they left specifically because of the increasing amount of politics in their churches.
Now, this incompetent, befuddled doofus really only exposed the major problems in Christianity — evangelicalism especially. Their tribe had become hopelessly degraded. Thanks to that degradation, evangelical leaders were able to sell the flocks Donald Trump as their Great Orange Savior. They painted this blithering, jabbering buffoon as totally like a reincarnation of King Cyrus. The flocks bought it. They believed Trump had been sent by Jesus himself to save TRUE CHRISTIANS™ from evil secular culture.
By to save them, of course, their Dear Leaders meant to enshrine their tribe in power forever.
It took Trump’s election — and evangelicals’ antics leading up to Election Night and afterward — for decent, compassionate evangelicals to finally realize exactly what their tribe had actually become.
This massive churn was apparently, in turn, what it took for some evangelical leaders to realize that they’d gone too far.
But it was too late to turn that doomed ship.
Oh, honey. It was way too late.
“Reclaiming Our Prophetic Voice.”
Lately, I’ve noticed evangelical leaders desperately trying to turn their ship anyway.
In Baptist News Global, I spotted an opinion post by Austin Almaguer last week. It’s called “Politicians won’t save us: Reclaiming our prophetic voice.” In it, Almaguer pleaded with his tribe to withdraw their support for Donald Trump. He writes:
Both my liberal and conservative friends feel their values, worldview and way of life are under attack from the other side. That’s why I need to vote for their candidate in November. [Insert name] is the only one who can save us in this time of trouble.
Yes, he does love his false equivalences. Very few evangelicals vote liberal.
Either way, these sentiments alarm him:
I can’t help but think of the temptation of Jesus in the desert when Satan shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and says, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority … . If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
To be fair, I think of the same story.
Care About These Priorities Instead.
Having somewhat-made that point, then, Almaguer admonishes his readers. He thinks they need to stop seeing political maneuvering as their route to safety:
It’s time for Christians to let go of the idea that any particular political party should be promoted in order to protect them.
Of course, he really cares way more about how this political maneuvering is destroying evangelicals’ sales metrics, not the impact it’s having on, well, everything:
Decades of witnessing the culture wars ravage our society have left many people, especially younger generations, tired of churches using their bully pulpits to focus on sex, guns and money instead of the issues the Bible prioritizes clearly and consistently: caring for the poor and the oppressed, establishing justice and equity in the court system, ending the exploitation of workers.
I mean, he’s correct in this point. But it’ll never be not-weird for me to see an evangelical correctly perceiving a problem but then caring about it for the wrong reasons.
There’s this, too: it’s like he isn’t even reading the same Bible non-believers read. He constantly harps on this notion that the Bible teaches that “power is shared, egalitarian and unlimited.”
No way, no how will the tribe accept any of those assertions.
They already know they’re not true.
In addition to false equivalences, Almaguer also loves appealing to Original Christianity. In this error, a Christian insists that the very first Christians totally Jesus-ed perfectly. So if modern Christians Jesus like those first Christians Jesus-ed, then the tribe’s problems will vanish.
This idea is a fallacy for two important reasons:
First, the first Christians we know about were a mess doctrinally.
There exists not one single Christian doctrine that they agreed on. They argued constantly about what Christianity should involve and how Christians should live. Even in the New Testament itself, we see tantalizing hints of that chaos. In fact, they only resolved that chaos when a temporal ruler stepped in and forced them to do so in 325 CE. If Constantine hadn’t forced Christian leaders to the table for the Council of Nicea, Christianity might never have become a world religion.
So you’ve gotta ask, when you encounter a gauzy dream of Original Christianity: which Christianity, exactly?
Any accurate answer will not look remotely like a happy joyous cooperative bunch of socialists who Jesus-ed just like evangelicals think Christians should.
And we haven’t even started talking about what hypocrites Christians were from the very beginning. Even if we accept the unsupported claim that they Jesus-ed correctly, it obviously did nothing for their behavior.
Second, I’ve never found these mythical Christians who consider themselves TRUE CHRISTIANS™ but who do not already believe they are Jesus-ing just like the very first Christians.
Indoctrinating the flocks in exactly that belief happened very early on in the politicization of evangelicalism. In fact, it had to.
That Ol’ Prophetic Spirit.
So he thinks that if Christians begin Jesus-ing like those Original Christians, then they will regain their “prophetic spirit.”
Regaining their prophetic spirit appears to be Christianese for people will start listening to them again.
And Almaguer certainly advocates political maneuvering. He just wants it to be the properly Jesus-y political maneuvering he prefers:
This is not a rally cry to end our public witness or cease political engagement. Quite the opposite. Our democracy depends on actively engaged citizens. In a healthy democracy, citizens use their right to vote as a way of holding elected officials accountable for taking action on the issues that matter most to their communities. It’s not a matter of if churches should be involved in this work, but why and how.
And if evangelicals start doing that, gosh, what results they’ll see!
If we focus our attention and our efforts on caring for the poor, defending the oppressed and protecting the vulnerable as Jesus calls us to, then we will discover God at work in our lives in new and surprising ways. We will free ourselves from the false narratives of scarcity and fear, only to discover God providing everything we need in abundance.
Sure, Jan. Those Original Christians he adores didn’t even enjoy that abundance.
Too Little, Too Late.
Now, some evangelicals are defecting from the Cult of Trump, but not a whole lot of ’em. Pew Research has tracked a slight decline in their support for their idol. However, 82% still say they plan to vote for him in November.
In fact, some evangelicals have been trying to convince the tribe to abandon their orange calf idol for months now.
Christianity Today recommended in December, “Trump Should Be Removed From Office.”
The result? A cosmic shitstorm.
A religion research group, GCRR (Global Center for Religious Research), wrote “An Open Letter to Evangelicals of Moral Conscience” in January. It was a decent letter that outlined exactly why evangelicals should not support Donald Trump.
The few evangelicals who didn’t just ignore it reacted in the usual fashion we expect by now from that crowd.
Overall, evangelicals have proved themselves to be beyond incapable of abandoning their Great Orange Savior.
[Correction: this post originally stated that GCRR is an evangelical group. They are not. I appreciate their bringing this error to my attention and regret making it.]
The Winning Team Might Lose.
Perhaps in response to this slight sag in popularity, Donald Trump attempted to salvage his flagging support by staging a disastrous photo-op. Looking very confused and put out, he held an upside-down Bible he’d never read in front of a church he didn’t attend that his people had cleared by force (to borrow from this famous meme):
Afterward, as Inquirer tells us, a whole bunch of evangelicals released a book that begged the tribe to abandon him. The article leads with one of its contributors, Ron Sider, who wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience that we reviewed recently.
But evangelicals didn’t listen to him then, and they do not appear to be listening now. He thinks enough evangelicals will betray the tribe to make a difference, but I honestly don’t see any reason to agree.
The evangelical ship Cruelty and Powerlust has already sailed, and it’s still helmed by Captain Politics. It cannot be turned and possesses no anchor.
I wish these other evangelicals would maybe stop and think about what their religion does to harbor and foster these nutjobs among them. I wish they’d maybe even question some of their operating assumptions about their ideology.
Because it seems that the nutjobs they’re trying so hard to change know something about evangelicalism that they just don’t — yet.