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The white evangelical Christian “dissenters” trying to rescue their faith from the MAGA crowd don’t realize they’re contributing to the problem. A New York Times article about them ignores that aspect of the problem entirely.

The problem

For decades, millions of devout white evangelicals would tell you that, despite all their other differences, they shared a common set of values inspired by their acceptance of a divine Jesus.

Donald Trump supposedly changed all that. In what seems like the blink of an eye, many evangelicals abandoned their long-held principles in exchange for raw power and the chance to bludgeon other Americans with their brand of conservative cruelty.

Now, in a fairly lengthy piece from the New York Times‘ David Brooks, he writes about those evangelicals who feel adrift. They no longer know their tribe, so to speak.

Think of your 12 closest friends. These are the people you vacation with, talk about your problems with, do life with in the most intimate and meaningful ways. Now imagine if six of those people suddenly took a political or public position you found utterly vile. Now imagine learning that those six people think that your position is utterly vile. You would suddenly realize that the people you thought you knew best and cared about most had actually been total strangers all along. You would feel disoriented, disturbed, unmoored. Your life would change.

The premise of Brooks’ article is that a number of prominent conservative Christians once felt right at home in their churches… but those churches have effectively become arms of the Republican Party. We’re talking about people like Russell Moore (formerly a Southern Baptist Convention leader), Marvin Olasky (former editor of the Christian publication WORLD Magazine), and Karen Swallow Prior (former Liberty University professor). They are hardly liberal in any meaningful sense. But their acknowledgment that Trump is a moral monster unworthy of such devotion has made them pariahs in their own communities.

It’s not just the MAGA cultism at play here. There are sex abuse problems within Southern Baptist churches that have long been ignored by their leaders. There’s rampant racism in these churches. The overarching belief among many white evangelicals seems to be What Would Jesus Do? Who cares! We’re just following whatever Trump does. But these brave evangelicals are trying to fight an uphill battle to fix their faith as much as it can be fixed.

It’s a great premise for an article. But the execution fails miserably.

Why David Brooks’ article fails

Just consider the underlying assumption that evangelical Christianity was ever a positive force — as if Trump broke a religion that was doing so much good in the world. Brooks says these “dissenters” are shocked by how their fellow Christians have changed… but it would be much easier to argue evangelicals were always like this, and the dissenters are only now realizing the problem.

Remember: Some of the most prominent white evangelicals opposed integration until it became virtually impossible to hold such racist views. It was only then that they shifted to abortion as their primary culture war issue, but even there, they refuse to support policies that would lower abortion rates, like making contraception free and easily accessible, promoting comprehensive sex education, making health care a universal right, investing in childhood education, etc.

They’ve also continued to treat LGBTQ+ people as immoral and deviant, perhaps only shifting to say being gay isn’t a problem… as long as you never act on it. Celibacy and singleness is what Jesus wants for them! Meanwhile, in addition to their anti-inclusion beliefs, most evangelicals still won’t acknowledge the mere existence of transgender people.

They’ve also rejected science (evolution, climate change, vaccines) if there was any potential sign that it might contradict their Bible-based views.

This is the world of white evangelicals. It has been for decades.

How can evangelicals be surprised?

So who the hell are these people surprised by their colleagues’ Trumpism? It’s the logical next step for people who have always been attracted to cults of personality, who love it when their religious beliefs are used to justify cruelty against those who aren’t just like them, and who regularly refuse to accept facts when they go against religious dogma.

Notice how Brooks frames the dissenters’ shock in that opening paragraph. He wants you to imagine 6 of your 12 best friends taking a political position you find vile. But roughly 80% of white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, and plenty of them supported Republicans before that. This is who they are. This is who they’ve always been.

The Jesus story was just cover for their preferred brand of cruelty.

Here’s something else to consider: If all these “dissenters” are supposedly shocked by the MAGA cultism in their midst, how many of them voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — or Hillary Clinton in 2016? How many of them pledge to vote for Democrats in the future in order to prevent the worst aspects of Trumpism from becoming public policy? (Brooks either didn’t ask them or didn’t give us the answers.)

Or even setting aside the specific people mentioned in the article, how many evangelical pastors would dare to speak out against conservative cruelty and Christian Nationalism and conspiracy theories knowing that it might alienate the FOX News viewers in their congregations? (Brooks doesn’t answer that in his piece.)

The reality is that most pastors and prominent evangelicals don’t have the courage to admit the critics of Christianity were right about them all along. They would rather see abortion banned by a Supreme Court that Republicans rigged to their advantage over the past two decades. They would prefer to see LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights than admit faith-based, taxpayer-funded groups should play by the same rules as everyone else. They want in-person, crowded, maskless church services instead of abiding by sensible COVID restrictions in order to avoid backlash from their own members.

These dissenters aren’t brave voices of reason in a sea of Christian conspiracies. They’re mostly naïve believers who refuse to admit they were — and remain — part of the problem. They might be never-Trumpers, but they’re people who still think George W. Bush was a good president despite pushing many of the same right-wing compassion-free policies.

The examples of “dissenters” are problematic

Just consider Karen Swallow Prior, who says in the article “I was one of those who was very naïve, and I guess rationalized the support of Trump by Jerry Falwell Jr.” That’s an honest, difficult admission, right? But Prior, just a few months ago, published an article defending the Texas abortion bounty law. She described it as “far from perfect, but” — BUT! — a chance to move closer to a world without abortion. She’s constantly profiled by major media outlets as a sensible voice against white evangelical Trumpism… even though she promotes Trumpism’s worst policies. How the hell can anyone describe her as a dissenter when she’s part of the problem?!

It’s not just her. The piece also quotes Tim Dalrymple, president of Christianity Today, as a voice of reason, telling Brooks about the Trumpy Christians, “I now realize that we are separated by a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension.” He’s implying that the Trumpists are wrong while he’s right. And yet Christianity Today is a publication that believes committed gay and lesbian couples are “destructive to society.” What’s the “incomprehension” he’s worried about, exactly? Bigotry is bigotry, and these Christians all love it. The only difference is that some of them couch their hate in more palatable language.

There’s also Russell Moore, who called on Trump to resign and said he would vote for Trump’s second impeachment if he were in Congress. Moore left the Southern Baptists largely because of their racism and sexual abuse problems. He told Brooks that he routinely “has conversations with Christians who are losing their faith because of what they see in their churches.” He sounds like a hero and truth-teller, right? Well, he’s still anti-LGBTQ rights. He still thinks women should be forced to give birth against their will. He still defends pro-Trump Christians who “voted their conscience” (as if their support for Trump was guided by anything rational or heartfelt). After he left the SBC, he joined a church (Immanuel Nashville) that signed onto the Nashville Statement, one of the most anti-LGBTQ documents in recent history and promotes the belief that only “qualified men” can hold leadership roles.

My point is that these are not heroes. These are the best apples in a rotting orchard. It’s like quitting your job at Breitbart to go work at the Federalist. It’s not a step up.

Unless they’re willing to admit that their core principles, most of which stem from the same broken principles that led evangelicals to support Trump, are also problematic, they’re not doing the faith any favors. They’re spin doctors trying to make themselves look brave without earning that distinction.

And yet Brooks says these people are “leading the evangelical renewal.” A renewal of what? Apparently a kinder way to spread horrible ideas. Don’t fall for it. This idea that evangelical Christianity used to be all about Jesus is a myth. Jesus, for the leaders of the evangelical world, was mostly a unifying force for a political mission that threatens all of us.

Later in the piece, Brooks talks about potential solutions to this problem with Tim Keller, the “founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.” Those solutions include more church plants to draw in new converts, getting more Christians in grad school, and more campus ministries. The article fails to mention that Keller supports the anti-LGBTQ Manhattan Declaration, and that he thinks women should “submit” to their husbands, and that he thinks women and LGBTQ+ people don’t deserve to be ordained.

So even the guy whom Brooks describes as “one of the most impressive and important minds in the evangelical world” is a sexist bigot. His faith doesn’t need salvaging, much less a massive expansion.

The takeaway

I recently had a chance to chat with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor who wrote the bestselling book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation and someone also cited in Brooks’ article. The book is all about how toxic masculinity defines so much of the evangelical bubble. One of the topics of our discussion was whether white evangelicals really “corrupted a faith” or whether Trump merely exposed their faith for what it was.

YouTube video

Brooks handpicked examples of Christian “Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself” are proof that the evangelicalism they want isn’t very different from the one that currently exists. They remind me of those people who want to go back to the “good old days” like we had in the 1950s. They’re nostalgic for a Leave It to Beaver world… even though that world never existed and (more importantly) even though that world was horrible for so many people.

Even if they succeeded and “saved” evangelical Christianity, our nation would be worse off because of their influence.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.