Born to leave:
Evangelicals want to leave the world, not save it. Until then, all they want is to be recognized as the true protagonists of the universe.
Growing up as an evangelical Christian, you learn to consider yourself a resident alien on planet Earth. They warn you not to love the world, exhorting you to be in it but not of it. You are a citizen of another realm. The one where you currently live is only your temporary address, so you’d better not get too chummy with it.
American Christianity became especially escapist in the late 19th century after their dreams of becoming a shining city on a hill were splattered across the battlefields of a brutal civil war. Soon scientific and social progress made their beliefs look outdated, so many of them retreated into their own enclaves, embracing new media like radio as a way to keep connected and preserve their way of life.
They also embraced a theology that avoided any social responsibility by focusing on the imminent return of Jesus, an event that’s been overdue now for nearly two millennia. You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship, and you don’t try to fix a world that God has said he’s going to torch in the end. Trying to make this world a better place only demonstrates your lack of faith.
Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t of this world anyway, so most Southern whites learned to bury their theocratic dreams alongside the Confederacy.
This was an easy shift for Baptists because they wanted church and state to remain separate. Things never went well for them when they were united—Baptists always ended up getting marginalized by the Anglicans and the Catholics and the Calvinists, who saw things differently.
Some founders like Patrick Henry wanted church and state to be legally wed from the very beginning. It was the Baptists who won out, however, because their way of seeing things tracked better with the pluralistic social contract that the framers of the Constitution had in mind.
There’s just one problem. Church and state are natural bedfellows, and left alone they will always end up in the sack again.
Large voting blocs that move as a unit are a huge turn-on for the donor class, so it wasn’t long before those-who-have-the-gold came knocking on the church’s door. After WWII ended, the middle class finally started flexing its developing muscles, cutting deeply into the profits of those above them. That had to stop.
Oil tycoons and other wealthy industrialists sent preachers like Billy Graham on all-expense-paid trips to shake hands and pose for photo ops with Republican donors and dignitaries. Media barons like William Randolph Hearst “puffed Graham” across the country because the fiery Baptist preacher from North Carolina knew how to make Jesus sound like he hated communism. He certainly would never join a union.
Given its history, American poverty and wealth have largely followed racial lines, so it was an organic next step to demonize people of color. Southern evangelicals had been doing that for generations, so the moment the Democratic party made it illegal to discriminate against them in 1964, Southern whites all became lifelong Republicans.
Like a Faustian bargain but in reverse, the GOP sold their soul to Jesus in order to escape extinction. They aligned with the church on every divisive cultural issue, putting in place a long term plan to take over the courts and legislatures across the country.
Both groups wanted to reverse the direction things had been going, and in case you haven’t noticed, their long range plans have finally started paying off. Laws created to protect and support the middle and lower classes are being rewritten by the judicial branch from the top down, and pulpits around the country are calling it an answer to prayer.
White evangelicals never seem to notice or care how their policies impact “the least among them” since believers are taught to value faithfulness over results. They don’t feel it is their concern how their beliefs about abortion for example or education or marriage equality affect those living at or below the poverty line. That’s God’s business, not theirs, so they won’t lose any sleep over it.
Their job is to get as many people saved and into heaven as possible before Jesus comes back, so they are in favor of any policy decision that makes it easier for them to do that. If that infringes on the rights of others, then that’s a price they’re willing to pay.
Freedom for me, but not for thee.
But their collective allergy to social responsibility impacts everyone because they are the voting base riding atop the elephant currently crashing through our civic square. The void where their public conscience should be makes the church like a rudderless ship, blown about by the shifty winds of each new culture war.
In the old days, it was liquor and dancing that got their knickers in a twist. Then it was rock music and drugs, then pornography and the pill. Then came the Satanic panic. Man, those were crazy times. Today it’s LGBTQ folks and immigrants that keep them in a perpetual state of existential crisis.
But it was abortion that finally taught even the Catholics and the Baptists to play nice together. It didn’t seem to matter that the Bible never condemns abortion—in fact, in one place it prescribes it. Fighting for reproductive control finally gave them a unifying sense of social purpose, and their death grip on that single issue hasn’t loosened for decades.
It also helped that Christian schools of every stripe were equally terrified of losing their tax exempt status. Nothing unites rivals like a shared financial crisis, and the SCOTUS’s decision in 1971 to enforce racial equality at Bob Jones University proved precisely what the GOP needed to unite their new base.
My Presbyterian grandmother used to say that Baptists were from another religion because that’s the way people used to talk. Catholics weren’t Christians at all to evangelicals because their theology is so wrong. But that’s not the way people talk today.
Now they’re all just Christians, and that’s the way they’ve seen it since the Republican Party united American churches around educational independence and reproductive control. It was a brilliant move, and it solidified the Southern white vote for at least two generations.
You don’t belong on that cross
The continued absence of a collective social vision among conservative Christians leaves a giant vacuum in the church’s thinking where public policy should be, making them vulnerable to the appeals of even the most insincere of politicians and salesmen.
It’s no mystery why evangelicals fall for the dumbest conspiracy theories, even joining the ranks of QAnon and MAGA militants without realizing where their talking points originate.
Christianity’s inherent anti-intellectualism deserves part of the blame for this. In church they normalize bad thinking, teaching you that the less sense something makes, the more likely it is to be from God. He works in mysterious ways, you know? It’s best not to think too hard about it.
Related: How faith breaks your thinker
Conspiratorial thinking comes naturally to Christians because they’re taught that invisible enemies are conspiring against them every hour of every day. They believe they have been called to persecution, so they will find it wherever they can, even if they have to make up their own reasons for it.
Take for example the coach who prayed on the 50-yard-line at a state-sponsored school event. You would think the followers of a man who said prayer should be a private matter wouldn’t embrace these kinds of theatrics, but you’d be wrong. They’ve learned to see themselves as victims even when they are the ones conjuring their own crises.
They identify with David, even when they are Goliath. They can’t tell the difference. To them, punching down looks the same as punching up because their collective persecution complex impairs their judgement. It renders them incapable of recognizing real injustice when it comes along, and it makes it nearly impossible for them to see when they themselves are the ones committing it.
They don’t belong on the crosses they keep making for themselves, but their fabricated grievances make them feel just entitled enough to confirm that the rest of the world is against them. That means they must be doing things right.
You don’t belong on that throne, either
If rescuing themselves from their imagined “crucifictions” occupies half of their political ambitions, reclaiming their cultural hegemony takes up the rest. They believe that God wants the same things they want, so why shouldn’t the church use every means possible to ensure that their way wins out? Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Cue the return of Christian theocracy.
Remember when I said the Baptists and the Catholics finally learned to play nice? Joining forces under a common banner seems to have blended their priorities into an incongruous mix of mutually exclusive goals.
The Calvinists and the Catholics have always believed the church should be running the world, but the Baptists and the Pentecostals have just been waiting around for Jesus to come back and torch the place.
The net effect is that Christians today seem to want to watch the world burn, but also they want to be in charge of it. Jesus insisted his kingdom is not of this world, but the church today wants to change that. I’m not sure they want to change life for everyone, but they seem convinced their own lives should be easier.
In the end, I think all they really want is to be recognized as the true protagonists of the universe, finally.
They believe their job is to leave the world, not to save it. That means their only social vision is to make it easier for their own people to have a microphone wherever they want it. Any practical or material help the world needs will have to take a back seat to the things that matter most—the eternal things, things which are invisible.
But practical and material help are precisely what the least among us need most. They don’t need to be evangelized harder—they need to eat and sleep under a solid roof. They need their government to protect them from those who would rather use them than help them.
Where I live, people insist that’s a job for the church, not the state. Yet somehow they always wind up absolving both from any responsibility.
This makes them, as my other grandmother used to say, so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.