Fear of America's rapidly transforming society is corrupting Christian piety.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Even conservative American evangelicals are becoming increasingly aware—and alarmed—that so many of their fellow brethren continue to model decidedly un-Christian behavior while devotedly embracing the aggressive, heretical cruelties of their beloved but former president, Donald Trump.

The nation’s destructive current right-wing religio-political zeitgeist of culture-war rage, paranoia, and meanness is summarized in disquieting detail in a new quasi-apocalyptic article—“The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart”—by conservative evangelical writer Peter Wehner in The Atlantic magazine:

“Dwelling on fear and outrage is spiritually deforming.”

Cherie Harder, president of trinity forum, a Christian organization

It reminds us secular folks of what we have been painfully aware ever since Donald Trump descended that elevator at Trump Tower with Melania to announce he was running for president: So-called devout evangelical Christians immediately began acting chillingly un-Christian.

Related: Trump and Evangelical Christianty

Dispondent clergy

Wehner spoke with a Presbyterian pastor so disheartened by the starkly un-Christian attitudes of members of his own congregation that he not only resigned from his church position but, at least temporarily, left the ministry altogether.

 “In [the ex-pastor’s] words, ‘the gentleness of Jesus was utterly discarded’ by those who felt [the clergyman] wasn’t championing their cultural and political agendas aggressively enough,” Wehner wrote, and that, ‘They don’t care about the relational collateral damage.’”

In other words, members’ political beliefs were so strong they didn’t care if they hurt, or destroyed, their previously strong relationships with the pastor or fellow congregants if these apparently expendable believers weren’t sufficiently orthodox in their pro-Trump, anti-fact bona fides.

Wehner referenced the 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by evangelical historian Mark Noll, who has written that “much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity.” Scandal will be re-released later this year.

Noll is referring to the corrupting, overarching effects of politics on evangelicals’ beliefs, not their ancient, sacred dogma.

In his Atlantic piece, Wehner expands on that idea:

“And [Noll] is surely correct. I would add only that it isn’t simply the case that much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity; it is that now, in important respects, much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism has become antithetical to authentic Christianity. What we’re dealing with—not in all cases, of course, but in far too many— is political identity and cultural anxieties, anti-intellectualism and ethnic nationalism, resentments and grievances, all dressed up as Christianity.” (boldface mine)

Related: Love Trump? Then you (almost certainly) love God

Wrapping Jesus in anger

Quoting Mark Labberton, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, who lamented the current evangelical era of “acute anxiety and great fear” due to social transformations occurring in the U.S., Wehner contends that Christians too often “end up wrapping Jesus into our angry and fearful distortions. We want Jesus to validate everything we believe, often as if he never walked the face of this Earth.”

Wehner points out that modern American evangelicals seem to have forgotten the true Christ of their faith, of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan, who famously ministered to the “lowly and despised,” mingled with “the unclean and those on the wrong side of the ‘holiness code,’” and “with the wounded souls he healed on the Sabbath.”

“Many Christians today see the world divided between us and them, the children of light and the children of darkness,” Wehner observed, even though Christ himself not only avoided such intolerant, judgmental distinctions but rejected them.

“For many of us who have made Christianity central to our lives, the pain of this moment is watching those who claim to follow Jesus do so much to distort who he really was,” Wehner writes. “Those who deform his image may be doing so unwittingly—this isn’t an intentionally malicious enterprise they’re engaging in; they believe they’re being faithful—but it is nonetheless destructive and unsettling.”

Wehner notes that many pastors have told him they have never seen such toxic political vitriol among their congregants, and a number of them have resigned from the ministry or are considering new careers.

“They have concluded that their church has become a hostile work environment where at any moment they may be blasted, slandered, and demeaned in disrespectful and angry ways — or have organized groups of people within the church demand that they be fired,” the Rev. Scott Dudley of Bellevue (Washington) Presbyterian Church told Wehner.

Even back in 2018, progressive Christian pastor and activist John Pavlovitz excoriated the former president for his un-Christian legacy and current behavior in a strident Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Journal op-ed—“An Open Letter to White Evangelicals”:

And yet today, you openly give a ‘mulligan’ to a white Republican man so riddled with depravity, so littered with extramarital affairs, so unapologetically vile, with such a vast resume of moral filth — that the mind boggles.

And the change in you is unmistakable. It has been an astonishing conversion to behold. With him, you suddenly find religion. With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution. With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission. With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart. With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement. With him, you see only Providence.

And white Evangelicals, all those people who have had it with you — see it all clearly. They recognize the toxic source of your duality. They see that pigmentation and party are your sole religion.

Such starkly un-Christian intolerance and vindictiveness are what has always baffled nonbelievers who as Americans generally understand what the faith is supposedly all about: love, grace, and forbearance. That evangelicals are also starting to see the light is encouraging, although it’s hard to imagine anything diluting the growing hate among their less perceptive brethren.

Fear: the root cause of Trumpism

The root cause of Trumpism, Christian Right evangelism, and white supremacist nationalism is fear—fear that America is fundamentally changing as its demographics change, and that white Christian conservatives are destined for a minority role in the brave new nation of the future.

But there is more to fear than fear itself, to misquote former President Franklin Roosevelt. There is the obsession with it.

“Dwelling on fear and outrage is spiritually deforming,” Cherie Harder, president of Trinity Forum, told Wehner, adding that New Testament epistles proclaim that “perfect love drives out fear. … Both biblical wisdom and a large body of research holds that fear and grace, or fear and gratitude, are incompatible.”

Harder added that whereas fear and anger can be “appropriate and necessary,”

“[They] should presumably function as alarm systems—and an alarm is not supposed to stay perpetually on. … [it is] stoking it, cultivating it, and dwelling within it that distorts and deforms.”

 But none of this materialized out of thin air. Trump is less an avatar than a symptom of the moment that is being falsely deified.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University history professor and author of the best-seller Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020), warns that for many white evangelicals Trump “represents the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal” of their “most deeply held values,” Wehner reports. He explains Du Mez’s thesis is that U.S. evangelicals “have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.”

No ‘Sermon on the Mount’

Sadly, this does not translate into a modern-day Sermon on the Mount-type resurgence of Christly faith but torch-waving neo-Nazi white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” One person was killed on that alarming day and many others were beaten senseless.

Christ would be appalled, no doubt.

If you have any doubt, absorb this passage of a recent New Yorker article by Michael Luo describing the scene January 6 after Trumpist insurrectionists took over the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol:

“As rioters milled about on the Senate floor, a long-haired man in a red ski cap bellowed, from the dais, ‘Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!’ A man to his right — the so-called QAnon Shaman, wearing a fur hat and bull horns atop his head, and holding an American flag — raised a megaphone and began to pray. Others in the chamber bowed their heads. ‘Thank you, heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the Communists, and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs, that we will not allow the America, the American way of the United States of America, to go down,’ he said. ‘Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God for filling this chamber with your white light and love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ.’”

Their immediate goal: to halt and, thus, subvert that day’s final certification by Congress of the 2020 presidential election. The senators had already fled to hiding places.

In this violent subterfuge — “Stop the steal!” (even though the election was demonstrably fair) — lay the virulent seeds sown to destroy American democracy and co-opt power, starting with a bloody coup.

What might Jesus have done, I wonder?

Avatar photo

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...