Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.
I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.
I’ve watched with some astonishment as people defend the separation of children from their families. I’m not talking about the people trying to shift blame or deflect attention. Those efforts to defend Trump are asinine, but they reveal people’s moral discomfort with the policy. There’s another set of more extreme arguments on my facebook feed: these parents are law breakers, they’re getting what they deserve, they’re bad parents.
When people make these arguments, my impulse is not to fire back with a counterargument. Instead I simply want to say, “What happened to you?” Or perhaps better, “What hasn’t happened to you?” Let me explain.
Entering deeply into the pain and experience of people who are not like us is among the most life-changing things that can happen to human beings. And when it happens, it doesn’t just change our understanding of that particular group of people. It colors our whole moral sense and the way we see people to whom we have no connection. It rocks us back on our heels, it disrupts our certainties. It moves us. Try as we might to get back to our comfortable starting place, the effect turns out to be enduring. We find ourselves permanently decentered. The needs and perspectives of others are not so easily dismissed.
I’m very worried that our churches are full of people who have never experienced this at all. This is what hasn’t happened to them. We are formed by media that teaches us to fear others, by a culture that tells us things are more important than people, by a church that preaches a narcissistic gospel.
We approach the other as a matter of Christian duty, with an episodic and paternalistic sense of free agency. I will be happy to help you. But I will not be changed by you.
I grant that this question of entering into the pain and experience of people unlike ourselves is not an all or nothing proposition. My failure to do this much more than I have is probably my greatest sin. And yet the hint of it that I’ve tasted is the most transforming thing I’ve known.
I’m concerned that many Christians have not even glimpsed this. Which, by the way, would be deeply ironic. The message of salvation we claim to believe in is all about this. Jesus entered into the pain and experience of human beings, emptying himself of that to which he was entitled. When Jesus does it, it’s more than an example. It’s salvific. We can’t do that. But it tells us something about the way God has ordered the world. The fact that rescues us is the same principle God uses to make us a little less monstrous and a little more caring. When we encounter the other in a deep way we become a little more like what we were meant to be.
In this age of Christian callousness, I sometimes fear that the old advice to “read your Bible and pray every day” has become an exercise in self-absorption. Without neglecting those spiritual disciplines, we must add to them an openness to seeing God in unexpected places, like in the faces of strangers.
As growing numbers of white evangelicals adopted colorblind theologies in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them continued to draw a sharp line at the question of interracial marriage. Even as they came to believe that we’re all the same in God’s eyes, when it came to sex, it turned out that race still mattered a lot.
White evangelical elites tended to be of the opinion that there was nothing in the scriptures that forbade interracial marriage. They thought it was unwise, but not sinful. When they said as much in magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity, they had to tread carefully. Many white evangelical laypeople were quite certain that interracial marriage was an affront to God. So even moderate views usually generated some irate reader responses.
An example of this comes from Eternity in the summer of 1972. After publishing an article concluding that “Biologically, biblically, socially and statistically there is not cause for alarm” about interracial marriage, the magazine heard from some angry readers. Like the Michigan man who wrote,
I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew in Africa who are missionaries.
But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice that it is very seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it’s nothing but lust and sensual desires.
Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.
A Kentucky woman put it more succinctly:
I did not like the article…I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people…Discontinue my subscription.
You might chuckle at the “there will eventually be no white or black people.” But it’s a line revealing of this woman’s rejection of the emerging colorblind theology. Why was it self-evident to her that it would be bad if there were no black and white people? Because racial difference, she was quite sure, was part of God’s design. There were very important differences between groups, and though God offered spiritual salvation to all, he did not intend for them to merge together socially, much less biologically. This was her common sense.
Another woman from Albany, Georgia wrote that the article obviously wasn’t true,
judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore, please cancel my subscription.
This is a fascinating window into a different world. Apparently there was a belief that interracial marriage had led to the downfall of nations in the past. From where did this idea come? How widespread was it? I hadn’t heard that one before!
And finally, a Texas man thought the whole idea of interracial marriage was a moral absurdity:
Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible?
These attitudes—expressed and printed openly in the 1970s—are a sobering reminder of just how anti-Christian much of our evangelical heritage is.
While working on a dissertation chapter this morning I was perusing notes I made months ago on archival documents. In this particular case I had been trying to establish a timeline for what I suspected was an incriminating series of events, but the documents were jumbled and fragmentary and I just wasn’t sure what exactly happened, or when.
Sometimes you find tantalizing pieces of evidence and you wonder if you’ll really be able to use them. Can you establish with clarity what exactly they mean?
That was the state of play months ago when I made some notes that made me chuckle today when I rediscovered them. One document is tagged, “smoking gun.” I was on my way to confirming the timeline. Then, dozens of pages later, my notes say:
“Earlier smoking gun! More smoke! The bullet is visibly exiting the chamber!”
I guess I was pretty excited. I established my timeline. And that’s a good feeling.
Why does dehumanizing rhetoric matter? And what is the significance of large numbers of people being unable to recognize it when it occurs? This is a brief reflection on these two questions.
The point of dehumanizing rhetoric is that it prepares us to treat people in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily treat them. There seems to be an innate human aversion to inflicting grievous harm on other humans. This is why soldiers have to be psychologically trained to kill. Dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery distributed through media to a mass population is one way to dull our innate aversion to harm. It prepares us to intern, enslave, kill, exterminate the objects of the dehumanizing rhetoric.
The examples are, by now, cliché. But no less true. The Americans did it. The Nazis did it. The Hutus did it. Words—the simple and awful power of the tongue—really can make it easier to kill human beings.
One particularly potent example from 20th century American history is the Pacific Campaign during World War Two. As John Dower showed, Japan and the United States encouraged their civilian populations and soldiers to think of the enemy as sub-human. While Germans were often imagined as normal people led by an evil ruler, the Japanese, as a group, were imagined as bestial, unthinking, and worthy of collective punishment. Many scholars believe these attitudes contributed to the American decision to practice more brutal aerial bombing of Japan than of Germany.
Here are some telling examples of how the American public and American soldiers saw the enemy during World War Two:
In general, these depictions do not seem to have been controversial in the United States. Japan was the enemy and there was a war to be won.
There are many people who might cringe at these images and yet fail to realize that Donald Trump is trafficking in the same game. Last month, Trump said:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.
There was a big debate then about whether he was talking about MS-13 specifically or immigrants in general. Those arguing for the more narrow context were missing the point: Trump’s constant invocation of danger, threat, crime, and rape is designed to make us see MS-13 in our mind’s eye when we hear the word “immigrant.” It is designed to make us see an undifferentiated group worthy of harsh treatment rather than individuals worthy of normal human concern.
That’s why Trump tweeted this week:
Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.
You know the connotations of the word infest. This is why Trump tweeted earlier this year about immigrants “breeding.” Rabbits breed. Humans make love and raise children.
The problem with Trump’s rhetoric is not that it’s rude or intemperate. It is evil, because it treats human beings as less than what they are. Each of us is created and loved by God. Each of us has infinite value. Donald Trump denies these truths with his words and actions, and encourages you to deny them too.
I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who didn’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanizing rhetoric and racist behavior. I choose my words here carefully. I do not say she supported it. I say she was unable to recognize it for what it was. What is the significance of this?
Millions of people don’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanization. They are being formed by it without conscious understanding of what is happening. That makes the effect even stronger. And it means that masses of people have come untethered from a crucial dimension of reality. Would these people support an American genocide? One hopes not, but the point is that they are already unconscious of dehumanization, already unable to discern reality around them, so there is no telling when or if they will ever come back. God help us.
A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.
“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.
These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.
While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.
In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.
If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.
I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.
More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.
Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.
This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.
Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.
Nearly a decade ago, Soong-Chan Rah wrote The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The book offered a searing theological critique of American evangelicalism’s obsession with materialism, individualism, and whiteness. It was also a demographic warning to American evangelicals. Beneath the radar of the media and white evangelicals themselves, the church was becoming more immigrant-based, more diverse, more urban.
The dominant impression we have of evangelicalism is the supposed 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. These are the people who get the attention of the mainstream media. They have big platforms and loud voices. They hoard money and erect big buildings. They cover their hatred with pious words. They have biblical proof texts to excuse every dimension of their selfishness.
I’m so glad this isn’t all there is.
Over the weekend I was at some evangelical gatherings that refreshed me and reminded me why I am still part of this vital and infuriating religious tradition. Here are some of the contrasts I noticed compared to the dominant form of evangelicalism with which most people are more familiar.
–Evangelicalism that is urban. It’s not afraid of the city because the city is home. It’s not sharing tips about which “dangerous” neighborhoods to avoid because that’s where our homes are. We don’t take “missions trips” to the city. We just walk out the front door and try not to be crappy neighbors.
–Evangelicalism that is in solidarity with the poor. This doesn’t put it quite right. Imagine an evangelicalism that is the poor. While the evangelical mainstream tries to explain why all its unjust advantages are actually God’s blessings to be enjoyed, other evangelicals experience the truth that God gives extra faith to the poor and walks with us in our sufferings.
–Evangelicalism that is Korean and Black and Puerto Rican and Haitian and Chinese. And a little white too. I’m not talking about the feel-good multi-ethnic churches that actually instill white norms. I’m talking about an evangelicalism where the ingrained spiritual arrogance of whiteness is granted no authority. This is an application of the central drama of the New Testament church: God, through Christ, making one people out of Jews and Gentiles. As the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder put it over 40 years ago, “The breaking down of the wall between two ethnic groups is the gospel. It is not a fruit of the gospel; it is not an object lesson in the gospel; it is not a vehicle of the gospel, it is the gospel.”
–Evangelicalism that has a theology of the public good. Jesus is a personal savior here too, but he inaugurated a kingdom and is renewing all things. The schools and streets are our responsibility and public needs come before our own. If you just want personal salvation Christianity isn’t for you.
–Evangelicalism that is hopeful. We’re so accustomed to fear-based religion we hardly know what this looks like. Imagine an evangelicalism that doesn’t have to turn to an evil ruler to protect itself from the monsters in its head because it has already faced oppression and found hope in the promises of God.
Don’t get me wrong. This other kind of evangelicalism I’m talking about is flawed. Any human community has its own share of brokenness and sin. If you don’t want to be disillusioned, don’t live life, don’t get close to anyone. But if you lean into the disillusionment and work through it, you may find your way to Christian hope on the other side. Not positivity or innocence. Hope.
In recent years some major studies of American religiosity have indicated that evangelicalism is in decline. When it comes to the dominant white middle class expression of evangelicalism in the United States, I hope that is true. Long ago Jesus told us some converts are not worth making.
Right now the evangelical mainstream looks like what I imagine happens when God enacts the very worst sort of judgment: delivering you over to what you want. But if you long to experience mercy rather than judgment, look to the margins.
Vice-President Mike Pence has concluded his speech at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yesterday there was a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but it was easily voted down. John Fea has the details here. In defense of the decision to welcome Pence, the chairman of the business committee said this:
On a personal note, if President Obama’s White House had contacted us and I was chairman of this committee, we would have exercised the same judgement and welcomed them to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some are skeptical of this, but I believe him. Yet it completely misses the point. Everyone knows that SBC is a conservative institution. If Vice-President Biden had spoken at the convention, it would have rightly been understood as an act of hospitality and toleration on the part of the SBC. It would have been a way of saying the convention was open to dialogue with its opponents.
Welcoming political power with which the convention is already so closely aligned is a very different sort of move, one that speaks not of Christian hospitality but of crass conflation of conservative theology with conservative politics. So it looks bad, and it looks far worse when you account for the moral posture of the current administration. President Obama was a decent man. So was George W. Bush. No serious person can say the same of President Trump. Welcoming a representative of an anti-Christ administration to the stage can be defended on its own terms, but let’s not pretend it’s the same sort of act a welcome to a previous administration would have been.
After watching Pence’s speech, it seems the convention’s time might have been better spent in prayer and repentance. Here are the thoughts I jotted down as the speech unfolded:
Introducing Pence, Steve Gaines says, “I am so grateful to have a vice-president who not only loves people but also loves the Lord Jesus Christ.” Pence receives a big ovation from the crowd.
Pence says he wants to begin by bringing greetings from President Trump. Loud applause and cheers. “Four more years!” someone yells. Five minutes before, they were singing worship songs.
Pence talks about all the good Southern Baptists are doing and then segues into his own 1978 conversion experience. “I gave my life to Jesus Christ. It’s made all the difference.”
He says Southern Baptists have always worked for renewal, and our nation is in a moment of renewal, “a new beginning of greatness in America.” The greatest privilege of his life, he says, has been working for President Trump. “500 days of promises made and promises kept.” Loud applause.
Pence is going through the litany of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments.” Yesterday’s summit agreement about nothing gets big applause.
Pence keeps referring back to Trump, the great leader. He has this patented way of communicating that he is Trump’s toady and exercises no independent thought or moral judgment. He’s completely shameless. SBC leaders knew Pence would use this speech to talk about how great Trump is, right? They knew this would be a political speech.
I’m surprised how much of this speech is about North Korea.
Now as he tells a personal story he appears to be trying to cry but can’t quite get there.
Pence says strong American leadership is crucial for the resolution of the Korean conflict, but says he and Trump both know that the “effective fervent prayers” of righteous people are needed. This is a reference to James 5:16.
“Unlike his predecessors, this President kept his word” when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This line gets a roar and a standing ovation.
Now touting the tax cuts. More cheers. This is just a regular campaign speech with a few religious lines thrown in.
“Under President Donald Trump America is back and we’re just getting started.” Loud cheers.
Pence is emphasizing the Trump Administration’s efforts to protect “religious liberty.” Appointing conservative judges, protecting Christians in the Middle East.
“I couldn’t be more proud to stand with a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. President Donald Trump is the most pro-life President in American history.” This earns a general standing ovation across the convention hall. For anyone outside the Trumpist bubble, it’s very hard to believe that Trump or Pence care about the unborn when they are so cruel to the born.
Mike Pence says all Trump’s wonderful accomplishments would not be possible without the support of people like you (meaning Southern Baptists). Pence says Trump has “deep respect” for people of faith. “We respect how you care for the most vulnerable” Pence says, like how you try to help the people Trump and I are trying to oppress. Oh wait, he didn’t say that last part.
Pence is, inevitably, making a fool of himself. Hypocrisy on an almost unfathomable scale. Pence says “in divided times” Southern Baptist values and compassion are needed more than ever. He concludes with a call to keep practicing compassion, “especially for the most vulnerable,” and to “pray for America.” Then he quotes the classic text of Christian nationalists: 2 Chronicles 7:14.
I like the call for compassion, but I wish Pence wouldn’t support racism, sexual assault, tearing families apart, and lawlessness in general. I take the old-fashioned view that what a person does matters. But apparently I’m a snowflake for thinking that. This whole spectacle brings to mind another passage of scripture:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
Vice-President Mike Pence has been invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting tomorrow. The press release is…interesting: “We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
It is telling that southern baptist leaders think Mike Pence has anything useful to say about the moral fabric of the nation, or that he cares about anyone who contributes to it. It is amazing that they can’t see how this will look to anyone who isn’t already a true believer in their brand of hateful politics.
Mike Pence has repeatedly lied and covered for all kinds of evil in recent years. He supports racism and flagrantly denies Christian teachings on caring for the poor, the sick, and the refugee. He is militantly hostile to Christianity. This is the kind of man the southern baptists want at their convention. Very telling.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, and the evangelical leaders who approved this have just re-committed themselves to the tacit support of a racist, xenophobic, sexist administration and those who support it.
This is not simply about having a Republican official speak at the denomination’s biggest meeting. It’s about this particular administration. This president has engendered particular division among evangelicals and has alienated many black people. A journalist called the steady leak of black members from white evangelical churches a “quiet exodus.” It’s about to get louder.
This move also reinforces the reflexive association of white evangelicalism with Republicanism. I should not be surprised at this move, but it’s still baffling and utterly oblivious.
Last year’s annual meeting featured the alt-rightfiasco. This year everyone thought the story would be about the SBC’s #metoo moment. Now they’ve found another way to make things even worse. I will be watching Pence’s speech tomorrow very closely.