White Evangelicals Respond To Gerson’s Article


Michael Gerson reacting, I imagine, to white evangelical criticism.

In the wake of his Atlantic cover story, Michael Gerson has been on the interview circuit, appearing on NPR and Face the Nation and lots of other places. You might think that white evangelicals would be happy about this. Look, here’s a white evangelical who has attained elite status and is able to speak to the most pressing issues of the day from his prestigious position as a Washington Post columnist, and now he has a big cover story in one of the nation’s most storied magazines.

The problem, of course, is that Gerson is using his position not only to explain evangelicalism to the wider culture, but to critique it. Most white evangelical media seems to be doing its best to ignore Gerson’s article, but I did manage to find a few responses. It goes without saying that I disagree with these, but I present them here in the interests of understanding where they’re coming from.

Tony Perkins says Gerson gets a platform because the mainstream media is eager to “shame” evangelicals:

“You are going to hear this repeatedly … for the rest of his term [and] you are certainly going to hear it going into this midterm election,” Perkins said. “This is designed to shame evangelicals. Of course, ‘Face the Nation’ is giving a platform to Gerson and any other Republican who will … bash an element of the voting population that has been very instrumental in the president being successful in getting into office and maintaining and continuing his policy, his agenda.”

Perkins said media outlets like CBS are giving these platforms because they want to “shame these evangelicals into the corners of society where they will be quiet and they won’t be involved.”

Michael Brown sees the hypocrisy charge and lobs it back at Gerson:

Haven’t black evangelicals consistently voted for pro-abortion, pro-LGBT candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Haven’t some African-American mega-churches even prayed by name for the election of candidates like Obama and Al Gore? Why then weren’t they called on the carpet for hypocrisy? Why aren’t they guilty of tarnishing the evangelical tradition?

Personally, I believe we all have blind spots and there’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. And I think leaders like Van Moody and Franklin Graham would profit greatly by spending time with each other, if they haven’t already. Let us hear one another out, let us share our respective perspectives, and let us commit to being holistic in our ethics and concerns, with the help of God.

But I’m a little suspicious whenever left-leaning Christians (and/or the leftist secular media) raise charges against white evangelicals, people who just happen to be strong social conservatives.

Perhaps the bigger issue is not our alleged hypocrisy but rather our counter-cultural convictions? Could this be where the conflict really lies?

Perkins and Brown both seem to unwittingly offer more evidence for Gerson’s claims. But, in a considerably more thoughtful piece, David French says Gerson has underestimated the real changes in recent years that caused reasonable concerns for social conservatives:

While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions…

This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture…

Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.

French has some credibility as a “never Trump” white evangelical who has paid genuine personal costs for his opposition to Trump. (He and his family have been brutally attacked by the white supremacist right). I hope that French and Gerson will talk to each other, because they may find themselves in more substantial agreement than it first appears. If I read Gerson right, he is not concerned with relitigating the political calculation of the 2016 election as much as exploring the dynamic French himself deplores: evangelicals who submit abjectly to Trumpism. Gerson thinks the decay is further advanced than French believes, but they’re not terribly far apart.

And if you meditate on French’s last line, you can quickly arrive at Gerson’s gloom. Because another way of saying that white evangelicals are “not exceptional at all” is to say that they make it appear as though the gospel isn’t true.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?


William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?

My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.

The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern. 

The Collapse of White Evangelicalism: Was It Poisoned at the Root?


The King’s Business lampoons Bolsheviks and Darwinists, 1925.

If you haven’t yet read Michael Gerson’s cover story on the decline and fall of evangelicalism in the latest edition of the Atlantic you should go read it. It is historically and theologically informed, and Gerson’s own evangelical background gives it a useful personal weight.

Gerson tells an evangelical declension story that is in broad strokes like the one I told my Temple students last year. Understanding the contemporary moral collapse of white evangelicalism, Gerson tells us, “requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.” This is exactly right. I told my class that American evangelicalism is a movement haunted by the lost glories of its past. It is driven by the fears, resentments, and nostalgia that this extraordinary sense of loss creates.

Gerson describes a nineteenth century evangelicalism that is confident, post-millennial (we’re going to usher in the Kingdom and then Jesus will come back), pulsing with abolitionist fervor and dreams of social renewal. I described this for my class as well, but I paired it with the realities of a white supremacist and pro-slavery evangelicalism that Gerson conveniently ignores. His declension story is real, but it looks more simple and obvious if you exclude the South.

Most white evangelicals couldn’t tell you the history of their loss with any accuracy. But the story is in their theological and cultural bones. It’s in the memory of their community. They know the country was theirs, and it’s not anymore. In Gerson’s words:

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

And so here we are. Today’s white evangelical mainstream has inherited the reactionary spirit of fundamentalism, while little of the earlier positive evangelical social ethic has survived.

Gerson is  insightful in his discussion of the battle lines fundamentalists chose to draw. He asks, what if fundamentalists had opposed social Darwinism instead of Darwinism? Another way of putting this is to ask, what if fundamentalists had actually held to the orthodoxy they claimed? What if they had opposed hatred and dehumanization? It’s a great thought experiment but it’s also a little bit like asking what would have happened if fundamentalists had been completely different sort of people from who they actually were. We quickly find ourselves moving back into the tangled maze of decades and centuries of causation and contingency.

But Gerson is surely right to see the battle over evolution as one of enduring importance. In generation after generation, it has contributed to an evangelical epistemology that is based not on expertise or evidence as much as identity. When people are taught that science cannot be trusted, it contributes to a broader disposition in which the key question to ask when you want to evaluate a claim is not what the claimant knows but what she believes. “Are you a Christian?” becomes at least as important as “What is your evidence?” However you feel about identity politics, an identity epistemology is considerably more radical and all-encompassing.

A question that has been lingering in my mind is whether the poisoned root of all this can be discerned in the 19th century moment of evangelical triumph. Gerson alludes to this briefly, but doesn’t draw out the implication I’m getting at. He writes,

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes.

Fundamentalists may have cut themselves off from much of their 19th century inheritance, but they kept a version of this conflation of the United States and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the seed of the decline was present at the height of evangelical dominance. A movement that had not bound its identity to the nation’s would have nothing to fear when it lost the nation.

Without that basic error, it’s hard to believe Gerson would have an article to write. For one thing, Trump wouldn’t be president.

In the coming months I want to explore the deeper tensions American evangelicals have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. I’m almost entirely ignorant about this, but one of the core questions coming out of the reformation was whether the ideal society was coextensive with the church, or whether the church was a separate organism called to be apart from society. I want to know more about how 18th century struggles over religious disestablishment relate to popular 19th century conflations of kingdom and country. Though legal religious establishment had been abolished, was not evangelicalism a kind of establishment in practice?

Losing that authority was a trauma whose aftershocks we are feeling today. And yet, I wonder if this story is too simple and present-minded. A few years ago, Gerson would not have written this article. A few years ago, we might have looked to different parts of the evangelical past as the key to understanding its present. What stories will we be telling ourselves a few years from now?

A Window into What Many White Evangelicals Really Believe


I had an instructive conversation today. I’m sharing it now with people’s identities removed because I believe it is revealing of the state of some aspects of popular white evangelicalism, but I have no desire to publicly call out the people involved in the conversation.

The conversation below might seem extremely bizarre to you. You’ll notice that I’m writing in a more evangelical bent than I often do here, as I was trying to communicate to people who might possibly resonate with such language. You’ll also note that my interlocutors were not always as coherent as you would wish. But this is part of the point. I believe exchanges like this are representative of larger numbers of ordinary white evangelical people than we would like to believe.

We often hear from evangelical leaders who might sound reasonable and express cautious disagreement with parts of Trump’s agenda, but their constituencies often aren’t very large. For most ordinary white evangelicals, President Trump is a great leader who has rescued the country from the evil rule of President Obama and the nightmare possibility of a President Clinton.

The exchange began when a friend posted this:

I offer no apology for what I am posting, for this is truly how I feel. Please know that this is my opinion and not open for debate.

If you don’t agree with me, that is your perogative, and I respect that. So, I ask that you afford me the same courtesy in return. I will not be responding to any and/or all comments.

I have lived through many United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, demeaned by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, threatened with death, threatened by some to rape our First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country. I am ashamed of the ruthless, insufferable, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the irresponsibility of the reporters who feel they have the right to deliver personal opinions just to sway their audiences in a negative direction even if there is no truth in their message.

After every other President was elected and took the oath of office they were allowed to try to serve this country without constant negative scrutiny from our news sources. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED while news sources search only for negative results from our President will not serve the people of our country. Nor will it create informed Americans. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH.

If only one of my FB friends would repost this, maybe everyone across the globe will understand that there are some of us who feel that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH of this disgrace to Our President and to our United States of America. Shame on the news media for allowing this ongoing hatred and constant state of turmoil to

I assume this is a viral post; it has that feel, right down to an unfinished final sentence indicating an incomplete copy/paste job. Lots of friends chimed in with supportive comments about Trump’s greatness, a few offered criticism, and the original poster quickly decided to engage with commenters after all. So I jumped in:

I think we should pray for our President, definitely. I think those prayers should focus on him coming to repentance and making restitution for his actions. There are several things that are unusual about President Trump compared to past Presidents, but I think what has made many people react so strongly against him is the way he has dehumanized groups of people with his words. As Christians, we know that every life is infinitely valuable and created by God. So it is particularly evil to speak of others in ways that demean, dehumanize, or incite animosity against groups of people. President Trump has expressed hatred for women; he has equivocated about the evils of white supremacy; he has spoken with extraordinary harshness toward whole nations. When coming from the President of the United States, these words have power. These words are action. If we as Christians do not stand against such evil acts, we are not aligning ourselves with the Gospel.

At that point a particularly effusive commenter engaged with me:

He has not Had spoken WORDS of Hate against Women ??
You must watch CNN ,or the other Lying Media ,,paid off by The Clintons an As Far as Praying For Him Im sure All True Christians Do ,,
How Do you know hes Not ,,a True Christian ,,,,You know Not his HEART,,!!
One thing about God says If their NOT Against us ,their With us !!
Trump is Sure Not against The Lord Nor Our Nation!!,,
PS An I guess you have Never said a Vile Word against Any one ,,Give Us a Break ,,
Repent your self!!!
STOP your Trying to Judge a Man God Put in Our Office Of this Nation !!
This is a Fact ,,

To which I replied:

Let’s roll the tape. Imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on. In fact, Trump did say all these things about other groups. Would you support his words if they were directed at your community rather than other communities? And in fact, he has expressed dehumanizing attitudes toward people like you. He boasted that he likes to commit sexual assault.

She replied:

Hes right ,,every illegal should be stopped as every ,,Muslim,,,they are the Antichrist,,,
Ready when they Know its time to Rise up an kill all they can ,,
Its already happen in Our Nation Beheading a women at her work place ,,
Even God says to take care Of your Own first ,,
Obama as Hillary help try an Devide The People ,,!
Its a Fact ,,Hillary ,,Has had People Murdered ,,shes for Murdering our Inncent babies ,,
Shes a traitor as a Lier ,,
She endangered US as Nation!!
Keep Thousands From Hatti,,,Dirty Enemie Filthy ,,Moneyv,,she recieved from our Enemies that Chant Death to us ,,
Gave as Recieved Millions from ,,the Enemies ,,
If shes Fine With The Slaughtering of Our Inncent babies ,,That alone Is Enough For ,,True People Of God tovNot Vote for her ,,
She Left A church because They Did not BELIEVE in ,,so called Aboration !!Thank God shes NOT in leadership .,God put TRUMP in ,,This is A Fact !!
Stop Throwing !! YOUR Stone ,,,Several ,,May Belong Toward you !!
You just havient felt the Impact Yet ,,

I responded:

Because Trump is President, I am focused on holding him accountable. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen with no public office at this time. I have my differences with her. In contrast to your views, the scriptures speak of welcoming the immigrant and being kind toward strangers. They speak of putting the interests of others ahead of our own. As Jesus taught so clearly, every human being is our neighbor. No one, no matter their religion or anything else, should be labeled the enemy or treated with indifference. Your own words– “dirty” “enemy” “filthy”–testify against you. This is not how Christians think about precious people for whom Christ died.

She replied:

This Black an white craps ,,from the pits of hell ,,,
The Demacrate s cound care less about the whites blacks ect ,,they are just out For ,them selves ,,
They were who ,,are full of the KKK ,,Factv,,had my daddy jumped on years ago because he would NOT join ,,them
I was a little girl an had to See this ,,He pulled his gun on them ,,
This white an black ,,issuecis from hell not from God ,,
satans Come down with great wrath ,,because He Knows his Times Short,,
Trumps In Office an ,,no one acted like Idiots when Obama was in ,,as He Litterly ,,tryed to ,,Distroy our Nation ,hes a Muslim traitor ,,,
Hes Not American ,hes A Unbeliever in Christ ,,Hes A True Infidel ,,
I for one Thamk God its out Of Our Office ,,He didnt care who come here ,,because he wanted America Weakened ,,
Hes for the Muslim ,,Enemie ,,Not us ,,
Gave even millions to thoses that chant death to us ,,as He sent weapins to them ,,
Made Great Mockery Of Jesus Spoken Words ,,
And Jesus said if their Not For. US THEY are Against Us!!
And Obama Was an Is NOT For Us !!
Trumps ,,A Strong ,,Bold ,,Smart ,,Man Like Reagon ,
Hes for helping any one ,,
But putting Americans First ,,
And its about Time ,,Jesus said take care of your own ,first or you Worse Then an Infidel ,,
We have Many in our Own Nation Who need help
We can not takecon a thousand a day that pour in here ,,A Thousandc,,smh ,
While we true Americans ,,many hungry ,an homeless as ,,sick ,and Putting them ,First Wrong ,,,
We Need To Take Care Of Our Own ,,,,Time For America ,,To het back On her Feet ,,stand Firm,,strong ,,an Be the Light on That Hill !!
Im Done With Hearing ,,such ,Foolisness!!!

I assume she began talking about “black” and “white” because of my “black lives matter” facebook profile image. Then she kept commenting:

Just ,,admit it ,,your just against him cause his a better ,,,man ,,,an yes Hes White ,,rich ,,bold ,,strong,,
And For God,as As Our Nation an her people,,
Give it a rest ,,Its unreal How some act foolish ,,just because their mad cause Hillary the lier lost ,,
They want the blacks as whites ect ,,at their beaken call ,,free this an free that ,,so they can rule all ,,,
Black or white ,,
They care not for blacks nor the Foreigners nor Illegals Dem just want their votes to keep em in office ,,Continuing their Corruption!!
Playing like they care about ya ,,smh ,,NO they Dont ,,

And again:

Lolololo,,hold Trump accountable ????
,Hillary Should Be in Prison as Obama ,,Soro ,,several others Bill Clinton ,,used sex slaves he as Hillary ,,
Ask Cathy Obrian , Basterds they are ,,Evil True Basterds!!

And finally:

Hebrews 12:8
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, THEN are ye bastards, and NOT sons!!!!!!!.”

Go to her profile page and prominently displayed at the top is this message: “LIVE For JESUS!!”

Now, I wasn’t in this to change her mind and I didn’t get angry about this exchange. That would be a waste of time. Frankly, I was just curious. And I wouldn’t think much of it if this conversation didn’t echo—even if in a more inchoate and unvarnished form—arguments and attitudes I’ve heard from other white evangelicals.

Thinking of these white evangelicals as unreasoning fools is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Notice how this commenter did in fact deploy theological argument to try to bolster her case. She invoked the sovereignty of God to try to foreclose any criticism of the President. In pointing out that I do not know Trump’s heart, her language recalled 1 Samuel 16:7. She referenced 1 Timothy 5:8 to make an argument for Christian nationalism.

She paraphrased Jesus’ cryptic words in Luke 9:50 to try to position Trump as a supporter of Christians even if he himself isn’t a very good one. She alluded to the story of Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery to argue that I should not judge Trump. She attributed division between black and white Americans (or perhaps even racial consciousness itself?) to the spiritual power of Satan. Finally, she directly quoted Hebrews 12:8, to what purpose I still can’t figure out.

The point is that her comments are overflowing with biblical allusion and theological argument. This is not merely a question of ignorance. It’s a question of what has been formed in her, and who has done the forming. Does she attend church? What is taught there? Is “love thy neighbor” so spiritualized that in practice you’re allowed to think and do whatever you want?

Notice how she positions her hatred not just as defensible, but as the proactively Christian attitude! She uses scripture to try to make a virtue of selfishness. So it’s a little hard to credit her professed concern for “innocent little babies.” It is characteristically human to love some people while hating others, but it’s a posture unlikely to win converts to your cause. This is especially so when the cause is invested in a vision of human dignity that you cheerfully deny to others.

It’s too easy to react to the views seen in this conversation with condescension. “Oh, she doesn’t know any better. Oh, she’s sincere. Oh, it’s a matter of ignorance.” As much as these factors may play a role, they don’t excuse the active theological reasoning taking place here. This is Christianity weaponized to oppress; it is salvation for me and hell for thee; it is “Jesus Saves!” as a gleeful taunt rather than a humble cry for help. This is what we’re up against in many white evangelical churches.

Trump’s Spiritual Biography


I admit I want to read this.

Two leading mouthpieces of the Christian Right are out with a new book next week, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual biography. One of the authors, Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent David Brody, has been conducting groveling interviews with Trump for a long time. The insights gathered from those discussions no doubt inform the book.

Presumably Brody is working with great material like this:

God is the ultimate. I mean, look at my golf course. The funniest thing about Brody’s interview style is the way he asks leading questions and then desperately wills Trump toward the right answer, but Trump can’t help but talk about himself or go off on irrelevant tangents.

With all these spiritual depths to explore, I’m sure the authors have had difficulty fitting everything into 300 or 400 pages. You can browse a sample of the upcoming book, courtesy of the publisher.

Popular evangelical mythmaker Eric Metaxas has written the foreward to the book, and he begins this way:

When my friend David Brody told me he was writing a book titled The Faith of Donald J. Trump, I was tempted to laugh.

My dear evangelical friend, this is one temptation to which you can safely yield. It is important to Metaxas that you know precisely how close he came to yielding. So, a page later:

But I must say it once more, that at first, I really was tempted to giggle.

Oh, my friend. Live a little. Let that giggle out.

Somewhere in Metaxas’ subconscious is the knowledge that he has become absurd. That knowledge is leaking out onto the page. He really wants you to know that his instinct, like that of any conscious person, was to laugh at Brody’s project.

Alas, Metaxas suppressed that instinct and came around to a more considered opinion:

But the terrifically stubborn fact is that Donald Trump has been embraced by many serious Christians, and this has caused many Christians and non-Christians alike to seethe with fury at the seeming hypocrisy of the whole arrangement. One vital clue to solving this thorny riddle has to do with what may well be the most fundamental dissonance and misunderstanding in the history of the world. I’m talking about the difference between moral behavior on the one hand and grace and faith in the God of the Bible on the other.

….the God of the Bible does not ask us to be morally perfect so that He will accept us. He asks us to admit that we cannot be morally perfect, to see that only He can be morally perfect…

People who understand this therefore understand the concept of grace to those who—as they are—are morally imperfect…

My first instinct was to laugh at the idea of taking Trump’s spirituality seriously, Metaxas says, but then I realized that the Christian concept of grace could be used to excuse and justify any kind of behavior. When you apply the concept of grace to unrepentant people who are really powerful, it shows you how big grace really is! Brilliant!

In the introduction, the authors get right to the point many evangelicals want to know: is Donald Trump really a Christian? We’re not going to tell you, they say. But they do have a quote from Mike Pence:

President Donald Trump is a believer. I say that with great conviction.

Pence always lies with great conviction. When the authors went looking for a quote from Trump himself testifying of his faith, the results were a bit underwhelming:

I would say that the faith is that I am a believer. I believe. And when you believe, many good things can happen. And hopefully, those good things will happen for the nation.

Ok, so the power of positive thinking. But many evangelical readers will find this highly significant:

One major theme of Part II of this book will be that Donald Trump seems to be on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated greatly in the past few years as he has regularly interacted with evangelicals.

As a baby Christian, Trump is still learning who to hate, and how best to hate them. Don’t worry, he will get better at it.

Boycott the GOP?

lol gop

“Ha Ha, party before country, amiright?”

I’ve often said that the normal rules for how we should approach politics don’t apply to this moment. That’s why, even though I’m much less partisan in my outlook than I was five years ago, I am more insistently opposed to the Republican Party in its current form. If you’re conservative in ideology, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party. If having a republican form of government is important to you, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party.

For a whole lot of reasons—partisan habit, lack of historical perspective, media echo chambers, policy concerns—a lot of people don’t realize that the rules have changed. They go on voting for the party of radicalism even though they think of themselves as conservatives. They go on supporting attacks on the bill of rights even though they think of themselves as lovers of the Constitution.

In short, this is a moment when normal partisan behavior crosses over into actively undermining what is best in the American tradition. Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes get it. They’re two independent-minded observers who have little love for the Democratic Party. But the normal political calculations no longer hold, as they write in the latest issue of the Atlantic. Trump has remade the GOP in his image, and his instincts are fundamentally anti-democratic and lawless. In this context, our normal policy debates are like arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rauch and Wittes write:

So we arrive at a syllogism:

(1) The GOP has become the party of Trumpism.
(2) Trumpism is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.
(3) The Republican Party is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.

If the syllogism holds, then the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.

The off-year elections in November showed that this is possible. Democrats flooded polling places, desperate to “resist.” Independents added their voice. Even some Republicans abandoned their party. One Virginia Republican, explaining why he had just voted for Democrats in every race, told The Washington Post, “I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling.” Trump’s base stayed loyal but was overwhelmed by other voters. A few more spankings like that will give anti-Trump Republicans a fighting chance to regain influence within their party.

We understand why Republicans, even moderate ones, are reluctant to cross party lines. Party, today, is identity. But in the through-the-looking-glass era of Donald Trump, the best thing Republicans can do for their party is vote against it.

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.

Read the whole thing. May their ranks increase.

Trump’s Big Lie—and the Court Evangelicals Who Believe Him


“Why should I repent? Stocks are booming!”

President Trump called for unity in last night’s state of the union speech. Though he lies constantly and gratuitously unlike any President before him, calling for unity is a deeper and bigger kind of lie. It’s not a misstatement of fact as much as a coercive attempt to make us all live in the oppressor’s imagination. In that imagined reality, dehumanizing people does not and should not disrupt American unity. Immigrants and Muslims and people of color should be silent and happy no matter what is said about them or done to them.

Out here in the real world, most of us intuitively understand that domination is not the same thing as unity. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of it.

The call for unity was a rhetorical flourish delivered in bad faith, worthy of as much serious consideration as any randomly selected tweet from the President’s stream-of-consciousness thumbs.

If the President wanted unity he would start by offering a public apology for his decision to hate human beings, dehumanize them, and oppress them. He would explain why he did it, why and how he became aware of his evil behavior, and how he plans to make amends.

Once the President does that, we can have a conversation and search for common ground. This is a basic evangelical posture toward an evil ruler. We pray for such leaders, but our prayers center on the need for repentance and restitution. In the absence of repentance, we pray that their evil plans would be frustrated.

In contrast, the court evangelicals not only enable Trump, they take the radically anti-Christian posture that he doesn’t have much to repent of. For people like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress, discriminating against gay people and letting white evangelicals visit the White House are key parts of advancing the gospel. Dehumanizing people and hating them are political positions about which Christianity is not concerned.

Here’s what Franklin Graham had to say yesterday:

With the stock market humming, pay raises and bonuses bristling, unemployment down, ISIS largely defeated, and taxes going down, the State of the Union shows glimmers of hope. Yet, we all know that something is missing. The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided. It takes humility to place your country’s best interests before your own. God’s Word says we all need to humble ourselves before the Lord and He will lift us up in due time. Whatever the State of the Union, as a nation, we need to humble ourselves, pray, and ask for mercy from a God who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Please pray for humility for all those that govern us across this nation, and pray that we the people would humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Sounds nice, huh? Wait, what’s this? “The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided.” Franklin Graham, an open and ardent Trump supporter, is lamenting that Americans are divided. He believes Trump’s big lie. He doesn’t experience Trump’s dehumanizing words and actions as threats to American unity because they don’t strike directly at his identity and community.

At this point it’s impossible to expect any honest dialogue from court evangelicals, but it would be fascinating to get a real response to a scenario like this: imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on.

Would the court evangelicals experience these statements as unifying and productive? Would it make them enthusiastic supporters of the President? If they would be bothered by these statements when directed at their own community, why don’t the same statements bother them when directed at other communities? Their refusal to align their lives with the gospel is obvious to everyone but themselves.

Stop Worrying about the Evangelical Brand


This is the brand.

This week there has been a rash of stories describing white evangelicals’ conflicted feelings about the term “evangelical.” Many are fretting that the label is hopelessly politicized in the age of Trump.

On Tuesday the editor of Christianity Today wrote:

No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.

The New York Times:

Will Hinton, a web developer in Atlanta, said he knew hundreds of politically conservative evangelicals who had grown increasingly repulsed by the religious right’s leaders, the tone they take and some of the causes and candidates they promote.

Mr. Hinton grew up in the movement as a politically active high school student who spoke at conferences and worked on Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. Now, at 45, he said he was still an evangelical, still a conservative, but without a political party or movement.

“I have dozens of conservative evangelical friends who were so happy that Roy Moore did not win,” he said, “because the evangelical support for Trump and Roy Moore is ruining the witness for Christ for generations in this country.”

The Washington Post:

Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees “a mass exodus” from the label in her community. “The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” she said…

“I think when we start throwing around terms like ‘evangelical’ to the outside, it can be really ostracizing,” said Peter Heilman, a 29-year-old pastor-to-be leaning his tattooed elbows on his ripped blue jeans. He grew up labeling himself lots of ways: conservative, Republican, evangelical. But interning in a more politically and racially diverse church has convinced him to drop those words — he’s concerned people won’t listen to him preach if they disagree with his politics.

“You have to understand the people you’re speaking to and what’s going to allow them to keep open ears,” he said. “When it comes down to it, labels can be a dangerous thing.” …

“Shorthands have always been helpful,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, in Illinois. “The question is, ‘Do I want to be affiliated with that?’ when terms have been redefined, either when it’s been hijacked or misunderstood.”

If you are on the inside of evangelicalism and take it for granted that Christianity is a force for good in the world and evangelicalism in particular is lifegiving, then it matters a great deal if our “Christian witness” is being harmed. If Jesus really does rescue people and the tarnished evangelical brand turns people off from Jesus, then this is a disaster. I understand these concerns and in many ways I share them.

But the preoccupation with the evangelical brand fails to seriously account for the lived experience of the people evangelicalism harms. Too many white evangelicals seem more bothered by the toxicity of the brand than the underlying reality of what evangelicalism does to real human beings.

The problem with mainstream white evangelicalism is not that it’s misunderstood or has some unsavory connotations. The problem is that it’s a movement determined to oppress people. It’s allied with political forces of unusual cruelty and nihilism. Yes, that hurts Christian credibility, but more importantly, it hurts people!

The white evangelical mainstream is crouched in a defensive posture of fear and grievance. Evangelical leaders counseling love and hope and winsome engagement with society are generally ignored. Instead, most ordinary white evangelicals embrace the politics of Trumpism and refuse to admit what that politics actually does.

They oppress immigrants and drive them from their homes; they load new burdens on the poor and withdraw care for the sick; they single out LGBT people for scapegoating and special forms of discrimination; they cast Muslims as religious enemies; they support racism, sexism, police brutality and voter suppression. In their reckless pursuit of power, they reject what is best in the American tradition: liberal democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.

The vast majority of white evangelicals do not recognize this description. They don’t feel like they are oppressing people. They feel like they are an embattled minority struggling to hold their own in a hostile culture. This isn’t exculpatory, however. It only means that white evangelicalism shares a common feature of oppressive political mobilizations, where oppression is driven not so much by hatred of the other but by the insecurities and tensions within the community. Indeed, a politics of grievance and fear is characteristic of genocidal movements.

The point here is not that white evangelicalism is genocidal (it’s not!) but that white evangelicals’ lived experience as embattled minority and their political mobilization as oppressors are not contradictory. The two are linked; it is precisely white evangelicals’ preoccupation with their own lost power that makes them so indifferent toward human suffering outside their community.

Trying to rebrand evangelicalism or disassociate from it is an insufficient response because it doesn’t address the underlying reality of oppression. The Post talked to a black evangelical who gets it:

Emmett Price, a professor who focuses on African American studies at the prominent evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, said he worries that white Christians who are abandoning the term are only looking to avoid the negative associations, not to reform their communities. If they’re concerned that politics have tarred evangelicals as racist, he said, they ought to be focused on making evangelical churches less racist — not on calling themselves something else.

“There’s a desire to detach from the political landscape right now. If one wanted to go and essentially fight somewhere for inclusivity, one would stay in that space and invite others in,” he said. “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.”

For those of us who are heartsick over the state of evangelicalism, rejecting the label or discarding difficult relationships with evangelicals may actually be a selfish choice.* The harder task is to take ownership of what our communities have become and seek reformation from the inside.

*I’m not speaking here of people who have suffered spiritual or other forms of abuse in evangelical settings. By all means, get out! And I’m not speaking of Christians of color who find their very identities assaulted in evangelical spaces. I’m referring specifically to people like me!

The Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

roy moore

Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis


We’ve hit the one year anniversary of a shameful moment in American history. Donald Trump’s election showed us, finally, that the American people have no special love for liberty or decency. We’re just like everybody else. We might have known this, if only in our heads. But gaining that self-knowledge through hard experience has changed us.

That moment a year ago has not faded away into history. It was the curtain-raiser on an age of crisis. Now we think about the country and our fellow Americans differently. We try to engage and love and persevere, but we do not do so with the illusion that our neighbors want the same future we do.

Immediately after the election, a lot of us were alarmists. Some envisioned a rapid slide into an authoritarian dystopia. If the alarmists were not entirely correct, their posture was more productive than those who wishfully believed that this is a normal political moment. Indeed, the alarmists are still needed. They may have overestimated the chances of rapid disintegration, but the rest of us are now underestimating the possibility that this is the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.

Donald Trump showed that it was possible to run against the liberal democratic American ideal—the vision that animated everyone from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama—and win. If you’re on the radical left or right and want to destroy the social order, you might be happy. Everyone else, liberal or conservative, ought to be very concerned.

We have taken too much comfort in Trump’s incompetence. We can be sure that every power-loving would-be strongman is learning the lessons of this moment. The key lesson is that many Americans—perhaps a majority—want their party to win more than anything else. They would rather win than defend abstractions like the bill of rights, democracy, and separation of powers. They’ll support all manner of racism and cruelty if it means winning one for the team. A cunning politician with a clear end-goal in sight can use this new knowledge to bring our democratic experiment to a close.

These are the stakes for the nation. Don’t even get me started on the Church. I care much more about the church than I do about the nation, and am much more grieved about it. I hope in it like I hope in Jesus himself—with a faith that doesn’t yield to the whims of circumstance. The church will continue. But those who seek to follow Jesus will do so in communities of faith beyond the white nationalist and prosperity heresies that have overrun much of American Christianity.

So how do we live in this age of crisis? How do we teach? For me, these are really thorny questions.

Before Trump’s rise, it never occurred to me that many people I know and love could support such an awful person. How do I conduct myself on the other side of that knowledge? How do I live with this knowledge that I desperately don’t want to have? What do love, humility, and patience look like in this moment? How do I deal with the resentment and bitterness I harbor so that I can approach people openly and in love?

Normally, we have several strategies that help us be respectful toward people with whom we disagree. We remind ourselves that we all have different experiences, different social contexts, different bases of knowledge. We remind ourselves of our own fallenness and limited perspective. We seek to learn from perspectives we find disagreeable. But in the age of Trump, the overt celebration of evil and cruelty often make these strategies seem hollow. Those of us who are Christians may find more meaning in how Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. We do not need to pretend that we have common ground. But we are commanded to love.

Part of the reality of living in the Trump era is feeling profoundly affected by it and then feeling guilty and silly for how much it’s affecting you. Endless cycle. But it does affect us. Continuing to feel that, though exhausting, is an important part of maintaining our integrity.

I’ve also found that teaching history in this moment is a bit disorienting. How does, or should, a moment of crisis affect our teaching of the past? I don’t have an answer for that. I’ve mostly tried to steer clear of the present, but whichever path I take I keep wondering if I’m doing my students a disservice.

On the one hand, making the current moment a big presence in the classroom can distort the past and encourage bad habits of mind in students. Our inclination is to read everything in light of the present moment and that’s exactly what we as historians are positioned to resist. On the other hand, it seems odd to not explain, as best we can, how the past led to our current age of crisis. If students leave the course not knowing that this political moment is unique, why didn’t I bother to make the class more relevant to them?

These pedagogical questions would be easier to grapple with if I could do so dispassionately. But the reality is I can’t. While it might be nice in theory to have a class discussion about putting Trump in historical context, I’m not confident in my ability to lead that discussion productively, especially if a student strongly defends Trump.

To talk about Trump in the classroom is to talk about someone whose politics are an existential threat to some of the students in the room. That makes it a loaded conversation, and I can’t hide that my sympathies are with those students.

Perhaps there aren’t any good answers for life and teaching in this age of crisis. But let’s try to lean on each other and support each other. Shout out especially to those who feel isolated in pro-Trump communities. Keep up the good fight!