By Emily Swan / Medium
Evangelicalism and MAGA culture are in a symbiotic relationship
In a new book edited by Ron Sider — author of Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger, which has sold more than 400,000 copies — a handful of evangelical leaders sound the alarm about the spiritual harm being done by the current White House occupant. In a book titled The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity, Sider and others lay out a case for opposing Trump’s re-election.
Too little, too late.
Trying to distance evangelicalism from Trumpism is anathema. They are in a symbiotic relationship; a person can not wash their hands of one and not the other, which is exactly what Al Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is trying to do. In his recent rambling answers to the New Yorker journalist, he said:
As a theologian and as a churchman, when I define evangelical, I’m really talking about a self-consciously orthodox classic Protestantism that is deeply connected to the church and deeply committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And then you have the media definition of evangelicals, which means anybody who isn’t Catholic or Jewish or something else and, especially as demographers look at the white population, identifies as some kind of conservative Protestant. They just are called evangelicals. — Al Mohler
In other words, “real” Christians aren’t the problematic MAGA people seen on the news. Trouble is, regular churchgoers are Trump’s biggest supporters. To be evangelical means you have to own the evangelical culture that has produced this “fruit,” to use churchy language.
Perhaps Sider’s new book will help dissuade some of the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016, but I’m not convinced people withdrawing their support from him will be the result of anything Sider and company have to say — it will be the result of Trump’s poor response to the COVID-19 crisis and the authoritarian instincts he’s shown in the midst of the largest civil rights protests in history.
Truth is: no one cares what evangelicals have to say apart from other evangelicals. Instead of taking an introspective look at why this is so, they prefer to claim persecution and victimhood and/or offer apologetic essays in hopes that someone other than evangelicals will note their distancing from the evils of Trumpism.
As someone raised in evangelicalsim, who is an ex-evangelical pastor (now post-Protestant progressive pastor of Blue Ocean Church Ann Arbor), allow me to offer five brief insights as to why evangelicals have nothing tangible to offer this moment in spite of their attempts:
The Western white evangelical fixation on personal salvation at the expense of any form of corporate salvation is more a result of the American philosophy of rugged individualism than careful study of Scripture. Government and politics is simply how societies organize themselves. Instead of thinking through how our society organizes to care for the poor and those who need more assistance through life, evangelicals have a fixation on the idea that faith-based charities and religious groups can fill this need. They can not and they do not. When your worldview says, “government is bad and I’m responsible only for myself” the result is masses of people refusing to wear masks during a global pandemic and lack of evangelical support for public assistance. Evangelicalism is rugged individualism made spiritual.
Misogyny & Patriarchy
Sider’s book is a case in point — just glance through the authors of the book’s essays: three of the 30 authors are women, and none of the women are pastors or theologians. Brandy X. Lee is a psychiatrist at Yale; Irene Fowler is a Harvard-educated Nigerian lawyer (unclear if she’s even able to vote in American elections); and Julia Stronks is a government professor at Whitworth University. Female evangelical leaders are few and far between, and those who manage to influence via blogs or books (i.e., Beth Moore) face backlash and harrassment.
Evangelicalism thrives on patriarchy and misogyny — oh, the personal stories I could tell. My friend, the Rev. Dr. Adey Wassink, founding and lead pastor of Sanctuary Church in Iowa City, wrote her dissertation on the myriad ways female leaders experience misogyny in one particular evangelical denomination — it’s a well-researched but disheartening read.
I wrote a lengthy article here some years ago about Christian patriarchy and its relationship to Trumpism. Evangelicalism helped create and maintain American patriarchal systems, and remains completely dependent on its preservation. Trump is the direct result of evangelical misogyny.
Over a hundred years of anti-science rhetoric and beliefs generated an American culture that is adamently anti-science. A bare majority (51% of Americans) believe in evolution. Evangelicals widely dismiss scientific studies about gender and sexual orientation. They don’t believe climate change is real — or, if it is, it isn’t caused by humans. Now they dismiss concerns about COVID-19, as many evangelicals hope to return to church and Florida residents argue that government has no right to mess with “God’s breathing system” by requiring people to wear masks. (However, as the cornoavirus spreads, more evangelicals are inclined to be concerned. This is the most likely reason Trump could lose broad support.)
White Supremacy, Anti-Semitism
Last week Trump held a rally at a megachurch in Arizona, where he made a racist joke about the coronavirus to widespread cheers and applause.
Evangelicalism is built on racist systems and can not be pried away from them. (For further reading: Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, which I suggest purchasing from a black-owned bookstore.)
Also, anti-Semitism runs rampant in evangelical theologies — I’ve detailed a few ways here. Trump peppers his speeches with anti-Semitic language and enjoys support from anti-Semitic groups. Evangelicals are groomed from the beginning to believe the Jewish tradition is sub-par to their own, and is it that hard to make the connection between hearing anti-Semitic theologies and accepting anti-Semitic leaders?
Last but not least, evangelicals fully embrace power and influence as part of their God-given entitlement — a reward for faithful service. I wrote an article critiquing a couple of such theologies, including the Seven Mountain Mandate and Dominion Theology, here. Evangelicalism fueled the rise of the Religious Right in politics; both have, at their core, an insatiable desire for power.
Evangelicalism Embodies the Worst of American Culture
Evangelicals readily embrace individualism, patriarchy, anti-science stances, white supremacy, and power as part-and-parcel of their worldview. Evangelical leaders and seminaries shape and form adherents who believe they are “separate” from “secular” culture, and yet they actually embody all of the worst aspects of Americanism. They wrap the ugliness up in sacred clothing and create humans who care more for themselves than for their neighbor; who aspire to power and theocracy; who cheer loudly when the president makes a racist joke in a church; and who scoff at science.
I’ll leave you with this: an article I wrote some time back about how to tell if your Christian faith is healthy. As a progressive pastor, I believe Christianity has a lot to offer a culture that needs to face its demons. We shall see if Trump is making, or the undoing, of evangelical Christianity. I have some hope it is the latter.
Author EMILY SWAN co-author with Ken Wilson of Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, and co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, a progressive, fully-inclusive church. Queer.