I have been thinking a lot about white evangelicals – partly because of what Sea wrote and the article Mike drew our attention to – but mostly, because I am a white person and an evangelical (by which I mean that I believe in the good news) and so are the people I love most.
So, this is a complicated conversation for me to engage.
To be honest, I struggle with how the media portrays the evangelical community. The easy stereotype does not really align with my lived experience – which has been messy and painful and also tender and loving. Real life is always more complicated than the caricature.
It’s curious to me that the author of the NY Times piece centers around the issue of power, and seems to toe the fine line of demonizing the evangelical community for desiring it.
It’s not just evangelicals who want power – all humans do. And desiring power is not a fundamentally flawed endeavor.
Trump is certainly not the first leader in American history to leverage a particular Christianity for political gain.
Christianity is not a monolith. There is no such thing as “Christianity.” There are only “Christianities.” And yes, I can understand how it is possible to read the Christian scriptures and come to the conclusion that Jesus will work in and with the systems of Empire to redeem the faithful ones. I think that’s a bad reading of Scripture – and that the story of the Gospel tells the completely opposite story, but that is a result of having ventured out of the echo chamber I grew up in.
Many of us (liberals, too) never leave our echo chambers. And I don’t think that is a moral failing so much as the reality of life for many folks … especially families like mine with roots in poor, rural America. My dad worked his body ragged so his daughters could go to college, but we are the exception in the Butler and Jones families. In the end, I may be the only defector: the only registered Democrat, the only rejector of Biblical literalism, the only feminist, the only … you get the picture.
The majority of evangelical Christians in America? I’ll put money on betting their socioeconomic status is lower than mainline Christians. Liberal classism has kept certain Christians firmly in their place.
The article Mike and Sea reference clearly delineates the feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation among white evangelical Christians. It takes no leap of my imagination to see how reading the Scriptures from the perspective of the oppressed (the disenfranchised, the alienated one) aligns with believing in the hope of triumphant vindication. After all, that’s what Jesus promised, right?
The political savvy of the system is duping the poor and disenfranchised into believing the Empire has their back. That’s an old trick still functioning. So President Trump preys upon the fears of not just evangelicals but all conservative Christians … support me, and I will give you power. It’s the story of temptation in the wilderness. Bow down to me and I will give you power and privilege, the devil says (Mark 4:8,9).
And it is tempting, because power is a universal human desire. We all want it – most of us have some, too many of us have too much. The question is not whether it is fundamentally good or bad, the question is – do we know how to use it appropriately? Compassionately? Fairly?
Apparently, Mike Pence said something like this at the RNC last week: “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom. And never forget that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.”
And we wonder why evangelical Christians are voting for Trump. This is why: because since Constantine, the Powers That Be have been co-opting the Gospel for the glory of the Empire. The project that is the United States of America has been nurtured by a spiritual understanding of itself (by which I mean white, European colonists and their descendants) as the oppressed since its very beginning. The acquisition of the land, the genocide of indigenous people, participation in slave trade – the foundations of the ethics around these actions is all rooted in a particular understanding of the Christian scriptures. And for the most part, the pattern of that exegesis follows the same insidious hermeneutic Pence used.
The passage referenced is from Hebrews – a book written to a beleaguered and disenfranchised community. They are not encouraged to set their hopes on the Empire and the power afforded by the system, they are told to look to Christ, the suffering servant, the nonviolent Jesus. The one who never used the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house, but rejected the power structure of the house, completely.
So Pence does what generations of the powerful have done before him. He fundamentally misreads the heart of the Gospel’s centering of the poor and oppressed, he confuses the idea of freedom, and he conflates Jesus with “Old Glory.”
The Hebrew and Christian Testaments do not bear witness to the idea that where the Spirit is – there is freedom. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The biblical witness encourages us to constrain our freedom on behalf of others. It reminds us that our wellbeing is tethered to the wellbeing of everything else in creation. That ethos is embedded in the very first of our stories – because Eve can consume the apple, ought she? The prohibition on over-consumption is fundamental to our origin story. Just because you can take it, doesn’t mean you should. Because in a more faithful reading of the text, love wins. Not individual autonomy and freedoms.
The conflation of power with Jesus is particularly troubling theology but it is not new. The kind of power Jesus modeled is the power-with variety. The sharing of power, the distribution of mutuality is not the kind of power Empire has historically attempted to hoard. If the suggestion is being made that power-over is good news, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, friends.
Maybe once upon a time, we were the oppressed ones. For many evangelical Christians, that narrative never evolved. It’s as if the story of fleeing religious persecution and establishing the Colonies is still our reality. Politics co-opted the promise of the Gospel to beleaguered communities and spiritualized it – “your faith is still in danger,” it whispers “the powerful are out to destroy your way of life.”
But reality doesn’t quite bear witness to that messaging. In reality, Christianity has been used for centuries as a tool of oppression. Slavery was/is upheld by using the Biblical witness. So is domestic violence, American exceptionalism, sexism, and homophobia.
More than one version of Christianity has become the very institution it sought to dismantle.
“Progressive” Christians haven’t done much to extend a hand to their siblings held hostage by the collusion of the politically powerful with the pulpit. Instead of seeking to understand how we wound up here in the first place, instead of working to understand the very real fears that keep the majority of evangelical Christians loyal to this bad theology, instead of admitting that power is a natural desire of the human, we mock them. We call them stupid. We refuse to show up at Thanksgiving if that part of the family is coming over. And that’s an interesting strategy, considering the folks Jesus sat down to supper with.
Here’s what Jesus was clear about as he sought to call out the oppressor: he aimed his anger at the system, not at individuals. So I can be angry at the institutions and ideologies that have created the bastardized version of Christianity that keeps so many of my loved ones trapped in a fear-based faith based on the necessity of exclusion and power-over. But the only strategy Jesus offers me for interacting with my people is love and relationship.
And Lord knows I try. But I have a confusion of tongues, too. I over-simplify and flatten out and forget what I know about the people who love me.
And the white evangelicals I know: they are not, actually, okay with children in cages or the murder of people of color or the many ways hate expresses itself. But they are scared, just like I am. And most of them are held captive by their echo chambers.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to this rambling essay. I don’t even know what my point is, exactly. But I have a feeling that as long as the Left or the Progressives or however you want to label us – as long as we keep minimizing the fear and the longing of those Christians we call “Other,” as long as our goal is to humiliate and shame rather than understand and love, things will get worse, not better.
We use such pretty words to describe how Christianity must not be weaponized. So, how about we beat our own swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4)? How about we take Jesus seriously and get interested in doing the very uncomfortable work that love (not politics) calls us to?