The article in Forbes’ Magazine, March 11, didn’t ask that question I used in my headline. Instead, the headline simply stated the piece would explain, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” (The author later republished this on his own site under the less pointed title, “Why the Religious Right is so cruel.”)
In America, where theocracy is a more powerful political force than free speech and where its president has publicly threatened to muzzle journalists and uncomplimentary media like other tinpot dictators do, such a piece was apparently unwelcome. Forbes removed it – but not in time to prevent it from being read and cached and shared. Forbes’ excuse for the removal was that, “We also have a policy of not talking about social issues like abortion at Forbes Opinion — only economic policy and politics.” Weak, methinks.
No doubt the writer – Chris Ladd – hit a nerve in his increasingly theocratic, decreasingly tolerant nation when he wrote:.
Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.
This isn’t really news or even new. Back in August, 2017, John Gehring wrote a piece for the Religious News Service (RNS) titled, “What is wrong with white Christians?” Gehring wrote:
Too many white Christians sacrifice the gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda.
Given the number of fervent, uber-right “court evangelicals” in Trump’s White House (like evangelist anti-education Betty Devos, the evangelist anti-environment Scott Pruitt and evangelist anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo) appointed by Trump to positions of authority, it’s little wonder this sort of critical commentary isn’t welcome in his USA. Just look at his thin-skinned evangelical VP Mike Pence, who had a hissy fit when an interviewer jokingly suggested that he didn’t hear the voice of his imaginary friend Jesus, and was instead, “mentally ill.”
Pence ranted and frothed loudly, and probably put a lot of pressure on her network for her to apologize to all Christians, as if he alone was the representative of the 2.2 billion Christians, and that a poke at him was an insult to all of them.*
Well, here’s the truth: Jesus doesn’t speak to Pence. Or to anyone, Christian or not. Jesus is dead. Dead people don’t talk, whether they died yesterday or two millennia ago. Those voices in your head are you. But don’t try to tell that to American evangelicals like Pence. Yes, hearing voices in your head IS called mental illness. Just because Pence calls the voices Jesus and David Berkowitz said it was his dog Harvey speaking to him doesn’t mean that they’re not the same form of madness.
Pence has often described himself as a “Christian, conservative, Republican, in that order,” clearly putting his personal loyalty to the state and its people lower than that for his imaginary voices-in-his-head friend.
By evangelical, I use the same definition that Al Jazeera uses: “…conservative, white Protestants… 81 percent of white Evangelicals who voted in 2016 voted for Trump.”
They’re often called “fundamentalists” but all faiths have a fundamentalist fringe. Sometimes they are ironically referred to as “biblical literalists” because they cherry-pick the parts of their bible they want to believe, while ignoring other sections, especially large and uncomfortable parts like the Beatitudes that exhort them to be generous, loving, hospitable and kind. Others simply call them the “religious right” but that is a nebulous category that includes other faiths or groups outside the evangelical sphere. We’re only discussing Christian evangelicals here (if indeed they truly are Christian – see below).
The article continues:
Such Evangelicals have long been self-described “values voters” and the “moral majority”. The idea of “values” here does not refer to paying taxes for more and better public education, medical care, social services and the like that benefit the society at large and should stem from the Christian values of compassion and care for the poor. It does not refer to defending the oppressed or welcoming refugees.
Rather, it refers to a very singular idea of “family” and what needs to be done in order to “protect” it. Two of the more powerful religious-political organisations in the US are called Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Evangelicals oppose any policy, behaviour or practice that they deem threatening to a monogamous two-gender marriage.
Ladd and Gehring are merely chronicling a form of uniquely American religious madness that is getting worse, much worse, and much crazier. Yet at the same time, it’s consuming and taking more power in US government at all levels.**
Ladd goes on about the main topic for evangelicals: abortion, even though it’s not a biblical issue:
What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of … the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.
Little wonder Ladd’s article might upset some evangelicals: they don’t want people to wake up and realize their big bugaboo isn’t in their bible. He then makes some rather gritty points about the highly visible hypocrisy of evangelicals:
Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.
This religious madness is mainstream stuff nowadays, headlined in the media and shared widely on social media. Just today I read an article on Patheos headlined Pastor: Execute Girl Scout Leaders For Promoting Homosexuality. In it, the author noted:
Pastor Kevin Swanson calls for the execution of Girl Scout leaders because they promote homosexuality.
Speaking on his radio program the demented anti-gay pastor said that Girl Scouts leaders have violated Jesus’ teaching by promoting tolerance and equality for LGBT people, and that it would be better for Girls Scout leaders to have a millstone hung around their neck and thrown into the sea rather than cause a child to sin.
And Swanson means that literally, not figuratively. He wants to execute these women by drowning. No trial, just throw them in the ocean with a big rock tied to them. Just like ISIS did in the Middle East. Little wonder outsiders call evangelicals like him the “American Taliban” – the similarities are frightening.
Swanson is the darling of the Republicans (Ted Cruz in particular) and the rest of the flag-wrapped evangelical community for his demands that everyone in the LGBT community be executed. He’s saying aloud among the power brokers what the virulently misanthropic wingnuts of the Westboro Baptist Church have been screaming on street corners for years. And he’s lionized for doing so. Kill everyone who doesn’t do what you say, who doesn’t look or dress or walk or talk like you. Kill them if they stray (except, of course, church leaders and especially not the President…), kill them if they err, kill them if they look sideways at you. Killing is the American Christian way.
And this is the man Republicans turn to for “spiritual” advice? No wonder the NRA has such strong ties with evangelicals in a country where religious leaders openly preach killing citizens without due process of law, where mass shootings happen weekly to fuel more gun sales, inevitably followed by the religious right’s vapid “thoughts and prayers.” (Those ties are almost as strong as the NRA’s ties to Russia. Outside the USA the NRA would be declared a terrorist organization alongside ISIS and its leaders tried and locked up for treason.)
Also today, an article on Raw Story had the headline, “WATCH: Trump-loving moms mock Muslims inside a mosque to teach their children how to be ‘patriots’” This pretty much sums up the evangelical Americans’ relationship to other faiths: scorn, disrespect, mockery, lies, disinformation, vile behaviour done in public and teaching your children to hate:
Two Arizona women may face trespassing charges after live-streaming video of themselves trespassing inside a mosque while making fun of Muslims — with their children in tow… The women, who describe themselves as “patriots” in the original video, encourage the children to take pamphlets on display at the Islamic center so that they can “expose” the people attend it. At one point the woman filming tells the children that Muslims “live off the welfare system, off our hard-earned, taxpayer-funded money.”
These kids will soon be singing “der Morgige Tag ist Mein” (Tomorrow Belongs to Me) if they don’t already know the words…
The other thing evangelicals love to offer others is blame. They blame the poor for their hunger, the homeless for their unemployment, immigrants for crime, blacks for drugs, liberals for bad weather… but not the president for his lies, his broken contracts, his adulterous affairs, shameless immorality, broken promises, his vulgarity… Michael Gerson wrote in the Atlantic this month:
The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.
In The Independent last month, David Usborne asked of evangelical Americans, “How much longer can they support Donald Trump and face themselves in the mirror?” Apparently a long time because introspection doesn’t seem to be a popular pastime among them.
Trump is, as many of them apparently believe, the messiah. And you don’t diss the messiah… you worship him. Trump’s money-grubbing “spiritual advisor,” Paula White called him a “king” put into power by her god and that “opposing him is ‘fighting against the hand of God’.” (Really: do a Google search on this: even bizarrely, some Orthodox Jews believe this dreck…)
As the Al Jazeera article continues:
Various apologists for this disappearance of values and taking up the standard that “character doesn’t matter”, make the claim that Trump’s very recently discovered opposition to abortion outweighs everything else, so they overlook the carnal sins, the meanness, the money-grubbing greed; they hold their noses and vote for the one important virtue. Evangelicals enthuse over Trump; they adore him, they embrace him.
In the New Yorker last December, the evangelical pastor Tim Keller – a rarity among his kind in not being a Trumpist – bemoaned how far his fellow American evangelicals had fallen:
‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’?When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.
In the New York Times, last December, Amy Sullivan called it “Fox evangelicalism” which is “…preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.” She closes with a quote from pastor Jonathan Martin:
Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them… It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post. If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.
We still cling to calling them Christians, but I think they’re well beyond that; they’ve moved well past any reasonable association with the Bible or its teachings. Their faith is the sort of myopic, isolationist nationalism that George Orwell despised: “By ‘nationalism’ I mean… the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” But Christians they certainly are not, no matter how many voices they hear in their heads. They’re closer to Ayn Rand than to Jesus.
Sullivan adds, “The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.”
Weaponized religion. If that doesn’t scare you, if the insidious influence of Fox and its cabal of faux evangelicals doesn’t make your blood run cold, if the approaching theocracy and the end of America’s democratic institutions doesn’t keep you awake at night, you’ve not been paying attention.
In The Atlantic last spring, Molly Worthen asked – rhetorically, I suspect, “How could so many conservative Christians have voted for a thrice-married casino mogul who has bragged about assaulting women and rarely goes to church? ”
It’s called cognitive dissonance: simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. Randall Balmer, writing in The Guardian, provides a partial answer: they changed the rules to avoid the dissonance (emphasis added): “The religious right’s wholesale embrace of the Republican party and of Donald J Trump, both as candidate and as president, has necessitated a rewriting of evangelical ethics.” In his piece, he lists several of the new “ethics” of modern American evangelicals, required so they can still continue to justify their support of their pocket-stuffing, lying president including:
- Lying is all right as long as it serves a higher purpose;
- It’s no problem to be married more than, well, twice;
- Immigrants are scum;
- Vulgarity is a sign of strength and resolve;
- White lives matter (much more than others);
- There’s no harm in spending time with porn stars;
- It’s all right for adults to date children;
- The ends justify the means.
Which pretty much adds up to utter, total hypocrisy in anyone’s book, biblical or otherwise. As Molly Worthen writes, it’s all a rich racist’s wet dream: “The president’s isolationist approach plays well among Americans who believe that the time has come to restore the capitalist order as God intended it to be: with native-born white Americans on top.”
* To be fair, Pence didn’t want to her apologize to all 2.2 billion for at least one reason: more than half of them (1.2 billion) are Catholics, and evangelicals hate Catholics. Christianity isn’t a single religion: it’s a whole lot of disparate religious groups, most of which despise the others. But Pence thinks he represents the millions of non-Catholic American Christians and he said so on Faux News:
“I’m still encouraging her to use the forum of that program or some other public forum to apologize to tens of millions of Americans who were equally offended,” he said.
Pence added, “I felt it was important that I defend the faith of tens of millions of Americans against that kind of slander.” He also said it’s important to him that Behar “and others on the airwaves” realize that people find joy in their faith.
Like he asked those millions if they were offended… okay, okay, Pence on Faux News is shouting in a loud echo chamber to an audience of fawning sycophants. But still, who made him the faith’s representative? I’m more offended that Joy Behar caved in and apologized not simply to Pence but to all Christians, thus empowering his belief he represents any of them.
** If you have never read Charles Mackay’s 19th century book, Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, I suggest you take a look at it… aside from a fun read, it’s quite informative. In his chapter on alchemy, he wrote:
Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind; and, by impelling us to seek for remedies for the irremediable, have bewildered us in a maze of madness and error. These are death, toil, and ignorance of the future—the doom of man upon this sphere, and for which he shews his antipathy by his love of life, his longing for abundance, and his craving curiosity to pierce the secrets of the days to come.
While not about the madness of evangelical American Christianity, he does explore some rather amusing fads and delusions of the past, many of which remain active today. If you want to read about the evolution of American evangelical madness, I suggest The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald, whose main focus is the movement since 1940.
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Perhaps the answer to the headline’s question is simply, “Because they can be.” It may not be in their bible, but cruelty is certainly found in their ideology and their leaders encourage it (witness Trump’s exhortations to followers to beat protesters in the audience).
Good piece in The Atlantic (April, 2018):
Number 49 of the 50 “proofs” is ” Look at who speaks for God” which notes:
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