Apparently, it is “out of bounds” to make “broad brush” generalizations about the evangelical movement. Meanwhile at The Atlantic, an excellent article by Michael Gerson does just that without exciting a lot of anger or protest. Why?
When exploring evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, your “broad brush” matters a lot less than the colors you paint. Gerson’s delicate “critique” invented an entire alternate history for the movement to whitewash its racial heritage. That’s the critical step necessary to make such an inquiry palatable in polite company. “Good people” are never racist, and nice people don’t talk about race.
Gerson does a fantastic job of describing the apparent contradiction of evangelicals’ stated interest in piety and their furious support of Trump. However, his effort to explain that contradiction suffers from a frustratingly familiar resistance to acknowledging the obvious. Gerson’s premise is basically an apology:
It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.
This story only strange if we retain our polite illusions about the meaning and roots of modern evangelicalism. Evangelical support for Donald Trump is surprising if we persist in ignoring the movement’s history and theology.
Gerson engages in a bit of polite misdirection by identifying the modern evangelical movement with 19th century movements that used the term. In fact, those older evangelical movements split violently in the 19th century. Today’s self-identified evangelicals have as much to do with 19th century evangelical abolitionists as Catholics have to do with Presbyterians. To place modern figures like Falwell and Graham in that lineage is to whitewash the split over slavery that set modern evangelicals on a separate evolutionary path – a path on which they remain today. The Trump Era has not corrupted evangelicalism, it has exposed its authentic priorities.
As explained in the post Forbes removed from their site yesterday, today’s evangelicals are the heirs not of 19th century abolitionists and reformers, but of the fundamentalist movement in the South. As the heirs of Northern abolitionists became the modern mainline Protestant movement, the rest of evangelicalism took a different path. And though evangelicalism continued to exist in the North, it came to identify more and more over time with its center of gravity in Dixie. Yes, there are relatively rational elements in the modern evangelical movement, and Gerson refers to one of their modern intellectual centers at Wheaton College in Illinois, but these moderate Northern evangelicals have about as much influence over modern evangelicalism as I do. They are strapped to back of a dragon, and some of them are starting to recognize their dilemma.
It is impolite in the extreme to point out the failures of many American institutions, like evangelical Christianity, to adapt to a post-segregation reality. It is needlessly divisive to point out that yesterday’s segregationist Democrats became today’s white nationalist Republicans. Stating these realities in public is “painting with a broad brush.” It is impolite to speak candidly about race.
As explained in another piece, telling the truth about the history and current state of race relations in the US is very upsetting for white people. Ignorance about race is a sort of blanket for white people, especially white people with political ambitions. Nice people do not talk about race in anything other than oblique terms.
Consistent with these conventions, Gerson offers polite cover, an assumption that the modern evangelical movement’s embrace of white nationalism is somehow a surprise.
But setting matters of decency aside, evangelicals are risking their faith’s reputation on matters of race…
For some of Trump’s political allies, racist language and arguments are part of his appeal.
His pearl-clutching language implies that the racism evangelicals are peddling is a shameful aberration, rather than a load-bearing wall in their theology. Why is it ok for Gerson to criticize the evangelical movement with such a broad brush? Because he included this disclaimer:
Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.
Most importantly, his piece did not look too closely at those “moral priorities.” To do so would have required digging up and exposing their roots, then following their development back up the tree to its strange fruit. Opening a real inquiry into those moral priorities would have led Gerson to places I suspect he does not want to go, and into rhetoric generally regarded as beyond the pale of polite discourse.
Today’s Christian evangelicals are the heirs of Southern fundamentalists who fought fiercely to block the Civil Rights Movement. Their earlier heritage developed under the heat and pressure of slavery, which neutralized everything in the Christian message which might have promoted compassion and social justice. Their support for Donald Trump is a natural outgrowth of their theology, not a heretical divergence. And no one, no matter how clever, or charismatic, or “nice,” is going to change the character of evangelical Christianity without a wholesale reconsideration of the movement’s theology. A theology that stripped the humanity from black Americans is a theology that can easily strip the humanity from homosexuals, women, the poor, immigrants, or any form of “other” that attracts its ire at a moment in time. A theology without compassion is dangerous.