Gerson’s article on evangelicals in The Atlantic

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.

28 Comments

  1. Arrogance is rarely rewarded, in anything in life. “Raise more money”, the GOP leadership intones….or you could be a casualty. Saccone was a “weak” candidate. I find these statements ludicrous. Republicans spent over $10M to Dems $3M to save a House seat in a PA district T won by 20 points. As Chris has pointed out numerous times, “money” is not a guarantee of political success”. If you need more affirmation of this fact, look at the Houston race between Navy Seal Dan Crenshaw (a political “novice”) and Kathleen Wall. She spent: $4.3M and he spent $93K in the race. (Center for Responsive Politics). I reckon one could use the GOP excuse that Wall was a terrible candidate, which is no lie, but the point is, good people can win political races if they work hard, are well qualified and their base supports them vigorously as Lamb’s did. Bah Humbug on the GOP disdain for the PA outcome.

  2. EJ

    Congratulations to the people of Pennsylvania. A swing from +20% to a narrow win is a remarkable achievement.

    Would it be fair to say that Lamb is the opposite of Chris Ladd? Lamb is a socially-conservative old-school-trade-union man, the diametric opposite of a socially-progressive small-government type like Ladd. Still, they both live in the real world and both have an enemy in common; and in harsh times like these, that might have to be enough.

      1. Turtles – Ours are stronger than theirs, the question is, are we strong enough to mount a campaign effort to help them win?…Build with what you have and we’ll get better and better people willing to put themselves out there. To attract Democratic candidates like Conor Lamb, communities have to demostrate they will work for them like the people of PA did….even acknowledging how special Conor Lamb is as a candidate, there are other Lambs out there. We need to find them, and help them. Look at how hard Beto O’Rourke is working and what a decent great candidate he is. Are we in TX really going to allow Rafael Edward Cruz to snuff out the light Beto shines so brightly? I’ve got a trunk with 60 Beto yard signs to distribute to people who signed up for them on a secret FB site in a mere 24 hour time period.

        Here’s a great quote by Lamb: “Quote for the day:
        “We didn’t take a single vote for granted, we didn’t take a single town or even inch of ground for granted … I think that pays off.”
        — Conor Lamb

    1. It was an incredible evening at the victory party. At one point, we were only leading by 95 votes. By 12:30am, we were pretty sure of a win, but we weren’t positive until a voice came over the loudspeaker and said, “Announcing your Congressman-elect, Conor Lamb”!

      As you can imagine, the crowd erupted. Conor gave a moving speech, and it was tears of elation all around. We worked so hard for this.

      Here’s a little video that I’m (I come in at about the 3 minute mark) talking about PA-18, how we campaigned, and how special our candidate was. https://www.facebook.com/savemainstnow/videos/1657281704353814/?hc_ref=ART4S96HOsXnX2RKHx1Z-XWnM57StIqJysqZ8VHwayy2FFgBWP0r5gMHnSWN6Dam-iM&fref=gs&dti=1655645748075105&hc_location=group

      As always, my Political Orphans family, thank you for your insight and inspiration.

      1. Marcie? AKA, Armchair Philosopher? I am so proud of you and the people of PA for your incredible hard work and absolute “never give up” attitude! In TX, we have big challenges of our own and PA has shown us how never to give up, how to appeal to people on the basis of common needs versus our differences. I expect Saccone will challenge the election results and hope the process is fair and the outcome affirms the win for Lamb. Regardless, this is an experience to tell your grandchildren, and for which you can be very proud. Thank you from a blue girl in TX.

        I hope you will consider doing a post about your experience in this election. (Please refer to Chris’ post in Off Topic for information.) It is a story we need to hear now in order to prepare for midterm elections.

        Thank you again for sharing and for showing us Democracy lives!

    2. I certainly don’t speak for Chris nor Lamb, but I suspect they hold more significant views in common than in opposition. We will see how Lamb manuevers through the maze of Congressional intrigue. I suspect such a stand-up guy will earn the respect of people like Chris and hopefully will serve as an example of where the Democratic Party needs to go in search for a more Progressive vision. Time will tell…but Lamb will likely face a recount challenge and my hope is it will be untarnished and affirm the will of the majority in PA. Ironically, should the PA Supreme Court drawn election map prevail (the Republican Legislative majority has appealed it to federal district court), the House seat Lamb won will “disappear” and he will have to run again….He certainly seems up for the task…very impressive candidate. I’ll bet the Repubs are wishing he was theirs!

  3. This is long, so fair warning. I’ve enjoyed reading all these articles by Gergen, French, and Chris. And I finally have a topic I can come out of lurkdom to comment on!

    Story time: I was a Seventh-day Adventist for 10 years. My husband of 43 years is still one. It’s not a historically evangelical church, but it’s deeply segregated in the U.S., with a vibrant black wing (from where came the pediatric neurosurgeon and now leader of HUD, Ben Carson) and a declining, aging white wing that is beginning to adopt the same politics as those of white evangelical churches.

    Gergen asks, “Why did my beloved evangelical church attach itself to a slimeball like Donald Trump?” He answers that the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and urbanization have weakened the tremendous power and influence evangelicals once enjoyed, leaving them feeling threatened, isolated, and victimized.

    Then the GOP, searching for voters during the Southern Strategy, found evangelicals’ sense of victimization and grievance made them an easy target to pursue as a voting bloc. Because of their social weakness and historic sense of threat, they have attached themselves to Trump as their worldly protector.

    He concludes that they’re happy to make all kinds of excuses for Trump’s sordid lifestyle and vile behavior as long as they get their Supreme Court judges and their admittedly-disgusting president. That way, their remaining shreds of power and influence can be protected. But Gergen adds, it’s at a terrible cost, because evangelicalism and even Christianity itself is now tainted by association with Trump.

    French basically says, yeah, but we evangelicals can’t help it because our rights to our religious bigotries actually are threatened by progressive gains in the courts and in general society. He believes that Christians have a religious right to discriminate against hated groups. And besides, since there are plenty of wedding cake bakers around, he thinks nobody is really hurt by their discrimination.

    Here comes Chris with a bright mirror to aim at the faces of white folks. He observes that white evangelicals, especially in the South, have constructed their church to protect slavery, white supremacy, and the economic oligarchy that controlled the south and that went unchallenged until the Civil Rights Act. Brown v Board of Education basically cracked the structure of Jim Crow, the pseudo-slavery the South constructed after the Civil War, as thoroughly as a crack wrecked the Liberty Bell. Protection of segregated schools was the GOP’s entering wedge.

    Chris argues that Gergen has tippy-toed around the underlying racism that shaped the southern evangelical church as a key institution to help keep southern economic oligarchy in power through white supremacy. For shining this bright mirror too uncomfortably, Chris’s strong article was removed by Forbes while Gergen’s daintier critique has survived.

    My own view is kind of a hybrid of these positions.

    The Southern Baptist church has lost a million members in the last 10 years. It’s slowly dying before our eyes. It’s losing members faster than the Methodists, for cryin’ out loud. Its membership is mostly baby boomers, silents, and the WWII generation. Seventy percent of its members don’t have young children. Young Christians are more apt to be Jesus-bros in some emergent house church or to join the Catholics and take in a Latin Mass.

    Racist and bigoted evangelicals know they’re losing the fight for their religious lives. The protections of white supremacy are disappearing. They are old, rural, and they don’t have the education or skills to compete in the new economy. They are desperate. They don’t care if their new orange king is despicable, as long as they are protected against the inexorable headwinds of economic, racial, and sexual change.

    When it comes right down to it, they don’t have the religious faith to trust their Heavenly Father to save their worldly asses.

    People believe things in different ways and for different purposes. Some beliefs, like the belief that putting your hand on a hot stove will hurt like hell, are held in dark, primitive parts of the brain. This is where we keep our survival beliefs. Other beliefs, like the virgin birth, the religious sanctity of zygotes, or the worldly effectiveness of prayer, are more like merit badges you wear to identify you as a certain kind of person.

    Evangelicals aren’t confusing these two kinds of believing. Nobody there wants to be Bonhoeffer in a Nazi prison, dying for the faith. When it comes to their worldly survival and advantages, they are ready to fight with real guns under a corrupt king, instead of using the weapon of prayer. They’re ironic proof that actually, there are a hell of a lot of atheists in foxholes, and a bunch of them go to church.

      1. Oh my, I’m very flattered. I’ll consider it. I don’t get inspired that often, but I do love this forum and Chris’s writing. I mostly lurk but I read this thing and Chris’s twitter feed every day.

  4. That article in the Atlantic really pissed me off, almost as much as hearing about Chris’s situation with Forbes. Then I saw this article in National Geographic which is far superior to Gerson’s article but still holds back on the truth till it accidentally illustrates exactly what Chris said….the young woman’s quote near the end of the piece….
    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-rising-anxiety-white-america/

    It probably didn’t help that I just saw Angels in America across the street on 52nd. Great speech in that play. My favorite version of it is on Youtube.

    1. That’s for that link. @ things I most want to comment on:

      ‘When asked who she means by “we,” Yale pauses. Her gaze hardens a bit. The music goes out of her voice. “The ‘we’ are the Caucasians that built this country,” she says. “Our generation. We’re going to … We’re going to make our grandfathers proud. We have to.” ‘

      Yet another reason why we can’t truly put the race issue “behind us” as people like her often claim they want to. White people didn’t build this country alone, not even close. Her head would probably explode if she was told about how much of the early US economy was driven by slavery.

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2017/05/03/the-clear-connection-between-slavery-and-american-capitalism/#20a45b3a7bd3

      But then there’s this:

      ‘Every Tuesday, Landrieu has lunch at a local restaurant with his parents, who are both in their 80s. During a recent meal he approached an older couple he knew to say a quick hello. The wife was wearing a scowl as she leaned in close. “You ruined my life,” she said, twice, then added, “You destroyed my life.” “What did I do?” Landrieu asked, revealing a streak of political confidence that dances along the edge of disrespect. “You took the monuments down,” she said. Landrieu replied, “Are you dying? Did it give you cancer?”

      He asserts he did more than just take down the monuments. He also took away something intangible and yet just as weighty as all that bronze and marble: pride. “There is a white Christian ethnic identity that people have tied onto and somehow connected to the Confederacy,” Landrieu says. “They feel like somebody has taken something away from them.” ‘

      Wow. That kind of candor in politicians is as rare as hen’s teeth. He took a stand on a hot-button issue, he knew exactly what he was doing and how it would affect various groups of people, he’s perfectly open about that, and he’s not backing down in the face of criticism.

      1. Ironically, Mitch Landrieu’s sister, Mary, learned through defeat that you shouldn’t try to play both sides of the aisle and expect to be rewarded. Being a LA native and involved in political activism there for decades, I can assure you that Mitch Landrieu is a rare political creature. LA has become deep red and is not learning from lessons that are staring them in the face. Gov Bobby Jindal basically savaged the public till by cutting taxes that has so reduced operating revenue (and sold off LA assets to private parties), that the state is in a dire financial condition right now. Yet, the LA Lege refuses to consider reinstatement of any of the tax cuts that will allow the government to meet its obligations. They are now faced with the insane choice of having to cut programs (education and healthcare) to free up revenue to operate. The state is in a horrible situation and yet those in majority refuse to govern responsibly. It is sad to watch, and I have a number of relatives who live there who will be impacted. It is ignorance personified.

    2. Loved that, Koctya!

      I’m going to sneak in an off topic post from Politico about the PA House results. Here it is:

      The PA House race is literally neck and neck. Conor Lamb leads by a margin of only 755 votes! The Pennsylvania special congressional election is too close to call, with Democrat Conor Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone, 49.9 percent to 49.5 percent – with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to The Associated Press, which said it would not declare a winner Tuesday night.

      Thousands of absentee ballots are still outstanding. After those are tallied, the trailing candidate has the option to request a recount, according to state law.

      THIS, my friends, is WHAT DEMOCRACY IS ABOUT!

  5. DFC

    Gerson proved a long time ago that he lacks the moral discipline and Christian humility to speak for the faithful. He traded on his Evangelicalism for his own gain, and to the detriment of his faith. He sanctified authority to excuse Bush’s rot. He helped to make “faith-based” the all-purpose absolution for dreadful stupidity and lethal hubris. Now he throws his hands up and demands that someone do something. Sounding brass, that’s all he is.

  6. EJ

    Rexxit!

    This was mildly amusing until I googled Mike Pompeo. The man’s rhetoric reminds me too much of Rumsfeld and his ilk for me to be comfortable.

    Americans: my sympathies go out to you and I hope fervently that there is no war.

    1. If it weren’t for upcoming midterms and Mueller’s investigation, I’d be feeling pretty hopeless. But I share your concerns about starting wars. I can hope the one silver lining from the Iraq clusterfuck is that enough of the right people remember how badly W’s regime screwed the pooch on that one, and don’t blindly and cravenly go along with any war drums getting beaten.

      1. This nutjob WANTS to be a wartime president? Wanting a military parade just scratches the surface. He is salivating at the thought of starting a war, if not with North Korea, then Iran.

        He is a madman, period, fullstop. He loves chaos and mayhem, that is demonstrated every day. Flypusher, no one will stop him, least of all the sitting repub houses.

      2. With Pompeo in as SOS, he will hew to a more aggressive stance anti-Russia; however, Pompeo is a long-time hawk where Iran is concerned which plays into T’s innate animus for the Iran Agreement. The Iran Agreement comes up again mid-May for approval and that will pose a very interesting situation for America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In addition, there has been a great many harsh, threatening statements directed at Syria from Niki Haley as our UN Representative. We are in uncertain times, that’s certain.

      1. EJ

        I’ve congratulated my American friends for the Alabama election, and I hope to do so in the Pennsylvania election and then again in November.

        Democracy is sacred, even when the bad guys win; but when the right people win that makes it so much sweeter.

        (Insert grumbling about Christian Lindner here.)

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