Righting America

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A House Divided: Evangelicals, An Insurrection, and Donald Trump | Righting America

by Terry Defoe

Picture of Trump 2020 flag on top of "Jesus Is My Savior" flag.
Rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 carry a flag saying “Jesus is my Savior. Trump is my President.” Image by Selcuk Acar via The New Republic.

Pastor Terry Defoe is an emeritus member of the clergy who served congregations in Western Canada from 1982 to 2016, and who ministered to students on the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, a book which, among other things, chronicles his transition from Young Earth Creationism to evolutionary creation. Evolving Certainties is endorsed by scientists in biology, geology and physics, with a foreword written by Darrel Falk, former president of BioLogos, an organization that has as its goal the facilitating of respectful discussion of science / faith issues. Defoe has been educated at: Simon Fraser University (BA Soc); Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div.); and, Open Learning University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA Psyc).

January 6th 2021. Images from that day have been incorporated into the collective consciousness of the American people, and have caught the attention of many others around the world as well. Hardly a day goes by, even now, without a reminder, often in the form of a graphic video, of the crowds, the banners, the red MAGA caps: all part of an assault on US democracy. As an evangelical pastor for almost 40 years, it was the banners with a religious theme that caught my eye, especially banners displaying the name of Jesus. 

After security was breached, and as individuals sifted through private documents, a group assembled near the speaker’s chair. One of them prayed:

Thank you Heavenly Father for gracing us with this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights. Thank you Heavenly Father for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation not theirs, that we will not allow the America — the American way, of the United States of America — to go down. 

Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent creator God for filling this chamber with your white light and love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ… Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you, in Christ’s holy name we pray! Amen!

The Great Leader

Evangelicalism is a big tent. Under that one roof is everything from progressives to strict fundamentalists. But in our day, the focus has turned to the political radicalization of many in the movement. How could it be that people who want to be known as serious Christians – people advocating a strict biblical morality – would decide to associate with an individual – Donald Trump – who, how should I say this, never walked that road?  

For years, evangelicals had been hoping for a leader who would champion their cause. They didn’t particularly like the rhetoric or bravado of the GOP candidate for president in 2016. They weren’t thrilled with his morality or his abrasiveness. But they were willing to overlook all that when he came bearing gifts and making promises – the most significant of which was overturning Roe v. Wade. He was a self-advertised straight shooter who openly boasted about his political incorrectness. He was  suspicious of immigrants, a strong supporter of the NRA, an advocate of no-nonsense law and order. He would stand up to the so-called experts who were making a lot of noise about climate change. And, perhaps most importantly, he would appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. In return for prioritizing their concerns, the majority of US evangelicals supported Donald Trump during his presidency, and continue that support even now. Nearly a year after he reluctantly left office, claiming all the while that his re-election had been stolen away from him by those treacherous Democrats, Trump’s shadow continues to loom large over evangelicalism and, by extension, over the GOP as well. 

Historical Background

As Peter Enns discusses in The Sin of Certainty, US evangelicalism has an interesting history which provides a framework that helps make sense of recent events. In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was buffeted by four separate storms which arrived in quick succession. 

Dark clouds appeared in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This theory challenged the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s creation accounts. It proposed that creation took place, not in six literal 24-hour days, but over millions – perhaps billions – of years. It claimed that all of this could have taken place without divine intervention. Darwin’s theory knocked humanity off the pedestal of special creation and instead made the point that humanity is just another species that arrived on the scene by the process of natural selection.

A second major challenge to evangelicalism, which also occurred in the mid-19th century, was the higher critical method of biblical interpretation. Originating in Germany, theologians began to challenge basic beliefs like the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the veracity of the Bible’s creation story, as well as its depiction of other miraculous events. 

A third challenge to evangelical orthodoxy came from in-depth study of Israel’s neighbors in the ancient near east. Scholars discovered striking parallels between the Bible’s creation accounts and those of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors. Those accounts were much older, implying that Israel had borrowed from them rather than the other way around. 

A fourth serious problem for antebellum evangelicals was the institution of slavery, and the Bible’s confusing, even contradictory, commentary and advice regarding the practice of slavery in the ancient world. 

Faced with these multiple serious challenges, conservative evangelicalism dug in. Given this background, it’s not difficult to see why the contemporary secularization of the wider society has been a grave concern. In response, and to a large degree, evangelicalism has withdrawn into a hermetically sealed, ideologically safe, subculture. 

The Perpetually Aggrieved and Persecuted

Trump’s evangelical supporters have been described as perpetually aggrieved. They lament a perceived breakdown of morality, and a younger generation that has increasingly abandoned the church. More than this, they consider themselves persecuted by a liberal elite who have co-opted the media and the secular educational system. Evangelicals understand themselves as under siege. 

This defensive posture has manifested itself, according to many observers, in a pervasive anti-intellectualism. In particular, the present pandemic has clearly revealed a deep distrust of science. That distrust is nothing new. For many years evangelicals have been taught that the theory of evolution is essentially atheistic, and aims to destroy traditional Christian faith. Many evangelicals believe that science is a Trojan horse, which, once it gets into the churches, destroys them from within, eroding biblical authority. This caricature of science is, in and of itself, a classic conspiracy theory which, in this time of the pandemic, manifests itself as criticism of medical experts, the rejection of masks, social distancing, and life-saving vaccines. 

And then there’s the media. Following Trump’s lead, many evangelicals understand mainstream journalists – who have been belittled, threatened, and even spied upon – as purveying “fake news.” If a story originates with the New York Times, MSNBC, or CNN, it is likely to be ignored. Their world is informed by Fox News or other right wing media. Living in a media ghetto means that their world becomes smaller and smaller – more and more radical – as they are determined to believe what they want to believe, and are self-righteously convinced that they alone are correct. 

The internet has done for the modern era what Gutenberg’s printing press did in the Middle Ages. It added a much more effective communication tool to those that previously existed. For its part, the internet has made the world’s largest library of information available to a good portion of the global population. Unfortunately, it has also been a godsend to purveyors of misinformation and outright propaganda. The internet has the ability to disseminate information globally at minimal cost. The veracity of that information is another matter, however. 

A highly influential component of the internet is social media – particularly Facebook. When it comes to social media, individual consumers are the product and their information is the currency. Social media profile likes and dislikes and point individuals in the direction of their ideological comfort zone. It provides a platform from which unscrupulous individuals or actors take advantage of by stoking fears, playing on emotions, and caricaturing  opponents.  Social media also provides fertile soil for a multitude of conspiracy theories, characterized by Jonathan Gottschall as a malicious form of storytelling

The Road Ahead 

Suffice it to say that democracy is experiencing an unprecedented challenge. The threat to democracy increased by several orders of magnitude with the events of January 6, 2021. A major crisis was averted. Or was it just forestalled?

Something critically important is missing in US politics and, by extension, US society in general. That missing element is civility. It has been smothered – deprived of oxygen – by an intolerant tribalism. The other person – the other group – the other political party – is not just different. It’s dangerous and deceptive. More and more, it’s us versus them, patriot versus traitor, friend versus foe. Everything is black and white, no nuance, no ambiguity. Respectful conversation is drowned out by verbal attacks and threats, thoughtless criticism, shaming, and downright nastiness. If it pleases the base it’s worth giving it a try. Political discourse has been needlessly cheapened. Loyalty to country has been replaced by loyalty to political party. The entire system has become dysfunctional, often paralyzed by rancor, locking horns over minor issues. It seems that, for many, truth has become whatever supports the party line. All of this is, as Jason Stanley observes, how fascism works.

What a healthy democracy needs most is an informed electorate. It needs independent, clear thinking, not credulity. Democracy works best in the context of civility and respectful discussion, when politicians value irenics over polemics, dialog over debate. Democracy works best when the focus is on superordinate goals – shared goals that can only be accomplished when groups work together. An informed electorate thinks critically – assesses evidence rationally – and recognizes efforts at manipulation. Accountability is important. Words do matter. Ideas do indeed have consequences.

The U.S. Constitution wisely mandates the separation of church and state. Unlike the Second Amendment, which most evangelicals quote often in the context of firearms, that required separation has been set aside by Donald Trump’s evangelical base. But democracy is a good idea. Theocracy is not. The majority of Americans do not want a situation in which a minority group – or an authoritarian leader for that matter – steer the ship of state, stifle dissent, and call the shots. It’s time for evangelicals to stop looking in the rearview mirror and focus on the road ahead. If there ever was a time for cooler heads to prevail, that time would be now. That way, the crisis averted will not turn out to be simply a temporary reprieve.