Righting America

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MAGA Evangelicals, or, Believing “Crazy” Leads to Following “Crazy” | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out very soon. 

Photo of Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert sitting in front of a shelf  that has 2 Assault Rifles crossed with each other and a Glock pistol next to it.
Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert. Image via The New Civil Rights Movement.

There’s grumbling about the disturbing currents that drive MAGA-land. New Hampshire Governor Sununu said, “I got a great policy for the Republican Party. Let’s stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primaries and start getting behind winners that can close the deal in November.” 

Others have joined in the growing number of voices suggesting that the Republican Party, like an overloaded stagecoach, has been weaving from side to side for years and now has finally fallen into the ditch. “Crazy” aptly describes the MAGA movement. 

Evangelicals have spent more than a century believing “crazy” notions. I contend that believing “crazy” has led to following “crazy.” There are evangelical beliefs that have led directly to the idolatry of Christian Nationalism. From many examples, I have selected two for consideration. 

The Crazy Notion that America Was Founded as a Christian Nation

The evangelicals believe, against all historical evidence, against the conclusion of the entire fraternity of American historians, that America was founded as a Christian nation. This “crazy” notion has all the earmarks of a conspiracy theory. This notion has been concocted and developed in excruciating detail by the late Peter Marshall, the late Christian television and Presbyterian pastor D. James Kennedy, the historical “hobbyist” David Barton, and the Fox News pundit and FBC Dallas senior pastor Robert Jeffress. Marshall was an amateur historian. Kennedy a preacher. Barton has a degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University and reads history as a hobby. Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor, is a rapture-believer, trained at the epicenter of dispensationalism, Dallas Theological Seminary.  

Rather than deal with the diminishing power of Christianity in a secular culture, many evangelicals hide behind a litany of falsehoods about the founding of the nation. These apologists for the “Christian America” movement have created primal scenes in which the notion of America being founded as a Christian nation are authorized and legitimized. A number of tableaus are staged to imagine American beginnings as an evangelical haven of born-again believers. These dioramas, much like what can be found at the Creation Museum, reinforce Christian identity with meaning and a sense of belonging. 

The revised notion of our nation’s founding as Christian may be labeled a primal fantasy. “Primal fantasies are also collective and national insofar as communities continually restage their origin stories to define what it means to be part of an imagined community.” Primal fantasies of the Christian origins of the nation are irrevocably linked to a fearful sense that evangelicals are losing the nation and this scene repetitively plays out in public life. 

The fear of Christianity being forced from the center of cultural power to the fringes resonate with the large fears of white displacement. The fear is the same fear that energized white segregationist efforts in the 1960’s. 

America as a Christian nation is a trope that hides a monster trope: white supremacy and America as a white nation. 

And believing that America was born as a Christian nation has led directly to the rise of “Christian Nationalism.” One of the flag-bearers of “Christian nationalism” has been Lauren Boebert of Colorado. “It’s time for us to position ourselves and rise up and take our place in Christ and influence this nation as we were called to do,” she said.

“We know that we are in the last of the last days. … You get to have a role in ushering in the second coming of Jesus,” the congresswoman added. Boebert combines nationalism with apocalyptic craziness. 

Evangelicals are all in with such craziness. Believing crazy has led to following crazy. 

The Crazy Notion of Creationism

For at least a century, evangelicals have, against all scientific evidence, against the conclusion of virtually the entire fraternity of credentialed scientists, promoted the conspiracy theory that God created the world in six literal days. Against mountains of evidence from geology, physics, biology, astronomy, and other sciences, creationists insist confidently that their estimate is correct. The current chief leader of this movement is Ken Ham, a protégé of Henry Morris, who started the movement a half-century ago, at a time when far fewer evangelicals rejected the scientifically determined age of Earth. 

The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are bookend visual metaphors for Christian Nationalism. Idolatry requires idols, and these high-tech Disney-like models provide pilgrim destinations for people determined to live in the pre-historical era depicted in
Genesis 1 – 11. Both the museum and the ark have become pilgrimage destinations. 

Christian pilgrimages have existed since the disciples first ran to see the empty tomb. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were a basic part of the Christian life. Pilgrimage destinations were most often to the shrine of a saint, especially if the shrine contained a relic of the saint. These were held in great veneration as a potentially active source of spiritual energy. The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter offer visual reinforcement to believers that what they believe about creation and the great flood really is true. The exhibits act as magical relics giving the places a medieval Catholic vibe. This is ironic considering that Protestants unleashed withering criticism of Catholics for their believing in miracles that occurred at the shrines of saints and by touching the relics of saints. 

The pilgrimage reinforces belief in a literal creation and flood, offers the pilgrim a sense of belonging to a community of faith, and shows commitment to belief in a “naïve” and enchanted view of the world prior to the advent of western science. The relics are now visual – high tech images, dioramas, plaques, and Scripture quotations – but they have the same impact at those relics of saints from the middle ages. As Susan and William Trollinger point out, 

The Creation Museum’s adaptation of the diorama makes it all seem even more real. The fact that the museum’s life-size dioramas are not enclosed in glass, as the modern museum’s dioramas typically were, affords the visitor the feeling not just of viewing biblical scenes but of walking among them. The absence of the glass, the flow of one scene into another, and the accompanying sound effects all strongly encourage visitors to feel as though they are witnessing these stories as they unfold. (Righting America at the Creation Museum, 41). 

The museum gives a visual, concrete, physical place of meeting for Christian Nationalists. Down the road, the Ark Encounter plays the same role. Here visitors are treated to an attempt to replicate Noah’s ark according to the design of Genesis. The developers took liberties with the biblical design by giving Noah and his wife living quarters that are not to be found in the biblical account. The Ark Encounter offers people something material, physical, and actual. It’s a visual metaphor of reassurance. Here, see the ark. This is the real deal. There’s the sense that people are caught up in a fantasy that this is the original ark brought to Kentucky from Mt. Ararat. A pilgrim can return home to her local Baptist Church, and say, “I believe the Ark is real. I have seen it.” This displacement of fantasy for reality speaks to the deep craziness involved. 

Again, crazy follows crazy. There is a line of succession from the anti-evolutionary passion of Ham to the COVID-19 conspiracy rhetoric of evangelical preachers. COVID-19 conspiracy rhetoric is the current craziest of the crazy movement. Conspiracy theories are no respecter of political parties as they erupt from either end of the political spectrum. The right’s attachment to conspiracy theories that prophesize human enslavement are alarming because they resonate with a paranoid conservative panic over diversification of the body politic. 

The craziness of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories is that they became growth strategies for some evangelical preachers. For example, Rev. Bill Bolin, refusing to close his FloodGate Church (Brighton MI) during the pandemic, also added a 15-minute “diatribe” to his worship service. During this political rant, he spouts misinformation and conspiratorial nonsense, much of it related to the “radically dangerous” COVID-19 vaccines. “’A local nurse who attends FloodGate, who is anonymous at this time—she reported to my wife the other day that at her hospital, they have two COVID patients that are hospitalized. Two.’ Bolin pauses dramatically. ‘They have 103 vaccine-complication patients.’ The crowd gasps” (Tim Alberta, “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church, The Atlantic, June 2022.)  Prior to COVID, Bolin’s church attendance averaged about 100 people. After he added his political rant, primarily against COVID, attendance increased in one year to 1500 person per Sunday. Crazy. 

Casey Ryan Kelly, in his prescient article, “COVID-19 conspiracy rhetoric and other primal fantasies,” demonstrates the development of the COVID-19 conspiracy. He analyzes Planet Lockdown, a documentary film which claims that the COVID-19 pandemic was manufactured by finance capitalists, Silicon Valley, and the pharmaceutical industry to microchip the population, consolidate global wealth, and enslave the population. Kelly argues “that COVID-19 enslavement fantasies consummate white conservative fears of racial displacement, brought on by an impending demographic shift and greater visibility of antiracist activism throughout the early stages of the pandemic.” 

This is an example of where the yellow brick road of “crazy” leads. Behind the curtain there’s a collection of con artists marketing conspiracy theories disguised as Christian doctrines. The notion of “modern slavery” restages an attempt by evangelicals to resecure white power. In short, when evangelicals say that it is about history, creation, the future, our freedom, our free speech, our children, they are really saying what they have always said: “It’s the racism.” 

Whenever an evangelical tells you, “It’s not about race,” it’s about race.

And at the bottom of the crazy barrel, encrusted from 150 years before we became a nation, lies the ugly specter of slavery, segregation, racism. All the “crazy” beliefs – America as a Christian nation, evolution as a doctrine of the devil, and the rapture flock together as one overriding evangelical attempt to deal with the current disruption of their worldview. Having non-historians teaching American history, non-scientists teaching biology and disease prevention, and a bunch of preachers and politicians spouting conspiracy theories produces “crazy” nonstop.

God told me to tell you that we need to stop believing and following crazy.