Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Sin is Something Others Do | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Black and white photo of Jerry Falwell Sr. in a suit and tie standing in front of chorus of women and men and American flags.
Jerry Falwell, Sr. Photo by  William Sauro of the New York Times.

In her magisterial work, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald brilliantly explains a dynamic at the very heart of the contemporary Christian Right. Interestingly, she does this by contrasting Puritan theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards with the founder of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, Sr. 

As FitzGerald observes, when Edwards lamented that “the people have fallen into evil ways that jeopardize their covenant with God and risk His judgment upon them,” he was “speaking to the people in front of [him] about their individual sins.” They were the ones who needed to “repent and return to God.”

At first glance Falwell – with his repeated emphasis on the need for America to repent for its sins – sounded like Edwards. But FitzGerald points out that Falwell was preaching a radically different message, a radically different “jeremiad.” And the difference is that, in Falwell’s formulation,

The sin lay not in the souls of his congregation, but in outside forces. The enemy was . . . the Other. In this case it was “the immoral minority,” composed variously of feminists, humanists, homosexuals, liberals, pornographers, Supreme Court justices, and government bureaucrats. This minority was conducting “a vicious assault on the family,” and the only sin of the majority was in allowing it to continue. Christians, said Falwell, have been silent too long (Evangelicals, 307-308). 

FitzGerald has it right. And Falwell was perhaps the primary architect of the contemporary Christian Right message. It is the rhetoric of culture war. The Forces of Light v. the Forces of Darkness. Sin is that what the “Other” does. 

Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) epitomize this cosmic binary. Ham, AiG, and their fellow young Earth creationist fundamentalists are the forces of Righteousness. Sin is what the Other — liberals, feminists, secularists, homosexuals, and evolutionists – does. 

Take, for example, what Ham and AiG have had to say about racism. Who is to blame for “the so-called ‘racism crisis’” (Ham’s phrase) in the contemporary world? As we discuss in Righting America at the Creation Museum, and as Ham continues to promote on the AiG website, most of the blame lies with Charles Darwin and the evolutionists, of course. This is a very old creationist trope, highlighted by their determination to draw a straight line from Darwin to Hitler. 

This is a fallacious and absurdly simplistic argument. I will spare you the details (but you can check it out in Righting America, 182-184). My point here is that, for Ham and AiG, most racism is over there. With the Other. With the Enemy. 

This is a fantasy, of course. Millions of white Americans used a literalist reading of the Bible to argue for the just enslavement of African Americans. Millions of white Americans used a literalist reading of the Bible to argue for the establishment of the Jim Crow system of white supremacy (which, of course, involved the lynching of blacks). Millions of white Americans used a literalist reading of the Bible to argue for segregation. 

And when, in the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans resisted their oppression, well, those same Bible-believing Christians desperately worked to keep them in their place:

In her [wonderful] book, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, historian Carolyn Renee Dupont puts it bluntly: Mississippi’s white “evangelicals fought mightily against black equality, proclaiming that God himself ordained segregation, blessing the forces of resistance, silencing the advocates of racial equality within their own faith traditions, and protecting segregation in their churches.” While many white mainline Protestants and white Jews joined the movement for civil rights, a host of white evangelical and fundamentalist ministers and leaders vehemently attacked them for having “dangerously perverted both the Bible and the divine plan.” So in 1958 BBF [Baptist Bible Fellowship] minister Jerry Falwell thundered from his Lynchburg, Virginia pulpit: “The Hamites . . . were cursed to be servants of the Jews and Gentiles . . . If we persist in tearing down God’s barriers” between the races “God must punish us for it.” When it became clear that the United States government meant to enforce integration of the public schools, white fundamentalists, including Falwell, started segregation academies throughout the South to ensure that their children would not attend school with black children (Righting America, 187).

White supremacist ideas indeed have deep historical roots in U.S. Christianity But Ham and AiG in particular, and white evangelicals in general, will not talk about this obvious historical fact. (Just ask black evangelicals.) 

Instead, sin is what liberals, feminists, secularists, homosexuals, evolutionists do. 

When it comes to Ham, Darwinism, and race, this verse comes to mind: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7: 5).

Jesus apparently failed to appreciate the fact that to own one’s sin violates the essential logic of the culture war. Sin is the property of the Other.