Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Righting America Blog | Righting America

Flags, Snakes, Jesus, and Insurrection

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

“Jesus 2020” flag at the January 6th rally at the U.S. Capitol building. Photo via The Exponent.

The bright yellow “JESUS SAVES” and “JESUS 2020” flags waved high in the midst of the rabble invading the Capitol on January 6. What in the hell was Jesus doing with this mob? Even their flags were a cacophony of mixed images. Jesus was waving next to a flag with a snake and the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. How odd of Jesus to be among snakes and rebels. 

We should not, however, be surprised. God’s people have a history with snakes. 

Like his progenitor, the talking serpent of Genesis 3, Trump spewed suspicion and mistrust, and for so long that it finally erupted in an attack on the government. Having previously attacked the anchor institutions of democracy – press, education/science, and courts – nothing was left but to destroy democracy itself. Whatever labels apply to this insurrection in the future, the association of the name of Jesus with it begs for dissent. Jesus is never a captive to death, to poisonous snakes. 

When God “raised up” Israel from Egyptian slavery, and the people ventured on the journey to the Promised Land, they were complaining about the cost of their new freedom: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The narrative relates that God, tired of the “murmuring” of the people, sent poisonous snakes to punish them. The people begged Moses to get rid of the snakes. Instead of removing the snakes, God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a serpent could look on the snake on a stick and they would live. 

But that is not the end of the story. The Israelites did not get rid of the bronzed snake on a stick. They kept the thing and it went with them to the Promised Land. Down the corridors of their history, there was always the bronzed serpent in the house that Solomon constructed. The house that was to be the house of prayer for all nations had a snake on a stick in it. 

The bronzed snake remained as an idol in the house of God until Hezekiah became the king. In 2 Kings 18, we learn that Hezekiah enacted a number of executive orders: 

He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. 

If you hang around a snake long enough, you will make offerings to it, you will give loyalty to it, you will even give it a name. 

This odd story is more than suggestive. In 2015, evangelical Christians, convinced that our nation was experiencing a plague of “poisonous serpents” – aka liberals and the like – asked God to send them a savior. And Donald Trump appeared, a savior riding down from the heavens on an escalator. Evangelicals gave all their support and loyalty to him. Caught up in Trump fever, they made an idol of him. Trump, the talking snake (echoes of Eden), armed with poisonous tweets, became a fetish for evangelicals. Like the ancient Israelites who kept the bronzed serpent and later ensconced it in their temple, the evangelicals placed Trump at the center of their loyalty. 

The flag JESUS SAVES is a similar form of idolatry. This flag has nothing to do with Jesus, has nothing to do with the Jesus who entered the Temple and chased out the thieves and robbers. In the line of the righteous Hezekiah and the prophets, Jesus attacked the demonic alliance of religion and politics: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 

Oikos, the Greek word for house, means far more than a place where people live. The “people of prayer” are the people of God and this is not just another instantiation of the genus “polis.” It is a public, a politics, in its own right. It is the oikos or household of God. As St. Paul would put it, “So you are no longer strangers, aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” The Temple was no ordinary house. It was the house of God. 

“A den of robbers,” in glaring contrast, is a low-life hangout, a place in the wilderness, a place of hiding. To make of the house of God a den of robbers is the ultimate act of desecration. Jesus attacked the religious nationalism propped up not by prayer but by greed. Today’s Christian nationalists are a den of thieves and robbers come to destroy the house of democracy.   

So, on the morning of January 6, with General Giuliani bellowing the order of “trial by combat,” and the talking snake, President Trump, suggesting insurrection, it was “onward Christian soldiers marching to war.” When the “Jesus flag” people smashed through the doors and windows to enter the capitol, they entered the cathedral of their own idolatrous faith. They trampled on holy ground and destroyed sacred objects. This was not a Jesus crowd; it was an anti-Christ crowd. Befuddled and confused by their own metaphors, they now acted against their nationalist faith. The bite of the poisonous snake has that effect on people. 

On the 2016 campaign trail Trump repeatedly read a poem about a venomous snake – which he associated with immigrants – that, after biting the kind woman who had given it shelter, declared: “You knew damned well I was a snake before you took me in.” What an unwitting prophesy about his presidency-to-come. The evangelicals, blinded by resentment and anger, didn’t recognize the snake they welcomed into their house, and he bit them and left them poisoned and bereft. 

There are two images that will never leave my mind: President Trump holding a copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in front of an Episcopal Church in response to peaceful protests, and those Jesus flags waving in the breeze alongside the snake flag and the Confederate flag as the invasion of the capitol started. “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war” who were allied with snakes and traitors. 

Somewhere in the basement of my mind I am haunted by scenes of ragged, barefoot, Confederate soldiers – five years of violence, pain, near starvation, death – painted deep in their scarred, scared faces – marching one last time into the center of Yankee cannons at Gettysburg, marching to certain destruction. The mob at the Capitol appeared before my eyes as Confederate ghosts rising from the fog-shrouded bayous of Louisiana. But this was not the Battle of Bull Run. This was Petersburg, Atlanta, Richmond, Savannah, – all bitter defeats, and at the bitter end, Appomattox. 

My lasting hope is that when the last Trump storm trooper puts down his weapons, there will still be democracy in this house. The voices of our Congressmen while under siege were voices of determination. As fragile, divided, and confused as democracy seems, the house of democracy did not fall before the attack of Donald Trump and his troopers. As Cornell West puts it so well, “Democracy matters.” 

Whether the evangelicals will ever again be able to say, “There is still God in this house,” depends on whether or not they are willing to cast out the bronze serpent that has desecrated their sanctuaries for so long. The evangelicals desperately need a new Hezekiah. The historians of 2 Kings tell us: 

He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. Maybe evangelicals will finally cast out the idol.

Maybe Jesus, like a ragged figure sliding between the trees, will now appear to the evangelicals in place of those Confederate ghosts. Maybe a new day of faith will dawn for these haunted Christians.

Science and Cedarville: A Review of RightingAmerica in 2020

The last year marked a number of milestones for RightingAmerica.net! In addition to celebrating our fourth year of blogging, we welcomed 8 new contributing writers to our site, surpassed 192,000 page views, and reached our highest number of visitors ever in June – 8,523 unique visitors in that month alone!

And what were people reading about on the RightingAmerica blog in 2020? Two words: Science and Cedarville. As we look back on the most frequently read posts of 2020, it is clear that the Cedarville University scandal remained the most significant topic of interest among our readers. 

Below are the top 10 most frequented posts on the RightingAmerica blog from 2020:

10. Confronting the Progressive Obsession with Fundamentalism by Frederick Schmidt (March 31, 2020). 

In a year defined by a global pandemic, it seems natural for readers to be asking questions about the relationship between faith and science. Frederick Schmidt’s post reminds readers that prescribing fundamentalist views to all Christians ignores the historical fact that many scientists (Bacon, Galileo, and Mendel, to name a few) were devout Christians. Consequently, Schmidt warns, Progressive Christians limit their own range of theological options when they use fundamentalism as the litmus test by which they measure their own “progressive” views of science. 

9. Anti-Vaxxers and Answers in Genesis by William Trollinger and Susan Trollinger (September 15, 2020). 

Continuing the conversation on science and fundamentalism, this post examines AiG’s vitriolic response, led by Georgia Purdom and Heidi St. John, to the BioLogos “Christian Statement on Science for Pandemic Times.” Purdom and St. John suggest that vaccination efforts are not only heretical, but that Christians should reject COVID public health campaigns as sly efforts to inject evolutionary biological ideas into Christian schools, homes and churches. Given this rejection of scientific fact, is it any wonder that so many evangelicals are caught up in QAnon conspiracy theories?

8. A Whitewashing at Cedarville (Even While the Stories Keep Multiplying) by William Trollinger (June 30, 2020). 

In a rather unfathomable turn of events, despite all evidence that Cedarville President Thomas White knowingly hired and supported Anthony Moore while suppressing untold instances of sexual assault and abuses of power on campus, the CU Board of Trustees voted to reinstate White as university president. The decision was not unanimous, and two Board members resigned in protest. Hearing the stories of victims and witnesses of abuse at Cedarville (including those in posts listed below), it is difficult to understand how White’s reinstatement affords him any credibility to protect students, let alone to enforce Title IX requirements. 

7. Cedarville Faculty Compile Resources for New and Incoming Students (June 23, 2020). 

In response to the ongoing investigations at Cedarville University surrounding President Thomas White’s hiring of known sexual predator Anthony Moore, anonymous faculty at CU compiled and shared resources with us to assist students who may have been victims of abuse while attending Cedarville or who may be preparing to attend the university for the first time. The resources remain available on our site.

6. The Scandal Deepens at Cedarville University by William Trollinger (June 5, 2020).

As part of the Cedarville scandal surrounding Anthony Moore, University President Thomas White is placed on administrative leave – sort of. Loren Reno, White’s special advisor with a long history of academic censorship, is appointed interim president. Reno’s appointment does little to satisfy concerns that the administration is taking the investigation seriously, as it is very likely that Reno knew of Moore’s past sexual predation. Instead of administrative retribution, Reno’s appointment looks more like a cover-up.

5. A Pastor’s Resignation and a Former Student’s Story: More on the Wreckage Wrought by the Fundamentalist Takeover of Cedarville by William Trollinger (June 16, 2020).

While Thomas White remains Cedarville University’s President, local Grace Baptist Church pastor Craig Miller resigned over his role in White’s “restoration” program for sexual predator Anthony Moore. Concealing Moore’s history of sexual predation to his congregation, Miller invited Moore to preach at Grace Baptist and interact with local youth. It remains unclear why a pastor unaffiliated with Cedarville would lose a position while the university president remains in his role; however, CU alumnus Jonathan Demers describes how the university has changed since White’s appointment as president, quickly becoming a vanguard for conservative evangelical politics. 

4. “A Culture of Silencing, Denial, and Psychological Manipulation”: The Stories from Cedarville University Just Keep Piling Up by William Trollinger, Ashley Moore, Samuel Franklin, Ariana Cheng, and Phil Jarvis (June 9, 2020)

In the wake of allegations that Cedarville University President Thomas White knowingly hired – and quickly promoted – sexual predator Anthony Moore, numerous CU alumni began to speak up about the toxic culture that White brought to the university upon his 2013 presidential appointment. From ignoring Title IX complaints to suppressing victims of sexual assault to prevent reports of campus sexual violence, and faculty members’ overt sexism toward women students, the painful stories of CU alumni show that White’s treatment of Moore was not an anomaly. In fact, it was part of a larger pattern of violence at Cedarville. 

3. Rape, Sexual Harassment, and More: The Cedarville Stories are Multiplying by William Trollinger (May 5, 2020).

As news of the Cedarville University scandal broke, the university hired public relations “guru” Mark DeMoss – who has a long history of restoring evangelical “brands” (Willow Creek Community Church, Franklin Graham, Mark Driscoll) from crises involving sexual assault. With emerging stories from students and faculty alike of sexual assault and harassment being dismissed by White, the school initiated an independent investigation concerning White’s hiring of Anthony Moore. At the same time, a rape victim at Thomas White’s former institution, the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (NC), came forward to note that White discouraged her from reporting her rape to the police and subsequently imposed a “disciplinary plan” for her doing so. 

2. No Safeguard, No Whole: Why I Left Cedarville University by Julie L. Moore (May 12, 2020)

Julie Moore, a Cedarville alumna and former faculty member of 18 years, describes her undergraduate experience and subsequent teaching career at CU leading up to White’s arrival at CU. In explaining her decision to leave, Moore notes that the Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy serves the administration as a wide-ranging censorship policy: 

In fact, despite the policy’s claim that it is “not designed to restrict the free discussion of ideologies, philosophies, or schools of thought that may or may not run counter to biblical truth,” the reality is, administrators have, indeed, used it to censor many ideologies, such as literary theories, books by Shane Claiborne, and even non-Republican political views. (A student Democratic organization used to exist on campus, but it’s long gone now.)

…How can there be true education without such encounters and juxtapositions? Truth is strong, not weak, and God is big enough to handle the challenge. 

And what of multiple truths existing simultaneously—paradoxes, those apparent contradictions inherent in any Christian faith? 

1. “Biblically Consistent” Cedarville University Knowingly Hires and Then (Three Years Later) Fires Sexual Abuser by William Trollinger (April 28, 2020)

Breaking the story of the Cedarville University scandal for the RightingAmerica blog, our most popular post of 2020 details the history of the CU “purge” in 2012 to set the story for the ongoing set of posts reporting on Thomas White’s hiring of known sexual predator Anthony Moore. This post shares how White claimed that Moore’s hiring was an attempt at “transparent restoration” to return Moore to ministry, yet White never disclosed to students or parents Moore’s history of sexual predation. White claimed that new information about Moore’s history of sexual predation led to his April 2020 decision to fire Moore. That new information: in his previous position as campus pastor at The Village Church in Fort Worth, TX, Moore had secretly videotaped a youth pastor showering on not two, but five occasions. Apparently two videotapes is okay, but five is too many? President White’s explanation just didn’t add up.

Like the effects of COVID anti-vaxxers, the fallout of the Cedarville University scandal remains to be seen. However, if the first two weeks of 2021 is any indication, our county is experiencing a moment of reckoning – one in which leaders are now being held accountable for their actions. Will AiG’s anti-scientific figureheads, or Cedarville’s President White, maintain their authority as conservatives lose the power they have held for the last four years? This year may bring some new answers. 

Regardless, we are especially grateful to our readers and contributors, and we are excited to plan our 5-year milestone in 2021! 

1619 vs. 1776 vs. 1861, or, Whose History is It?

by Raymond D. Screws

Raymond D. Screws earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 2003.  He also has an MA from Pittsburg State University and a B.A. from School (now College) of the Ozarks, where his advisor was William Trollinger.  Throughout his career, he has been a history professor, museum director, and humanities professional.  He has published articles on immigration and ethnicity as well as a chapter in a book on World War I and Arkansas. He has also co-written a chapter on leadership in America.  Dr. Screws lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is currently the director of a military museum. 

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest in the US Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. – Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

On December 19, 2020, I received an email from my alma mater, the College of the Ozarks, a small evangelical liberal arts school nestled in the hills of southern Missouri, announcing that the president of the college, Jerry Davis, was appointed by the White House to serve on the 1776 Commission.  The heading of the email: “Davis to bring perspective from decades-long patriotic program at C of O.”  

The 1776 Commission was created on November 2, 2020, by President Trump’s executive order, as a direct response to the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project that was established in 2019, which was, of course, the 400th anniversary of the first slave brought to British North America.  

Quoting Ronald Reagan – “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” – Davis explained that “without patriotic education, historic American values will cease to exist in American youth.”  

Whether or not this is true, one has to ask: Is Davis forgetting that a major part of “historic American values” was the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of African descent?  Or is that historical truth just swept under the rug? America has not historically been the land of freedom for all.  Let’s talk about that part of American Exceptionalism.  The 1619 Project attempts to do just that.  I do have issues with the 1619 Project, but the 1776 Commission is not the answer.      

Of course, all of this is not about patriotism per se.  It’s about the Right kind of patriotism.  As articulated by the 1776 Commission, if one agrees with the aims of the 1619 Project, if one is left-of-center politically, if one is a Democrat, then that person is not the correct type of patriot, or more accurately, is not a patriot at all.  

The aim here is an evangelical whitewashed patriotism, an evangelical whitewashed American history and heritage: a pure white America with no warts or scabs, no Indians, Hispanics, or immigrants, and especially no African Americans (except as contented slaves), just a land of great fortune and white harmony. American Exceptionalism.  

In a recent Washington Post article, historian Daniel Immerwahr challenges the American Exceptionalism ideal by suggesting that “Achieving a more perfect union requires confronting dark truths – such as the centrality of slavery to U.S. history.”  I agree!  But the history that conservatives want Americans to learn is “fake history,”  or, at best, “bad” history.  The goal of the 1776 Commission is an attempt to ensure that American children see only a past without ethnicity (other than those of western and northern European descent) and race and oppression.  In other words, the goal is to ensure that American children be indoctrinated in a whitewashed story of the American past.  

Ironically, while conservatives want us to be great patriots, many of them – especially white Southern conservatives – identify with the Confederacy.  In other words, they identify with traitors. 

I have been told many times by Southern conservatives that the Civil War was not about slavery – it was about states’ rights and that their ancestors didn’t fight to protect the institution of slavery.  But that’s not the whole story. States’ rights to maintain slavery was the issue, and their ancestors did fight to keep the antebellum South intact . . . and this includes my Southern ancestors.  I don’t know if my Union military ancestors fought to free slaves, but I do know they fought to preserve the Union – true patriots!  

Enslaved African men and women in a sculpture by the Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

This white conservative identification with the traitors who fought against the U.S. in the Civil War was on full display on January 6 with the display of Confederate (and Trump) flags inside and outside the U.S. Capitol. 

If these rioters/terrorists/insurrectionists are to be understood as true patriots, as Trump suggested, perhaps the 1776 Commission should be renamed the 1861 Commission.  One rioter, interviewed by CNN, said they should have “yanked our senators out by the hair of the head and drug ’em out and said, ‘No More!’”  That’s true insurrection.  Thankfully, the thousands of neo-Preston Brooks at the Capitol didn’t find their neo-Charles Sumner.  

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes:  “Wednesday was a horrifying and shameful moment in American history. I’ve covered attempted coups in many countries around the world, and now I’m finally covering one in the United States.” And it was an attempted coup in keeping with the ongoing and shameful history of race in America. Kristof observes that while “many of those pro-Trump rioters probably dispute the idea of white privilege,” the “fact that they were allowed to overrun the police and invade the Senate and House chambers was evidence of that privilege,” especially when compared to the way Black Lives Matter protesters were treated in the summer of 2020 at the U.S. Capitol.  

I’m sure that the issues agitating BLM protesters and their supporters are precisely the issues that the 1776 Commissionwant us to forget. Put more strongly, both the insurrection at the Capitol and the creation of the 1776 Commission are driven by the desire for a whitewashed American history. That is to say, the January 6 riot/insurrection was a coup attempt in the name of conservative “patriotism.”

I am an American patriot!  And I probably carry a portion of American Exceptionalism in me.  I am pro-military, and even work for the military, preserving an aspect of its great history and heritage.  I’m grateful for those who have served in our branches of the military, and I respect their service.  I’m named after an uncle who was killed during the Second World War, and another uncle of mine, who I knew, was a Navy pilot in the Pacific.

But I don’t think one can be a good patriot unless that person understands the true history of the United States –  our greatness, yes, but also the warts and scabs (particularly those pertaining to race).  The 1776 Commission’s purpose does not allow for a collective memory of anything other than an idealized American exceptionalism.  

If an individual believes that the ideals of the 1776 Commission are what is required to be an American patriot, so be it.  If the College of the Ozarks (a private institution) wants to inculcate its (overwhelmingly white) students in a very narrow and ahistorical American exceptionalism, so be it.  But if the 1776 Commission’s project gets implemented in public schools, it has the potential of producing whitewashed patriot robots, like those spurred to engage in an act of sedition at the United States Capitol on January 6.  

Let’s hope that when Joe Biden becomes president he will never allow the 1776 Commission to convene.  

The Rhetoric of the Lost Cause All Over Again, and Again

by Susan Trollinger

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA. Photo by Salwan Georges of The Washington Post (2020)

The other day, I was reading David Blight’s fine book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, in preparation for a project that I am going to have students in my visual/material rhetoric course work on this semester. We’re going to spend some weeks studying Confederate monuments and asking ourselves questions like the following: What do these monuments memorialize? What sort of rhetorical work do they do and on whose behalf? Why were white people dedicating these monuments anywhere from twenty-five to fifty-five years after the war was over? And, finally, what is it about these monuments (often featuring this or that Confederate soldier on horseback or standing with his rifle) that inspires such intense support as well as fierce opposition? 

Blight’s book will be important for my class because we cannot make sense of these monuments unless we understand the discourse out of which they were constructed and within which they made and continue to make meaning. At the heart of that discourse, which Blight describes very well, is the story of the “Lost Cause.” It’s a story that emerged in the South as a way to cope with having lost the war but, over time, became the story of the war for white Americans, both North and South. 

If you’re like me, some version of the story of the Lost Cause will likely be familiar to you. Central to the story is the notion that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. The North and the South went to war over states’ rights. Whereas the North supported the expanding role of the federal government, the South refused it. Indeed, the South fought to protect the freedom of Southerners and their lawful right to self-government. 

Thus, the South (which was forced into the war) fought for a noble cause (the Lost Cause)—what some have even called America’s second revolution. And had it not been for the fact that the North outgunned the South and had a voracious appetite for overtaking the South, the South would have been victorious on behalf of that Lost Cause. 

The real aggressors were the North, and the South were its victims—even “negroes” who, content as they were as slaves, were forced to leave their benevolent masters and try to make a go of it on their own. Thankfully, the South rose victorious out of Reconstruction (another campaign of Northern aggression) and redeemed the South so that it could recuperate its fine traditions and social/moral order.

This story of the Lost Cause was developed and aggressively propagated first in the South and then beyond in an effort (which was largely successful) to put to rest what any American historian worth their doctoral degree would say was the true story. According to that story, the Civil War was fought over slavery. The South fought to keep slavery; the North fought to end it. More than that, the South was determined to extend slavery into the territories for economic reasons. The North rejected that plan for largely political reasons. So Southern states, one after the other, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. War broke out to settle the question. In the end, the South lost and, finally, 250 years of slavery in the US was finally brought to an end. 

To verify that the war was about slavery all you have to do (as William Trollinger makes clear whenever he lectures on this topic) is read the secession statements of the states that left the Union and joined the Confederacy. They are explicit—they were seceding to protect the institution of slavery in the South. Plain and simple. And they were quite willing to go to war for it.

So, how did the story of the Lost Cause gain hegemony—even in the North? According to Blight, a whole campaign emerged in the last couple of decades of the 19th century to sell this story. It was an impressive (even if depressing) rhetorical feat. On my reckoning of Blight’s fantastic history of this campaign, it consisted of the following strategies:

  1. Turn the facts inside out. The rebels were the victims. The secessionists were the patriots. Their cause was freedom. Slaveholders were benevolent. Slaves preferred chains to freedom.
  1. Always refer to the inside-out story as the “truth” and point out whenever possible that the Lost Cause story is the righteous corrective to that other dangerous story.
  1. Discredit “elite” historians (and anyone else) who defends that other story. If they’re from the North, it’s more Northern aggression. If they’re from the South, then they are obviously not patriots. In other words, go all out on the ad hominem.
  1. Insist that history textbooks only tell the “true” story. Argue that the only way to protect children is to make sure they don’t even know that other story exists. 
  1. In a context of much perceived social and political disorder (like women fighting for suffrage and blacks voting and winning political office), argue that it is in holding to the Lost Cause story that order will be restored. 
  1. Find females (especially women with tight connections to heroes of the Confederacy) to serve as paragons of womanly virtue and advocates for patriarchy. 
  1. Reassure the faithful that those who tell that other story will get what they deserve in due time. God is, after all, on the side of “truth.”

As I read Blight’s history of the campaign for the Lost Cause, I became only more convinced that Americans must learn the real story of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and how the South was “redeemed” via the Lost Cause narrative (and the Jim Crow laws that followed). Doing so is simply essential for our efforts to tackle racism in this country. But that’s not the only reason I write this post.

As I was reading Blight’s history I was struck by the resonances I was hearing between the rhetorical strategies that were used in this campaign to achieve hegemony for the Lost Cause in both the South and the North, and the rhetorical strategies of Answers in Genesis (and others who push culture-war fundamentalism) today. 

Righting America at the Creation Museum is a book-length study in the rhetorical strategies of Answers in Genesis. In noting here the similarities between the rhetorical strategies of the Lost Cause and AiG, especially at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, I am drawing heavily on that earlier work. So, what exactly are those resonances?

  1. Turn the facts inside out. For AiG, God is not love; God is pissed. Moreover, he is poised to unleash his wrath at any moment. Last time around, he wiped out 20 billion deserving sinners (according to a display of numbers crunched at Ark Encounter), including men, women, children, infants, even the unborn (excepting just 8 righteous individuals). It’s anyone’s guess how many he’ll slaughter next time. But do it, he will. Moreover, God did not send his only begotten son to save everybody—only the righteous who, for instance, know that anyone identifying as LGBTQ (and not repenting of it) is damned to Hell. (Righting America 54-58)
  1. Insist that there is only one truth, you’ve got it, and anything else is very dangerous. For AiG, young Earth creationism is the truth. The Earth (along with the whole universe) was created by God in six twenty-four-hour days less than six thousand years ago. Anyone who does not believe this story does not believe that what Genesis says is true and, therefore, has no reason to take as true anything else the Bible says. This is obviously very dangerous and accounts for why US culture is in such a mess and getting worse by the day. (Righting America 94-103)
  1. Discredit “elites” who tell a different story. According to AiG, liberals, humanists, and atheists (who are readily found in cities, on the coasts, and in universities) want you to believe either that God loves you no matter what or that God isn’t in charge or that God doesn’t exist. Obviously, these “elites” are dangerous because they embrace moral relativism. God hates moral relativism, because God is just. Therefore the story of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God is a lie. The only “true” story is the one in which God punishes sinners and saves the righteous. These “elites” also think the Earth is old, and that is a very dangerous lie because it just helps to produce more liberals, humanists, and atheists. As we put it in Righting America, “In AiG’s Great Binary, there is no neutrality, no middle ground. There are but two warring camps. At the end of the day, those academics who promote evolution and/or an old Earth are serving the forces of Satan” (222).
  1. Demand that textbooks tell the right story and protect children from hearing anything to the contrary. So far, young Earth creationists have not succeeded in getting public schools to teach young Earth creationism alongside evolution, though they certainly have tried. Good Christian parents, therefore, have two options: either homeschool their children (with AiG materials) or prepare their children (via AiG materials) to defend young Earth creationism at school whenever evolution comes up. (Righting America 198-207)
  1. Insist that the “true” story is the only way to restore order amidst much chaos. For AiG, the belief in an old Earth struck at the very foundation of social and moral order because it called the veracity of Genesis and thus the rest of the Bible into question. Chaos ensued, taking a wide variety of forms including rampant drug use, abortion, women seeking equality with men in the workplace and at home, illegitimate forms of sexual identity, the persecution of righteous Christians, and so forth. The only way to recuperate order is through belief in a young earth and a just God. (Righting America 52-58)
  1. Put forth females with the right connections who will argue on behalf of patriarchy. Georgia Purdom is AiG’s female figurehead who, among other activities, regularly gives talks to women’s groups and writes articles for AiG’s publications on women’s role in the family and society. According to Purdom, women and men have different roles given to them by God. Thanks to Satan and sin, women get confused about their God-given role and attempt to take on men’s role. “Biblical womanhood” demands many things, including modesty in dress (so as not to encourage lust on the part of men) and homemaking (raising children, cleaning, cooking, etc.) whether or not she works outside the home.
  1. Reassure the faithful that those who believe (never mind disseminate) the lie will get what they deserve. For AiG, chief among those who are guilty of propagating and legitimating the lie are scholars and pastors. And for that, they will get their due. As we put it in Righting America: “What if these scholars do not heed these directives [to abandon the lie and repent of their sin] from the AiG boss? According to Ham, there will be a day of divine reckoning for the arrogant academics [and anyone else] who undermine the authority of God’s Word with their devotion to evolution and ‘millions of years’ and for church leaders who promote this poisonous message among Christian laypeople. On that day, these compromising professors and preachers will have to answer to God for what they have taught their students and their parishioners” and it won’t be pretty. (Righting America 222-223)

The parallels between the rhetorical strategies mobilized for the Lost Cause and for young Earth creationism are strikingly similar. And in both cases they are polarizing, unforgiving, judgmental, and apocalyptic. Thus, they invite hatred, fear, and violence. 

I would like to imagine that these rhetorical strategies are on their way out. After all, the story of the Lost Cause has been profoundly challenged, especially by activists who have had success in getting Confederate monuments removed. And young Earth creationism, while popular among many Americans, appears to be less and less compelling among young people who just can’t seem to work up a mood to condemn, say, LGBTQ to eternal damnation. 

There is reason for hope, to be sure. And yet scenes like the one captured in the photo below, which are being repeated across America, indicate that the rhetorical strategies of the Lost Cause continue to attract strong adherents. Hope, yes. And much work to do. So it is.

Trump Signs on a Neighborhood House. Photo by Susan Trollinger (2021).

Dinosaur Bones, Mark Meadows, Neo-Confederates, and the Tawdry World of Young Earth Creationism

by William Trollinger

Ebenezer the Allosaurus on display at the Creation Museum. Copyright Susan L. Trollinger (2014).

Ebenezer the Allosaurus is a star at the Creation Museum. But the story of Ebenezer is a window into the corruption, fraudulence, and right-wing politics at the heart of young Earth creationist culture. But maybe weirder and more important than all this, Ebenezer the Allosaurus reveals that, when it comes to creation science, there is no there, there.

This story begins in 2002, near the appropriately named town of Dinosaur, Colorado. (Personal note: Growing up in Denver as the son of a geologist, I knew all about Dinosaur). There a creationist named Dana Forbes had purchased a 100-acre lot, which he opened to young Earth creationist groups to look for dinosaur fossils that would ostensibly prove (more on this later) that the Earth is but 6,000 years old. Two creation science groups participated in this expedition: Pete DeRosa’s Creation Expeditions, and Doug Phillips’ Vision Forum. 

The enterprising Phillips used this fossil hunting expedition to produce a documentary: Raising the Allosaur: The True Story of a Rare Dinosaur and the Home Schoolers Who Found It. Appearing in the film is Mark Meadows (yes indeed, that Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s chief of staff) and his wife, mother, and two children – all of whom were along for the “dinosaur dig.”

And it turns out that Meadows’ daughter was the movie’s star. With her father nearby, and as reported in a Vision Forum press release,

Nine-year-old home schooler Haley Meadows was dusting away dirt with her brush when she found the claws to a 100-foot Sauropod, presently believed to be of the rare Ultrasaurus variety.

According to the documentary, the creationist fossil hunters implored Jesus to help bring the dinosaur skull out of the Earth. Jesus answered immediately. With claws and skull, there was – according to the film – dramatic and conclusive evidence that the dinosaur had been buried just over 4,000 years ago in a global Flood. 

But shortly after Raising the Allosaur came out, news emerged that the story told by Phillips, Meadows, et al. was, well, a fabrication. Nine-year-old Haley Meadows did not discover the dinosaur claws, and she and the other homeschoolers did not uncover the skull. The landowner (Dana Forbes) had found it in 2000, and paleontologist (and creationist) Joe Taylor had unearthed most of the bones a year before the “Dinosaur Dig,” in 2001.

It remains unclear how the Raising the Allosaur scam was set up. It is certainly plausible (likely?) that both Phillips and Meadows were in on it, particularly given that both men have a history of significant ethical lapses. As regards Phillips, this hard-core patriarchal fundamentalist was forced to abandon Vision Forum when it turned out that he was having sexual relations with a young woman not his wife, a woman who attested that Phillips began “grooming” her when she was but 15, and who sued him for sexual abuse

As regards Meadows’ own ethical shortcomings, it turns out that, once he entered Congress in 2013, he had a difficult time abiding by congressional disclosure requirements. Remarkably enough, one of his failures to disclose directly relates to the 2002 “Dinosaur Dig.” 

In 2003 Meadows purchased the 100 acre lot in Colorado from Forbes, the original idea being that he would lease it to Pete DeRosa for additional creationist fossil digs, a lease Meadows soon disallowed when he discovered that DeRosa was not the paleontologist he claimed to be. Then, in 2016, he sold this land to Answers in Genesis (AiG) for them to use for their own creationist purposes. He sold it for $200,000, to be paid in monthly installments. Meadows never included this income on his congressional financial disclosure forms, an act of ethical negligence that, of course, made him a perfect candidate to serve as chief-of-staff in the Trump Administration.

But let’s get back to Ebenezer the Allosaur, and additional sordid details. It turns out that there was a nasty legal fight over who owned the dinosaur skeleton, between Pete DeRosa (Creation Expeditions) and Joe Taylor (the paleontologist who identified and excavated the skeleton), both of whom claimed that they had rights to the bones. In the middle of this dispute Michael Peroutka of the Peroutka Foundation offered to pay Taylor for his part of the allosaur – and the financially strapped Taylor said yes. And in 2013 the Peroutka Foundation gave the dinosaur fossil to the Creation Museum, who put it on display in 2014.

But who is Michael Peroutka? The AiG press release announcing the “Ebenezer the Allosaurus” display failed to mention that Peroutka, who was the 2004 Constitution Party candidate for president, is a neo-Confederate who obsessively sought to have Barack Obama impeached, who claimed that the Maryland General Assembly was “no longer a valid legislative body because . . . it has tried to restrict the right of the people to keep and bear arms . . . [and] declared that little girls must share bathrooms with older men who are ‘gender confused,” and who attacked “government schools” for their relentless efforts to “enslave a Christian people” (Righting America 190).

What a sordid story. An elaborate scam. Corruption and abuse and creationist legal wranglings. And a neo-Confederate donor to the Creation Museum.

But for all of this, the weirdest part of the story may be that – for all the desperate efforts on the part of creationists to secure this dinosaur skeleton, for all the brouhaha and AiG-hype surrounding “Ebenezer the Allosaurus” – the Creation Museum makes absolutely no use of the skeleton itself to advance the case for a young Earth and a global Flood. Referring to arguably the most relevant placard that accompanies the dinosaur fossil, we note in Righting America that 

Given that this placard appears in the room wherein a truly impressive skeleton of a real dinosaur is on display, and given that this placard tells a story that seeks to link that skeleton to the Flood, it is surprising that the placard makes no mention of the skeleton itself. Not one piece of physical evidence from the skeleton is mobilized in any way by this placard. No inferences whatsoever are drawn from the skeleton about Ebenezer on this placard . . . In the end, Ebenezer-the-skeleton appears to make no contribution to an understanding either of his demise or any other creature’s (Righting America 93).

The only evidence provided by the Creation Museum in behalf of the claim that Ebenezer died in a global Flood is the story recounted in Genesis 7:21-23. That’s it. 

When it comes to creation science, there is no there, there.

Behold the Cracked Cisterns: Donald Trump and his Evangelical Worshippers

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

image via BlogforArizona

After four years of Trump, evangelicals are just left with slogans. It turns out that the Trump ethos – which they baptized, anointed, and ordained – is more of a brand than a person, an image more than a flesh and blood human being.

Despite the evangelical anointing, Trump, as Robert Ivie observes in “Trump’s Unwitting Prophecy,” is “no prophet, not even a false prophet. His disruptive persona and dismantlement motif, however, convey a latent prophecy, symbolically exposing an underlying sense of crisis” (713). Trump is not guided by any apparent self-evident truths, no sacred canon; he did and does not offer wise judgment in time of crisis; all his cries of “fake” and “fraud” notwithstanding, the evidence is clear that, as president, Trump did not suffer the burden of his commitments but reaped the personal rewards of his message – more fame, more notoriety, more money, and more political power. 

And reaps. Since the election Trump has raised more than 250 million dollars – most of it going directly to him. Evangelicals think nothing of such a scam. They are used to it. They have already helped their celebrity preachers purchase $80 million luxury jets. This is business as usual among the prosperity clan. Donald Trump is an honorary member – the Rev. Donald Trump, prosperity gospel preacher. 

His only remaining game is to hold us in breathless hesitation. Trump’s favorite ploy has been to treat the next move in his presidency as if it were the advertisement that begins with the words, “Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s episode.” When asked if he would attend the inauguration of Biden, Trump has said, “We will see. I know already, but I will let you know later.” Trump’s evangelical acolytes see him as the radical outsider who does not operate as usual, saying things no one else would have dreamed of saying, not cowed by Washington’s ways, not allowing decorum and propriety to get in his way, getting things done (even if that means blowing up the democracy). 

But contrary to the dreams of the evangelical faithful, Trump is no radical. He is a con artist, venting the hyperbolic, irrational rhetoric of the fantastic, parading as politics. But Trump has proven himself unable to be a great enough actor to actually believe in the sacredness of his own mission. Lacking all conviction, other than self-survival, it turns out that Trump lacks the courage to play the man. 

In short, Trump is a politician bereft of the gods. The Christian god has been tacked onto his reputation by the evangelicals, but he remains a tragic figure; as James Darsey – in his discussion of Joe McCarthy – quotes Maurice Levy , Trump “participates in the epistemological chaos [created by evangelicals] to the point of psychosis” (82).  Trump worships only himself, talks only of himself. To give but one example, in the middle of a pandemic update conference Trump moved seamlessly from the death count to musing about how many people had noticed that he was number one on Facebook that day. 

Trump has never really caught the evangelical fervor of his followers. His faith lacks substance. His speeches are raw chaos, carnivalesque in character, lacking in historical references or apparent knowledge of the great traditions of the presidency. He has nothing to draw upon but the resources of his own profane experience. Trump is the slogans he has devised and the image he has created.  

Trump and his evangelical disciples look for all the world like the fashion description of the prophet Isaiah: 

All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (Isaiah 64:6, KJV). 

And they neatly fit the dire descriptions of Jeremiah: 

They “went after worthless things and have become worthless themselves”; “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:5, 13, NRSV). 

Behold the cracked cisterns: Donald Trump and his evangelical worshippers. 

Trump, I argue, is a sublime fantasist followed by a people particularly susceptible to the fantastic. I use the term “fantastic” as a moment of epistemological uncertainty, a moment of being suspended between whether we are hallucinating or witnessing a miracle. When we accept that the fantastic is a form of spiritual impoverishment, then we can properly understand what Trump has wrought. The evangelicals keep eating the “bread of this world” – creationism, rapture, anti-science, American nationalism, a fake golden age of America – and thus they keep starving because that is what the fantastic does. To quote Levy again, “The fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of imagination, for what he has lost at the level of faith” (82). 

In short, the fantastic is hollow at its core. And that fits the shady world of Donald Trump, a man who wants to be known as a great builder, but who has constructed nothing. His fake world is empty, emptying, dissolving. In Trump’s dark, foreboding rhetoric he has destroyed hope while increasing hatred. His promises notwithstanding, he has never turned on the light. There is no salvation here, but only the articulation of anxiety, rage, resentment. He is just another faux evangelical screaming in the night at the invisible demons that haunt his personal emptiness. 

Now, if Trump were alone in his alienation, his case would have been boring and uneventful and not even remotely dangerous – simply just an example of personal psychopathology. But behind Trump’s rhetoric are his creators, the evangelicals – a people with an anti-social motive, a people with a set of social patterns rooted in the 1950s and socially objectified as danger, ignorance, separateness. Employing Trump to the full, evangelicals have managed to increase doubt while ushering legions into the dark spaces where people are “without God and without hope.” They have provided the sound and the fury while signifying nothing. 

For four years America played along at Donald Trump’s court. We waited outside. We wanted Trump to execute judgment, to provide us with a vision, to have a viable plan for the pandemic, a standard under which we could march. But as president Trump did none of these things. For a television star, an actor-of-sorts, he never provided a clear, stable dramatic structure for the nation to sing our songs, dance our dances, and reach for our better angels. Instead, he and his obsequious allies systematically subverted the rules for judgment, the media, the schools, the courts, and the legislatures. In the process, he has intensified our divisions, increased our mistrust, and led us astray from our national goodness. 

Now, the play has ended, and the audience, as an audience, largely sits glued to their seats, unable to move, incredulous at the destruction. In the 1960s Will Campbell offered a prescient warning

In a tragedy you really don’t take sides with any satisfaction. In classic tragedies, by the end of the drama, everyone is involved and may be lying dead on the stage. All are at some level innocent and guilty – none with an easy, clear, good choice. 

On the stage that is America, all the dead – including all those who unnecessarily died in the pandemic — are strewn. And the empty persona of Trump, like a ghost, is preparing to slither away stage right, to lurk in the dark places of American politics and American religion for at least four more years. 

Do his evangelical devotees now realize that the fantastic, the amazing, the beautiful Mr. Trump was but hyperbole, humbug, someone resembling P. T. Barnum? Do they now understand he was but a dark phantasm of their own making? 

I don’t think so.  

Behold the cracked cisterns: Donald Trump and his evangelical worshippers. 

What Might Islamists Teach Americans About Democracy?

by Ahmed Khanani

Ahmed Khanani, author of All Politics are God’s Politics: Moroccan Islamism and the Sacralization of Democracy (Rutgers University Press, January 2021), is Plowshares Assistant Professor of Politics and co-director of the Center for Social Justice at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Ahmed’s research brings together thinkers and insights from a broad array of disciplines and fields in the hopes of centering historically marginalized peoples and, hopefully, asking a thoughtful question along the way. 

Cover of Ahmed Khanani’s All Politics are God’s Politics: Moroccan Islamism and the Sacralization of Democracy (Rutgers University Press, 2021).

At this moment, it is easy, almost comforting, to feel that the primary failure of American democracy is that there’s a guy who seemingly won’t leave office even though he’s rather clearly been voted out. And, to be fair, this certainly seems a low point in the reliability of the (rather bizarre, fully a function of slavery) American electoral system. And, to be fair, this year, well, mainly stinks

Having said that, to the degree that Righting America encourages a more thoroughgoing, thoughtful encounter than the lowest hanging fruit (which would definitely begin with functional and legitimate elections), we might instead take this moment as an opportunity to think more globally and critically about the relationship between conservative religiosity and democratic politics. 

In the American context, it is clear that conservative Christians support (worship?!) right-wing politics. But, globally, there is much more variance in how persons of faith imagine, encounter, and enact politics. I have spent the better part of the past decade studying how Muslims understand democracy (or, more precisely, how a subset of Muslims uses the Arabic loan-word dimuqratiyya), and I continue to find that there’s a profound and rich language of dimuqratiyya in the Arab Middle East. 

In fact, in the place most Westerners least expect it (the Arab Muslim Middle East), conversations about democracy highlight foundational failures of American democracy, and the limitations of contemporary American politics. I’ll offer two examples of how we might broaden/deepen the idea of democracy that guides American politics. Before that, a quick history.

For the better part of several centuries, Western thinkers have characterized Muslims, Islam and the Arab Middle East as fundamentally anti-democratic. Canonical thinkers have mobilized the image of Oriental despotism in service of Western colonialism (including, Alexis de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill)—indeed, even Max Weber got in on the action, though without the call for colonial intervention. 

(To be sure, there are Islamists who believe that violence is a reasonable primary response to Western colonialism and neocolonialsm. They like me as little as they like you. Violent Islamists are often deeply critical of democracy—and dimuqratiyya, too.)

At the same time, America has been (and continues to be) portrayed as the polar opposite. Recent works, from the American political right and left, have celebrated Western governance as deeply and fundamentally democratic. 

So it stands to reason that, on the one hand, we understand the USA (in particular) as rather fully democratic, and, on the other hand, we think of Muslim-majority states, particularly in the Arab Middle East, as fully undemocratic.

A number of powerhouse thinkers have addressed the racism and Islamophobia that undergirds most Western observation. But this isn’t a post about how racist or terrible or schmuck-y or anything else Western intellectual idols are. 

Instead, what I want to ask is this: What if Muslims in the Arab Middle East are better at democracy than you and I? 

I spent the better part of two full years in Morocco doing interviews with socially conservative, politically active, nonviolent, Islamically inspired persons—who are often called Islamists. You might expect, based on folks like Montesquieu, JS Mill, or more recent “thinkers,” that Islamists would be deeply opposed to democracy—or, at least, to the Arabic word, dimuqratiyya. In what might feel surprising, Moroccan Islamists, and I think more broadly, Islamists in the Arab Middle East, consistently demonstrate pretty strong investment and success in elections. But, as I suggest in my book, more than just elections, Islamists also invest in dimuqratiyya as part of their faith tradition and thereby offer new possibilities for both Western democracy and also Islam. 

Here, I want to explain two surprising claims that Moroccan Islamists make that might help us better understand both the potential of democracy and also how American democracy is coming up short.

First, Moroccan Islamists think of the primary goal of governance as tending to the souls of people. For example, Moroccan Islamists suggest that Western dimuqratiyya regularly fails because of its failures to embody justice, equity, or honor the rights of non-citizens. Given that Islamists care primarily for the souls of persons, the distinction between citizen and non-citizen becomes less significant than the chasm between justice-driven policies and unjust policies. 

So, for example, a rights-driven foreign policy that honors all persons constitutes dimuqratiyya. That is to say, a foreign policy that doesn’t attend to the souls of all people (policies like Trump’s policies towards migrants), is fundamentally undemocratic. It is perhaps unsurprising that Islamists’ Western counterparts (something like socially-conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christians) also focus on the souls and rights of living things, but whereas (especially white) evangelical Christians limit concern for the soul to (often violently) curtailing reproductive rights, Moroccan Islamists instead invest in justice-driven policy that attends to the whole person—and for all persons. 

(To be fair, there are also many American Christians who are invested in justice-oriented democracy.)

Second, Moroccan Islamists insist that democracy must care for minorities. A theme that regularly turned up in interviews with Moroccan Islamists was their understanding that a dramatic failure of Western democracy is its purported (and demonstrable) inability to attend to (racial and religious) minorities. Western democracies are grounded in the idea that pluralities (often majorities) of citizens make good decisions for themselves and their primary political communities (usually their home countries, but also neighborhoods, counties, and so on). Islamists, much like evangelical, socially-conservative Christians (including fundamentalists) often disagree with this premise, instead contending that “religious considerations” ought to bound the scope of decisions available to policy makers. In the American context this has led to the curtailment of the rights of minorities at the behest of the Christian right. In contrast, the (over 100) Islamists I spoke with contend that failures to honor the dignity of minorities was a significant impediment to the realization of true democracy. 

If you are anywhere left of the far-right and live in the US, I can appreciate how you might read this essay and think “well I’d trade out fundamentalist Christians for Islamists any day.” I get it—and I sometimes think that, too (and, too, I live in the US and am far to the left of the far-right). 

It is challenging to imagine a dramatic overhaul of Western political systems—e.g., even as there is broad support for abolishing the Electoral College, there’s little appetite for socialism. And, again, it’d be easy to draw on a litany of rather established and canonical thinkers were we to dismiss out-of-hand the ways in which dimuqratiyya highlights shortcomings of democracy. 

But an alternative, one I find rather compelling, is to take at face value what Islamists say, and to ask ourselves: How can we benefit from their truths, their bedrock assumptions, their efforts to embody good lives? What can we learn about democracy, a purported national value, when we start taking Islamists seriously?

Killing as Many as They Can, as Long as They Can

by William Trollinger

Brandon Bernard, who is scheduled for execution today, December 10, 2020. Photo via The New Yorker.

Just when you imagine that the Trump Administration could not get any crueler, it does, even as it is heading out the door.

After a seventeen-year hiatus in federal executions, on July 14 the Trump Administration began killing federal death row inmates. In just four months eight individuals were put to death by the U. S. government. In the process, they tied the Eisenhower Administration for most executions in one presidency, although, of course, it took Ike eight years to do what Trump and company have accomplished since July.

Not satiated, not satisfied to tie the record, the lame-duck administration plans to execute five more individuals over the next two months: 

  • December 10: Brandon Bernard
  • December 11: Alfred Bourgeois
  • January 12: Lisa Montgomery
  • January 14: Corey Johnson
  • January 15: Dustin Higgs

Amazingly enough, administering thirteen executions in six months is simply not enough to slake this administration’s blood-thirst. Donald Trump and William Barr are also seeking to loosen regulations on federal executions so that the means of killing death-row inmates is not limited to lethal injection, but could include death by firing squad or electrocution. 

What is particularly remarkable about all this is that this spate of executions is taking place at the same time that public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in fifty years. What is also remarkable is that – in the past 45 years since the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is constitutionally acceptable – we have a mountain of evidence that application of the death penalty is capricious, as poor and minority defendants are executed in grossly disproportionate numbers (if you are white and middle class, the chances of you being executed for murder are negligible), and the odds go up if the victim was white. More than this, innocent people are sentenced to die and are sometimes executed. And it turns out that most of the Western world can function without executions, and with lower rates of violent crime – and there is no conclusive or even substantive evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent.

95 criminal justice officials said all this and more in a December 03 statement calling on the Trump administration to stop the five executions it has scheduled over the next month. In this statement these prosecutors, police chiefs, and sheriffs noted that while “many have tried for over forty years to make America’s death penalty system just,” the “reality is that our nation’s use of this sanction cannot be repaired.” As the statement pointedly asserts,

We also now know that we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky – the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken. Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives.

All of this definitely applies to the five individuals scheduled to be killed in the next few weeks. Brandon Bernard (who is scheduled to be put to death today, although there are ongoing efforts to have the death sentence commuted) was 18 at the time he was convicted of murder: not only will he be the youngest offender executed by the federal government in seven decades, but it turns out that the prosecution suppressed evidence that would have established that he had a reduced role in the killings, while at the same time Bernard’s defense counsel was essentially invisible. All these are reasons why five of the nine jurors that sentenced him to death have now asked for or are not opposed to the commutation of his death sentence.

As for the next four to be executed:

Alfred Bourgeois and Corey Johnson both have IQ scores in the clinically accepted range for intellectual disability. Lisa Montgomery was the victim of extraordinary physical and sexual abuse and is seriously mentally ill. Dustin Higgs did not kill anyone but was sentenced to death while his more culpable co-defendant received a life sentence.

The capricious nature of the death penalty certainly applied to my friend Samuel McDonald. Having grown up in a poor, African-American family in St. Louis, Sam enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam. While he was an excellent soldier who was awarded a number of medals, the experience traumatized him – especially his killing of an infant and elderly woman in the “sweep” of a village – and he returned to the States deeply disturbed emotionally and mentally, and addicted to drugs. High on a heroin substitute, on May 16, 1981 he robbed and killed an off-duty police officer. That was bad enough, but he was assigned an inept public defender who saw fit to engage in shouting matches with the judge. More than this – and much more problematic – the trial judge refused to admit evidence regarding Sam’s emotional and mental instability, even though it was clear that Sam was suffering from combat-induced PTSD.

So 16 years later – September 24, 1997 – I was in the “friends and family” viewing booth in the Potosi Correctional Institute, where I watched the state of Missouri put Sam to death via lethal injection.

On August 02, 2018, the Catholic Church issued a formal revision of its catechism to establish that capital punishment is in all cases “inadmissible.” This was reinforced on October 03, 2020, when – in a papal encyclical letter entitled Fratelli Tutti – Pope Francis called for “the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms.”   

But despite being  a conservative Catholic, Attorney General William Barr has proven himself more than willing to flout Church teachings on capital punishment. 

And for all their avowed “pro-life” passion, the silence from pro-Trump evangelicals regarding the government’s string of executions has been deafening. 

Killing as many as they can, as long as they can.

Salvation is Not Forthcoming Any Time Soon: Trumpism and the Soul-Destroying Corruption of White Evangelicalism

by William Trollinger

Evangelical leaders pray over Trump in the Oval Office. Photo via The Chicago Tribune (2017).

“What does it profit a faith to gain a whole country and then lose it, along with its own soul?” (Sarah Jones)

Four years ago, just after the presidential election, I wrote a post entitled, “A Gift from White Evangelicals: President Trump,” which highlighted the fact that 81% of white evangelicals had voted for the reality show star and failed real estate magnate. 

Now, in the fall of 2020 – after a year of presidential malfeasance regarding the coronavirus pandemic, after four years of epic corruption in the administration, after so many children at the border blithely separated from their parents and placed in cages, after a parade of women reporting on their experiences of Trump’s sexual assaults, after stories of Trump mocking both veterans and his evangelical supporters – the numbers are in. And the needle hasn’t moved, as approximately 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s epic immorality and incompetence, there is nothing surprising in white evangelical support of Trump at the ballot box. In fact, I would have been stunned if white evangelical support for Trump had dropped more than a few percentage points. And that is because the reality is that for the past half century white evangelicalism has been wedded to a Far Right politics that, in the end, has little or nothing to do with morality, character, or the teachings of Jesus.

One way to understand evangelical support for right-wing politics is to look closely at the network of institutions that buttress the Christian Right. These churches, megachurches, denominations, schools, media outlets, and more are – as I argue in a forthcoming article, “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right” (Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America, Oxford University Press, 2021) – firmly committed to the following:

  • a virulent opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender accommodations, which is combined with a devotion to patriarchy; 
  • a fear of and antipathy toward all “others,” most particularly immigrants;
  • a commitment to the hegemony of White America in the face of changing demographic realities;
  • a deep-seated Christian nationalism;
  • and, a culture-war mentality that sees all who disagree with their agenda and their commitments as the unChristian or antiChristian enemy.

All of this is on vivid display at the Creation Museum and in the various publications and media productions of Answers in Genesis. But as we also document in Righting America at the Creation Museum, these Christian Right commitments are fervently promoted by the “Creation Colleges” that support and are promoted by the museum. One of those schools is Cedarville University, about which we have written much this year (for two examples, see here and here).  

In our book we discuss the fundamentalist takeover of Cedarville in 2012-2013, in which a large number of faculty and administrators were removed for insufficient theological and political conservatism, and for “having too much compassion for those ‘people struggling with gender identification’ (i.e., LGBTQ students)” (213). One result of the fundamentalist takeover at Cedarville was the implementation of a policy that, “in line with the ‘complementarian’ position that women are not to teach men in theological/biblical matters,” required that all theology and Bible classes taught by women were not to include any male students. 

As we quote in the book, alumna Sarah Jones blogged in response to this new policy:

If this is the path Cedarville chooses to take, it won’t be a college any longer, it’ll be a glorified Sunday School. That’s fine if you want to produce graduates who can only function in fundamentalist echo chambers, but it certainly doesn’t prepare them for the real world. It doesn’t even encourage them to empathize with their fellow Christians. Here’s what it does do: train half the student body to disregard the other half and treat them as if they’re incapable of holding worthwhile opinions on the religious tradition that defines their entire lives. (213-214)

Jones has long since exited fundamentalism, and is now a staff writer at New York magazine. And yesterday she published one of the most insightful pieces I have read on Trump and white evangelicalism: White Evangelicals Made a Deal with the Devil. Now What? In this brilliant article Jones makes clear that Trumpism will continue after Trump, that white evangelicals will continue to support the worst excesses of the Right, and that the evangelical subculture (which includes Cedarville, Answers in Genesis, and more) will continue to produce “new acolytes, who embrace the worst elements of the [evangelical] tradition.” One example she gives is Madison Cawthorn, a newly-elected representative from North Carolina whose congressional campaign was blatantly racist, and who was condemned by a number of his former classmates at Patrick Henry College for his sexual predations while attending the school. 

Sarah Jones is right: there will be more Cawthorns in our future. And that is very bad for America, but – as Jones argues – it is very bad for white evangelicalism (as I also argue in my aforementioned essay). To end with a quote from Jones:

Evangelicals bought power, and the bill is coming due. The price is their Christian witness, the credibility of their redemption by God. Evangelicalism won’t disappear after Trump, but its alliance with an unpopular and brutal president could alienate all but the most zealous.

George Bailey vs. Michael Corleone: Capra, Coppola, and the War on Christmas

by Earl Crown

Earl Crown is a doctoral student and graduate assistant in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, where he also teaches United States history. He holds degrees from Messiah University (B.A. in History, 1995) and McDaniel College (M.L.A., 2012). His scholarly interests include 20th century American social and intellectual history. He is currently researching the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace and its connection to progressive student activism in the Jim Crow south. Originally from Baltimore, he lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania with his wife Sarah and two children.

Every Thanksgiving, it seems that no sooner has the unfinished turkey on my plate cooled that I begin hearing stories about how the rising tide of secularism is again threatening the Christmas holiday and its true meaning. A 2013 article by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly identified the origins of the apparent war on Christmas as having come “about ten years ago when creeping secularism and pressure groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday.” O’Reilly is far from the only combatant. In 2018 for example, Fox host Sean Hannity took to Twitter to proclaim that “CHRISTMAS IS UNDER SIEGE.”  President Trump recently warned that if Biden were elected, “the Christmas season will be cancelled.” Fortunately for them, former child star turned holiday militant Kirk Cameron is here to help, with his film Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which currently boasts a rating of 0 on the website Rotten Tomatoes

Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly at war with liberal Scrooges. Image via Salon.com

As scholars of cultural studies will tell you, however, establishing the true meaning of a socially constructed ritual is a fraught undertaking. Christmas, like all holidays, is an ever-evolving patchwork of symbols expressing various experiences and beliefs. There are no scriptural standards instructing how—or even if—the faithful should observe the birth of Christ. Even if we strip Christmas to the bare essence of Biblical text, it is still extraordinarily difficult to put it into an annually observed ritual that perpetually maintains a “true meaning.” 

Often overlooked in these squabbles is the distinction between commemorating that Jesus was born and reflecting on why he was born. Christian culture warriors are often concerned with the former and point to explicitly religious content, or lack thereof, in film, television, and public festivities in defense of their cause. A movie that focuses too much on Santa Claus or a store clerk replacing “Christmas” wishes with the more neutral “holidays” can easily be used to indicate the nefarious handiwork of their culture war adversaries.

But what if Christmas is not defined by such externals? Could, for example, a film that fails to directly reference Jesus’s birth ironically serve as a better reminder of the reason for the season than one that does? After all, there is not much treatment of the nativity in Christian scriptures. In fact, much of the remainder of the Bible serves to contextualize why Christmas happened in the first place. In the process, it contains graphic portrayals of people violating God’s laws that would surely earn an NC-17 rating if ever translated literally to film. To separate the nativity story from the rest of the narrative would be to miss the point, and perhaps reduce it to the realm of ordinary.

I was reminded of this tension when I noticed characters passing movie houses that are playing The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)  in two famous films, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In other words, the Capra and Coppola films present America at the same time. In addition, each film considers the role of religion in American life, and each depicts Christmas. 

The two films, of course, present these things quite differently, but in doing so they do invite reflection on exactly what a Christmas movie—as well as Christmas itself—is. At face value, the Capra film embodies what, to many culture warriors, Christmas is about and what is endangered in contemporary American society. It seems to me, however, that the world of The Godfather is more consistent with the overall narrative of Christian scripture, and that It’s a Wonderful Life fundamentally contradicts it.        

Perhaps I should not be too surprised that Frank Capra’s imaginative Bedford Falls resonates with today’s religious conservatives. To those people who accept a narrative of moral declension that began in the 1960s, Bedford Falls must seem like a reminder of all they think has been lost. Citizens appear to be faithful church attendees and openly proclaim a belief in God, marital monogamy is celebrated, and profanity is non-existent. Even when behaviors that violate Christian standards are presented, such as drunkenness, they are clearly not idealized.

Of course, to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and presume that it accurately reflects a moral America in the late 1940s is enormously problematic. In addition to neglecting the codified misogyny and racism of the time, this view also overlooks the film’s creation under the auspices of the Hays Code. Following the denial of free speech to the motion picture industry by the Supreme Court in the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation case, the Code restricted the content of cinema from the 1930s until its replacement by the ratings system in the 1960s. Its restrictions are on full display in the Capra film when Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) informs husband George (Jimmy Stewart) that she is pregnant. Rather than use the word pregnant, which was one example of a long list of prohibited words, George instead finishes Mary’s sentence, saying instead that she was “on the nest.” The morality of Bedford Falls was therefore more a product of cultural and political hegemony than democratic virtue. It would be objectively false to proclaim that such a place as Bedford Falls ever existed, or that we should try to return to it.

More importantly, even if It’s a Wonderful Life were a documentary, it would still make a poor model for a Christmas movie. There is nothing Clarence the angel does to help George in his struggle to do the right thing that George could not have done for himself with a little self-reflection. George does not need the full complexity of the narrative of the Gospel of Luke. He does not need a baby to be born of a Virgin, publicly proclaim good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, be crucified, resurrected, and ultimately ascend into Heaven. What he needs is a weekend away for some rest and relaxation. George’s character and self-contained goodness place him totally at odds with the New Testament narrative of why Christ came to earth. Were Jesus to be born and minister in Bedford Falls, he would be wasting his time.

Another character who, like George Bailey, faces an internal struggle between good and evil is Coppola’s Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). At first, Michael’s character seems much different than his father, mafia boss Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Though Vito is depicted early in the film as gentle­-mannered and soft-spoken, Coppola reveals through the fear and trepidation of those around him that this is a man whom many people fear. Michael, on the other hand, is anything but fearsome. When he first arrives with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), he looks like a typical cinematic hero. He is wearing an army uniform, is bathed in light, and is in love with a pretty American girl. After telling Kay about his father’s criminal involvement, Michael tells Kay, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Michael, by all appearances, has deliberately chosen a life that is vastly different than the violent, corrupt world of his family.  

Michael’s determination to choose his own fate is complicated by a series of tragic events, including attempts on his father’s life and the murder of his brother by a rival crime family. When Michael shoots two men in a New York restaurant, his efforts to avoid his “family” business have failed. From there on out, his mannerisms are increasingly like those of his father, and his on-screen presentation is increasingly dark. As the movie ends, he has “settled all family business” by ordering the murders of his enemies, including his brother-in-law Carlo.  Suspecting that Michael had Carlo killed, his now-wife Kay asks him “Is it true?,” to which Michael says, “Don’t ask me about my business.” As the film ends, Michael descends into the darkness of his office, having become the new Godfather. His best intentions could not help him overcome the darkness that apparently lay dormant inside of him.

So what does any of this have to do with Christmas? Despite the lack of even a mention of Jesus in It’s a Wonderful Life, Christian culture warriors love it. In his December 2015 newsletter, evangelical author and public figure Dr. James Dobson celebrated it as being “synonymous with the Christmas season,” and stated that it “gives viewers a tantalizing glimpse of values and beliefs that have been all but lost.” Jimmy Stewart is celebrated for having “faithfully attended church” and for “his homey, midwestern drawl.” “The film is noteworthy,” Dobson says, in contrast to the actual historical record, “for its depiction of a time when life was simpler.” Dobson seems to define synonymity with Christmas by broad morality and the presence of an angel. Apparently, so do many of his readers, as Dobson concludes his review by asking them if, after giving to their churches, they have “a little ‘extra’ left over that [they] might want to consider investing in our outreach.” 

Regardless of what our constructed holiday symbols represent, The Godfather is a far better representation of a world in need of Jesus and therefore of Christmas. This may sound strange. It certainly lacks the trappings of Christmas nostalgia. Dobson says that prior to watching a Christmas movie with his family, he likes to “make some hot cocoa and popcorn, [and] throw a log on the fire.” The Godfather may not be the best choice for this type of family movie night. When the film aired on NBC in late November of 1974, a New York Times article criticized the network for its “association of…gruesome and sickening films with Christmas.” I am not suggesting that anyone replace nostalgic traditions with something as heavy as the story of the Corleone family. As singer Jackson Browne says in his song “Rebel Jesus,” “I’ve no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment.” 

But if Christians want to seriously ponder the meaning of Christmas, we need to recognize that it is far more complicated than sprinkling cultural symbols with the perfume of spirituality. If the narrative of the Bible is to be taken seriously, then there must be a compelling reason for the son of God to have been born. Despite its arguably immoral content, explicit presentation of religious hypocrisy, and lack of many overt references to Christmas, The Godfather presents humanity as being in need to something outside of itself, and it is therefore far more reflective of the reason for Christmas.

Righting America Blog Categories

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Righting America blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.