Righting America

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The Same Old Evangelical Enemies | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Editor’s Note: this piece appeared earlier this week at Word&Way. We are happy to share it here for our readers!

Picture of book cover for "Righting America at the Creation Museum" by Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger.
Book Cover, Righting America at the Creation Museum by Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr. (2016).

Historians have long grappled with the dynamics of evangelical faith. For example, why does resentment seem more important than repentance? Why are evangelicals so angry? Anti-intellectualism, in-and-out group dynamics (being left out of the majority culture and church), a sense of being anointed by God with the truth, and a sense of being constantly assailed by the Devil have always been part of the evangelical gumbo.

The overall umbrella for these characteristics is populism. Armed with the Bible and common sense, evangelical populists rally people to a cause rooted in the creation of enemies to demonize. A people who are, as Christians, supposed to be known by their love and hospitality, are instead known by their age-old resentments. Evangelicals have produced their own multi-generation version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

Evangelicals are haunted by Charles Darwin, Clarence Darrow, and Harry Emerson Fosdick. The essence of faith is attacking the enemy with victimization, resentment, and revenge the required liturgies. Creating enemies – real or imagined – and maintaining a deep sense of resentment matters more than evangelism. Instead of loving enemies, there’s resenting them. Instead of praying for enemies, there’s attacking them. Evangelicals, in a zeal that challenges the Pharisees, scour the nation for a single enemy and then make that enemy the child of the devil or the devil himself.

Enemies serve as scapegoats for societal ills. Like most wanted posters in U. S. Post Office lobbies, the enemies of evangelicals are pictured always – visible, personal, with names and faces. At the Creation Museum, for example, enemies are placarded, named, and shamed, especially Darwin. In a section of the museum below the heading, “Scripture Abandoned,” C. I. Scofield and the Scofield Reference Bible appear. William V. and Susan Trollinger say, “This mural signals a remarkable and dramatic fall from grace for C. I. Scofield.” Even fellow Christians end up named, shamed, and turned into enemies.

The Original Enemies

Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859. His key concept, evolution, would become the focus of a prolonged contest among American Christians. Darwin became the favorite demon of fundamentalist preachers. Growing up in a rural area listening to uneducated preachers thunder forth the condemnations of God, you would think that Darwin was a devil living in the woods behind your house.

Clarence Darrow defended Scopes in the famous Dayton, Tennessee trial known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. He was designated enemy number one by fundamentalists after he made William Jennings Bryan look like a misguided juvenile. Darwin and Darrow filled many sermons across the nation in the years following the trial.

In a 1922 sermon, J. Frank Norris brought several monkeys into the pulpit at FBC Fort Worth and pretended to carry on a conversation with them. The showmanship of Norris rivaled that of P. T. Barnum. His circus act with the monkeys left the crowd laughing out loud as Norris worked his rhetorical brilliance into a full-orbed denunciation of evolution.

In 1922 Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” This marked the beginning of the end for the fundamentalists in the mainline churches. The modernists soon controlled the churches, the schools, the denominational structures, and the mission bodies. The fundamentalists retreated into a simmering resentment that resulted in the building of an alternate world filled with their own churches, schools, and institutions. They would not come back in force until the advent of the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell, Sr.

A New Charles Darwin: Anthony Fauci

There’s a modern-day Charles Darwin in the minds of evangelicals: Dr. Anthony Fauci. Right-wing commentator Dave Daubenmire claims Fauci is an “emissary of the devil.” “Friends, as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be at the coming of the Son of Man,” Daubenmire insisted, implying that the vaccine shot was screwing up our DNA just like what happened before Noah when there were giants in the land. He continued, “Dr. Fauci is an emissary of the devil, folks… He is an emissary of Beelzebub himself, sent to deceive and destroy the seed of Christ!”

In a recent Face the Nation interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he represents science. The anger from conservatives was predictable and explosive. Senator Ted Cruz claimed Fauci was “the most dangerous bureaucrat in the history of the country.” Senator Rand Paul was incensed that Fauci claimed to represent science. “The absolute hubris of someone claiming THEY represent science,” Paul said. “It’s astounding and alarming that a bureaucrat would even think to claim such a thing, especially one who has worked so hard to ignore the science of natural immunity.” Senator Tom Cotton repeated the same critical refrain that Fauci was nothing but a bureaucrat.

Photo of Dr. Fauci in a blue sports jacket and black tie sitting in front of a panel with a microphone and his nametag; in the background is a placard that says "We're in this together.

Not to be topped by his fellow hyperbolic fellows, Tucker Carlson compared Fauci to Benito Mussolini. “Tony Fauci has morphed into an even shorter version of Benito Mussolini,” Carlson intoned breathlessly. Lara Logan, host of a Fox News’ streaming platform went completely nuclear by insisting that Fauci was like Josef Mengele, Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. Logan said, “What you see on Dr. Fauci, this is what people say to me, that he represents Josef Mengele. Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews during the Second World War and in the concentration camps.”

When conservatives see a scientist, they see the ghost of Charles Darwin. They are crying for Fauci to retire or die.

A New Clarence Darrow: The ACLU and Liberal Judges

No one lawyer has attracted as much evangelical spite as Clarence Darrow, but an entire spectrum of liberal lawyers and judges are under constant attack. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson did a tag team wrestling match move on a plethora of alleged groups that caused 9/11: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’” To which Mr. Robertson said: “I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.”

Robert Jeffress, complaining about mistreatment, says, “I have been threatened with physical violence and with the loss of our church’s tax-exempt status by the ACLU.” The ACLU haunts Jeffress with a paranoia that they are out to get him and to destroy his church.

Evangelicals have followed former President Trump in attacking the “liberal judges.” When a judge of Hispanic descent was put in charge of the Trump University fraud case, Trump said the judge could not be objective because he was “Mexican.” The judge was born in Indiana. Trump went on to claim that a Muslim judge could not be objective if ruling on his case. The lawyers, the judges, and the liberal court system are the cumulative representative of the ghost of Clarence Darrow. Like Darrow, these lawyers and judges are diabolical and they stand in the way of evangelical victories, at least in the eyes of evangelicals.

A New Harry Emerson Fosdick: Liberal Preachers

No one preacher in our day has the fame and reputation of Harry Emerson Fosdick. Perhaps two preachers who also served Riverside Church as senior pastor are worthy of mention: William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and James Forbes. Perhaps the fiery Jeremiah Wright should receive honorable mention, but it would be hard to identify one preacher whose fame and influence approaches that of Fosdick. Instead, there are many powerful progressive voices and all of them are lumped together by the evangelicals as enemies of God. After almost 100 years, the resentment lingers in the air for evangelicals.

For example, when the Democratic Party hired Rev. Derrick Harkins, a senior vice president at New York’s Union Seminary, as its new religious outreach director, the evangelicals attacked him as if he was Fosdick come back to life. Robert Jeffress claimed Harkins was a “Trump-hating pastor” and that Union Seminary was a “liberal seminary that is filled with liberal professors who couldn’t find God if their life depended on it.” Jeffress represents the blanket attack that evangelicals make on all preachers who are not in lockstep with evangelical notions of truth.

Concluding Thoughts

After a century of resentment, evangelicals continue to draw from the same tired old playbook. The faces and the names change but the primal enemies are the same: Darwin, Darrow, and Fosdick. The same anti-science views inhibit evangelicals from taking responsibility for our planet and its flourishing. Opposing evolution has morphed into opposing COVID-19 vaccinations and any attempt to ward off climate change.

A lawyer, a preacher, and a scientist created a stir that has not subsided to this day. Whenever there’s an evangelical/conservative flare-up against science or liberal preachers and lawyers, the ghosts of Darwin, Darrow, and Fosdick are still haunting evangelical dreams.