In the story many conservative Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics like to tell themselves, they are clinging to the rock of ages of Christian faith as a money-and-pleasure-mad world sweeps over them and threatens their “values.” To an ever-increasing extent, conservative Christians cluster together in their churches, civic organizations, schools, neighborhoods, and media environments. They seek nothing from “this world,” other than the right to practice their religion and raise their children in it, free of the contamination of a wicked and godless society. Yet they are constantly besieged and sometimes persecuted. Some comfort themselves with self-righteous claims of sanctity, identifying with saints and modern witnesses to faith against power like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German theologian executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler).
It’s an emotionally satisfying self-portrayal, no doubt. But there is growing evidence that America’s conservative believers need to look in the mirror to see the most pervasive “secularist” threat. In their passionate embrace of cultural and political counterrevolution, many conservative Christians are now more addicted to power, and to entirely secular goals that confuse traditional culture with holiness, than their allegedly infidel enemies are. This development is most evident in the religious cult of Donald Trump, the heathenish and hate-filled political warlord whose own values are about as antithetical to those of the Prince of Peace as one can imagine. While Trump has exploited and magnified the burgeoning tendency of believers to conflate cultural reaction with holiness, it appears likely to transcend and survive his own career.
As historian and Baptist minister Ryan Burge explains, the very word Evangelical is now so intensely identified with secular conservatism and Republican politics that people who aren’t Protestant, aren’t Christian, and aren’t even religious are adopting it:
It used to be that when many people thought about Evangelicalism, they conjured up an image of a fiery preacher imploring them to accept Jesus. Now the data indicate that more and more Americans are conflating Evangelicalism with Republicanism — and melding two forces to create a movement that is not entirely about politics or religion but power.
And while this secularization trend might have augmented the number of “conservative Christians” by adding to their ranks (if not their pews) those who believe in MAGA far more than the Gospels, it has also created an upheaval within many churches, where political litmus tests are replacing creeds as central tenets of faith. Evangelical writer (and former aide to three Republican presidents) Peter Wehner recently wrote in The Atlantic that he is hearing an alarming number of stories of laypeople purging the clergy for such heresies as opposing racism:
“Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every Evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,” a pastor and prominent figure within the Evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) “It’s everywhere.”
Wehner shares my view that a weird inversion is under way in which the most self-righteous believers aren’t motivated by anything recognizable as religious belief, much less Christian faith. It’s more of a folk-religious impulse to value nation, tribe, and patriarchy:
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, argues that Trump represents the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of many of white Evangelicals’ most deeply held values. Her thesis is that American Evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.
This is a tendency, ironically, that is promoted, rather than discouraged, by the famous Evangelical focus on the Bible as the inerrant Word of God:
“Evangelicals are quick to label their values ‘biblical,’” Du Mez told me. “But how they interpret the scriptures, which parts they decide to emphasize and which parts they decide to ignore, all this is informed by their historical and cultural circumstances.”
This is how you get to a body of Bible believers obsessed with a handful of verses condemning homosexuality and ready to invent out of thin air scriptural condemnations of abortion, while ignoring the massive record of Judeo-Christian teachings on social justice and the equality of all people. It’s also how you get the Cafeteria Catholics of the Right, who cherish the Church’s cultural traditionalism while rejecting the Vatican’s teachings on climate change, poverty, and peace. Even so, it’s hard to completely understand how so many American Christians have convinced themselves that 100 percent–secular causes like absolute gun and property rights, or freedom from vaccinations, came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets.
The real peril for conservative Christians is that they will wind up as the very opposite of Bonhoeffer and other brave opponents of totalitarianism. In their latest marriage to right-wing politics, they more greatly resemble the many European Christians who became enthusiastic advocates for fascism in the 1930s as a necessary weapon against “feminized” modern culture and leftist politics. A MAGA Christianity based on sanctifying 1950s lifestyles and robber-baron economics, led by a former president full of lies and invective, is truly on the road to perdition.