Deconstructing White Evangelical Politics
Where does theology end and culture and tradition begin?
One of the most important questions in American politics and culture is this: Is white Evangelical politics primarily a product of consistent theological conviction or primarily a product of culture, tradition, and history?
I single out white Evangelicals because they are both the most important constituency in Republican politics and increasingly outliers in their political views. If they’re outliers because of consistent theological conviction, then so be it. Their (increasingly) lonely stands become a collective version of Martin Luther’s famous declaration, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
But what if the reality is otherwise? What if white Evangelicals are disproportionately flocking to outlier political positions because of a combination of factors that have little to do with theology at all? Instead, what if they’re shaped by far more mundane (though still quite powerful) cultural forces that ultimately have little to do with faith and then misinterpreting the cultural as theological?
Then both the nation and the church have a problem. The church’s problem is quite obvious—it misrepresents the nature and meaning of the Christian faith to the American people (and the world). It misrepresents the nature and meaning of the Christian faith to itself.
The nation’s problem is obvious as well. It’s forced to deal with a community that treats ideas and policies that are both highly debatable and culturally contingent as if they’re matters of fierce religious conviction. It’s one thing to discuss an issue with someone who understands their position is debatable. It’s another thing entirely to engage with a person or community who equates compromise with apostasy.
This isn’t a new debate. I’m an old-school religious conservative. I came of age politically during the era of the Moral Majority. I’ve been hearing sociological and historical critiques of Christian conservatism since college.
I’ve always recognized the flaws in the movement, and my response to the question of whether theology and doctrine were of primary importance to the movement was always the same—for all its flaws, Republican Christian conservatism is mainly driven by deeply rooted, theologically coherent faith convictions and not by the perhaps more deeply rooted “folkways” or customs of a disproportionately white, disproportionately rural, and disproportionately Southern American subculture.
I no longer believe this to be true. I now see that when theology and culture collide—or when theology and partisanship collide—a disturbing number of white Evangelicals will choose culture. But they’ll still believe they’re choosing faith, and that profound misunderstanding is contributing to a dynamic that is tearing this nation apart.
Why have I changed my mind? The answer is quite simple—the theological convictions of Christian conservatism were put to a profound stress test, and the convictions failed. Partisanship prevailed. Populism prevailed. In some ways, the South prevailed.
Let me put it another way. I’m old enough to remember the words and expressed beliefs of even some of the most enthusiastic Trumpist Evangelicals before they supported Trump, and this much I know: If I’d told them in December 2014 that white Evangelicals would shortly vote in overwhelming numbers for a thrice-married man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, appeared in a Playboy movie, paid hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star, and was facing multiple corroborated claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault, they’d say that only Democrats were that hypocritical.
Then, if I followed that up by saying that a disproportionate number of that same Evangelical community would shun pre-vaccine mask-wearing and social distancing in the midst of a deadly pandemic that would claim hundreds of thousands of American lives and then disproportionately reject life-saving vaccines, they’d think I was an anti-Christian bigot.
If I capped off my prophecy by noting that white Evangelicals would be far more likely than virtually any other American community to embrace wild election conspiracy theories and then a subset of that community would literally storm the Capitol with prayers on their lips, then their assessment of me would be clinched. They’d think I’d simply lost my mind.
But that’s where we are. And don’t think for a minute that those views are the only Evangelical outliers. Here are some others.
On matters of race, for example, the disparities are just staggering. Last year, the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture documented an extraordinary gulf. There’s a 50-point gap between white Evangelicals and black Americans on the question of whether “racism—unequal treatment of whites and blacks—is a very serious threat.” There’s a 30-point gap between white Evangelicals and white non-Evangelicals.
There are similarly giant gaps on questions of police brutality and perceptions of American history. And if you think those gaps are mainly driven by theology, non-white Evangelicals are much closer to secular Americans in their perceptions of race problems in the United States. In addition, non-white Evangelicals are, “twice as likely as White Evangelicals to say that inequality and poverty are a very or extremely serious threat to the country.”
This is not the result you’d expect from a community whose politics is centered around biblical justice. It is the result you’d expect from a community disproportionately shaped by the history, culture, and traditions of the white American South.
The white Evangelical political distinctions extend well beyond relationships between black and white. On immigration, white Evangelicals are again extreme outliers. They’re far more likely to support family separation when parents enter the country illegally. They’re far more likely to support decreasing even legal immigration by 50 percent. They’re more likely to have supported Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. Again, these positions depart substantially from those of non-white Evangelicals.
Moreover, if you think that all this is just noise, and that the true measure of white Evangelical voters is their virtuous commitment to ending abortion (a commitment I share), then think again. There’s powerful statistical evidence that white Evangelicals aren’t really that committed to the legal pro-life cause.
Majorities don’t want to ban abortion. Majorities don’t prioritize abortion. Indeed, there’s strong evidence that “white evangelical Republican support for Donald Trump is based more on immigration policy than his view of abortion.”
Consider this (partial) white Evangelical outlier list—Trump, masks, vaccines, the 2020 election, police brutality, family separation, Muslim bans—how many of these outlier Evangelical positions flow directly from an unambiguously biblical theology? Do any of them?
“Deconstruction” is a hot topic in elite Evangelicalism. It’s a word with many meanings. At its best it can represent an honest, critical re-examination of not just your personal faith, but also the theology and behavior of your faith community. We should be in a constant process of interrogating our own beliefs and actions in light of the person and example of Jesus Christ.
White Evangelical politics are due for deconstruction. But a critical part of that deconstruction can and should note that white Evangelicals are not operating in a political vacuum. In reality, America is dealing with the toxic effects of two powerful outlier communities, and both feed on each other’s dysfunction to justify their own radicalization.
At the same time that white Evangelicals have radicalized in ways that would shock the conscience of the 2014 version of even an enthusiastic Christian Trumpist, millions of white progressives have gone through their own version of a quasi-religious political revival.
The phenomenon has been amply documented. White Democrats are now far more secular than nonwhite Democrats. They’re to the left even of black Democrats on racial issues. The core of “progressive activists” on the far left of the political divide is not only overwhelmingly white (almost as white as the heavily religious “devoted conservatives” who anchor the American right), they’re far more likely to be ashamed to be American, to “never” pray, and to view individual outcomes as matters of “luck and circumstance.”
The result is a relentless cycle of competing extremes. A school in a secular progressive community tries to teach young children about the evils of “whiteness.” Outraged at this “wokeness,” legislators representing conservative religious communities attempt to ban books. Both radical acts reinforce the perceived necessity of a radical response.
And when it comes to the radical response, a segment of white Evangelicals are defaulting not to theology, but rather to culture and tradition—the “folkways” I mentioned above.
“You’re ashamed to be an American? Our patriotism merges with our faith!”
“You’re in favor of gun control and want to ban AR-15s? Behold our gun-toting Christmas cards!”
“Cancel culture? Two can play at that game!”
“You’re taking aim at masculinity? Our movement is manly and muscular!”
The goal is opposition. The method is reaction. And because it’s all taking place in a deeply religious community, the blurring of culture, tradition, and faith is nearly complete. The result is a political culture that I do not recognize but now see that I should have foreseen.
Yet all is not lost. As this summer’s battles at the Southern Baptist Convention illustrate, there are many Evangelicals who are deeply distressed at the cruelty, extremism, and extraordinary political focus of the deeply reactionary neo-fundamentalist movement in American Christianity. These distressed Evangelicals aren’t “woke.” They’re not even “moderate” by any conventional description.
They are, however, profoundly worried about the politicization of the church and cannot consent to any form of Christian nationalism. They’re pro-life because love and justice demand that communities protect their most vulnerable members. They’re also deeply concerned with racism in part because they know the church itself played its own dreadful role in protecting and indulging America’s original sin. They welcome refugees, and they respect religious liberty.
Many of them are political conservatives looking for ways to oppose extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, they often don’t see the new right as “conservative” at all.
But those voices aren’t heard enough. They’re shouted down by the radicalized extremes and sometimes quite literally threatened into silence. Any internal critique is seen as giving aid and comfort to the hated foe. And millions of Americans are thus deceived. They’re taught their politics are the logical and thoughtful expression of profound faith, rather than an often-destructive artifact of a history and culture that was not always just and sometimes rejects the truth of the very scriptures they seek to protect.
One more thing …
In the latest Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I do a deep dive into the struggle to define a truly “Christian” politics, including the difference between correlation and causation in faith and politics. I continue to be so encouraged by your responses, including your incredibly thoughtful emails and arguments in response.
One last thing …
I asked for Christmas music suggestions, and you delivered. Thank you. So this week I’m embedding a reader suggestion, a lesser-known hymn that’s simply marvelous. Enjoy: