Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mourning in America – Part VI: From Evangelicals to Anti-Christs

If there were any clear losers in this election, it was America’s white evangelicals. Under the guise of the Moral Majority and “values voters,” these self-appointed guardians of America’s supposed “traditional family values” have historically sought to bring focus to issues of character and morality, the latter almost inevitably cast in terms of repressive sexual mores. Presuming to speak in the name of G-d, evangelical Protestantism has been the face of the Christian religion in virtually all the parts of the country that turned dark red on election day.

But in this election, white evangelicals embraced the candidate whose character was the antithesis of traditional evangelical values - a serial polygamist and a misogynist who routinely abused many of the women with whom he came into contact. In doing so, evangelicals revealed that they had given up any pretense of concern for their tradition’s  values. 

But that sexual pathology was but the tip of the iceberg. 

With the embrace of a candidate who proudly and repeatedly demonstrated a virulently misanthropic vision - marked by its denial of the humanity of women, immigrants, veterans, LBGTQ people, Muslims, Mexicans and people of color - any pretense that a religion invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth was the basis for their vote could no longer be maintained in good faith.  Indeed, as evangelical theologian and Sojourners editor Jim Wallis put it,  in the end white evangelical support for Trump proved “literally antithetical to every Christian value.”

Truncated Visions of Spirit 

In all fairness, I must confess up front to never having had a terribly high impression of evangelicalism dating back to my first contacts with it in my childhood. Sin/salvation theologies have always struck me as simplistic, overly moralistic and heavily control oriented. Sola scriptura, while initially an effective critique of Roman Catholic tradition, was born on a slippery slope that more often than not ends in bibliolatry. 

None of that ever made much sense to me. 

Even so, I have always admired evangelical facility with the text of scriptures even as it is most often engaged absent any level of critical context or subtext. That tends to render the reader free to apply his or her own context and subtext in order for the text to make sense. 

Little wonder evangelicalism has historically been highly sectarian. 

Moreover, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures form a major part of the bedrock of western culture. It is impossible to understand what it means to be human in the 21st CE West without some level of awareness of those scriptures. 

 The texts that we Christians call our Bible contain much that is worthy of our consideration. Unfortunately, it also contains much that we need to recognize as the products of a culture from a different place and time which, when appropriated acontexutally and imposed on a modern western culture, can form the roots of cultural tyranny. 

I have lived among evangelicals all my life including some of my own family members and many I call my friends. While I have learned the hard way not to talk about religion or politics with them, I also have borne a modicum of respect if not so much for the content of their belief systems than their insistence upon their right to hold those beliefs as they see fit. And I have learned to appreciate them for their devotion to their religious path, however untenable I may find it personally. 

That is precisely why their behavior in this election, which proved to be the absolute antithesis of whatever might have been admirable about their spiritual path, was so disappointing. 

Fetal Politics 

“Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.” - George Carlin
Until recently the marks of American evangelicalism could largely be summed up in two words: Piety and Purity. 

The former is observable in the devotion of its members to the practices they call Bible study. Assessing such practices as actual “study” stretches the definition to the breaking point. Most bible studies pay little attention to its historical, contextual or critical elements focusing instead on individual applications of scripture to one’s immediate life or inherited theological understandings swallowed whole. 

Even so, the devotion of the attendees is remarkable. And their tendencies to attend worship services in their churches on a regular basis speaks volumes to their concern for piety. 

Piety can also seen in the dogged insistence of evangelicals upon evangelizing others, making stands and giving testimony to what they see as the one true faith. This often occurs in settings which evidence a tone-deafness to context or any consideration for others. 

We encounter this piety in football players pointing to heaven to thank the deity for a touchdown catch (like G-d really made the defensive player fall down), street corner evangelizers with bullhorns blasting Hell fire and damnation to bemused passersby and tracts bearing “turn or burn” messages left in public toilet stalls. What is more remarkable about these efforts is less the content of the message as much as the perseverance of the messengers, particularly in the face of a public that is often disinterested at best and irritated at worst.

The concern for purity has historically been observable in the evangelical obsession with controlling the human body generally and the resulting politics of genitalia. Evangelicals have long advocated abstinence only approaches to birth control outside of marriage and their states generally reflect the short-sightedness of this approach with their high rates of illegitimacy and teen births.
Similarly, until this election, evangelicals have opposed pornography even as their states show the highest rates of its consumption online. And, sadly, evangelicals routinely confuse the social prejudice of homophobia with a tenet of revealed faith and their states have the highest rates of homophobic hate crime and discriminatory laws to show for it. 

But the behavior of white evangelicals in the 2016 Election signals a paradigm shift which reveals the values of Trumpland. Where evangelicals were previously focused on piety and purity, a new set of values have taken their place: Power, Privilege, Punitiveness all in service of Patriarchy. 

An Out for White Evangelicals 

Mennonite theologian Howard Yoder assessed white evangelical support for Trump as having three bases: opposition to abortion, desires to dominate the Supreme Court and an irrational, obsessive hatred of a demonized caricature of Hillary Clinton. Yoder noted that the violent images of a Clinton who supported “ripping babies out of mothers’ wombs” had never been Clinton’s position and that Trump had, for most of his life, supported abortion. Such facts aside, saving babies always seemed to be the major reason cited by evangelicals for supporting the Trump ticket.”

Evangelicals were not always obsessed with abortion. Initially neutral or even supportive of abortion rights when that issue came to a head in the late 1970s with the Roe v. Wade case, it is only over the past three decades evangelicals have become defined by their opposition to abortion under any conditions. Several evangelical dominated statehouses have recently pushed through legislation to make abortions impossible through disingenuous “safety regulations,” some even requiring funerals for aborted fetuses. 

It would be the willingness of Trump to play to that obsession that would provide evangelical voters their needed rationalization for supporting a monster who was the antithesis of their values. Focusing on the desire for a political appointment to the Supreme Court who would ultimately undo Roe v. Wade, evangelical voters gladly threw away their concerns for character and morality while telling themselves it was all about abortion. 

In the end they would help elect a candidate who has himself supported abortion. They would elect a First Lady who is the candidate’s third wife and a former pornography star. They would elect a candidate who publicly obsessed over women’s menstrual cycles during the debates and thereafter on Twitter and confessed to his desire to engage in sexual assaults. Indeed, several of the women he had formerly encountered alleged this was not mere wishful thinking on the Donald’s part. 

Abortion votes on the Supreme Court became the very slender reed with which evangelicals rationalized their decision to blacken the circle next to the name of a monster. But at a very basic level, it signaled the end of any claims the religious right could hold to being the moral conscience of the nation. 

Caucasian Uber Alles

Many analysts prior to the election believed that Trump’s misogyny would alienate enough women to insure Hillary Clinton’s election. From his boasting of his sense of entitlement to grab women by their vaginas to his constantly demeaning references to Hillary Clinton as “that nasty woman,” the presumption was that women generally - and evangelical women in particular - would find such adolescent and blatantly misogynist behavior the bottom line in determining their vote. Many of them told the pollsters as much. 

Ultimately, it did not prove to be so. As I see it, there were two reasons for this.

One of the revelations of the post-modern movement has been the phenomenon of intersectionality, the way in which multiple social constructions, the discriminations that emanate from them and the privileges they bestow or withhold, can intersect within a given individual. A woman of color who is lesbian, for instance, is negatively socially impacted in three different ways in a sexist, racist and homophobic culture. Determining how to balance concerns is an ongoing work in progress for those enduring intersectional discriminations.

 While the Clinton campaign bet the farm on the sexist piece as the bottom line, in the end it was race which proved to be the determining factor. That’s hardly surprising. If Jim Wallis is correct that slavery - and its toxic progeny racism -   are America’s original sin, the power and privilege of race would be the bottom line for white women. 

Given the racial breakdown of the electorate, it appears that this bottom line proved decisive for white women generally. Why would they want to give up their privilege in a racist society so long as their race maintained the power to dominate it? Such would be a particularly pointed concern at the end of eight years of a mixed-race presidency by an electorate in which predictable white dominance was demonstrably eroding away. 

As Marcie Bianco notes in her online essay “What Sisterhood?“, white women have a long history of betraying their sisters of color. Why? Because, as the article’s title suggests, “they still believe white men are their saviors.” Indeed, it is precisely their willing participation in patriarchy historically – and the benefits which have flowed from that participation - that has insured its ongoing power. 

For evangelicals, Donald Trump became the apotheosis of this conjunction of new evangelical values of power, privilege, punitiveness and patriarchy.  In the end they chose to worship a misogynist white Messiah

Jesus Who?

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.  Matthew 4

If evangelicals betrayed their own values in this election, trading in concerns for purity and piety for the concerns of mammon – power, privilege, punitiveness and patriarchy – the more serious loss in this exchange was the core of their own sacred identity. They may have helped elect a monster who at least paid face value to a will to power ultimately focused on imposing their theological agenda on the country. But in the process they managed to sell their very souls to the Great Tempter.

In the first two centuries, the followers of Jesus were busy arguing among themselves about the Way of Jesus they sought to follow. Increasingly concern for orthopraxis, a way of living, would be lost as groups organized around competing orthodoxies, constructions of the Christos, the anointed one, vying with one another for the power to define an emerging new religion called Christianity. With the recognition of Christianity as the imperial religion in the 4th CE, a creedal Christianity would increasingly reflect the values of that empire: power, privilege, punitiveness and patriarchy.

That trajectory has reached its logical conclusion with the 2016 election. The most fervent supporters of an immoral monster crowned as messianic savior were those whose evangelical faith was their common denominator. In the end, nothing could have been less like the Jesus whose name they invoked. 

The Jesus of the Gospels was himself an immigrant, surviving the great infanticide of Herod the Great’s purge because of the largesse of Egypt where his family fled as refugees. Trump demonized immigrants caricaturizing them as drug dealers and murderers, pledging to build a wall to keep them out. 

The Jesus of the Gospels routinely demonstrated respect for women, particularly noteworthy in a strongly patriarchal culture. He engaged women as valued individuals, accepting their confrontation of his own misanthropic views of outsiders in his exchange with the Canaanite woman. He challenged the men ready to stone the woman caught in adultery knowing that adultery always required two participants, one of whom was male and who was likely present, stone in hand. Trump routinely demeaned women, boasted of accosting women and many stepped forward to accuse him of sexual improprieties. 

The Jesus of the Gospels demonstrated a respect for the practice of marriage, challenging the patriarchal customs of his day in which women could be discarded as one more consumer good and replaced with another. Trump is on his third wife and made most of the country nauseous with statements that he saw his daughter as “a piece of ass” that, were he not her father, he’d “go for it.”

The Jesus of the Gospels cast a despised Samaritan, a resident of the region bordering his own Judea whose religion was seen as inferior by devout Jews, as the hero of the parable about how to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Trump painted Muslims as terrorists. 

The Jesus of the Gospels routinely encouraged the poor, telling them that G-d saw them as “blessed” and advising his followers to give to those who beg. Trump consistently fails to pay his laborers, has opposed any kind of raise to approximate a living wage for workers and routinely demonizes unions. 

It is pretty clear the poor will be anything but blessed in Trumpland.

 The New Antichrists 

In the first couple of centuries of the common era, as the developing Christian tradition sought to define itself, it was the custom of competing groups to anathematize their competitors. Long before the AntiChrist - an archetypal bogeyman largely constructed by televangelists and film makers -  became the obsession of evangelicals, early Christians called each other out when their beliefs and their behaviors were seen as adversarial to the Way of Jesus. 

They called them anti-christs, those who beliefs and behaviors were the antithesis of the Christ whose Way they sought to follow.  

With the shift of focus of white evangelicals in Trumpland, that assessment once again seems appropriate.  Whatever else Trump may have been about, he was clearly not about the Way of Jesus. And whatever else his evangelical supporters may say they are about, their values and the candidate they have just helped elect epitomize just the opposite of that Way. 

In perhaps one of history’s greatest ironies, it is those who believe they have acted in the name of Jesus who have become the antichrists of Trumpland. And it is they who drove the nails through the wrists and ankles of a once great nation now crucified, a people once called America. 

[Continued with Part VII]
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston, 2016

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