Recently, journalist John Stoehr said it plainly:
“[W]hite evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump isn’t rooted in hypocrisy, contradiction or merely straying from the straight and narrow. The reason they support a fascist president is simple: They’re sadists.”
Here, Stoehr isn’t talking about sexual sadism but about a broader meaning, one he cites to philosopher Richard Rorty. Stoehr explains that “[s]adists are sadistic not because they are cruel. It’s much simpler than that. They are cruel because being cruel to people deserving cruelty feels good.”
Stoehr suggests a link between a theology of hell and this good feeling that comes from being cruel. I would argue that it’s not just their belief in hell but runs through American Christianity: the prolegomena, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, and pneumology. It’s one path to getting garbage like this.
So, what does that mean for Christians who don’t want to be lumped together with sadists? What do we do?
It’s a question that emerged during the Trump primary run and has stayed with us since. Can we just call the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals who supported Trump not-Christians? That’s a dodge.
What happens when we do share core elements of our faith with people who also believe that it’s okay to lock children in dog kennels or snatch their parents from them while they are at school?
Here, I think we might be tempted to take a lesson from the Religious Right.
Here is my simple definition of that term: those people who believe that their conservative religious beliefs drive their conservative political beliefs.
Now, this does not mean that their religious beliefs are actually orthodox–very often, they are based on the inventions of the 19th century crackpots John Nelson Darby or Cyrus I. Scofield. Proponents of dispensationalism, their radical ideas dramatically changed Protestantism–though many Protestants don’t even realize that these ideas are relatively new in the history of theology, not concepts rooted in Biblical traditions. And this is just one example of an invented Biblical tradition that doesn’t have very deep roots.
Nor does it mean that their politics are driven by their religion. They are mostly driven by racism and a broader fear of difference. But they claim that their vote for a racist misogynist is inspired by their religion, not his and their racism and sexism.
It’s their politics–a politics of resentment–that keep them together, with their religion offering cover.
What is interesting to me about this approach to religion and politics is that the details of the religion don’t matter much. Now, I don’t mean to say that Muslims could join (They can’t, no matter how politically conservative they might be.), so there are limits.
But fundamentalist Protestants who otherwise think that the Pope is the Anti-Christ (Pope Francis in particular, but all the other popes, too) will rally with devout Catholics if its to protest abortion rights. Evangelicals who decry the high church tradition as idolatry will hang with conservative Lutherans if the political goal is the same. General Baptists who believe that Particular Baptists are deadly wrong on their beliefs about free will work together to support the same candidate, provided he’s homophobic enough.
Its like that old Emo Phillips joke: they’ll kill each other over the most minute theological differences.
But, boy, all that disappears when the candidate is right.
If theological differences don’t matter in pursuit of political power for the Religious Right, it’s tempting to say that theological similarities to such folks don’t matter. I mean, if theology isn’t important to so many religious and political conservatives (and it’s not, despite their accusation that it’s liberals who “don’t take the Bible seriously”), why should it matter to those of us on the religious and political left?
It would be a relief to say, after all, that our shared belief in God isn’t enough to hold us together. That we’re not the same kind of Christians so don’t lump us together.
I’m not willing to go there, not because I want to be in the same boat as these folks. My inclination is the one Phillips describes, with a variation. I don’t much care about which confession you sign on to, but I would have to fight myself hard not to push you off a bridge if you support child internment camps.
So I definitely don’t want to be in the same boat as the majority of white evangelicals. But here I am, sharing major points of their theology.
Jumping ship–or pushing out other Christians from the boat–would be too easy, would relieve me of the burden I should have to carry: to continually return to those core beliefs and ask myself which of them are useful and which are dangerous, which give cover to hate.
I have more in common with these Christians than I want to admit. If I jump out of the boat–or throw them overboard–I get to pretend that’s not true. Staying here–admitting that I have a history with these folks that shapes my present way of being in the world–is the work of this moment for me.