I was brought up during the late fifties and early sixties attending my family’s church, Calvin Presbyterian on Little Creek Road in Norfolk. We lived in a white middle-class neighborhood, and everyone we associated with looked like us. I would resist having to attend church services and functions, but would do so in order to please my parents. The church teachings seemed so insular and conforming compared to what I was learning about the world in school and on television. And yet I knew the importance of Bible stories that illustrated the ideal of loving kindness toward strangers and teachings for living a virtuous life.
We watched a lot of TV back then and would sometimes watch televangelists like Oral Roberts perform their healing miracles in their tent revivals. It was the religious equivalent of watching professional wrestling. They seemed so sincere that it was hard to believe that it was all a charade. Maybe God really did work through supernatural intervention, if only we were to have enough faith.
The sixties were the early days of CBN and Pat Robertson’s ‘700 Club’ on television. The burgeoning network originally broadcast from a small Portsmouth studio and some of my neighbors would watch it. I found that the show’s extreme political views, the staged prayers, and rampant hucksterism to be in bad taste, and downright creepy. But the program got your attention and was wildly successful. They had figured out the right formula for saving souls and raising donations. Their faith in the literal interpretation of The Good Book combined with mass prayer and marketing skills built an empire that was the envy of any entrepreneur. Their product was salvation and all of America was their free market.
Pat has gone on over the years to become friends and confidant of presidents, and to groom political leaders like Virginia governor Bob McDonell. The Republican leadership including Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence’s family members appear regularly on his show and in turn Pat’s people go into key positions within government. Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the CBN affiliated American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is now Trump’s personal lawyer who argues against the Mueller investigation. He has his own radio show Jay Sekulow Live! that’s broadcast on hundreds of Christian radio channels. He will then switch hats and appear in interviews on Fox and CNN to defend the shady exploits of the president. He’s a tenacious bulldog and he must do Pat proud.
All the political dirty deeds done in the name of Christ can be justified by many evangelical leaders. And fortunately for them, it’s not one’s works or merit that get you into Heaven, it’s your conforming belief in the revealed truth of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. “Faith, not works” means there’s no room to compromise Christianity as the only path to salvation. When one is ‘born again’ in Christ, one may be compelled to do good works, but such works are not enough to gain entry into the pearly gates.
Trump’s own misdeeds are deemed inconsequential as compared to his strong defense of Christian interests and values. He is seen by many evangelicals as an instrument for a divine plan. Church leaders believe that the Lord predetermines life’s outcomes and that they purport to have certain knowledge of this plan. This begs the question, how is it that man is able to exercise any free will in their top-down authoritarian cosmos? Anything and everything that fits into their Biblical agenda for America can be justified as God’s will.
Evangelicals are a worldwide, trans-denominational Protestant movement that began in the early 1700s. Whereas fundamentalism is a much more recent movement that arose in the early 20th century in reaction to modernism and the new scientific theories of Darwinian evolution and deep geological time. It was a split with theological liberalism, which aimed to revise traditional Christian beliefs to accommodate natural science.
Fundamentalists feared a world interpreted through a lens of scientific materialism and atheism, and turned to a strict literal understanding of the Bible. It’s a uniquely American form of Christianity that’s not found in cultures where philosophy and comparative religion are part of the education curriculum. Students gain awareness of the world’s diverse faiths and can choose less extreme religious practices that are more compassionate.
The concerns about secular society that energize evangelicals and fundamentalists are legitimate. The fear of raising children up in a secular society saturated with media and lacking any moral instruction. Violence and sexual acts are easily accessible on the web and are exploited in video games and Hollywood movies and television. Society no longer recognizes the primacy of the traditional family structure. Same sex marriage, gender fluidity, and transsexuality have gained legitimacy by media and government within a very short time. Christians feel besieged but risk being perceived as bigots if they raise objections to the new moral order being forced on them.
One can certainly commiserate with the Christian right about the moral decay of civil society. But thinking adults disagree on the systemic causes of our social breakdown. And the embrace by evangelicals of Trump’s racist agenda to “make America white again” has done irreparable damage to the credibility of the southern Christian church.
Christian evangelists, right-wing media, and big corporate funding have joined forces and now dominate the Republican agenda. Evangelicals have facilitated the ascendancy of Trump and now that they are in control, they have no intention of relinquishing power back to the bleeding heart liberals. The memories of eight long years of Barack Obama along with the legalization of same-sex marriage are way too painful for conservatives to ever give up their fight. Pat Robertson has lived to see his most cherished vision for a Christian America to come closer to fruition. Godly men have now been placed in control of the Federal courts, the State Department, Federal regulatory agencies, and state legislatures.
Political partisanship hasn’t been so inflammatory since the Vietnam War years. Both political parties have exploited the fears and biases of Americans. The Republican Party has capitalized on the issues of abortion, religious freedom, gun ownership, immigration, traditional family values, small government, and white supremacy. Their constituency has become 70% white Christian. They are older, rural, and they vote. Their total numbers may be in the minority, but they win by taking advantage of the electoral college, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and large corporate donations.
In contrast, the Democratic Party is now only 30% white Christian. Their diverse constituency includes ethnic groups, LGBTs, immigrants, women, and Hispanics. African Americans now make up 25% of the party, requiring the party leadership to do a better job of passing legislation that counters institutional racism. Their issues are substantial – quality public education, economic equality, universal health care, judicial reform, mass incarceration, and welfare programs for the underclass. They talk a good game but the Democratic leadership has a dismal track record. Their neglect of the plight of workers and the poor has directly abetted the rise of Trump.
Each of the parties are viewed by the other side as being the problem and the enemy – the party of the Christian right versus secular liberalism. Party partisanship has intensified and each side has their own media outlets propagating their worldview. And yet both parties are funded by Wall Street capital and wealthy donors. Until campaign finance reform is legislated, nothing can really change. Government legislation will continue to benefit corporations rather than the concerns of working people.
Social issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration are a useful diversion in keeping Americans divided, scared, and angry. In so doing, our institutions can continue to ignore crucial issues like climate change, health care, endless war, and sustainable energy policies. Media manipulation and negligence is designed so that the corporate sector can proceed to reap trillions by plundering the earth’s finite resources and by fulfilling the endless needs of the U.S. war machine.
The Christian right has always championed American patriotism and imperialism. The faithful are instructed from the pulpit on Sunday mornings about American exceptionalism and about ongoing efforts by missionaries to evangelize Christianity to the world. American military intervention can be justified as necessary for the spread of democracy and capitalism around the world. Seldom is there a critique of the bloated military budget or a questioning of the morality of waging war. Conservatives believe that the violent and sinful nature of man means that there will always be war. The clergy emphasizes the need for individual salvation rather than questioning the systemic causes of war.
The belief in an unregulated free market system has become a religious subset of Protestant evangelicals. Socialist policies and social welfare are their scapegoats. Sunday sermons across the country are aligned in their message of rugged individualism and self-interest as motivators for personal prosperity and for collective economic growth. This is political ideology masquerading as religion.
For many of us, the conservative Christian worldview seems so obviously counter to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel. The story of the young Jewish rabbi who lived his life in oppression under the occupying Roman empire and who sided with women, the outcasts, and the poor. His family from Nazareth became immigrants seeking refuge first in Bethlehem and then in Egypt. His simple doctrine was to love God, to love thy neighbor as thyself, and to practice loving kindness. He seems to have had no intention of starting a new religion.
Conservative political positions can be backed up by selecting the right Biblical verses for their agenda. Orthodoxy has never been able to cope with the pleasures of diverse human sexuality. It’s limited to affirming only heterosexual relationships and sexual union only within marriage. The rejection by conservative Christians of recent legislation recognizing LGBT rights and same-sex marriage fuels the fervor of the Republican base. But as a consequence of the church’s lack of tolerance and acceptance, the youth culture is leaving it far behind.
According to a recent poll in Christianity Today, church membership has declined sharply since the 1970s for almost all affiliations with the exception of evangelicals whose numbers have remained fairly constant at around 23% of the total U.S. population. Catholics have been leaving the church with the revelation of each new sex scandal and now they comprise around the same percentage as evangelicals. That percentage would be much less if not for the replenishment of their congregations by Catholic Latinos and Filipinos who have immigrated to the U.S.
Mainline Protestant denominations have suffered the worst. Their loss of members and the number of churches since 1975 have caused a decline from 30% of Americans to just 11% in 2016. Black Protestant church members hold steady at 11%, Jews are around 2%, and other faiths combined are 6%. People who identify as having no religion or church has seen the most growth and is close to 23%.
In comparison to European countries, America is still much more religious. But the trend is moving away from religious identification. and this will not be helpful for the future of the Republican Party. In addition, there is a fracturing of the powerful political alliance between Catholics and white evangelicals. Over the last 30 years, the group’s cohesiveness was based around a common opposition to abortion – a cause for which evangelicals came relatively late – and a wider rejection of feminism and gay culture. But the Christian churches have grown apart over Pope Francis’ emphasis on social, economic, and environmental justice. In addition, the influence of the growing number of Catholic immigrants who are people of color have little in common culturally with white Protestants.
Evangelicals have further splintered since the election of Trump. Black evangelicals are of course, firmly Democratic and white evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican. But a growing Christian movement within white congregations is countering the domination of conservative evangelicals. The new documentary ‘American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel’ will show on Wednesday, Aug 14 with discussion. The film was made by sisters Jeanine and Catherine Butler, who will take us to “the Buckle of the Bible Belt where a group of defiant Oklahomans are rising up to challenge deeply rooted fundamentalist Christian doctrine.” There’s much to learn from people who identify themselves as “unapologetically progressive people but also Christians.”
The film focuses on the theology preached by the church leadership of two Oklahoma churches. Robin Meyers is the pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church, a part of the United Church of Christ denomination in Oklahoma City. He is at the forefront of a social justice revolution and the author of a number of provocative books including ‘Why The Christian Right is Wrong’, ‘Saving Jesus From The Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus’, and ‘The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus’.
And then there’s Reverend Marlin Lavanhar, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, who came to Tulsa, Oklahoma to lead All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church and to practice a Gospel of Inclusion. Some 10 years ago, Marlin became aware of the plight of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a charismatic preacher and past leader within Oral Roberts Ministries. Carlton had lost his Black Pentecostal congregation and church when he publicly questioned the existence of Hell and the inerrant literal interpretation of the Bible. Marlin reached out to Carlton, inviting him and what remained of his flock to join forces with his own church. All Souls has become a truly integrated congregation that includes liberal Christians, agnostics, progressive Humanists, and black Pentecostals.
American Heretics sheds blessed light on the Christian right in Oklahoma who control the state legislature. These right-wing politicians have passed legislation that has gutted state funding for public education and social welfare. Who are the real heretics here? The dissenters featured in this film, or the evangelical church they expose for its rigid dogma of authoritarianism, intolerance, and bigotry.
If there’s any real chance for liberal society to influence evangelicals, it will take much more than just exposing their hypocrisy. Liberals take pride in showing empathy for “the other” and in trying to understand cultures different from ours. Rather than vilifying evangelicals, we will need to apply our same attitude of tolerance to include them. If we continue to scoff and mock them, we will risk reinforcing their rage – and strengthen their conviction in their support for Trump.