Intriguing article on yesterday’s Washington Post website by Michael Gerson, op ed columnist, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and occasional talking head on CNN. Gerson, who is an evangelical himself, dismisses anti-vaxxer assertions of religious exemptions to vaccine mandates as “heresy compounded by lunacy.” This amounts, he says, to a “substitution of libertarianism for Christian ethics,” and not much of anything else.

But after Gerson’s piece and following a couple of links, I think there may be a theological underpinning to it — something that starts with owning the libs and may trace back to an apocalyptic interpretation of American history proclaimed by various Protestant visionaries over the last 150 years.

Here’s how I connect the dots — or, not wanting to claim too much for myself here, how I think they may be connected. And, maybe, some glimmerings of a way to get people in our different tribes and bubbles to stop talking past each other.

Gerson’s piece in Thursday’s Post suggests the rationale for anti-vaxxers is largely a matter of opposing government action — hence his assertion it’s a libertarian heresy. In the links at the bottom of his piece, there’s one from 2019 by fellow Post columnist E.J. Dionne that explores former President Trump’s appeal to evangelicals in similar terms.

Trump’s hostility to government and governing elites, Dionne suggested, looks to evangelicals like fighting back against an increasingly secular society. Citing another op ed piece in the Post, he quoted the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas: “I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it.”

Dionne, a liberal Catholic who teaches at Georgetown, said he sympathizes with Jeffries’ attitude — although he questions its basis in fact — and he has no doubt that it’s sincere. He suggested that one way to counter it would be to make room for dialog with evangelicals at establishment universities.

I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.”

The idea has merit — somehow people have to start talking with each other — and Dionne referred several times to an article by Elizabeth Bruenig, also in the Post, that does exactly that.

Bruenig also hails from an evangelical background, and her article is based on interviews with Jeffries and several other evangelicals she met on a reporting trip to Texas. In his interview, Jeffries made it clear he has an essentially apocalyptic view of American politics:

“As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he explained. “If you read the scripture, it’s not: Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. . . . I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.”

All of this leaves me with more questions than answers, but I think it’s well worth exploring. And what Dionne says about bringing more evangelicals into the academy strikes me as one of the few practical, feasible ways available to us for starting to overcome the deep political and sectarian divisions in Aerican society.

Verbatim excerpts follow from the three articles:

Gerson

Michael Gerson, “Most evangelical objections to vaccines have nothing to do with Christianity,” Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/30/vaccine-resistance-evangelical-christianity/

The main resistance of evangelicals to public health measures does not concern abortion. Having embraced religious liberty as a defining cause, they are now deploying the language of that cause in opposition to jab and mask mandates. Arguments crafted to defend institutional religious liberty have been adapted to oppose public coercion on covid. But they do not fit.

More than that, the sanctification of anti-government populism is displacing or dethroning one of the most basic Christian distinctions. Most evangelical posturing on covid mandates is really syncretism, a merging of unrelated beliefs — in this case, the substitution of libertarianism for Christian ethics. In this distorted form of faith, evangelical Christians are generally known as people who loudly defend their own rights. They show not radical generosity but discreditable selfishness. There is no version of the Golden Rule that would recommend Christian resistance to basic public health measures during a pandemic. This is heresy compounded by lunacy.

It is worth recalling, as a matter of law, that someone does not need a good or theologically coherent religious-liberty claim to make a religious-liberty claim in court (absent fraud or opportunism). To deny such a claim, government needs a compelling interest advanced in the least restrictive manner. But it is hard to imagine a clearer, more fundamental example of a compelling state interest than preventing the spread of a virus that has already taken the lives of more than 800,000 Americans.

Dionne

E.,J. Dionne, “Trump is weaponizing evangelicals’ mistrust. And he’s succeeding,” Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-weaponizing-evangelicals-mistrust-and-hes-succeeding/2019/08/21/e2df0d5e-c436-11e9-9986-1fb3e4397be4_story.html.

Are the dominant voices of white evangelical Christianity in the United States destined to be angry and defensive? Is President Trump making sure they stay that way?

I found myself asking these questions after I read my Post colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s revealing and deeply reported essay about her journey to Texas to probe why evangelicals have been so loyal to Trump and are likely to remain so.

Hers was a venture in sympathetic understanding and empathetic listening. What she heard was a great desire to push back against liberals, to defend a world that sees itself under siege and to embrace Trump — not as a particularly good man but as a fighter against all of the things and people and causes that they cannot abide. Even more, they believe liberals and secularists are utterly hostile to the culture they have built and the worldview they embrace.

“I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist church and one of the very earliest and most vocal leaders of Trump’s evangelical bloc.

I confess I don’t really see the “roll over” part. Conservative politicians, Fox News commentators and talk-radio hosts have engaged in plenty of bullying of their own. But I have no doubt that Jeffress was telling the truth about how he and like-minded folks feel.

***

What struck me in reading Bruenig’s chronicle is that the undoubtedly serious faith of those she encountered was less central to their embrace of Trump than a tribal feeling of beleaguerment — remember: Defending a culture is not the same as standing up for beliefs about God. Their deeply conservative views are not far removed from those of non-evangelical conservatives.

***

I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.

But reasoned dialogue is far removed from what’s happening in our politics now, and the irony is that the Trumpification of the evangelicals will only widen the gaps they mourn between themselves and other parts of our society. In her recent book “America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life ,” Kathleen M. Sands, a University of Hawaii professor, writes of a long-standing conflict between “anti-modernist religion and anti-religious modernism.” Trump has every interest in aggravating and weaponizing mistrust that is already there. And judging from Bruenig’s account, he’s succeeding brilliantly.

Bruenig

Elizabeth Bruenig, “In God’s Country,” Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/14/evangelicals-view-trump-their-protector-will-they-stand-by-him/.

The inquiry was equal parts spiritual and political, and maybe more so for me than the people I wanted to query. About half of my extended family is evangelical, and the thought of an impenetrable gulf of understanding between myself (a left-leaning Catholic and a member of the media to boot) and the people who had always seemed most familiar disturbed me. Had things really changed so much so quickly — and how? — or had I simply missed something long approaching? Of course, I should have known from enough time with this faith that probing mysteries leads only to stranger, harder questions.

***

For a frustrated conservative wondering why Republican presidents had never seemed to make good on their promises to evangelicals while their cultural cachet continued to slip, Trump’s blatant indictment of corrupt, money-driven politics must have seemed refreshingly honest — even if part of his admission was that he himself participated in it.

It was one of many ways in which Trump’s less-than-Christian behavior seemed, paradoxically, to make him a more appealing candidate to beleaguered, aggravated Christians. “I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” Jeffress said. But Trump enacted a practice of hitting back twice as hard whenever a critic takes him on — not exactly turning the other cheek, I pointed out. Jeffress chuckled. Trump’s “favorite verse in the Bible he says is ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth,’ ” the very maxim Christ was rebutting when he taught believers to return offense with peace.Could it take a decidedly worldly man to reverse the fortunes of evangelicals who feel that their earthly prospects have significantly dimmed?

Could it take a decidedly worldly man to reverse the fortunes of evangelicals who feel, for whatever host of reasons — social, racial, spiritual, political — that their earthly prospects have significantly dimmed?

Jeffress didn’t think so, but not for the reasons I would have guessed. “As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he explained. “If you read the scripture, it’s not: Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. . . . I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.”

***

As to the cultural facts on the ground, Jeffress might have something of a point: Overall, American culture is hardly trending toward adherence to evangelical beliefs, with approval of same-sex marriage steadily rising among all religious groups (even evangelicals), religious affiliation quickly dropping and support for legal abortion lingering at all-time highs. Jeffress is hardly alone in believing that evangelicals need some sort of special accommodations from a society that doesn’t share their values and that they feel persecuted by; according to a Pew Research Center survey released this year, roughly 50 percent of Americans believe evangelicals face some or a lot of discrimination, including about a third of Democrat-leaning respondents. If the rhetoric of spiritual renewal that at times illuminated the Bush presidency has ultimately faded, it makes sense that a figure such as Trump should inherit its dimming twilight and all the anger, despair and darkness that dashed dreams entail.

[Published Dec. 31, 2021]

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