The Spectacular Nadir of American Evangelicalism

Toxic fundamentalist Christianity has no place in our political life

In Luke 6:43, Jesus is quoted as saying “no good tree bears bad fruit.” But from the “strange fruit” of the lynching tree to the rejection of Black Lives Matter in the face of today’s racist policing that frequently results in the unpunished murders of African-Americans, America’s conservative, predominantly white evangelicals have a long record of producing poisonous fruit. While there are historical strains of evangelicalism that were associated with abolitionism, today’s white evangelicals are essentially the offspring of hardline Cold War anti-Communism and the GOP’s Southern strategy.

Unfortunately, it remains somewhat taboo to say this in polite company. This is in spite of the sobering facts that 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election went to Donald Trump, white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore in Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election in a similar proportion, and 75 percent of white evangelicals hold a favorable view of Trump now. Taboo or no, we need to say it.

Dr. Joshua Grubbs, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor and alumni of that bastion of evangelical Trumpism, Liberty University, believes evangelicals’ “decline is inevitable.” “Evangelicalism will seem strange and foreign to my grandkids, something they read about in history books the same way we read about the temperance movement and prohibition.”

He goes on to describe the Southern Baptist Convention—America’s largest Protestant denomination, with more than 15 million members—as “the heart and soul of patriarchal evangelicalism.” With respect to current scandals in the SBC, he is skeptical of the denomination's ability to achieve sustained positive change that will reduce instances of abuse and devaluation of women, “because the SBC is male-led, with no room for women in leadership, and they aren’t going to let women change their narrative.”

White evangelicals have shown us who they are, and so, to borrow a phrase from Maya Angelou, we should believe them. There is some indication that we as a society are beginning to. For example, African-Americans are making what Campbell Robertson has called “a quiet exodus” from predominantly white evangelical churches that had sought to integrate through a policy of what they call “racial reconciliation” without honestly facing their complicity in systemic racism. In addition, we are now seeing headlines such as “Evangelicals are Proving their Harshest Critics Right” and “No Wonder There’s an Exodus from Religion” from mainstream publications that typically leaned apologist when it came to evangelicalism. 

In short, what some are calling an evangelical reckoning is underway. Evangelicals are aware that they are under the microscope, and as scandals regarding child molestation, sexual assault and the mistreatment of women continue to break, prominent evangelical leaders and institutions are working overtime on damage control. While I do not doubt the sincerity of some evangelical critics of church abuse, in many other cases, it is fair to suggest that evangelicals may be more concerned with optics than real change.
Evangelicalism will seem strange and foreign to my grandkids, something they read about in history books the same way we read about the temperance movement and prohibition.
Former Southern Baptist and Coalition for Responsible Home Education policy analyst Kathryn Brightbill sees evangelical attempts to separate themselves from bad publicity as “disingenuous” because of “white evangelicalism’s refusal to grapple with the white supremacist, colonialist, misogynistic nature of white evangelical theology.” She hopes that the SBC’s current confrontation with abuse might lead to real change, but fears “that what we are seeing now is merely a kinder, gentler repackaging of the same toxic complementarian theology for a new generation.”

The brouhaha she refers to is the recent controversy surrounding former SBC President and current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Paige Patterson, whose past advice to abused women to stay in their marriages has been in the public eye. In addressing this matter, prominent evangelical pastor and commentator Ed Stetzer focused specifically on evangelicalism’s image, in essence suggesting that Patterson should be disinvited from giving the keynote address at the SBC’s upcoming annual meeting not because of anything Patterson has done, but because of how it would look. “If Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation. Every news story will point to that moment, tie it together with the accusations against Paul Pressler, and say that Southern Baptists don’t take abuse seriously.” Along with Patterson, Pressler was a key leader in the late 20th-century conservative takeover of the SBC. He now stands credibly accused of a decades-long pattern of molesting young boys.

It is also fair to point out the ways in which widespread evangelical theological teachings are conducive to abuse. Take the doctrine of complementarianism, which the SBC uses to teach that wives should submit to their husbands and to justify women never being ordained as pastors. Complementarianism teaches that God has strictly ordained distinct roles for men and women, and that women should not occupy positions of leadership over men. Meanwhile, press darling Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has been vigorously tweeting that physically abused women should leave their homes and call the police, and are even permitted to divorce. But how seriously can we take these statements when Moore also lists feminism among “serious problems in evangelicalism today,” describing it as “outright heresy”?
Mere criticism of Trump, without admission of complicity in racism, misogyny and homophobia, is too low a bar for admission to the American mainstream.
One way we can make sure we continue to hold evangelicals accountable for the consequences of such views is to recognize ex-evangelicals as stakeholders in our public discussions of evangelicalism. “Exvangelicals” have contributed to the evangelical reckoning, in part through effective use of social media in the form of hashtag campaigns that have been noticed in both Christian and mainstream news sources, including #EmptyThePews, which I started, and #ChurchToo, a variation on #MeToo started by writer Hannah Paasch and spoken word poet Emily Joy.

Journalist and ex-evangelical Josiah Hesse says that “social media has given refugees of this culture a voice to question the values we were raised under, and to finally reveal the uneasy feelings we were never given the opportunity to express. It’s astounding how similar these critiques always sound, and how they’re always accompanied with sentiments like ‘I thought I was the only one who felt this way at the time.’”

A former Southern Baptist who asked to be referred to only as Akiko told me that the election of Trump caused her to break with evangelicalism entirely. If Patterson’s harmful attitudes and behaviors toward women are receiving substantial attention only now, they have been known for years. Akiko gave up her official membership in an SBC church in protest when Patterson was elected SBC president in 1998. She tells me, “I have never again become a tithing member of an SBC church. This happened because my church told me to return to a physically abusive husband and pray about how to be more submissive to him so he wouldn’t hit me again,” adding that Patterson “did not thrive in a vacuum; he was nurtured and protected by like-minded people.”

Whether the end result of an evangelical reckoning is the deserved marginalization of toxic fundamentalist Christianity in our political life, or an unlikely transformation of white evangelicalism, America needs to approach evangelical responses to abuse with sustained scrutiny and to continue to hold evangelicals’ feet to the proverbial fire. Similarly, we must be unequivocal in insisting that mere criticism of Trump, without admission of complicity in racism and misogyny, and without backing away from attempts to deprive women and members of the LGBTQ community of civil rights, is too low a bar for admission to the American mainstream.

Noting that she is glad that #ChurchToo has brought attention to sexual assault and abuse in Christian contexts, Emily Joy told me, “Evangelicalism might as well be the Titanic at this point.” If white evangelicals really are capable of redeeming themselves, they will need to face the criticisms of the #Exvangelical community and of those oppressed by their culture wars agenda. We have good reasons for thinking them mostly incapable of change, and the burden should be on them to prove us wrong.
Photo credit: Jeff Roberson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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