Americans love stories of faith and redemption, of apocalyptic struggle and good versus evil. This ethos is embedded in our national DNA. As our physical landscape is dotted with active churches, so our cultural landscape is dotted with phrases and concepts from the Bible, even if most Americans perform poorly on tests of Biblical literacy (tellingly, atheists and agnostics score best). For reasons like this, Americans have a hard time admitting that any large, widely recognized Christian group might be undeserving of a seat at the mainstream table. Should not “sincerely held religious beliefs” cover a multitude of societal sins?
White evangelical Protestants comprise only 17 percent of the U.S. population, according to the latest PRRI data. But the fact that 80 percent of Alabamian white evangelical Protestant voters supported Roy Moore for Senate, in the year after 81 percent of white evangelical voters nationwide voted for Donald Trump for president, should give us pause. Both men have been credibly accused by multiple parties of sexual assault.
Furthermore, the revelations about Moore’s pursuit of underage girls come at a time during which so many evangelical child abuse scandals are breaking that many believe the scale of abuse will be on par with that of the Catholic Church when the dust settles. While Hollywood, the news industry and the Democratic Party are taking the necessary steps to hold prominent men accountable for abuse, conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party are only doubling down on denial and deflection. Given that mistreatment of women and authoritarianism often go hand in hand, we continue to normalize the extremism of conservative evangelicalism at our democracy’s peril.
As theology and religious studies professor Karen E. Park argues in Religion Dispatches, Roy Moore “does not believe in the democratic process.” What Park writes of Moore—who was twice removed from the Alabama State Supreme Court bench for refusing to follow federal policy on church-state issues, and was lionized by the Christian Right for it—is true of the vast majority of white evangelicals. Insisting, as Moore explicitly did in 2003, that “without God, there can be no ethics,” the constituency that embraced “morning in America” in 1980 has led our nation into the dark nightmare of Trumpism. Pundits and journalists have been scratching their heads over the seeming hypocrisy of white evangelicals insisting on “family values” while voting for men like Trump and Moore, but for those who had eyes to see, this outcome was predictable. And those of us who left conservative evangelicalism? We understand this dynamic—the dynamic of the paranoid personality—because we’ve observed and been affected by it in our communities.
The predominant strain within contemporary American white evangelicalism is patriarchal and fundamentalist, with its roots found among Southern slave owners. During the early Cold War, government and business interests worked together to promote American faith as a counterpoint to official Soviet atheism, and these evangelicals built up powerful institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, emerging as the Christian Right we know today. Today’s conservative evangelicals are forcing Christian school kids, like I once was, to learn young earth creationism as “science,” using “school choice” to advance this #ChristianAltFacts agenda.
While Democrat Doug Jones eked out a victory over Roy Moore in Alabama thanks to African American voters, white evangelical support for Moore should serve as a wake-up call to continue pursuing the long-overdue evangelical reckoning that began last year, largely thanks to ex-evangelicals emerging as a movement. These authoritarians can only be dragged into a more equal future kicking and screaming. The media now seems more sympathetic to engaging criticism of conservative evangelicals, quoting ex-evangelicals alongside evangelicals, and taking note of largely ex-evangelical hashtag campaigns like #EmptyThePews, #ChurchToo and #RaptureAnxiety. Let us hope this continues, and that we’re not too late to save our democratic norms from theocracy. We can take heart in Jones’ defeat of Moore, but we must continue to expose Christian Right abuse and insist that it has no place in American political life.