I’ve been reading Chris Hedges’s excellent book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. Hedges emphasizes the authoritarian nature of the Christian Right. For example:
The hypermasculinity of radical Christian conservatism, which crushes the independence and self-expression of women, is a way for men in the movement to compensate for the curtailing of their own independence, their object obedience to church authorities and the calls for sexual restraint. It is also a way to cope with fear. Those who lead these churches fear, perhaps most deeply, their own internal contradictions. They make war on the internal contradictions of others. Those who are not subdued, who do not bow before the church authorities, are seen as contaminants. Believers are driven into a primitive state, a prenatal existence, a return to the womb and a life of submission. [Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (Free Press, 2006), pp. 78-79]
What’s messed up about this beside the obvious is that these people call themselves evangelicals. And evangelicalism started out as a non-authoritarian religious movement. Believe it or not, the original evangelicalism that formed in the 18th century emphasized freedom of conscience and individual conviction over church authority, and most early evanglicals fiercely supported separation of church and state.
The latter was true because evangelicals often were victims of church-state oppression. Bill Moyers said,
On another trip to New England I drove through Lynn, Massachusetts. There, in 1751, Obadiah Holmes was given thirty stripes with a three-corded whip after he violated the colonial law against taking communion with another Baptist. Baptists were only a “pitiful negligible minority” in Massachusetts but they were denounced as “the incendiaries of the Commonwealth and the infectors of persons in matter of religion.” For refusing to pay tribute to the official state religion they were fined, flogged, and exiled. Holmes refused the offer of friends to pay his fine so that he could be released. He refused the strong drink they said would anesthetize the pain. Sober, he endured the ordeal; sober still, he would one day write: “It is the love of liberty that must free the soul.”
But we have come full circle, and now much of American evangelicalism has been taken over by authoritarians who want to fine, flog, and exile everyone who disagrees with them. Indeed, the word evangelical has come to mean “intolerant and authoritarian right-wing religious whackjob” to many people.
Hedges is a Christian himself, which informs his observances. He writes (pp. 80-81),
The petrified, binary world of fixed, immutable roles is a world where people, many of them damaged by bouts with failure, despair and their own ambiguities, can bury their chaotic and fragmented personalities and live with the illusion that they are now strong, whole and protected. … By submitting to the Christian leader, and to a powerful male God who will destroy those who misbehave, followers avoid dealing with life. The movement seeks, above all, to banish mystery, the very essence of faith. Not only is the binary world knowable and predictable, but finally God is knowable and predictable.
Many people look at religious whackjobs and conclude that religion has made them fearful and corrupted their ability to think rationally. I think it’s close to the truth to say that whackjobs create God in their own image — Whackjob God.
Slate has been running a conversation between evangelical David Kuo and Hanna Rosin, author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America. The book focuses on students of Patrick Henry College, who are mostly home-schooled Christians. Rosin wrote,
Who really is an evangelical, and is it fair to have a tinyâ€”and some would say fringeâ€”school stand in for an entire movement? Well, you and I both know that evangelical is a fairly meaningless term these days. Catholics use it. Democrats use it. In social science statistics on divorce, teenage sexuality, even abortion, people who call themselves “evangelical” look just like the rest of America.
When I say “evangelical,” I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week.
To which Kuo replied,
Virtually all surveys show that 30 percent to 40 percent of Americans go to church once a week. There are a lot of evangelicals out there even if, as you point out, they lead lives that are virtually indistinguishable from other Americans when it comes to divorce, abortion, and the like. I’ve argued that part of the reason for that is the political obsession of many evangelical leaders, which has in turn seduced so many evangelicals. It is that obsession and seduction that is so beautifully and horribly laid out in God’s Harvard. As you recounted over and over, there was no differentiation between Jesus and politics. There was the absolute understanding that to serve Jesus meant to grasp power and manipulate the political system for God’s gain. Sadly, this isn’t anything new. It is precisely the sort of thing that Jesus came to defeat.
About halfway through the book, something struck me. Not a single student quoted Jesus’ sayings to you in justifying their politics. Their justification came from Old Testament admonitions about power. They didn’t quote Jesusâ€”at least as related in the book.
Why? It is because it would be impossible to quote Jesus urging young Christian men and women to tackle the political battlefield as if going unto war. It is because Jesus’ commands have everything to do with sacrificially loving others and nothing to do with influencing the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.
I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t have a political voice. They should. But they should do it as citizens with opinions in public policy and not as “Christians” presuming they have Jesus’ answer to problemsâ€”because on virtually every position, they do not. It is perfectly possible to be a Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, born-again Christian and have different perspectives on everything from abortion to Iraq. And that perspective is what is missing from Patrick Henry.
My understanding is that the word evangelical comes from the same root Greek word as gospel, which loosely translates as “good news.” An evangelicalism that de-emphasizes the Gospels has been pulled pretty far from its roots.