Al Mohler wants us to believe there was devil worship at the Grammys last Sunday. Two days later, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders painted a dark and dismal picture of an American democracy being destroyed by Democrats who sound suspiciously like devils.
Mohler and Sanders are outraged. Their ethos is built around shock and outrage by programmatically attacking people with little status in the culture. Members of the outrage insiders group look for “flashpoints” where they can manufacture outrage.
Mohler selected a nonbinary and transgender duo — Sam Smith and Kim Petras — who appeared at the Grammys and won the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. They were dressed in a devilish red to perform their hit “Unholy.”
Sanders had a larger group for her outrage — Democrats, elitists, the mainstream media —who she claims are all destroying America. Her Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address was filled with outrage and void of policy ideas.
These days, it seems the Republican/evangelical outrage machine delivers anger and hatred daily.
Why? Why the scaremongering? What’s the appeal to fear that draws people like sixteen-penny nails to a magnet? Why would Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, genuinely feel threatened when a genderqueer duo performs at the Grammys? Why would Sanders, former press secretary to Donald Trump, not take advantage of a national platform in responding to the State of the Union address to offer substantive policies that would benefit the American people?
The answer: Both know what sells to their base. And that is fear.
Here’s how the subterfuge works. Mohler and Sanders inflamed a collective fantasy that Satan and his allies, the Democrats, are destroying America. With some rhetorical dexterity, their contagious obsession with turning even a hint of liberal transgression into gigantic monsters from the sea resonates with one part of the country — the right-wing part.
“Mohler and Sanders managed to pleasurize outrage and criticism.”
Mohler and Sanders — whose father used to be a Southern Baptist pastor — managed to pleasurize outrage and criticism. Their terrifying performances allowed fellow evangelicals to experience a sense of joy and pleasure at the cruelty visited upon the enemies of the right-wing.
This resonates with a simmering rage among evangelicals and Republican voters. The rage has bubbled up from the subconscious emotions of fear and anxiety surrounding the loss of cultural power that previously reigned supreme in white privilege and hegemonic masculinity.
According to Greg Dickinson, they are appealing to the “memories of a bygone era in which evangelicals viscerally enjoyed the unearned assets of privilege.” Mohler and Sanders tap into what affect theorist Silvan S. Tomkins defines as a deep reservoir of “the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation.”
Al Mohler — ‘Mountain out of mole hill’
Mohler may be genuinely outraged and morally indignant, but most of all, he feels threatened. Mohler is a true believer in one dominant concept — what cognitive scientist George Lakoff identifies as the strict father family metaphor.
The explanation for Mohler’s outrage then becomes simple: There can be no transgender persons in a strict father family; the gender difference and the role of masculinity are crucial. There can be no women in the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church; in this view God only ordains males. The strict father can’t be gay. This disrupts the model. The real issue is identity. When male dominance, male superiority is threatened, the outrage machine cranks up.
There is a second reason for Mohler’s outrage as well. For the strict father to know right from wrong, there must be an absolute right and wrong, and that means categories must be absolute. If category lines are fuzzy, it could be hard to tell if a rule or a law was broken.
Mohler, in his usual grandiose, verbose way, builds a mountain out of a mole hill and adds an erupting volcano for good measure. Everything is a “big story” to him, everything is life or death, and civilization and Christianity always are standing on the edge of destruction.
A nonbinary duo performing at the Grammys is entertainment, not the apocalypse.
Somewhere the devil and his demons who populate C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters are laughing out loud at the idea that Satan would launch a major offensive against God’s holy people at the Grammys. As even Mohler admitted, most evangelicals were not watching the Grammys and wouldn’t have known about the alleged devil worship without the brush fire of outrage started by Mohler’s overheated and expansive article.
“Mohler trivializes evil as if it is embodied in a musical awards show rather than the cosmic war that it is.”
A major rhetorical flaw in Mohler’s argument is the way he blows up Satan and evil as some monstrous incarnated creature, born in Dante’s vivid imagination and a false reading of Isaiah 14, that threatens civilization and the “Christian worldview.” Mohler trivializes evil as if it is embodied in a musical awards show rather than the cosmic war that it is.
Mohler wants us to believe the front line in the battle of good vs. evil was on stage at the Grammys. He also wants to convince us that the most dangerous weapon of Satan is “transgender” transgressions. According to the World Population Review, about 1.9% of adults in the United States identify as transgender. Not exactly an invading force. In contrast, 38 million Americans live in poverty, more than 500,000 are homeless, and 30 million don’t have health insurance.
The gospel doesn’t dawdle in theories about Satan, or the origin of evil. The gospel declares the real overcoming of evil on the Cross; it asks for forgiveness of guilt, for the reconciliation of the fallen world (paraphrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). I am more comfortable with Jesus’ words: “I watched Satan fall from the sky like a flash of lightning.”
But not for Mohler and the evangelicals. They are still trying to act and preach as if we are living in Constantinian Christianity. He is a man born at least five centuries too late. Mohler would have made a great Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition.
He does a word association trick by connecting “transgressives” with “transgenders.” His point is that to be transgender is to be transgressing God’s law. Mohler is not out to save the world or even the Christian worldview. He is pulling out all the stops to degrade, humiliate and condemn transgender people. He drags out the oldest tricks in the populist war book: Identify an enemy. Make the enemy the scapegoat responsible for all the ills of society. Attack the enemy with repeated accusations, bigotry, hatred and hyperbole. Repeat until the enemy is destroyed.
In addition to the necessity of an enemy, a populist must have an evil system to blame. For Mohler’s purposes — as with Sanders — the system consists of the “elitists” and the mainstream media. Mohler blames “elitists for not getting how big a deal” the performance at the Grammys was.
“He is like the Israelites insisting they want to go back to Egypt — back to slavery.”
Toward the end of his tirade, Mohler suggests, “Let’s just think biblically.” That’s a good idea. And thinking biblically, I believe Mohler is leading a mutiny against the gains in human rights, the gospel-based insistence on acceptance of gays and transgender persons, and he is, as a result, like the Israelites insisting they want to go back to Egypt — back to slavery. What an odd stance for people claiming to be committed to the gospel of freedom and truth.
Sadly, Mohler wants us to believe he preaches the gospel. He claims if only we can push back the transgressive transgenders, we will save the world. This is the opposite of the gospel. As Yoder puts it, “But all this is not the gospel.”
Hauerwas adds: “The gospel is the proclamation of a new age begun through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That gospel, moreover, has a form, a political form. It is embodied in a church that is required to be always ready to give hospitality to the stranger. The gospel is a society in which difference is not denied but used for the discovery of goods in common. It is, as Yoder observes, a society called into being by Jesus who gave them a new way to live.”
Mohler defends a status quo with a history of being xenophobic, patriarchal, classist, homophobic and bloodthirsty.
On this reading of the gospel, Mohler is preaching the anti-gospel.
“There is no scaremongering in the gospel.”
Perhaps the most telling anti-gospel message in Mohler’s cascading fountain of apocalyptic tripe is the fear he produces. Again, this is not the gospel. There is no scaremongering in the gospel. When Mohler ties the transgender performance to the “fall of civilization,” he has unleashed a tsunami of fear.
Mohler says: “Let me just say there is more than one way for a civilization to fall. And when it comes to this kind of fall, we’re talking about something the epicenter of which was the nation of the United States of America. And furthermore, this was not a natural disaster. This was an entirely human-made disaster. And make no mistake, it was a disaster.”
And once again, here Mohler makes the old 1920s fundamentalist mistake of equating American with Christian fundamentalism. An attack on fundamentalist faith is considered an attack on Christianity.
Mohler’s preaching a gospel with nothing about freedom for all, dignity for all, openness, diversity and grace for people who come “just as I am.” It’s an empty gospel with no body, or fleshly, material, incarnated love. It’s popular with his crowd, but it’s not powerful. It’s pragmatic for almost half of the nation, but it’s not saving. It’s enjoyable for people to like persecuting others and being cruel, but it’s not gracious and kind. It’s safe for people who want to live with the old-time religion paradigm, but it’s not saving.
Sanders — Arsonist at the scene with blowtorch and gas can
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sounding like an evangelical preacher, rampaged through the political landscape in the Republican response to the State of the Union by lighting fires in every neighborhood.
Here, we are treated to an expanded definition of “gaslighting.” A veritable arsonist, Sanders lit the fires from the intense heat rising from her righteous indignation. Instead of talking about how to maintain Social Security and Medicare, she raged about “wokeness.” Instead of talking about an educational vision for all America’s children, she accused Democrats of “indoctrinating children.”
American history teachers teach students the truth about slavery, segregation and injustice and Governor Sanders claims that truth is indoctrination. She didn’t just lean into the culture war; she did her dead-level best to reignite the flames of a war that has raged in the country at least since her father, Mike Huckabee, was one of the leading generals of the movement.
One of the more unbelievable statements she made accused “the liberals” of starting the culture war: “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
She’s holding the blow torch and the gas can, and she tells the fire marshal the Democrats started the fire. The culture war is the creation of the evangelicals — lock, stock and two smoking barrels. They have been pushing God, guns, performative patriotism and whiteness for decades.
Sanders even tried to claim she and her fellow Republicans are sane and normal while the Democrats are crazy. When she surveys the American landscape, she thinks it’s midnight in America. Her response is dark, accusatory, demeaning and filled with negative messages like “trapping kids” and “failing schools.”
In her one nod to policy, Sanders claimed Republicans are promoting an education policy “that will be the most far-reaching, bold conservative education reform in the country.” What she failed to mention is that the Republican idea of education is to scrub history books of the contributions of African Americans and Native Americans and to continue the useless evangelical attack against evolution in biology classes. Evangelicals have repeatedly tried to insert Intelligent Design into the public-school science curriculum, and they have lost in court every time. This doesn’t stop them from wanting to paint a picture of a pre-scientific, pre-historical and pristine holy people who claimed this land in the name of God and made it great by creating so many wealthy white men.
Sanders injected more fear into the equation that makes up our vulnerable and precarious democracy: “Today, our freedom is under attack, and the America we love is in danger.”
The theme is clear: “Be afraid, be very afraid!” Could there be a statement more contrary to Jesus saying, “Fear not”?
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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