I drive back and forth from Atlanta to Macon every Tuesday and Thursday. That’s 190 miles round trip — plenty of time to listen to live coverage of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial during this past week. Plenty of time to think over the unthinkable likelihood that the man who invited and incited armed, angry hordes to march down to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 would be acquitted, exclusively due to the votes of Senate Republicans. Plenty of time to wonder whatever happened to the (mainly) white conservative American Christian Republican soul that once stood for absolute right and wrong ± and stood against moral relativism, slippery slopes and defining deviancy down.
There is no consensus among the scholars and pundits as to what has gone wrong. But here are some of the theories worth considering.
Partisanship rules. Our binary two-party system eats the souls of the human beings who ascend to high office. They stop being able to do anything other than act on behalf of their party. The Democratic-led House passed the impeachment of the former Republican president; therefore, we Republicans must acquit him.
Dash of hope: Partisanship did not entirely rule during the election crisis of November-December 2020, when Republican elected officials in places like Georgia refused to break the law in the name of the party. Partisanship did not stop some brave Republicans in the House from voting to impeach. There is still evidence of something other than pure partisanship in our politics.
Fear of Trump and the Trumpist GOP base. Polling reveals that Donald Trump retains the support of the strong majority of voters who still identify with the GOP, with a minority of them absolutely, rabidly loyal to him. GOP party officials at both the national and state levels appear to be all-in as well. Trump has engineered a takeover of the Republican Party. To break with Trump is to break with the party as it now exists and to risk losing one’s career.
“Our binary two-party system eats the souls of the human beings who ascend to high office.”
Dash of hope: Not every Republican appears to be equally driven by such fears. Look at Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney. Plus, the new Trumpist Republican Party is shrinking, both in huge demographics and in sheer numbers. And numerous former GOP officeholders are speaking out.
Fear of political violence directed against oneself or family. Jan. 6 was the culmination of increasingly frightening displays of right-wing militia-type violence at state and national levels. Knuckling under to threats of political violence is how democracies die.
Dash of hope: Statesmen and stateswomen know that when you give in to militias, you no longer have a democracy. Not that they are oblivious to the lethal threats to their families or themselves, but some principled Republicans are refusing to be driven by that fear.
Inhabiting of an alternate reality created by the “reality” TV star Donald Trump. This may be Donald Trump’s most impressive/demonic achievement: Telling big enough lies for long enough, inhabiting, inspiring and passing along conspiracy theories, and engineering for millions an entirely separate political dreamworld, so that a very sizable number of white conservative Republican Christians have moved there.
“It is hard to live in an alternate reality forever.”
Dash of hope: It is hard to live in an alternate reality forever.
They no longer believe in democracy if their side doesn’t win. Here’s a big-picture theory: Many white conservative American Christians, especially but not only in the South, long ago made quite clear that if it came down to a choice between their power and one person/one vote/rule of law/democracy, they would choose their power. Consider the Jim Crow era. Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this tendency for the current moment, but he may not be alone. This reminds us of the illiberal post-democrats, mainly claiming to be Christians, now ruling in places like Hungary.
Dash of hope: America’s democratic traditions are old and have tens of millions of fierce defenders, perhaps even more so after the stress test we have gotten in the last four years. Pushback from within the GOP also shows that today’s Republican Party has its ardent liberal democrats (in the old-fashioned use of those great words.) Perhaps the party will split between those that believe in democracy and those that do not.
Many white conservative American Republican Christians are on the leading edge of these tendencies. Conservative white American Christians have been fed on apocalyptic narratives about the hostile takeover and moral decline of their beloved (white) American conservative Christian country — for 150 years if we begin the story with the Lost Cause South, 100 years if we start with modern fundamentalism, and 50 years if we start with the New Christian Right. After all: Biblical criticism, evolution, Social Security, welfare, birth control, racial integration, feminism, abortion, sexual revolution, Stonewall, gay marriage, foreign immigration, Communism, socialism, religious pluralism, Barack Obama, Hillary. All too many Christians lean anti-democratic and authoritarian and have long proved susceptible to corrupt leaders, wild theologies and conspiracy theories. It appears that now a group has moved to straight-out Christian crusader extremism. This group was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and has become part of our domestic terrorism problem.
Dash of hope: Better — much better — versions of Christianity are on display all around us. Perhaps the worst of conservative white American Republican Christianity will soon burn to the ground and something better will rise from the ashes.
May it be so.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and is the past president of both The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Christian Ethics. He’s the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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