Many people appear baffled about the hard-right turn in U.S. conservative religion.
It’s not just a turn to politics, or to hard-right politics, that is problematic. It is the apparent amorality, the cruelty, bigotry and snarling spirit that is so impossible to reconcile with the Spirit of Christ.
It’s the nasty cast of characters who are most associated with “Christians” in politics today, including (just for a start, the list is endless) the rogue’s gallery of Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate and election-denier Doug Mastriano, the supposedly newly converted Trump dirty trickster/pardoned criminal Roger Stone, and of course Donald J. Trump his very own self.
It’s the way the crowds at the rallies of these people eat up the toxic red meat these figures throw to them. Christians used to be the victims in the Roman Colosseum. These “Christians” are more like the Roman leaders and their debased crowds, baying for blood.
“These ‘Christians’ are more like the Roman leaders and their debased crowds, baying for blood.”
The debasement of U.S. right-wing Christianity is only baffling to those who have been exposed to a different understanding of what being a Christian is supposed to be about. You know, old-timers like me, who walked uninvited into a Southern Baptist church building in 1978 looking for something I did not know how to name, but whose name turned out to be Jesus Christ.
Over a four-day conversion experience, I learned enough from and through devout Christian people to be led into an encounter with Jesus himself. I was exposed to people whose demeanor was gentle, whose speech was clean and kind, whose integrity turned out to be rock solid, whose moral plumbline was the instruction offered in the New Testament, whose life purpose was to follow Jesus, and whose mission was to share the gospel with others. These were the people who led me to faith in Christ and who discipled me at the early stages of my walk with Jesus. They were not perfect. But they were recognizably and seriously Christian.
There were other versions of old-time, pre-Trump Christianity that I might not have liked as much but that were still very different from the cancerous thing that is spreading among white conservative Christians in America today. I was exposed to these other varieties as well. There was the smart, humane, post-Vatican II Catholicism in which I was raised, the charismatic Anglicanism of a girl I dated, the earnest social-service mainline Methodism of some friends of my parents, the doctrinaire Lutheranism of a few folks I knew, the passionate Black church faith of some of my friends from school.
Even the handful of proto-Christian Right types I met at my own church still were playing by the same faith rules as everyone else there. I remember when a woman from church asked me to be a bit actor in a film called “Can Soviet Imperialism Be Stopped?” (Will someone please find this film, in which young David Gushee, dressed as a Soviet soldier, menacingly pours red paint over a globe? Thank you.) This woman was a serious Cold War Republican who worked hard to get Ronald Reagan elected. But she — and her organization — bore no resemblance to the debased freak show we are now seeing wrapped in the banner of Jesus.
“There is no single version of Christianity or any religion.”
Here is what I have learned: There is no single version of Christianity or any religion. A religious tradition is like any other living thing — it is organic, dynamic and changeable. It can grow healthier or sicker. It can become more like, or less like, or completely unlike, its founder, spirit and original vision.
There are many names for what has become of this era’s right-wing white American Christianity. The most commonly used is (white) Christian nationalism. Some are going with Christian right-wing populism. Some are calling it imposter Christianity. Others call it Christofascism. I have been tempted to call it “Christianism,” like the way the term “Islamism” was used to separate radicalized terrorist movements from mainstream Islam.
In the manuscript for a book I will be calling Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies, I settle on “authoritarian reactionary Christianity” as my main label, although this book and label focus mainly on the anti-democratic dimension of this movement.
Whatever we call it, anyone who has any understanding of and commitment to a healthier, recognizably Christ-following version of Christianity must fight hard for the integrity and survival of such faith — and for the excising of the cancer that is overtaking Christianity in this country today.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also 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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