Religion scholar explains how a specific strain of Christianity became a toxic political force

Religion scholar explains how a specific strain of Christianity became a toxic political force
GDANSK, POLAND - APRIL 10, 2009: Anonymous actors play Mystery of the Passion of Jesus Christ. April 10, 2009. Gdansk, Poland.

Since at least the 1980s, the conservative movement has increasingly been governed by faith, which can be described as a belief in things that cannot be proved by empirical means. In practice, this means that the Republican Party and the larger right-wing movement's policies and ideology across a range of issues — the economy, the environment, science, health care, democracy and the rule of law — have little if any basis in fact.

In the Age of Trump, movement conservatism has metastasized or devolved into its purest form: American fascism, a form of religious politics taken to its most illogical extreme. Facts, truth and even the conception of reality itself are being replaced with lies, fictions, and fantasies that serve the American fascist movement and its leader.

As public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown, white right-wing Christians, especially Protestant evangelicals, have pledged their loyalty to Donald Trump and his movement. Many view him as a literal prophet or savior: His evident immorality has been rationalized as somehow necessary to his prophetic role.

Violence is a key feature of the new American fascism, as dramatically illustrated on Jan. 6 but also at many other moments. Trumpists and other Republican fascists, many or most of whom identify as Christian, have widely embraced political violence, including outright terrorism, as a necessary measure to "protect" their "traditional way of life" against "radical socialist Democrats, Black and brown people, Muslims, LGBTQ people and pretty much all Americans who still believe in the constitutional separation of church and state and the rule of law.

Together, these forces exist in a state of collective narcissism and shared malignant reality. In that relationship, white right-wing Christianity is a nexus or type of glue.

To discuss this profoundly disturbing phenomenon, I recently spoke with Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, PBS and the BBC, and her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Religion News Service and MSNBC. Butler's new book is "White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America".

In this conversation, she discusses the phenomenon of "white Christianity" and its role in the Age of Trump and America's current crisis of democracy. She also explores the specific role this phenomenon played in the events of Jan. 6 and the ascendant fascist movement, and its crucial role in legitimating and normalizing the society-wide moral crisis catalyzed and empowered by the Age of Trump.

Toward the end of this conversation, Butler warns that too many white people have erroneously convinced themselves that racial privilege will protect them from escalating right-wing Christian terrorism and related political violence.

This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Imagine that American democracy is a patient in the hospital. If you were a type of religious figure — a priest, an imam, a rabbi or the like — what counsel would you be offer that patient in this dire moment?

I will answer that question in the context of the Catholic tradition. In that faith tradition there is something called "extreme unction." This is when you are on your deathbed, and they come to you to give you a prayer. Before the changes of Vatican II, the priest also carried a little kit, which had what would be used for communion and other needs. If I were diagnosing democracy right now in America, it is in a state of extreme unction. American democracy is in its last moments and it is going to need a miracle to get up from that deathbed. I would whisper in that patient's ear right now that you had better decide to fight back or you are dead in the next 15 minutes. Your 15 minutes are about up.

What would penance look like?

Continuing with the Catholic tradition. Most of the time the penitence, in the old Catholic tradition, would involve beating oneself. Self-flagellation. There would be bloodletting. You would not want someone else to make the bloodletting happen for you.

In the case of American democracy, especially with the Democratic Party, they are holding on to some old, tired notion that they are still in power and that the things that they have counted on before will work for them in this moment of crisis. The Democrats are counting on Black folks standing in line for 20 hours to vote. They are counting on Black people to ignore the fact that the Democrats have not done much for them. The Democrats are counting on the good Black Christians to come and save them, once again, from themselves.

There are all these political leaders and others who claim to be Christians and say that America is supposedly a "Christian nation." But there is little talk of the many forms of evil both summoned and empowered by the Age of Trump. How is this being reconciled?

There are two primary reasons, as I see it. Half the time they do not believe that there is in fact a devil. Moreover, many of these Christians are the devils at work in this society. Two, if you don't believe in the devil, then you don't have to deal with anything that is evil.

Instead, you use language such as "people are misguided" or "they have the wrong idea" or "they didn't really mean to lie like that." Evangelicals of the 1950s, and even the '60s and early '70s, would have looked at Donald Trump and said that he was the Antichrist. Now evangelicals worship him. To be clear, I am not offering a position on whether not I believe that Trump is the Antichrist or whether he should be worshipped. I'm just telling you what is happening.

Donald Trump, his regime and the Republican fascist movement are objectively evil. How do white Christians explain away such behavior?

Because they're in a bubble. Their pastor is reinforcing these messages. The people they live around are reinforcing these messages. They listen to Fox News. Their other information sources reinforce the same message.

Let's be frank: I don't care how many times they carry a Bible. Half of them are not reading it anyway. One may think that these people are evangelical Christians and therefore they know scripture. Yes, some of them do. These evangelicals may know it very well. But even though these evangelicals say, "I'm living by scripture," the reality is that they are living by the scriptures that are written by their politicians and their pastors.

The Jan. 6 coup attempt and attack on the Capitol was an act of white right-wing Christian terrorism against multiracial democracy. Given the Christian iconography and behavior seen on Jan. 6 — that huge cross, the prayers, the horns, and other examples — why do mainstream news media and others refuse to state such obvious facts?

It's intentional. They cannot come to grips with the fact that the Christianity of America is just like any other fundamentalist religion that gets weaponized in order to hold on to power. Therefore, they have to continue to tell themselves that everything that happened on Jan. 6 was an aberration and not something religious in nature. Those people are not "Christians" like us.

But the reality is that those people are you. And not only are those people you, they sat with you in the pews. They prayed with you. And if they had succeeded on Jan. 6, you would be right there on their side. And you would say that God must have blessed them to be able to overthrow the United States government.

Can you explain more about the horns and specific prayers that were used on Jan. 6?

They had horns, what are known as the ram's horn or the shofar, which appeared in the Old Testament. Those horns were blown before the walls of Jericho came down. It was like a battle. Those horns were used in rituals in ancient Judaism. That horn is also used in Jewish rituals today to mark certain kinds of events, whether that's Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The blowing of the horn means that we are going into battle — in this context, that God is going with us into the Capitol.

The kinds of prayers we saw on Jan. 6 at the Capitol are called "imprecatory prayers." There are the kinds of prayers used when you want your enemy to die. On Jan. 6 they believed that they were on a mission from God to go into the Capitol and get Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence and other people they saw as enemies.

And that huge Christian cross?

They used that cross to be like the crusaders during the European Middle Ages.

Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi, recently said that Christians are not afraid of the coronavirus because they believe in "eternal life." How did you process his assertion? The country is in the midst of a deadly plague, and right-wing leaders are summoning God and their faith to encourage people not to take proper health precautions.

Those words are a claim that "we" are not afraid of death because we Christians. It is a claim of certainty on going to heaven. It will all be fine, because if you die from the coronavirus then you are going to see Jesus. Well, what if Jesus is not there? What if there's no Jesus? What if you just drop straight down into the pit of hell?

I'm not saying that's what's going to happen, but the way in which the governor of Mississippi spoke about the pandemic was as though if you die, then it is all going to be all right. What kind of sense does that make?

As a matter of public policy, Christian nationalists, dominionists and other Christian fascists are trying to impose their End Times eschatological fantasies onto secular America in opposition to the Constitution and the separation of church and state. These are fantasies of death and destruction. These white right-wing Christians literally seem to be seeking out death.

They do in fact appear to be seeking out death. They have this huge desire to live the way they want to live without restraint. At some point it is death for you, but it is not death for them.

One of the dimensions here that many people do not understand is that when the pandemic started and many of these red-state and other right-wing leaders were telling people not to wear masks, they were kind of hoping that the "right people" would die. We know who the "right people" are.

Now, people in red states are dying and those Republican and other right-wing leaders can't get out of the spiral of telling people not to get vaccinated. They were hoping that all the people of color were going to die. But now in the red states, it's a lot of white folks dying. A lot of white children are going to die, and they still are doubling down on the same thing. It hasn't changed.

What is "White Christianity"?

White Christians tend to do very different things than Black Christians or Asian American Christians or Latino Christians in this country. You can be a Black Christian and believe in white evangelicalism. You can be Black and a Christian and be bought out and sold out to white evangelicalism or white Christianity because you accept the premises of what these white preachers are telling you, especially about how you're supposed to love America for example.

There are Black Christians, and others, who are not being discerning about what is Christianity, as opposed to what is better described as White American Christianity.

For some Christians, the question becomes, "Well, I'm a red-letter Christian," which basically refers to how the words of Jesus are red in the Bible. "I believe what Jesus says." My intervention there is: If that's the case, great. That means you have to be for the poor and all that comes with that.

White Christianity is a Christianity that is based on the following: Jesus is white. Jesus privileges white culture and white supremacy, and the political aspirations of whiteness over and against everything else. White Christianity assumes that everybody should be subsumed under whiteness in terms of culture and society.

White Christianity assumes that it does not have to look at poverty. We see this in the form of the so-called prosperity gospel, and that any blessing you get from God is because God favors you. If anybody else is out of favor, let's say some poor kid in Northwest Philadelphia who doesn't have enough to eat, well, that's just too bad because they're not blessed of God.

When suffering happens, it's blamed on anybody else but God.

As part of the right-wing culture war narrative there is a martial language that includes Christianity. There is talk of "Christian struggle" and "Christian war." What are the connections between such militant language and actual right-wing violence?

That language has a long history in this country. There's war imagery all through Biblical scripture. There are war songs that people sing in churches. This idea about battling for the Lord, whether we're talking about the Crusades or the Civil War or fighting communism and everything else, is embedded in our history. That language of war and fighting is being used to incite people now.

Most people in America do not want such violence to happen. The problem is that if you've got enough people who want such an outcome, who can make it hell for everybody else, and there are people in power who want to use the public to create decay and destruction, such violent language is going to be used to that end. Donald Trump knows how to push every one of these buttons.

How do you explain the role of white Christianity in the right-wing disruptions and threats of violence at local school board meetings about "critical race theory," vaccinations and other topics?

It is as though nobody remembers the 1950s, when white people were standing outside yelling and screaming and cussing Black children who were actually integrating these schools. These were Christians who were in churches, who were out there yelling and spitting and screaming. Women especially. Evangelicalism and harsh rhetoric have always been part and parcel of this.

We need to quit talking about evangelicalism as though it is some type of coddling religion and understand it for what it has been and what it is doing.

The language of "religious freedom" is central to the power of white Christianity in America. Other religions are rarely able to make such claims and have them accepted as normal or reasonable by the public, or especially by the Supreme Court and political leaders. In practice, the "freedom" of white Christianity is something unique in America. Muslims, for example, are rarely if ever afforded such protections and special rights.

The rhetoric of freedom is being used to elevate "freedom" for white Christians and to suppress freedom for everyone else. In order to remain on top, the freedom of everybody else is being suppressed. These types of white Christians want you to do what they want you to do. In turn, you will be controlled by them. Limiting women's reproductive freedoms is a way to keep everybody in check.

What is the role of white privilege in explaining why so many white Americans are able to deny the serious dangers embodied by white Christian fascist violence?

White privilege convinces many white people that they will not personally have to deal with the violence. They believe that, unlike other people, they will just be able to melt away into the background when the violence happens and nobody is going to shoot people who look like them.

White privilege has convinced them that nobody's going to take their home away from them. Nobody's going to kill their kids. Nobody's going to march them out as an example and shoot them. White privilege has convinced them that they can take some type of loyalty oath or pledge and they will be safe.

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