White evangelicals demonize - and isolate - themselves

Last month, RNS published an editorial by Arthur E. Farnsley II under the title of "Demonizing white evangelicals won't solve our political divisions." In the opening paragraphs, Mr. Farnsley acknowledges that recent books such as Robert P. Jones’ White Too Long and Perry & Whitehead's Taking America Back for God provide strong evidence of white evangelicals' history and present realities of racism & Christian nationalism, respectively.

However, Mr. Farnsley's argument quickly devolves from there. Farnsley says he "takes issue with [criticisms such as Jones, Perry & Whitehead's] becoming a license for other to marginalize, even demonize, white evangelical Christians."

Farnsley's framing of why criticism of white evangelicalism should be deflected is woefully inadequate. He offers three reasons: that mass culture is driven by other forces beyond white evangelical control; many evangelicals are in fact good people; and there are too many of them to discriminate against - they are Too Big to Criticize.

To the first point: yes, evangelicalism is large and complex. It requires nuance to discuss. But this very nuance is often used in order to deflect criticism of white evangelicals. White evangelicalism isn’t a single denominational monolith, but as Kristin Kobes du Mez ably shows in her book Jesus & John Wayne, white evangelicalism functions incredibly well across denominations because of a shared consumer culture, and cultural and theological norms that supersede denominational divides—thereby creating a cohesive subculture across institutions. Indeed, white evangelicalism functions more like a subculture than the erudite Bebbington quadrilateral, which is more concerned with staid theological orthodoxy than the lived, social orthodoxy required to be a white evangelical in good standing.

To his second point about individual evangelicals being "the salt of the earth:" this is not unique to evangelicals. There are good Buddhists and Muslims and Sikhs and agnostics and atheists and Hindus, too. Evangelicals do not get extra points for being decent.

Before addressing his final point, I must note: Farnsley also gets basic facts wrong, or leaves less flattering details of history out.

Regarding abortion, Farnsley irresponsibly obfuscates the origin of evangelical opposition. He states simply that “they did not support the expansion of abortion rights,” when, in reality, they did. In The Power Worshippers, Katherine Stewart writes that Billy Graham supported planned parenthood in 1968, and upon the Roe v. Wade decision announcement, the Southern Baptist Convention sent a wire celebrating the decision that read: “Religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” The primary motivation for the rise of the Religious Right was the fight against integration in schools; abortion was tacked on later. This has been exhaustively proven and it is irresponsible to propagate the founding self-righteous myth of the Religious Right.

Regarding 19th century evangelicals, whom Farnsley calls “countercultural...in a very progressive direction,” Farnsley lifts up Charles Finney as an example. In White Too Long, Robert Jones illustrates the limits of Finney’s progressivism; although Finney was an abolitionist, he was against “amalgamation” of Black and white congregations. Finney counseled a close friend against integrated seating for Black and white congregants in churches, saying:

“You err in supposing the principle of abolition and amalgamation are identical. Abolition is a question of flagrant and unblushing wrong. A direct and outrageous violation of fundamental right. The other is a question of prejudice that does not necessarily deprive any man of any positive right.” - Charles Finney, as quoted in White Too Long.

The limits of Finney’s abolitionist thought illustrate what Ibram X. Kendi repeatedly demonstrates in Stamped from the Beginning: that someone can be anti-racist even while maintaining racist thought and upholding racist practices. 21st century evangelicals should not rest on the laurels of their 19th century forebears. They have for for far too long, often citing Oberlin or Wheaton's abolitionist past as if this absolves them of pursuing justice in the present.

Farnsley's final point is that "demonizing" white evangelicals is untenable because of their demographic size, and that "America cannot be rebuilt without white evangelical Christians." He says "we need to be building bridges toward evangelicals of goodwill, not burning them." Yet white evangelicalism has a decades-long history of marginalizing would-be reformers within their own ranks, hoping to move the movement forward. High-profile examples (of straight white men, the people most likely to succeed in evangelical circles) include the ostracization of Mark Galli, formerly of Christianity Today, following his editorial in support of Trump's impeachment, Rob Bell's books being pulled from LifeWay and other Christian bookstores, and the persistent erasure of queer Christians and allies who affirm them. Lesser-known examples riddle the personal stories and histories of women who have fought for gender equality, queer people and allies seeking LGBTQ affirmation, or the acknowledgment of racist attitudes and policies in their local churches—far too many to mention in one editorial.

Further, it is white evangelicals who hold the flame and set fire to bridges, both in their churches and in the public square.

I know something about that: I host a podcast called Exvangelical, and have participated in online communities with people who've left the white evangelical community. The people I speak to were not CINO (Christian in Name Only) churchgoers—they were true believers. The pain and trauma caused by white evangelical leadership and culture is real and lasting.

In my new podcast, Powers & Principalities, I examine the institutional side of white evangelicalism and the norms it upholds. Recent books by Kristin Kobes du Mez & Sarah Posner both illustrate that evangelical support for Trump is not a political aberration, but rather the fulfillment of political desire. In her book Unholy, Posner highlights the role of Roger Severino, who as Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees a bevy of public services, including Medicare and Medicaid), has significantly overhauled how the office works. Tasked with enforcing antidiscrimation, Severino has weaponized the office to aggressively pursue its narrow definition of "religious freedom," and has hired extensively "from leading Christian right organizations who had track records of advocating for special religious protections for people who oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights, and against access to health care for women." These are not benevolent actions, nor are they isolated incidents.

The overwhelming majority of white evangelicals have consistently supported President Trump and his administration. Evangelical politicians and lobbyists have allied themselves with an authoritarian president not holding their nose but by being willing participants pursuing their Christian nationalist goals. President Trump's repeated failure to denounce white supremacy following the disastrous first debate, despite multiple opportunities to do so, is an embarrassment and an indictment on those who continue to support him.

There have been calls to repentance from inside evangelicalism itself before; they have gone unheeded. Farnsley claims 25% of Americans are white evangelicals (newer data from Pew pegs the number at 16%); religious ‘nones’ make up a similar percentage of the population. America cannot be rebuilt without them, either - especially with white evangelicals' preferred leaders working to tear it down.

White evangelicals demonize - and isolate - themselves.


Further Listening

I have spoken to a number of the authors mentioned in this essay on my podcast, Powers & Principalities.

Listed by order mentioned in this essay:

Robert Jones

Sam Perry & Andrew Whitehead

Katherine Stewart

Kristin Kobes du Mez

Sarah Posner