This week I’m going back to pick up the story of how Election 2016 in the US left me feeling betrayed by my white Evangelical folks (the previous parts of this series can be found here and here). This week I’m going to talk about how I saw religious rhetoric shift as a result of the religio-political apocalypse before I explain how this week’s events, especially Thursday’s bombshell Christianity Today post-impeachment-hearings editorial calling for the removal of the current head of the US administration, have left me feeling slightly less betrayed by my white Evangelical folks. I’ll wrap up by explaining why I think the editorial matters even if it does not convince the bulk of Evangelicals.
Oops, I’d Been Gaslighting Parts of the Bible
But let’s start with some honesty: before this religio-political era, there were lots of passages of the Bible I just dismissed, or at best held in tension, because I didn’t understand them to fit my view of reality.
One may say, in the terms I was discussing in last week’s article, that I was very close to gaslighting these parts of the Bible—assuming that because they didn’t fit in to my Christian Nice view of faith, that they didn’t have much to say to me or the way I ought to see the world.
NOTE: As Pete and Jared over at The Bible for Normal People regularly state, we all do this to the Bible in some ways–as they note, it’s just that some of us are more honest about this than others. (And if you’re looking for more wisdom on biblical interpretation, please note that I’m a com scholar not a Bible prof. They’re great on that though.)
The parts of the Bible I was trying to ignore, it is important to note, were often the ones that contradicted my socialized understanding of conflict management (and that is my wheelhouse, so I’ll talk about that).
Was Speaking Truth to Religio-Political Power Spiritual Enough?
The passages that disturbed me the most were ones that seemed, well, pretty confrontational and judgmental. Things like Jesus woeing hypocritical religious leaders. Like the the Old Testament prophets speaking truth to corrupt power.
Other passages that disturbed me were ones in which Jesus was telling his disciples to beware of false prophets—you know, those kinds of people that call evil good and good evil.
As a Reminder, the Word Apocalypse Means “To Make Clear”
I was already moving in this direction a few years pre-election, but it wasn’t until this past election, which left me feeling betrayed by White Evangelicals, that I suddenly started to understand these kinds of passages in context—and really started to see them fit like puzzle pieces with all the other passages in the Bible about taking care of the “least of these” and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
And the election certainly made things clear.
It suddenly seemed to me as though many of the people I’d grown up among, people I’d worked closely with, were calling evil good and good evil.
And they were using all of those passages about “grace” and “mercy” and “forgiveness” to do the work of keeping oppressors and abusers in power at the expense of the abused and marginalized and oppressed.
Becoming “That Progressive Professor”
As someone who had come into this era having studied the rhetoric of conspiracy and other related subjects, and who had spent my life in church contexts at the cusp of the Evangelical/Mainline divide, I could see a lot of what was going on, and I knew my expertise clearly would lump me in with those “suspicious progressive folks” (as though having a PhD didn’t already class me as “one of those liberal egghead elites” anyway).
I felt the need to start this project to help others understand what was going on, and to help get resources to those who wanted to speak up.
Becoming a Bit of a Black Sheep
When I did, much of my moderate acquaintanceship suddenly became a minefield—it became difficult to know who was safe to talk religio-political matters around. (And when you grow up as a pastor’s kid, and then become a professor who studies stress, trauma, and conflict communication, these things ARE assumed to be the prime topic of conversation, so that made things particularly difficult.)
I know some of my peops grieved about that. I did too. But I could feel the undercurrent of their partisan fear of the morals I grew up with when exemplified by someone “on the other side.”
Developing my Assertive Spirituality
But I felt that after a decade in the classroom helping students develop their assertive voices that it was high time my own assertive voice emerge. I could no longer stay silent when people were calling evil good and good evil. I don’t claim in any way to be close to Jesus, but I stopped gaslighting those passages. I started to assertively enact them as well as I was able.
I was careful not to be aggressive, but assertiveness often feels aggressive to those who are not used to it.
Interestingly, people from “the other side” who came to the site tried to use the same passages, but with completely opposite intent. I was trying to hold fast to what I knew to be true, to be a counter-voice in the desert, while they were trying to protect their views of morality those who had taught them were shifting to.
The Shift in Conservative Usage of Scripture
See, the “other side’s” usage of Scripture was changing too.
Suddenly they, too, shifted their understandings and usages of Scripture, but I noticed a huge difference in how they used it and I used it. My version was about speaking truth to power and sticking up for the little guy—theirs was about building walls and following those in power. Sometimes they tried to say they were still sticking up for the little guy—but usually they were referring to the leader of the free world, so I wasn’t really buying that, somehow.
Of course, as I’ve said above, the Bible is a complex book that contains multitudes of perspectives and themes, so we all gaslight various passages from time to time. But the change in White Evangelicals’ usage of Scripture in the last 3 years is strikingly disturbing.
As I’ve described before, White Evangelicals had eloped with unhealthy nationalism, and their use of the Scripture was shifting along with that change.
The “Moral Majority” Were Becoming Relativists
What was most puzzling was that those who 20 years before had spoken out against immorality in the Presidency, who even called themselves the “Moral Majority,” were now calling those of us pointing out immorality in the Presidency “false prophets of Satan.”
In my moderate folks, I started to see strange contradictions in how they spoke about religion and politics—strange attempts to maintain the moral high ground while defending a party that was increasingly corrupt by seeing the other side as worse.
Sometimes major theme shifts occurred that were both similar to and different from the usage of my youth.
Case in point: That which had been condemned in the Clintons was dismissed in the current First Family. All of a sudden words like “forgiveness” and “grace” and “mercy” were used in place of words like “evil.” These shifts are one reason I’ve been writing articles on topics like the abuse of calls for forgiveness this past year.
Three Years of Disturbing Stress
Some people spoke up against this twisting of Scripture—I was not alone. But it was rare to hear those high up in power positions within the White Evangelical power structures speaking up on behalf of “traditional morality” in the White House.
I honestly didn’t know if this was ever going to change. Granted, a few strong white Evangelical voices were starting to speak out, such as Beth Moore, but these were individual authors. Most of the big loudest voices in the white Evangelical world were strongly toeing the Republican party line, even as strong evidence was coming out against the current head of the administration.
A Voice of Reason—Finally!—in White Evangelical-Land
Just Thursday the complicit silence was broken. Billy Graham’s magazine, Christianity Today, released a strong editorial calling out at least some of the immorality of this presidency—pointing out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. That the facts of the impeachment hearings showed that he was clearly immoral and should be removed from office, whether through impeachment or at the voting booth.
It implored Evangelicals to consider carefully their allegiances, to bow to the “author of the Ten Commandments,” to reconsider voting for the current occupant of the oval office.
This statement had so much response that the CT site went down for awhile.
And yesterday morning, the current head of the US administration lashed out at CT in response, calling them a “far-right progressive magazine” (my progressive Christian self laughed out loud at that—they are far from progressive, are CT).
It Won’t Change Everyone’s Minds—But It’s Still Important
I, along with the editor who wrote the editorial, suspect many Evangelicals will keep their votes and opinions unchanged. Then again, I think it was super important that it was put out anyway.
As I’ve said before, I don’t think we speak up to change the minds of the entrenched. I believe the point of speaking up is, first, to create a counter-voice, to show that not everyone thinks the same. (The current head of the administration’s reactive response already shows there is a strong rhetorical effect of dissent.)
That said, I DO think that CT’s voice has a chance to persuade those who consider themselves moderate but have fallen into listening to right-wing rhetoric. One of the prime principles of persuasion to those who are used to listening to particular authorities is that you need the voices of authorities they may trust to persuade them. Hearing this kind of conclusion from a magazine as seemingly moderate as CT could actually sway these kinds of perspectives to look more carefully at the evidence and more perspectives.
Next, the point is to persuade those who have remained silent but can still speak up, to follow suit and join the chorus of the counter-voice. I have friends who have already since the editorial seen people in ministry who had remained silent out of fear being more comfortable speaking out on this issue. That’s super encouraging.
And finally, last but not least, we speak up to provide morale to those who are working hard to remind us all of what the realities are. (If you haven’t yet guessed, this is the group I gladly join this week in cheering on the CT editorial.)
Why I’m Glad They Spoke Up
I don’t agree with everything Christianity Today wrote in that editorial, and like others I wish they hadn’t waited as long as they did to say what they did. But I’m very glad they said it, and that they waited no longer to do so.
I know they put themselves at risk for this. I don’t believe this means that they will suddenly “become progressive” and “join our team” (whatever “our team” might be). Even as the editorial itself said, they mostly see the magazine’s purpose as “keeping above the political fray,” even after this, and I’m not sure that’s optional these days.
But I know their voice is powerful, and I’m incredibly thankful they used their platform for this.
Feeling (Slightly Less) Betrayed by White Evangelicals
Here’s the long and short of it: Tonight I will fall asleep, because of this editorial, feeling a tiny bit less betrayed by white Evangelicals. I hope, and trust, that the editorial’s truth-speaking portions will have done good work in all of the areas I outlined above–and that all of those areas will have good ripples into other areas.
And from the “other side” of the Evangelical/Mainline-Progressive divide within Christianity, I salute the editors for releasing this editorial. I honor their #AssertiveSpirituality, as I have honored the #AssertiveSpirituality of so many other helpful truth tellers of the last few years.
I strongly encourage and hope that this will have a strong influence—I know this gesture has already given me at least a bit more hope that more will speak up to encourage white Evangelicals to their previous standards of morality and justice.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we all do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap and move toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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