Christianism And Our Democracy
The fusion of religion and politics on the right has made moderation impossible.
A long time ago now, frustrated with what I believed was a grotesque fusion of Christianity and politics in the Bush era, I coined the term “Christianism.” I regret it in some ways because it alienated many of the people I was trying to persuade. But its analogy to Islamism was not designed to argue that Christianists were in any way violent; just that, like Islamists, they saw no real distinction between politics and religion.
I mention this because it seems to be a critical element in the current crisis of American democracy that we may now be missing. In a manner very hard to understand from the outside, American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse. They are not in denial about Trump’s personal iniquities, but they see them as perfectly consistent with God’s use of terribly flawed human beings, throughout the Old Testament and the New, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.
This belief is now held with the same, unwavering fundamentalist certainty as a Biblical text. And white evangelical Christianists are the most critical constituency in Republican politics. If you ask yourself how on earth so many people have become convinced that the 2020 election was rigged, with no solid evidence, and are now prepared to tear the country apart to overturn an election result, you’ve got to take this into account. This faction, fused with Trump, is the heart and soul of the GOP. You have no future in Republican politics if you cross them. That’s why 19 Republican attorneys general, Ted Cruz, and now 106 Congressional Republicans have backed a bonkers lawsuit to try to get the Supreme Court to overturn the result.
Biden’s victory was not God’s will. Therefore it couldn’t have happened. That’s the core conviction. That no court and no judge, including conservative ones, can find any evidence for it in over 50 lawsuits does not matter. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. “Who cares what I can prove in the courts? This is right. This happened,” declared influential evangelical Eric Metaxas this week, asserting Trump’s victory as a metaphysical truth.
Metaxas is a fascinating case-study in all this. He sure isn’t stupid. Born into Greek Orthodoxy, he is, in fact, something of an evangelical intellectual. A Yale alum, his biographies of William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, of Martin Luther, and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian martyr in Nazi Germany, were as hugely popular as they were dissed by scholars. His politics were once simply social conservatism. His conviction that America is going to hell is widespread among many orthodox Christians; his view of the existential nature of the last election because of the Supreme Court was also quite conventional on the right; and you can see why such a figure would vote for Donald Trump.
But what you couldn’t predict was the radicalization that followed. On the 2016 election, he was dire enough: “The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the revolution when the nation began”. But before long, he was talking of Trump’s opponents as part of a “demonic” force. Earlier this year, Metaxas punched a lone protestor in DC, knocking him off his bike, after the last night of the Republican Convention. This Thanksgiving, Metaxas opined: “Trump will be inaugurated. For the high crimes of trying to throw a U.S. presidential election, many will go to jail.” On November 30, he told Trump on his radio show: “Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty. … I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”
This week, as Rod Dreher reports, he’s taken it up yet another notch. “You might as well spit on the grave of George Washington,” Metaxas says of the election “fraud”. “It’s like somebody has been raped or murdered … This is like that times a thousand.” To those Republicans who are not up in arms, he says: “Yes, you are the Germans that looked the other way when Hitler was preparing to do what he was preparing to do.” Tomorrow, Metaxas will speak at the “Jericho March”, a demo in DC and elsewhere to demand the overturning of the election Joe Biden just won.
The Jericho March is named after a story in the Book of Joshua, in which the Israelites marched around the enemy Canaanite city for a week until its walls came tumbling down. For Jericho, read Washington DC, and six other state capitols where the election results were close. The goal is to go to the various “Capitol buildings and pray, fast, and march around them seven times until the walls of voter fraud and corruption fall down and the American people are allowed to see the truth about this election.”
Metaxas recently read aloud — and endorsed — a letter sent to state legislators around the country. Money quote: “The election fraud crisis that we are now in the throes of displays a malfeasance this country has never witnessed before … It is massive, extremely dark, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional. Its engineering and coordination required hundreds of individuals and spanned multiple states making it the greatest political scandal in American history.”
This is heady stuff. On his indispensable blog, Dreher quotes a Greek Orthodox layman, one of the other leaders at tomorrow’s march, who argues that “[Trump] will soon be faced with a monumental choice. He can submit to Biden’s fraudulent victory … or he can refuse to do so and maintain control by any means necessary … I hope and pray that Trump can rise to this moment, and that not only is God not done using him as a cudgel of divine punishment against the wicked powers of the world, but has in fact preserved and prepared him for precisely this opportunity.” Not my italics.
You might be a little alarmed at a Greek Orthodox Christian using the Malcolm X language of “by any means necessary.” But here’s what he means: “After [Trump] has fully exposed the attempt to steal the election, he must use his authority under the Insurrection Act to arrest and/or kill everyone who participated in this plot. He must arrest the leadership of the Democrat Party, everyone of significance in the mainstream media, the major players in big tech, and the numerous other globalist string pullers.” Alrighty then.
Among the other speakers at the Jericho March will be General Mike Flynn, who has endorsed the imposition of martial law and a new election. Meanwhile, Trump is quote-tweeting this from a fan: “This is going to escalate dramatically. This is a very dangerous moment in our history. The fact that our Country is being stolen. A coup is taking place in front of our eyes, and the public can’t take this anymore.”
Are these fringe nutcases? One wishes. The fusion of Trumpism with religious fundamentalism is everywhere you look. Jenna Ellis, one of Trump’s lawyers, is a home-schooled evangelical Christian who wrote a book arguing that “our system of government is founded upon the Christian worldview and God’s unchanging law, not a secular humanist worldview.”
Lin Wood, also on Trump’s legal dream team, got into a fight with his own law firm partners last year. In a lawsuit, his partners claimed that he engaged in erratic behavior and excused it by saying that “God or the Almighty was commanding his actions.” At one point he wrote an email saying “God was somehow commanding or directing him to accuse (them)” and that “God has given me permission to be profane in this email.” Here’s Kayleigh McEnany, the top flak for the executive branch: “I knew that God put me in this position, at this moment in time, for a reason.”
In a Marist poll, 60 percent of white evangelicals do not believe the 2020 election result was accurate, and 50 percent believe that Trump should not concede. That’s a big chunk of the GOP that Trump has tended to assiduously — from rushed anti-transgender tweets to welding the US to Netanyahu’s agenda in the Middle East.
The right is not unique in conspiratorial delusion, of course. The refusal of many on the left to accept Tump’s legitimate victory in 2016 was real and widespread. Both Hillary Clinton and John Lewis declared Trump an illegitimate president. Remember the Diebold machines of 2004? Not far from the Dominion stuff today. And the intensity of the belief on the left in an unfalsifiable “white supremacist” America has a pseudo-religious fervor to it. The refusal of Metaxas to allow any Republican to remain neutral or skeptical is mirrored by Ibram X. Kendi’s Manichean fanaticism on the far left.
But the long-established network of evangelical churches and pastors, and the unique power of an actual religion to overwhelm reason, gives the right an edge when it comes to total suspension of disbelief. Christianists are not empiricists or skeptics. They’re believers. This time around, it’s belief in a “multi-layered, multi-dimensional” conspiracy involving hundreds of people in several states, rejected by almost every court. You can fact-check that as easily as you can fact-check the Resurrection.
And Trump is at the center of their belief system now, which includes all his lies. The relationship of many with him is that of evangelicals and their pastor: a male, patriarchal figure who cannot be questioned and must be obeyed. Trump’s political genius has been in sniffing out this need to believe, and filling it, all the time, tweet by tweet, lie by lie, con by con. No wonder Trump Trutherism is now a litmus test for the Christianist faith, and therefore for all Republican office-holders. In January, if all else fails, they will try to force the US Congress to take a stand, with every GOP member on the line. It’s yet another brick removed from the foundation of the republic.
To survive, liberal democracy must have some level of moderation, some acceptance of the legitimacy of the other side, and room for compromise. It has to be based in empiricism, shared truth, deliberation and doubt. Fundamentalist religion has none of those qualities. It’s all or nothing.
Not only is it all or nothing, but the mandate to believe it, and act on it, is from God himself. When this psychological formation encounters politics, it cannot relent, it cannot change its mind, it cannot simply move on. And a core element of our politics right now — and part of the unprecedented resilience of Trump’s support — is this total suspension of judgment by a quarter of all Americans. When that certainty of faith met a malignant narcissist who cannot admit error, a force was created that continues to cut a ferocious swathe through our culture and our democratic institutions.
And if God Almighty calls for the overturning of a democratic election by force or violence? Then let the walls of Jericho come tumbling down.
Hubbard Lake, Michigan, 7.07 am
New On The Dishcast: Damir Marusic & Shadi Hamid On The Authoritarian Threat
This week I did a simulcast episode with Damir and Shadi that will also air on their own podcast, Wisdom of Crowds. We discussed and debated the resilience of American democracy in this fraught time — with some sharp disagreements.
To listen to two excerpts from our long conversation — on Trump’s missed opportunities to become a dictator; and on the current dangers of authoritarianism — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the full episode here — and read a bunch of reader responses to our recent podcast with Dana Beyer.
Dissents Of The Week: Do All Black Lives Matter? Or Just Some?
As you can imagine for a topic this fraught, there was a big wave of reader dissent this week — both from the left and the right, in roughly equal parts. Here’s a conservative stance:
While I appreciate your efforts to be evenhanded in analyzing the criminal killings of African-Americans, your analysis doesn’t include the overrepresentation of African-Americans in violent crime. Heather MacDonald has done a prodigious amount of work in this area, as has criminologist Barry Latzer, who writes:
While violent crime has fallen, it nevertheless remains disproportionally high in communities of color. The latest police data collected by the FBI indicates that blacks comprised 58 percent of all murder arrests and 40 percent of those apprehended for all violent crimes. This disproportional involvement of African Americans in violent crime turns out to be the most significant factor of all in explaining the use of force against blacks by police.
While this does not excuse the overuse of force by the police, it certainly puts this more into context.
Those FBI stats were from 2018, and the following reader points to similar numbers for 2019 (even before the spikes in violent crime this year):
Per the FBI, African-Americans committed about 56 percent of the homicides in the U.S. last year. Given that, why wouldn’t you expect that the fatal encounters that black men have with police would be disproportionate in the extreme to their 7 percent of the population as a whole?
Police shoot men — black and white — in numbers that vastly exceed the number of women shot by police. Is that because of reverse sexism from police, or could the critical factor be that the vast majority of homicides (88 percent) — and violent crimes in general — are committed by men?
Another reader digs deeper:
Look at one of your own stats: “In 2019, 243 black men (including only 13 unarmed black men) were shot dead by cops.” That tells me that 230 of those 243 victims were “packing”, and they weren’t going deer hunting. In almost all cases, the police were involved because they were called to be there — by black neighbors, more often than not. So the numbers are not at all “disproportionate” in relation to the number of times the police are “invited” to participate.
Another reader looks closely this stat:
You wrote: “And it’s true that police disproportionately kill black men — 26 percent of fatal police shootings are of black men, compared with their 7 percent of the population as a whole.” But that is not disproportionate based on race and criminal activity; blacks and whites are just as likely to be shot by policer officers (though blacks are more likely to suffer nonlethal force, even when compliance is factored in). Harvard’s Roland Fryer, of course, famously revealed that pattern in 2016, and here he is recently with similar findings.
Even when some unarmed black men are killed by police, the details of their death are far more complicated than the popular narratives of activists and journalists — which are often one and the same. For example, a reader notes regarding George Floyd:
Floyd wasn’t simply “killed” by police. He died of a self-administered fentanyl overdose — perhaps exacerbated by the stress of being detained and resisting being placed in the police vehicle. This has been public knowledge at least since late August — and it was clear to the Hennepin County Attorney and the medical examiner by June 1. Floyd was already complaining “I can’t breathe!” — multiple times — while standing up, and he had foam on his lips, consistent with a fentanyl overdose. (He had, in fact, over three times the potentially lethal limit in his bloodstream, not to mention methamphetamine as well.) Further, the cops did what they were trained to do when detaining someone, including calling twice for paramedics’ assistance. This is all laid out in three August articles in The Spectator written by George Parry, a former federal and state prosecutor.
Another reader points to a more famous narrative that fell apart: “If you haven’t done so already, do see Shelby Steele’s new documentary “What Killed Michael Brown?” — which Amazon Video tried to ban but then relented after a censorship outcry.” Several readers recommend this book:
Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy, does a masterful job of articulating these issues. Her thesis, one that I buy, is that the problem in many black inner-city communities is not one of overpolicing, but rather underpolicing. There are not enough competent honorable cops to control the violence, and residents have little or no trust in the legal system, so too many take a regrettably rational view and settle scores themselves.
The other half of the reader dissents, from a more left-liberal perspective, are here, along with my responses. Here’s a preview of one of those dissents:
There is absolutely a call for this violence to end. Before you write something that is basically another white pundit decrying “black on black” crime, search for the numerous anti-violence groups, from black pastors and churches to others, who protest and work against this daily. Then help get better school funding, stop the cycles of evictions, homelessness, hunger, and hopelessness for those suffering from the cycle of violence. The violence stems from systemic racism and the devaluing of black lives … the same root of police violence.
Somerville, Massachusetts, 12.20 pm
Quote For The Week
“The same benefits misleadingly associated with religion — security, spiritual comfort, dogmatic relief from doubt — are thought to flow from a therapeutic politics of identity. In effect, identity politics has come to serve as a substitute for religion — or at least for the feeling of self-righteousness that is so commonly confused with religion.
These developments shed further light on the decline of democratic debate. ‘Diversity’ — a slogan that looks attractive on the face of it — has come to mean the opposite of what it appears to mean. In practice, diversity turns out to legitimize a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion,” - Christopher Lasch, the late historian at the University of Rochester, in his 1996 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
(Hat tip: Christopher F. Rufo)
Mental Health Break
Escape the Covid winter with a time-lapsed tour of sunny LA:
In The ‘Stacks
Some good reads on Substack this week:
Zeynep Tufekci launches “The Counter,” a feature “where I present to you someone else’s essay arguing against one of mine.” So great to see the dissent formula spread. Her first installment focuses on her popular Atlantic piece and whether what Trump is doing can be considered a “coup”.
How to define intersex? A breakdown from Colin Wright, the evolutionary biologist who helps run Quillette.
Why is there a pronounced gender gap in the resistance to the Covid vaccine? Jill Filipovic thinks it through.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think? Email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two TWD subscriptions. Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are here — and coming to subscribers in a separate email today.
As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as a view from your own window, a Woke Watch suggestion, or an Yglesias Award: email@example.com.
See you next Friday.