Christianism And Our Democracy

The fusion of religion and politics on the right has made moderation impossible.

A Trump supporter attends a “Make America Great Again” rally with Eric Trump in Milford, Pennsylvania that drew about 1,000 people. Photo by Preston Ehrler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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.

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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.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a paid subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s issue includes the largest batch of reader dissents we have posted this year — so big that we had to put many of them in a separate post. But that’s not surprising, given the controversial topic: the killing of African-Americans by police and civilians. This week’s issue also includes lighter fare, such as views from readers’ windows, recommended reading, a quote to ponder, a Mental Health Break video of sunny LA, and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. And, of course, there’s a new episode of the Dishcast, previewed below, accompanied by reader responses to our episode with trans activist Dana Beyer. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)


Dissents Of The Week: Do All Black Lives Matter? Or Just Some?

Screenshot from a wanted poster on the FBI’s website. The one-year-old boy was killed last week by an unidentified shooter while sitting in a car with his father.

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 sample from the right:

George 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. 

Here’s a sample from the left:

You’re failing, again, to reckon with the paradox of policing in Black communities. For too many, police are a force that fails to solve crimes that affect their lives in real ways, but lock up friends and family members for petty offenses that (generally speaking) don’t matter. 

Read my response to that reader and others on the left here. If you’re a paid subscriber, you can read my responses to my conservative critics here, in the full edition of the Dish.


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 pageListen to the full episode here — and read a bunch of reader responses to our recent podcast with Dana Beyer.


The View From Your Window Contest


Where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line, along with any details in the body of the email. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual subscriptions to the Dish. Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are here (available only to paid subscribers). If you enter the contest this week and we end up selecting your entry for the published results (example here), we will give you a free subscription to the Dish. Therefore, if you are not a paid subscriber, please indicate that status in your emailed entry so we know to send you a free pass.

As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, including the view from your own window (horizontal photos preferred, with part of the window showing): dish@andrewsullivan.com. If we select your photo, we will also send you a free subscription.

See you next Friday.