Have you ever noticed that for hardline ideologues, only their opponents are “doing politics,” while they are simply “being objective”? In my last piece for RD I looked at the related ways in which even overtly political evangelicals often connect the notion of “the biblical worldview” to their political vision. For example, Tony Perkins, head of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, claims that if churches played down politics and simply instructed their congregants “better” in matters of theology, right-wing politics would naturally follow. What I also initially wanted to address in that piece but ultimately had to leave out is how claims that an action or belief is entirely “apolitical” can serve the same ends.
To take a recent example from the current news cycle, witness racist Fox News host Tucker Carlson lambasting those who correctly draw connections between climate change and the massive fires here in the American West that continue to rage: “It took no time at all for the usual vultures and parasites to swoop in and try to make a political advantage.” Clearly, Carlson wants viewers to believe that he is not playing politics with his climate change denialism. No, you see, only their concerns are politics; our concern is truth.
It is thanks in large part to the often subtle but powerful influence of the dominionist ideology known as Christian Reconstructionism that the conservative, mostly white evangelical subculture has come to place so much emphasis on an all-encompassing Christian or “biblical” worldview as a source for “correct” action in every sphere of life. No one has done more to uncover and unpack this influence than University of North Florida Religious Studies Professor Julie Ingersoll, whose work carefully examines the ludicrous claims of Christian Reconstructionists that their drive for “dominion” is apolitical. Asked to comment for this piece, Ingersoll said:
“Christian Reconstructionists assert that God has delegated earthly authority to three institutions: the church, the family, and the civil government. For them, ‘politics’ pertains only to the realm of the civil government, while most aspects of life fall under the authority of the family. So, health care, reproductive rights, issues related to economics and property, etc., are all non-political.”
She added that Christian Reconstructionists consider all three of these “spheres” of authority to be “still accountable to God, so even the political, in their very limited usage, is religious.” Given the influence of this worldview on mainstream evangelicals it seems likely that there are echoes of this thinking in their claims to be apolitical even as they seek to impose their authority in such matters.
In any case, whether in more or less secular or overtly religious form, the rhetorical trick of grasping moral authority by claiming to be outside of or ‘above’ politics—as if any such thing were possible with respect to social issues and their accompanying human conflicts—works depressingly well for America’s right-wingers, who understand that many Americans will accept the claim. Further, in both its secular and religious incarnations, this type of rhetorical power play serves to uphold white supremacism.
While I am inclined to agree with Megan Goodwin’s claim that religion has “always been politics, full stop,” unfortunately, many otherwise savvy journalists and commentators forget that “the personal is political” when it comes to religion. They seem to sign on to a tacit agreement that anything Christians label “religious belief” shouldn’t be examined or criticized, regardless of the impact powerful conservative Christians’ politics have on those who don’t share conservative Christian beliefs. This is often accompanied by the nonsensical positing of a clear division between religion and politics that allows conservative Christians’ claims to be above politics to go essentially unchallenged, thus reinforcing the (white Protestant inflected) Christian supremacism that pervades American society.
Notice, for example, how the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias leaves unquestioned a claim that Christianity Today, the flagship “respectable” evangelical magazine, “is very apolitical,” despite its frequent discussion of such things as Supreme Court decisions, “religious freedom,” and other matters of concern to social conservatives.
The spread of campaign-style “Jesus 2020” yard signs around the country, which prompted me to think about this issue in this moment, might seem at first blush like a frivolous thing to pay attention to. But when such actions go viral, how we frame them matters. And in any case, the framing provided by Joyce Hubbard, a member of Sampey Memorial Baptist Church in Ramer, Alabama, who helped conceive the initiative with other women from her church, neatly illustrates how a claim to be promoting “apolitical” religion can function as a shrewd political move. By the same token, the way journalist Greg Garrison framed his write-up of the story for Al.com provides a neat illustration of how the media normalizes Christian supremacism and evangelical extremism by failing to unpack evangelical rhetoric.
To be sure, Garrison notes, “People have speculated about ulterior motives in attempting to affect the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.” But instead of finding such people to talk to, or even adding a sentence or two regarding what reasons they might have for their suspicions, Garrison allows Hubbard to dismiss the concern.
As he reports, “’We’re trying to keep politics out of this,’ she said. ‘Our focus is on Jesus.’” Good journalism—of which most religion journalism, frankly, is not—would press for what “focusing on Jesus” means in this context, including the voices of those who do not see Sampey Memorial Baptist Church’s project as apolitical. Instead, Garrison gives us only the hometown church’s celebratory perspective, leaving it to us to read between the lines of Hubbard’s rhetoric—or not.
And what does Hubbard have to say about the “Jesus 2020” signs? Firstly, that “We don’t see Jesus’ name out there,” a claim that anyone who has ever looked at billboards while driving through the South or the rural Midwest can immediately confirm is patently false. Hell, even here, in and around “secular” Portland, Oregon, I’m regularly bombarded with obnoxious billboard evangelism.
Yet Hubbard still states, presumably without irony, “We’re trying to put Jesus out there so that people can see his name,” as if seeing Jesus’s name is not an everyday occurrence for, well, every American who doesn’t live under a rock. This disconnect from reality would seem to belie an insecurity related to white evangelicals’ persecution complex.
Meanwhile, Hubbard claims, “We want people to elect Jesus leader in their life. It’s not political, not denominational, we’re not trying to sway anyone’s votes.” But she also states, “We all have our personal beliefs and moral issues we’re standing for,” and adds, “Jesus is here for all the sinners.”
Her statement about “personal beliefs and moral issues” is an example of a kind of convenient deliberate vagueness that’s become common among “respectable” evangelicals, but to anyone intimately familiar with white evangelical subculture, in context it’s instantly recognizable as a dog whistle gesturing toward anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion stances.
Meanwhile, the statement “Jesus is here for all the sinners” represents a faux-inclusive stance of the sort called out by Church Clarity, an organization that calls on churches to be unambiguous regarding whether or not they view LGBTQ identities as inherently sinful. In addition, in a pluralist society marked by Christian hegemony, “electing Jesus” can hardly be regarded as an apolitical statement by the non-religious and members of minority religions.
Any reporter who truly wanted to know how “apolitical” Sampey Memorial Baptist is should have pressed Hubbard for her and her church’s stance on abortion, LGBTQ acceptance, and religious freedom for atheists and members of minority religions. Instead, Garrison published a puff piece apparently based on a softball interview, which is an unfortunate pattern in religion journalism.
So what of Hubbard’s claim that her initiative is not meant to sway votes? Well, perhaps there’s no need to try to influence votes directly if, as discussed above, one believes that a “Christian worldview” will automatically lead to “correct politics.” Indeed, some of Hubbard’s other statements give away the game. “There are a lot of things in the world that are disheartening. We know that Jesus is the answer. He can solve everything.”
Here she echoes the long-time message of the late Billy Graham, often referred to as “America’s pastor.” Despite inconsistent attempts to avoid being seen as partisan, the anti-Communist Cold Warrior Graham was certainly engaged in politics. Although he’s often contrasted with his son Franklin, Billy Graham’s political efforts to sacralize American society and government, to place them “under God,” were massively influential in the formation of the Christian Right in which Franklin, who claims “I don’t speak on political views, unless they are moral issues,” now plays such a prominent role.
Not coincidentally, as Garrison reports, several members of Hubbard’s church “plan to attend a prayer march led by Franklin Graham in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building. Sampey Memorial Baptist and other churches plan to host prayer events that Saturday at 8 a.m.”
Hubbard says the members of her church are “praying for a revival in this country.” This is another obvious Christian nationalist dog whistle to those of us who were taught in our families, churches, homeschooling curricula, and/or Christian schools that for the nation to be blessed, we must be obedient to God, which, in this context, means banning abortion, putting officially sanctioned prayer back in public schools, and keeping LGBTQ folks from having equal rights.
At the end of the day, a flood of “Jesus 2020” yard signs is far from the worst thing Americans will face in the current election cycle. But to allow such an obvious expression of Christian supremacism to be painted as “apolitical” plays right into the hands of those who want an authoritarian version of Christianity to dominate every aspect of American life.