Have you noticed how common it is for right-wingers to describe things they oppose in terms of religion? Back in April, for example, Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab (the social media platform of choice for white supremacists and right-wing conspiracy theorists) argued that getting vaccinated against COVID had become a “religious ritual” that Christians had the right to refuse. (I will not link to Gab, but the blog post remains up and easily searchable.) And just this week, Wesley J. Smith argued that “trangenderism”—which, he maintains in terms that echo the constant reductionist refrain of Gospel Coalition founder Tim Keller, “is totally subjective and centered in the solipsistic self”—has some things in common with religion. And why does that matter to Smith, who reprehensibly compares “transgendered” people to “real people” in his hateful National Review article? (The transgender community and our allies generally do not use the terms “transgenderism” or “transgendered,” as we find them dehumanizing.)
If being transgender is a religion, claims Smith, then gender-affirming healthcare should not be funded with taxpayer dollars any more than a religious institution should. This is a particularly bad-faith argument coming from a senior fellow of the crypto-creationist Discovery Institute and a zealous, culture-warring convert to Orthodox Christianity whose conservative movement seems determined to funnel as much taxpayer funding to conservative Christian institutions as possible—not least to Christian schools, a matter that is once again headed for the Supreme Court. And I only entertain the argument because of its manipulative use of the rhetoric of religion and “religious freedom.” Why take knowledge and practices supported by the medical establishment and cast them as a “religion”? While this rhetorical tactic might seem absurd on its face, it’s surprisingly effective for the Christian Right’s particular approach to authoritarian politics.
When I was about 9 or 10, thanks to the subscription to Ranger Rick magazine my relatively moderate grandma gave me each Christmas, I declared myself an environmentalist. I loved reading about ecology, nature, and animals, and, wanting to see nature protected and preserved, I proceeded to annoy my family by frequently reminding everyone to turn off the lights when they left the room and pestering my parents to start recycling (something that, in fairness, was not common or especially easy to do in late-80s and early-90s Indiana).
Naturally, my embrace of the moniker “environmentalist” sparked some bemused pushback in our white evangelical community. At some point, one of our family friends told me that environmentalism was a “religion” that was incompatible with Christianity. “Environmentalists are Hindoooos,” he said, derisively overpronouncing the second syllable of the word, evidently to relish the bigoted ignorance and casual racism of his phrasing. “They worship the creation rather than the creator.”
The casting of a movement to protect the environment for the good of both humanity and the many species with which we share our planet as a “religion” struck me as odd. I would later come to understand, however, that right-wing Christians describing things they don’t like in terms of “religion” is a common outgrowth of the “presuppositionalist” approach to Christian apologetics (that is, the defense of the faith). Presuppositionalism itself is a radical epistemology whose adherents believe that only those enlightened by the Holy Spirit can perceive the capital-T Truth as presented in the infallible Bible. The “unsaved,” bringing their own presuppositions to the evidence, will come to different conclusions—about the Bible, for example, or about the formation of the Grand Canyon, which the “evolutionist” will see in terms of geologic time, while the creationist will see the impact of Noah’s flood. (Although this is not a humor column and I am not Dave Barry, I feel compelled to state that I am not making this up. I was forced to watch “documentaries” about “flood geology” in AP biology at my Christian high school.)
Based on human observation of the evidence alone, the reasoning goes, there is no way to adjudicate between these two incommensurate “worldviews.” The “saved” Christian, with his “biblical worldview,” simply “knows” that he—these obnoxious theobros are usually men—is right. But why is it so important to these apologists to represent something like evolutionary biology or environmentalism as just another “religion” competing with Christianity?
In presuppositionalist thinking, the casting of viewpoints opposed to Christianity (according to right-wing Christian extremists’ definition of the faith) as other religions serves to level the playing field between more objective, empirically derived knowledge on the one hand, and religious dogma on the other. It would be bad enough if that were this move’s only rhetorical function, but it isn’t. Even more insidiously, by categorizing everything they oppose under competing “religions,” presuppositionalists are able to argue that there can be no religiously neutral space, no concept of equal accommodation as a way to manage the fact of pluralism in any modern society democratically. Instead, there can be only a struggle for the domination of your religion or worldview over those held by others.
If you want to prima facie invalidate mid-century liberal philosophy regarding tolerance, decency, and democracy, adopting presuppositionalism is a good way to do it. A classic illustration of how this works involves Christian Right opposition to public schools, which they base on the spurious claim that, in attempting to fulfill the legal requirement to be religiously neutral, the schools inevitably “indoctrinate” children into the “religion” of secular humanism.
Hopefully it’s clear by this point that one need not be a self-defined presuppositionalist in order to use these presuppositionalist rhetorical tactics, just as one need not be a self-defined Christian Reconstructionist to be influenced by the mainstreaming of Christian Reconstructionist ideas through Christian schooling and homeschooling as documented by religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll. What we’re seeing in much of contemporary conservative rhetoric is a sort of popular presuppositionalism run amok.
If you’re a fair-minded reader who spends much time exploring conservative arguments about social policy—or, really, much of anything—you’ll undoubtedly have noticed a strong predilection for false equivalence. Presuppositionalist arguments can be a powerful way to make such false equivalence seem reasonable. Republican economic and social policies are objectively harmful to the vast majority of Americans, especially to members of marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community, and they’re perennially unpopular.
Republicans succeed largely because of unfair advantages, de jure and de facto, baked into our political system—equal Senate representation for all states regardless of population (and the refusal to consider DC’s case for statehood), combined with GOP abuse of the filibuster; state-level voter suppression; gerrymandering; dark money in politics; and an illegitimately stacked Supreme Court that will only continue to gut transparency, election integrity, voting rights, and church-state separation.
In other words, the American Right is wrong. Being anti-democratic, its leaders are happy to hold on to power by unfair, illegitimate means. At the same time, many of them still crave “respectability” and plausible deniability of their malfeasance, and that’s where rhetorical sleight-of-hand and pseudo-intellectualism come in. Post-truth politics is a powerful tool for authoritarians, because it renders winning arguments less important than simply wearing down your interlocutors.
In so doing, authoritarians confuse as many onlookers as possible to the point that they give up on determining the truth altogether—which is the point of flooding the zone with bad-faith arguments. For its part, false equivalence is the bread and butter of the post-truth approach, and the upshot, thanks to misguided media insistence on giving “both sides” of any “controversy” a hearing, has been the normalization of extremism and the enabling of America’s surging conspiratorial far Right—especially the Christian Right.
After all, the Christian Right has had over a century to hone its skills in this regard since the publication of the pamphlets known as The Fundamentals, a reaction against liberal theological “modernism” that gave us the term “fundamentalism.” And, as Professor Christopher Douglas of the University of Victoria has convincingly argued here on RD, it’s precisely Christian anti-intellectualism and trafficking in “alternative facts” that has contributed mightily to the rise of post-truth America, a problem for which too many elite commentators instead prefer to blame postmodernism, relativism, and the “epic individualism” of hippies and New Age types.
There is a thick layer of irony in the fact that, for their part, the right-wing Christian ideologues using presuppositionalist arguments to uphold “alternative facts” also style themselves enemies of postmodernism, relativism, “hyperindividualism,” and “solipsism” (that word does not mean what they think it means). These buzzwords become weapons in their culture war against the civil rights gains made since the 1960s, the racial animus behind which is clearly evident in their current moral panic over critical race theory (or, rather, the bastardized bugbear they’ve made of it).
Irony of ironies, when you get right down to it, there’s nothing more “relativistic” than presuppositionalism. Cutting through the sophistry, presuppositionalist arguments essentially amount to: “Humans have no ability to grasp the truth; therefore, I’m right.” Tacking “Because God, that’s why” onto the end of that statement doesn’t make it any more convincing or less essentially nihilistic, since, after all, people who claim a direct channel to the divine disagree with each other and are proven wrong every day. Like other post-truth rhetoric, presuppositionalism, which is inherently political, is nothing more than a dressed-up power grab.